“Like a spider caught in its own web.”
She stepped out of the door and down the steps into the garden. A little frog came out from under and shot through between her feet.
“She was plunging into that death for no reason.”
She was writing poetry in her mind. Walking around or lying down, she kept creating poems, always.
“…but that was yet to come.”
For days on end, she frantically traced the ways and alleys of the web in search of a reason.
Her husband, seated in a cane chair in the garden reading a newspaper, raised his head.
“I came home early today.” “Hm.”
He resumed reading. She pulled out a chair to face him and sat down. Do I kiss him, she wondered. Or should I stand behind him and display affection? What is it he wants? She felt that he had already moved far, far away from her. Perhaps it was her fault. She should have tried to bring together the two departing planets. She could have shown interest in the events at his office. She could have related to him the sights she had seen on her walks. Isn’t that what marriage is? For better, for worse…, give as much as you take… it was not in ignorance of such that she had got married. Everybody said: “What a good match!”
That was a match of height and colour. But then, she believed in love. She was willing to forego sleep, food, do anything for him. “You’re a good girl”, he said. Even as he flirted with a friend’s wife with her in the room, she did not raise her eyes. The tremor in her hands, the moisture in her eyes, went unseen by him. The reason being, she had been an actor since childhood. She had acted the part of happy exuberance to win over everybody.
“She is always laughing”, said they.
She had long known how ugly tears could be. Her father and mother were forever quarrelling. They ended in her mother’s tears, which angered her father even more.
Her mother sitting with lowered eyes, a red nose and moving lips, is a sight that made her resolve never to cry. Nothing is ever achieved by crying.
The troubled home and life’s frequent failures combined to depress her. But before the world, she smiled with eyes clear.
After the wedding, when she left her home, she did not cry. Everybody said it must be hard to leave one’s father and mother. Hadn’t they devoted their lives to raise her?
She did not laugh, only because it would not have fit the occasion. Her father said, without meeting her eyes: “You must write frequently.”
Even without her saying so, her father had known that she had not once been happy in that home. Was there love in that home? A perpetually angry father, a crying mother and a daughter who laughed for no reason. There was something stronger than love between them; the consciousness of sorrow. There had never been anything other than misery, ever. But before others, each of them became a member of a very loving family.
People said the parents could not survive a moment without her. In any feast or festival where people gathered, her father frequently looked out for her. Her mother tried to be beside her always. If she were to leave their vicinity and blurted out secrets of the home to others they would not be able to hold their heads high. That would have been the reason why they hovered around her and never let her stray far.
It was not because she believed in marriage that she got married. Her only desire had been to be rescued from that home, and from that secret sorrow. She rushed headlong into love with the glut of one hitherto starved of it.
She sat quietly for a long time looking at her husband’s face. “Why are you looking at me so?” he asked.
“I love you.”
“Ah! so it should be.”
That hadn’t been the response she had hoped for. For her, this was her first love. An endearing being to be touched, wondered at and petted. So she told him often: “I think of you always. Oh, how I love you!”
For him, it was not his first love. Nor was she his first woman. On some off-work days, with time hanging on his hands, he had already had relationship with several women. None of them set out to talk of love, or to try to make him their own. They were not women of the upper crust. They were of a kind with coarse fingers and wide apart toes. They talked only of money. He came to know only that variety. How to behave towards a wife of his own class did not come within his comprehension.
She was always his. She told him every now and then: “I am yours.” He got absolutely no pleasure from those words. When she carried her love like a whiff of scent into the bedroom, he was flabbergasted. He even forgot what it was he wanted.
“I don’t know how to go about displaying love.”
She believed that. In the beginning, she did not question whether a truth that defies exposition can be truth. If there is love within, would it not be visible, to however small an extent without – in those eyes, or that touch, or that smile? Maybe, in his own way, he too loved her. If a man likes to drink tea, one might say, he loves tea. Even so…
“Where had you gone today?” She raised her head. He had thrown the newspaper on the grass and was looking steadily at her.
“Just like that for a walk.” “Alone?”
She pretended not to hear that question and got up shaking out her crushed sari, “I’ll go take my bath; it’s already seven.”
She walked towards the house. He sat on for a long while, looking at the newspaper on the grass trying to flutter away.
That night saw visitors at their house. They walked round the table laden with food on and conversed in low voices. They were all of the new generation. Though desolate and depressed, they were always ready for a laugh. They wandered through life, pretending not to believe in anything. They carried cameras into temples, took photographs of the idols of naked gods and went through their days without taking anything seriously. Some of them were artists, some, literary critics and some, government servants. Varied as were their professions, they were all voluble though they were the children of a generation that practised moderation in speech. When they spoke of love, one end of their lips went up in contempt. When they talked of money, both ends dipped. They did not bother to grow hair long enough to grease the back of their necks. Into this group who viewed the world with healthy disdain is where she too landed, because she was a necessary adjunct to any such social gathering: a poet – a poet with wealth and standing. Her poems may not have sold, they may have come out in print only rarely, but they all admired her. Because, should they come into fame after her lifetime, they should each have something to say about her. Such as that her married life was not happy, or she liked to dress in blue, or some such detail. It need not necessarily be true, but they could each say it with the right of familiarity.
“I remember, once…” If the world survived all possible bomb blasts, at least, their words about her would last. That was their hope.
“You are both so lucky,” said one, “to get a house so close to the
She was standing by her husband and they looked at each other.
One or two dark streaks ran through the red on the horizon. A few kites circled the sky, high above the sea.
“I have become insensitive to the beauty of the sea.” As soon as the words were out, she knew she should not have said it, as one or two had moved closer to listen in.
“What’s the reason?”
“You need a certain type of innocence to derive unadulterated pleasure from such beauty. For me, the immediate response is to think up an appropriate description.”
They laughed. Her husband put his arm around her shoulder and said. “I am blessed.”
He usually disliked these gatherings. Very few women took part in them. As for those who came, they were casually dressed. For one who believed, that which does not glitter cannot be gold, these women could not be considered beautiful. He appreciated those who glittered; those who tittered and warbled and swayed and broke into peals of laughter; and flirted coquettishly with men. But groups such as this, preferring brain power, did not include such women. Once, a painter’s wife came along. She seemed like a butterfly amidst a crowd of kites. She had painted lips, and seemed to be clutching a small leather bag in sheer bewilderment. He went and sat beside her. Within a short while, she began to laugh. She was familiar with the language he spoke. He did not talk of the end of the world, or of unfettered poetry, or God, or such. His eyes lauded her shining beauty. He cut jokes that pleasantly embarrassed her and made her laugh.
At night his wife remarked: “You seemed to have liked that little woman very much. How long the two of you were talking!”
It maddened him: “I like women who behave like women.” That was a shot at her. But she just laughed.
“Do I not seem like a woman?” No. She was woman through and through. Her shape was plump and rounded with beautiful curves. When she walked, married men in the room turned away their heads, or lowered their eyes. Unmarried ones stared. For all that, he could not consider her a complete woman. None of the women of his past had been like her. Occasionally, in an effort to get her close, he would assay, “Listen, I have a question for you.”
She would turn around to look at him, and he shrivelled before her: “Hm, what?”
She would not have lined her eyes with mascara. Her hair would not have been combed or smoothed out. Yet looking at her, he had the sense he was looking at beauty itself. He would be silent.
How did she become like this? It was a question he often asked himself. They used to discuss love. It was now totally halted. She used to gaze at him worshipfully. Not anymore, ever. She used to burst out laughing at every joke he made. That too had come to an end. What has happened to her?
“Why don’t you laugh?”
There is no need to playact when living together.
Where did the two of them go wrong? Both of them have asked that question often. At times, lying together in bed, he would press on the fingers he held in his hand and say:
“I don’t understand you.”
She would close her eyes and feign sleep. But she would have padlocked her heart and would be thinking only about her own frustrations. He flirted with other women. Many times had he smiled into the eyes of another woman and touched her fingers right in front of her. He convinced her that love was no more than foolishness. And so with each succeeding frustration she became progressively harder. In her young days she had craved for beauty. She had considered beauty to be the open sesame to love. A beautiful girl had been her friend, and they had both fallen for the same man. Her friend had a beautiful face but she had impeccable ancestry, wealth, brains, status, everything. With all that, it was the friend that received the love letters. So she, who grew up in a love-less home and experienced small disappointments in succession, entered marriage only to be loved. It was when she was seeking one who would love her, warts and all, that he entered the picture.
He approved of the dowry. She was passable too. But when she poured heart and soul into her love for him, he was a bit startled. In the face of such love, he became more conscious of his own shortcomings. He was the first man to have touched her lips. What did he have that could contend with such purity? His first son was born to a cleaning
woman. Several other women spent nights with him. But his reputation had never suffered; he was too clever for that. Her love only reminded him of his past transgressions. Her guilelessness, her purity, all frightened him.
That stage was destined soon to pass. Gradually, she too became flawed. She closed her eyes and plunged into a few minor affairs. Just for the petting, just for the few days it lasted, for the few hours it lasted, knowing it to be a lower grade love…, she dared to take it all on. She had come to believe she would never find anywhere that great love that was to last a lifetime. So she savoured each moment as she might honey, drop by drop. Each time she would ask herself, why do I do this? Why turn this poor man into a fool? And make a fool of myself in the process? Love only made a stage appearance in those love scenes. Her prestigious inheritance of respectability did not allow her to rush into a man’s arms or kiss him without the password and response of ‘I love you. I love you too’. She had heard that to kiss without love was to prostitute. She had no need of money, only the need for the pretence of love. But her suitors were not playacting. They adored her. Her love, even if only momentary they considered divine. She ran her fingers through their hair. Under red skies of dusky evenings, perched on black rock by the sea, she talked of love, wrote poetry, praised their good looks as no woman ever had or would. It made them coy, happy. They worshiped at her shrine.
“How handsome is your face!” She said much more. It went past them as she most often used words they could not understand. For a few days, she turned them into gods. Then when she withdrew her love as she might have retrieved a ball, they each turned back into a flawed human being. They could not comprehend what had happened to them, so lost in ecstasy had they been. But they did not blame her who had given them such indescribable joy for at least a short spell in their lives. Aware of the distance between them, in their eyes, she was a goddess.
“Why so silent? How come you are so thoughtful today?” One of the guests asked her. She was seated on a bench under the tree.
“Why talk? When you know each other well, is there any need to
He took it as praise. With newly acquired right, he sat down at the other end of the bench. She noticed the mud sticking to the edge of his trousers. He had long slender fingers and hollow cheeks. She asked in seeming carelessness: “I have not seen you much. Came to Bombay only recently?”
He could see she had forgotten his name. But without any show of rancour he said:
“I am Russa. Remember, three years ago you came to that Art Gallery and we got acquainted?”
“Oh, Russa. I certainly remember. We argued about Picasso for about three hours, didn’t we?”
“Then what happened Mr. Russa? Did you win, or did I?” “You, no doubt. I was saying…”
“What are you two so pleasantly discussing?” Her husband came over. He held in his hand a blue striped plate of rice and cheese masala curry.
“What’s so interesting? Let me hear it too.”
She leaned her head against the tree and laughed.
She suddenly remembered that her head ached. She used to suffer that pain whenever she had to do without an afternoon rest. But she could not have seen Bhaskaran at any time other than the afternoon. She would go to him in the afternoons, before 3 o’clock. Their meetings were not in keeping with their age either. She forgot that she was a married woman. And he forgot his birth. The two of them did what they should not have done, in seeming revenge for what life had cheated them of. His past had the stench of poverty. So he tried always to forget them.
“Tell me about your childhood”, she insisted. He turned over the pages of his past to find some scene of beauty he could relate to her. He found nothing. A large poor family, sleeping mats with tattered edges, greasy pillows, scolding…, search as he might, he could not come up with one thing of beauty.
That is all he said. But that was not all the truth either. He could not recall his mother once taking him on to her lap, or kissing him. A toddler with scraggly legs and large eyes, he yearned for his mother’s love; to sleep with his mother. But at night, his mother cried in the next room. His mother had time only to wail and curse the fates that gave her a poor husband.
“My mother was beautiful.” Tears welled in his eyes by the time he had said it. It was not the thought of his mother that made him cry. It was the thought of his childhood. The cravings of those days had been impossible to fulfil. Not even for a little rubber ball.
“He wants a rubber ball!” His sisters’ tones were aghast. He even felt it a sin to have voiced such a wish.
Come to think of it, what reason could have drawn so close a man with such a background, and her? In the beginning there was none. He had first come to her house like any other guest. Past his youth, a receding hairline, portly build, and eyes with a suggestion of moisture. He talked of women; and also of the cinema. A type that she tended to scorn. She could not suffer playacting of any kind. When they came to know each other better, she said: “I dislike pretence.”
“Why do you say that?” She laughed.
When they fell in love, he felt he was suddenly looking at his naked self in a mirror. He knew there was no use in holding back anything. So he said: “I am an ordinary man.” Again she laughed. That laugh bewildered him even more. As he could not think of anything else to say, he lowered his head and said:
“Please don’t turn away from me.”
That was how she began to love him. No shroud or glitter that had been built over the years, not even the cover of a fig leaf, did she allow to adhere to him. He once again became the toddler with the thin legs and large eyes. But he knew he had found the love he had been searching for.
“She couldn’t come. The baby is sick. Fever. Always crying for the mother . . .”
The artist kept saying loudly. Her mind rushed into her confinement as if into a dark cell. She recalled that shameless stretching out on tables before the eyes of physicians.
“Why do you laugh?”
That’s when she realized that her husband was sitting nearby. “Just like that.”
“I have a question to ask.” “Hm?”
Could he have seen something? Letters or photographs lying in her desk drawers? She closed her eyes and leaned against the tree. At the other end of the garden, below a four way floor lamp, three or four people stood around talking in low tones. The hibiscus bushes near the garden wall had turned black. Here and there in the sky some stars were becoming visible. She was thinking of adequate descriptions for all of them. But like a tired horse, her mind did not stir from where it lay. Black, white, black, white . . .
“What has happened to us?” asked her husband as he settled himself closer to her.
“Our very lives have become a tangled mess.” “Me?”
“No, both of us.”
She did not say anything. A dried leaf flew on to her lap.
. . . life lay all knotted up.
But I am not about to get a comb and straighten the knots and smoothen it out.
When I go, these knots will remain. On this coarse hair, jasmines that decorated it a long time ago will cling on, blackened and sticky.
“Ah! so here’s where you two are?” Russa had returned.
“The Chinaman found his snuff box, when he returned to where he set out from – haven’t you heard that story?”
“A Chinaman lost his snuff box. He travelled all over the world in search of it; when he grew old, he returned home. He found the snuff box under his bed . . .”
When Russa threw back his head and laughed, the veins in his neck became taut and the face caught in a grimace. It was suddenly that an awareness of the ugliness in the lives around came to him. An artist who had abandoned his sick child and wife at home to come visiting; friends who had no notion of what friendship was, false laughter, novel, empty words, a man and wife together deliberately shattering their marriage, food turning cold and frozen on the table.
“I am going in. I need to rest awhile.”
Watching her, her husband remarked to the one beside him, “I have not been able to understand my wife so far. We have been living together for eight years . . . “
As her figure disappeared behind the door curtain, Russa said softly: “She is a poet.”
In the bedroom, hugging a silk pillow as if a baby, she lay on her face and sobbed.
When I go, these knots will remain. On this coarse hair, jasmines that decorated it long ago will cling on, blackened and sticky.
(The original in Malayalam is titled “Lokam oru Kavayathriye Nirmikkunnu”. Madhavikkuttiyude Kritikal Sampoornam, Kottayam: DC, 2003).
Translated by Sreedevi K. Nair
SREEDEVI K. NAIR. Is Associate Professor of English, NSS College for Women, Neeramankara, Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala. Her interest areas are Translation Studies and Women’s Writing. All the stories in this issue of Samyukta are translated by her.