Irked by a headache Revati shuts the file. It’s three o’clock. “During winter, time doesn’t seem to move beyond three. So many hours before it’s five,” says Bharati, who is typing, next to her. Revati, smiling softly, says: “That’s why I am thinking of applying for leave and going. I have a terrible headache.”
“Why apply for leave for just two hours? Can’t you take permission and leave?”
Without paying attention to Bharati’s surprised expression, Revati writes a leave letter.
“It’s better to apply for leave when you have some leave to your credit. Even if you ask for permission only once a year, the old man will grumble, saying you women only think of home, your minds only come up with ideas about taking permission to go home, but not about working in the office.” Saying this, Rema extends her support to Revati’s application for leave.
Revati smiles approvingly at Rema’s words. She hands over the letter and steps out of the office.
There won’t be a crowd at the bus stop around this time. Buses too will be empty. Knowing she will get a seat on the bus, her feet move involuntarily and quickly. Surprised at finding Chandrika already seated at the bus stop, she looks at her watch in spite of knowing the time. Why is Chandrika here at this time?
“Chandrika, didn’t you go to the office today?”
Chandrika lifts her head, looks a bit bewildered. Worn-out face, reddened eyes, mind immersed in thought— Revati watches in surprise.
The bus comes in the meanwhile. She doesn’t feel like leaving Chandrika like this and taking the bus.
“Chandrika, there won’t be many buses going towards your place at this time. Why don’t you come home, relax for a while and then go?”
Chandrika looks blankly as if unable to respond.
“It’s okay. You can stay till the evening and then go.” Holding Chandrika’s hand she walks hurriedly to the bus. The bus is completely empty. After both sit down and the bus moves, she looks searchingly at Chandrika. That Chandrika got on to the bus without speaking, without refusing to come, without withdrawing her hand surprises Revati.
“Aren’t you well?”
Answering Revati that she is alright, Chandrika sits looking out of the window. Her manner suggests that she would prefer if Revati asks no further questions and keeps quiet.
“What would have happened? Why is she so worried? Did she have a quarrel with Ravi? Hope they hadn’t fought! Did she set out with the intention of coming to her place? Would she have come to her even if she had not called her?” Revati is a bit puzzled.
Chandrika intending to come to her is totally unthinkable under normal circumstances.
Chandrika who laid down having a separate establishment as a precondition to marrying Ravi has always kept a distance from Revati. She has never let Revati come close. Within two months of the marriage, they started living separately. During the first month too, she hardly stayed for ten days in her mother-in-law’s house. Time was spent going to her parents’ and friends’ places and for a honeymoon. After living separately, she didn’t give Revati any opportunity to interfere in their affairs. She didn’t ask for Revati’s help on any occasion either. Although it was difficult to manage work both at home and in the office, she didn’t allow her mother-in-law to come anywhere close. Revati’s relatives and friends talked amazingly about this. One or two of them couldn’t restrain themselves from asking Revati: “You have only one son. When the son is in the same place what’s the point in living separately?…It’s one thing if after living together for a year or two they say we can’t get along, let’s lead our own lives. What’s this nonsense about living separately immediately after marriage. Would you like us to scold Ravi and make him see sense?” They went on nagging Revati like this for a few days.
Revati dampened their enthusiasm, yet didn’t utter a word to them against Ravi or Chandrika. “Rather than separate after fighting for two years, it is actually better to live separately from the beginning. One won’t hate the other.” Thus she spoke justifying Ravi. It has been going on like this for four years. In these four years, the distance between Revati and Chandrika has neither widened nor reduced. If Revati visited them on some Sunday evenings, they too visited her some times. Except for the month when Chandrika went home for her delivery, Ravi has never come and stayed with his mother. Chandrika is bringing up her son despite difficulties, but she has never sought Revati’s help. That such a person should be coming to her today surprises Revati and makes her happy. She feels there is no need to wait till they reach to find out the matter.
“Why have you set out at an odd time like this– what about office?” she shouts, thinking she may not be audible in the din of the bus.
“Having taken leave from work, I am coming back after visiting Sarat’s school.”
Revati’s face darkens listening to Chandrika’s reply. That means Chandrika didn’t start with the intention of visiting her. Sarat’s school is quite close to her office– she was about to go home after paying the school fees. She has unnecessarily interrupted her and changed her course. All the same, her agreeing to come when asked is surprising. Couldn’t she have avoided coming, saying she would come another time? As one having the temperament of being content with what she has, Revati feels she can be happy that Chandrika is coming with her. Once again she looks at Chandrika from the corner of her eye. Chandrika seems agitated, for she bites her lower lip and heaves a sigh. Something is the matter. Poor thing, she is caught in some tangle!
Revati is overwhelmed by pity for Chandrika. Very often she feels sorry for her daughter-in-law. Whenever she had gone to see her son in the evenings, the whole time was spent pitying Chandrika. Chandrika does not return from office before seven on any day. She would come back exceedingly tired. As soon as she returned, she would throw some rice in the cooker and go for a bath. They would have their meal with the curries from the morning. Chandrika had no energy to even heat them up again. The cold curries would have no taste at all. How could they be tasty? If she got up at seven, she had to leave home by nine. Tiffin, coffee, rice, curries— everything she had to do herself. Perhaps she had not been used to cooking during her student days; she was unable to work quickly and efficiently. She was not used to working but she did not dislike work. She would slowly do one thing after another. Actually, Chandrika would feel uncomfortable whenever Revati came. That her mother-in-law would not approve of her house, her ways, her cooking, her serving style, her manner of eating— she didn’t just doubt, but firmly believed. Till her mother-in-law left, she would be on pins and needles. Revati couldn’t understand why Chandrika should feel so uncomfortable. She had never said a word against Chandrika. She had not expected any special treatment from her. Even when she wanted to arrange things in the house, she restrained herself to avoid giving Chandrika an impression that she was trying to teach her or criticize her work. She would smile and drink the coffee Chandrika gave her in a stained cup. Even though her mother-in-law was drinking quietly, Chandrika would feel agitated. She would watch her mother-in-law uneasily as she washed the cup spotlessly clean and turned it upside down.
The bus stops. Both get down and go towards home. Chandrika is walking with difficulty and slowly. ‘Even if she is not well, she won’t stop working. She definitely won’t stop going to the office— ` Soon after Sarat was born, Revati went one afternoon to Chandrika’s office. She had knitted a sweater for Sarat. As she wasn’t able to hand it over for quite some time, and finally deciding at least to give it in the office she went there. When she went there, Chandrika was not in her seat. After ten minutes she came back from the bathroom. Her face looked rather worried. When she examined Chandrika closely she knew. Unable to tolerate the heaviness of her lactating breasts, she went to the bathroom and squeezed it out and came back. Revati’s heart melted.
“Couldn’t you have taken one more month’s leave?” she asked with concern.
“There is a lot of work in the office, it’s not possible.”
“Couldn’t you have at least taken tablets to stop lactating?” She asked even though she didn’t want to. Thinking that Revati was finding fault with her, Chandrika’s face darkened and she said hesitantly, “I am feeding the child morning and night. In the nights he won’t drink from the bottle at all.”
To see women crushed between motherhood and work is not new to Revati. But she was very upset that she couldn’t help her daughter-in-law at all in her troubles.
“I don’t like women being thought of as not doing their work properly. I would like to prove that women work exceedingly well.”
Revati heard Chandrika telling this to Ravi. These words were in response to Ravi’s accusation that she was taking on too much of work on her hands in the office. On hearing this, Revati’s heart felt heavy. Ravi didn’t understand those words, but why wouldn’t Revati understand them?
Many people many times have said these words to Revati. They said that there is nothing more stupid than to employ women. Even though she tried hard to avoid these remarks, they still made them. Even when women who are close to their delivery time go and work, even when they continue to work as they are bleeding heavily, even when they prevent lactation or when they squeeze out the milk they were to give to their children and then go and work, people still continue to comment. The slightest error on their part is enough for a sudden revelation to dawn on men that there is nothing more insane than employing women. Revati felt like hugging her daughter-in-law who is trying hard to prevent those words being said against her. But Chandrika would not allow this to happen. Any love-filled words or looks from her mother-in-law would only irk her. One could see an inexplicable fear in the girl’s eyes. Ever since she noticed this, Revati has been keeping her distance from Chandrika.
Revati unlocks her door and enters the house. Behind her is Chandrika. As soon as she enters the house, the sorrow that Chandrika has kept under control overpowers her. She forcefully controls it and collapses onto a chair. ‘My mother-in-law’s house is like this whenever I come— cool, clean and relaxing. How does she manage to keep it like this?’
“Why don’t you wash your face?” says Revati.
Chandrika gets up and goes into the bathroom. It’s like that even there. The bathroom too is as neat as the drawing room. A bucket full of water. Soap box looks new. Soap isn’t sticking anywhere. Even though the soap is half used, it looks new. In her mother-in-law’s house the soap or soap-box doesn’t get soaked in water. In her house, however, the box would be full of water. The soap would soak so much that it would become small bits when handled.
By the time she washes her face with cold water and comes out, Revati is waiting with a towel.
Though the white towel is old, there is not even a single stain. How’s it possible! To keep an old towel so white and so clean!
Chandrika wipes her face.
Revati goes into the bathroom.
‘Hope she won’t say she is going to have an abortion this time. Will she give up her job? Ravi always attacks Chandrika’s job— He says— we can live happily if you give up your job. I won’t give up my job and live on your income— says Chandrika. I hope their quarrel about this hasn’t assumed such proportions that they have decided to separate. If that were true, she wouldn’t at all be on Ravi’s side. She would only chide him. Chandrika’s a good girl. A self-respecting girl. A girl with hard-working nature, a girl who respects work. One can find many women who can cook and perform various chores in the house meticulously, but it is difficult to find those who possess self-respect and who always strive hard to protect it. People like Ravi do not know the value of such women. They need comforts. How can men who don’t find the necessity to think about self-respect and struggle understand their value?
Revati comes after washing her face, wipes her face with a towel and puts it on a wire to dry. She looks for the towel Chandrika has used. It is thrown on a chair like a damp lump. Revati takes it, shakes it vigorously and dries it on the wire.
“Athayya– how do you do all these things so well? How do you remember to dry your towel as soon as you wipe your face? How do you manage to keep an old towel so white? How do you succeed in maintaining your house so clean?”
Chandrika spurts these out even before she understands what she is saying.
Revati smiles a little and keeps quiet. What response can she give? How can anybody answer in a single sentence when asked suddenly about habits one has acquired over a whole lifetime? How can she explain how she struggled to acquire these habits having been forced to fend for herself at the age of twenty with a one year old son, and branded as one deserted by her husband?
Even as she has tried to make things in her house appear spotlessly clean to every one who visits her, she has put in hundred times more effort to prove to everyone that her body, mind and everything have been pure and unblemished. House and body— everything is pure white. But nobody knows how sometimes she detests this very cleanliness and purity. She feel like filling up the whole house with dust and mud. She feels like smearing her body with mud and slush and roar with laughter. I won’t be chaste. What will you do? How does it matter to you how I am? She feels like asking the world if it would give her or her child at least a mouthful even for a day. But she hasn’t. Having mentally burnt away this madness, she has remained pure and clean. To be like this, she has fought endless wars with her body and mind. She has subjected them to torture. She has mercilessly killed their frenzy.
How can Chandrika understand all this now? How will she explain this to this foolish girl who has never let her come close to her?
But, if only she would allow her to explain once! Revati is confident that Chandrika will be able to understand her. Revati looks at Chandrika with an anxiety to bare her heart and lay it open to Chandrika.
A thin film of tears in Chandrika’s eyes. Why? What is troubling her? Has anyone said anything to her? Could Ravi have said something thoughtlessly to her? Hit her, perhaps— if only that’s true, she would slap her son and make him see sense.
Revati puts her arm over Chandrika’s shoulder. Tears slide down Chandrika’s eyes on to her cheeks.
“What’s happened?” Revati asks anxiously.
“Sarat has been expelled from school. He has not been able to study well. He has been failing in all subjects. He is being very mischievous. I believe yesterday he wounded a boy on his head by throwing a stone. Today, they sent for me and informed me that they were going to send him away from school.”
Revati understands the situation and her anxiety lessens.
Chandrika’s distress however doesn’t cease.
“Don’t I know how to raise kids, Athayya? I am doing as much as I can. He does not seem to change. I am not able to handle it anymore. Ravi scolds me that I don’t know how to raise kids. What shall I do?”
“Ignore him– He did a lot more mischief than Sarat when he was young. One couldn’t keep count of how many children he had wounded. Not that he studied well, either. Absolute dullard.”
“Really?” Surprise in Chandrika’s sorrow– reddened eyes.
Revati recounts as well as fabricates Ravi’s mischievous deeds.
“Actually, Sarat’s school is no good. They only beat up children but don’t teach in such a way as to enthuse them. We’ll take him out of that school. Only the other day, I read in the papers about a new school. They don’t beat children, I believe. Also, children don’t need to carry books to school. No homework. Let’s admit him there.”
“Is there really such a school?”
She asks, wondering whether her mother-in-law was saying this to console her.
“Wait– I’ll show you.” Revati gets up, goes and brings her the paper and shows her the news item she had seen four days ago about the school.
Chandrika is completely relieved.
“Don’t bother about Ravi’s words. He’s after all a man. What does he know of mothers’ woes?”
Revati’s words make Chandrika’s face glow. She doesn’t want to let go of this opportunity. She talks. Talks. She talks till she makes Chandrika realize that they are both women.
“Even before my marriage, or to be more precise, from the time I could think on my own, I was afraid of the mother-in-law, even the very word mother-in- law. Don’t mothers-in-law nag daughters-in-law? I used to hear of daughters-in- law committing suicide unable to bear the taunts of mothers-in-law. Much before I knew Ravi, I had decided to be away from my mother-in-law. When I knew that Ravi was the only son, and that you had no one else with you, my fear increased further. I feared that you might torture me thinking that you alone should have hold over him and that I had taken him away from you. My fear grew after I saw you. You are perfect in everything. I can’t do housework. Can’t cook. I used to feel guilty when you came home. I was always worried that you would find fault with me. That is why I always try to keep a distance from you.”
Revati looks at Chandrika with love and sympathy. Some of women’s traits, some of mothers-in-law’s, some of daughters-in-law’s, some of sisters-in- law’s– does the same society which has forcibly thrust all these roles on women suppress the naturally human qualities in them? Look how human relationships are becoming distorted! If no intimacy has developed between two people living together for four years, doesn’t it but show how human relationships have deteriorated? For the first time, Chandrika with a lightened heart looks at her mother-in-law affectionately.
“Kohl has spread all over your face. You cried like a foolish girl. Go, wash your face,” says Revati.
Chandrika goes into the bathroom, washes her face clean with soap and comes out. She wipes her face with the towel Revati gives her, and is about to shake it and put it to dry.
“That’s alright. Throw it there. I’ll dry it later. I’ll also learn to be a bit lazy from today. Let’s see what will happen,” Revati says pulling the towel from Chandrika’s hand.
“No, No, Athayyaa— it’s just that I am neither interested nor used to such things. It’s better to do things immediately,” she says drying the towel.
“We all have our own ways of doing things. Don’t you worry about that unnecessarily,” says Revati as she goes into the kitchen to make coffee.
Chandrika follows Revati into the kitchen. She has something more to tell her mother-in-law. She finds it difficult and is hesitant to say it. At the same time, her conscience troubles her as to how she can keep quiet about it after such a friendship has developed between them. She rehearses the whole thing in her mind even as her mother-in-law makes coffee. Holding their coffee cups, they both come to the front room.
Taking a gulp of her coffee, Chandrika says:
“The coffee is wonderful, Athayya— do you feel like living with us? Shall we all live together?” She asks with her head down, as if she has done something wrong.
“No. I am happy like this. I found it a bit difficult soon after your marriage, but I feel being like this is better. I am able to do whatever I want whenever I like. I am not worried that I might be inconveniencing anyone. It’s good to live like this without causing inconvenience to others and without getting into problems with others. You have indirectly helped me. It’s only in the last four years that I have spent my time at my will. Before that some responsibility or the other— when I can’t manage, I will come to you on my own.” Revati tries to reduce Chandrika’s guilt and strengthens further the bond between them.
For the first time, Chandrika looks at Revati not as a mother-in-law but as a human being.
Translated from Telugu by Alladi Uma and M. Sridhar.
As a feminist, Volga’s endeavour has consistently been to break any stereotyping of women. She has written a couple of stories specifically to question the portrayals of mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law. We liked this story, for it not only succeeds in breaking the stereotype, but goes beyond to establish a bonding of women.
ALLADI UMA AND M.SRIDHAR. Teach English at the University of Hyderabad. They have been doing collaborative work in translation for several years. They published a translation of a collection of short stories by Volga, a Telugu feminist writer, titled The Woman Unbound. They have recently helped the SahityaAkademi in bringing out two special issues of Indian Literature on contemporary Telugu writing. SahityaAkademi is bringing out their translation of a novella ,GovulostunnayiJagratta! (Beware, the Cows are Coming) by RachakondaViswanathaSastry. They won the Jyeshtha Literary Award in 1992 and the Katha Commendation Prize in 1996 for their translations.