TRANSLATED FROM THE MALAYALAM BY K. M. AJIR KUTTY
Labourers engaged by Ganesan Chettiyar are sweeping and sprucing up the ‘Summer Cottage’ which had been lying locked until then. Kuppamma, who was feeding buffaloes with straw at a hut just below that bungalow, suddenly remembered: ‘Oh, Chettiyar had said that new visitors were coming to occupy it that day!’
It is just the middle of April. But people have already started arriving for vacationing. Kodaikkanal city, which had been lying dormant under the blanket of mists in the heart of the green mountains, is slowly waking up. The mountain valleys all over have donned a vast brocade of green. Millions of flowers in bright, dazzling hues everywhere are celebrating the arrival of spring. The natives, who were moving along the meandering paths around the city in sown up sacks and thick woollen blankets until a few days ago, were enthusiastically getting ready to welcome and entertain the lucky ones among the tourists with a vacation full of joy and fun. Small traders have set up makeshift shops in every nook and corner of the city. This small township will become a heavenly abode within the next few days. Children of the metropolis will arrive here in buses and cars wearing woollen clothes designed to the most modern tastes, carrying cameras in their hands.
The cottage of Ganesan Chettiyar was located on a small lane right below the steep slope of the mountain near the bus stop. Kuppamma lived in one of those huts constructed with earth, straw and tin sheets at a depth further down from the cottage.
Kuppamma, who stood leaning against the worm-eaten wooden pillar of the buffalo shed, could not but remember so many things. As far as she was concerned, the summer cottage, which was a source of solace to the people of the metropolis, was a kind of dungeon. It was as the wife of Muniyaandi that she had come to this place.
It was on a day immediately after the festival at the Mariamman temple during April-May that her marriage took place! Marriage? It was a numbness that gripped her whenever she remembered about that marriage. More than a marriage, it could rightly be called a lucrative business deal that her father fixed and carried out.
She grew up in a nondescript village with dried up brooks and bushes on a plane at the foot of the Kodaikkanal Mountains. All that her father had earned was seven daughters and some goats. The girls who had attained marriageable ages posed a nightmarish problem to their parents.
Whenever she saw her parents being rendered helpless under the weight of the burden of having failed to meet the expenses of marrying her off to a man giving him money and ornaments as dowry as custom demanded, she would curse herself. It was on one of those days that an uncle of hers who earned his life as a daily wage worker in Kodaikkanal came to her house. The conversation among her father, mother and the uncle had on the courtyard of the house stretched into midnight. The subject of their talk was her marriage. Standing behind the hut, she carefully listened to their talk. The bridegroom is a milk-seller at Kodaikkanal. He has three or four buffaloes and has a good income when the season sets in. He has his own house – but he is slightly aged – around fifty. This was his second marriage. But, he had no children from his first marriage. All that he wanted was a girl healthy enough to do all the chores – it did not matter whether he was given anything by way of dowry. She saw in the moonlight smiles spreading on the faces of her parents, when they heard those words. Her heart pounded fast. Was her marriage being fixed? She has heard many things said about Kodaikkanal. When her village lay parched in the scorching sun of May, it was green all over the hills in the distance.
It is to these hills workers living in faraway cities flock looking for some relief from the sweltering heat of the summer sun. Come April, cars with loads of tourists start screeching up the Kodaikkanal Road. On how many occasions hasn’t she seen it?! She has often wondered how the common folk live up in those hills. Is it in the world of those strangers that she is destined to live the rest of her life?! Didn’t uncle say that this was the groom’s second marriage? She was shell-shocked to remember it – how did his first wife die? Why didn’t they have children? But nobody came forward to tell her more about the groom. And she didn’t have the courage to enquire about him either.
At long last, she got married on the next day after the festival at the Mariamman temple during April-May. He was a hefty man with a coppery moustache, red turban and pock marked face. When she boarded the bus along with him for Kodaikkanal the next day, leaving the house in which she was born behind, she could not but sob with her face covered with the end of her sari. When will she come back to her village, now?
When she drew close to him on the first night harbouring a lot of fond hopes, it was about buffaloes that her husband talked about. He was already milking four of them. One of the buffaloes was about to give birth to its calf. He did not have time to care for them as required. Tending the buffaloes would now be her responsibility. She was expected to tend them with utmost care – because they were the ones that brought him money and luck! She could live there peacefully if she did not resent being ordered about by him; and finally he said, threateningly, that in case she became arrogant, his hands were powerful enough to bring her back on track! She hummed yes to all that he had said. At last he grabbed her hand with a lecherous laughter – “Gal, now come to me!”
Thus, in an uncivilised and barbarous way, she was accepted as a wife. Where were the sweet words and caressing that she had dreamt of?
From that day onwards how many days of utter boredom that she pushed behind as she chugged on in life! Her heart would long for her scorched village alike during the harsh winter when even the heart becomes numbed in the extreme cold and during the rains when the sky remained gloomily dark as it rained immensely. But, that desire is not going to be fulfilled ever. Her life has almost become accustomed to a callous husband who is far removed from human emotions and those dumb buffaloes. There cannot be any hope of freedom for her.
Now she has become sort of a machine. She has taught and trained her to wallow through time and thus remain immersed in chores from dawn to dusk. In case she slightly erred in her work, Muniyaandi would turn nasty – he would chastise her without cessation! But whenever he reproached her, she would not say anything in reply. In case she uttered anything, he would take out the long stick kept behind the rafter and start beating her mercilessly with it. It was in the hope of her tongue remaining imprisoned in her mouth that she married the girl who was not able pay dowry, forfeiting it. To him she was no exhibit who would attract visitors and it was to look after him in the best possible way that she was being fed. If she would turn mischievous, he would crush her knee! Don’t try to backbite. The sooner you restrain your tongue, the better. It was with those reproachful words that he would bring the spell of beating to a close. When she had had one or two experiences along these lines, she came to the conclusion that it would be ideal for her to remain silent in such situations.
Suddenly she woke with a start. She forgot that he had asked her to keep hot water ready for him to take a bath after the siesta. Making a heap of the twigs and dung-cakes that she had collected from inside the house, she was now trying to light a fire on them in the hearth.
The bottom of the hearth was frozen to the core even at midday. Bending over the pieces of fuel heaped on the hearth, she blew on them forcefully. How tiresome of a job it was to light a fire on them up in the hills! However dried it was, when one took a piece of firewood in one’s hand, it would be as cold as it were dipped in ice-cold water. Cursing the firewood, she blew on it again and again.
All of a sudden she heard a car braking to a stop! She raised her head and took a look. She saw it on the portico of Ganesan Chettiyar’s summer cottage. A huge car as though it were standing ready to take flight with wings spread out in the front and at the back of it! She looked at it again with curiosity. It was a charming lady with lips reddened with lipstick, bobbed hair extending up to shoulders and a pair of dark glasses on, who was driving the car! She suddenly opened the door and got out of the car. She had worn a pair of colourful trousers and a woollen shirt. Kuppamma was amazed to see a woman who was bold enough to move about in men’s clothes with nothing on to cover her breasts! She was now convinced that there was truth in what people had told her about the Memsahibs who hailed from cities. But, in Tamil Nadu, girls start wearing long winding clothes even before they are ten.
Within no time a man also got out of the car by opening the door on the other side. He had dark glasses on, a thin moustache, curly hair and a camera slung over his shoulders. He was somewhat like a film star to Kuppamma. He opened the door right away. Then he started carrying things they had brought in the car one after another into the cottage. An aged woman who was sitting on the back seat of the car alone joined him in taking things inside. The Memsahib was enjoying the beauty of the landscape leaning against the car. She would laugh between snatches of conversation she had with the Sahib now and again.
How is this Sahib related to the Memsahib? Husband? If so, would she have stood like that with her arms crossed over her bosom, making him carry the bags and boxes from the car? Kuppamma’s imagination revolved around those new occupants who had just come to the cottage.
Hearing the loud belch sent out by Muniyaandi, she woke with a start from her daydreams. What has happened to her today? Nothing seems to be moving. When she dipped her hand in the water being heated in the pot, she felt that the water had just begun to heat up. She pushed a few more dung cakes into the hearth and started blowing into it. By then, Muniyaandi had already arrived!
“Why, you haven’t got time to heat some water yet? I had told you in the morning itself that I wanted to take bath today, haven’t I? Didn’t you know that the tourist season has begun? I want to move all tidied up in front of four people. I wouldn’t be satisfied with wallowing like you in a buffalo she! You ugly creature!”
He spat out forcefully with indignation. Stopping the volley of abuses abruptly, marking a clear departure from what he was used to do, he said:
“Chettiyar said that the Sahib who had come to stay in the cottage was urgently in need of milk. You go and give them milk, milking the buffalo in haste.”
She moved hastily away from the hearth.
When she reached there with the milk, both the Sahib and the Memsahib were getting ready to go out. Memsahib had changed her clothes. She had worn a black sari embroidered with golden flowers shining as though they were stars twinkling in the pitch black new moon sky! She also had an embroidered, orange shawl wound around her neck. The moment she saw her, she said in the little Tamil she knew ‘to hand over the milk to their Ayah’ and got into the car. Locking the door of the house from behind, the Sahib also moved toward the car. It was just then that the lady, smilingly, asked him for something! He went back quickly and opened the door. She kept watching the whole scene with curiosity. What was it that he went inside for? When the Sahib came back, he had a shiny vanity bag, which was the size of a small winnowing pan, in his hand. She could not but burst into laughter within mind. “Oh! Was it to take this bag that she made him go back and open the house again?!”
The car purred past the lane and sped uphill. She went behind the house with the bottle of milk in her hand. The ayah was sitting by the charcoal fire burning in the hearth, her body all covered with a blanket. When she saw Kuppamma, she said as if addressing nobody in particular:
“Oh, I can’t stand this cold weather at all. The sooner I left this place, the better. Why are the Sahib and Memsahib so interested in staying on here!?”
Kuppamma laughed. It is years since she has come to this place. Every year during summer rich people from cities flock to the hills – most of them are forced to return disappointed without being able to find some space for staying in. Like the ayah herself, she also wonders what kind pleasure these people are deriving from here.
Placing the bottle of milk on the door sill, she got ready for a chat. She did not know why, the new occupants had hogged a spot in her thoughts. First of all she wanted to know whether the Sahib was Memsahib’s husband.
The ayah laughed.
“Why are you so doubtful?”
“I may be excused for raising this question after watching the Sahib remaining dutifully at her service even as she held onto her relaxed posture like a princess.”
The ayah burst into laughter.
“From what garbage yard are you from? This is how life is in the cities. Men openly behave as the willing servants of women. That is what is called civilised life. But, I would not say that they are like that even in their private lives. Because, I have seen a lot of these people’s lives, girl! They have no sincerity both in word and deed. But, I must not say anything unpleasant about them. To this Sahib, his wife is as dear as his life. He sees through her desires and fulfils them without any compunction.”
Their misfortune of being childless apart, how blessed their life is! Kuppamma fell into a reverie. She said with a sigh:
“It is a pity! They are fortunate in every other way – had they been blessed with a child as well!”
The ayah laughed again.
“How do you know that they have no children? Is it because they haven’t brought them along with them? They have a smart five years old daughter. But the child is studying at a residential school far away from home. When they get leave in May, Sahib will go and bring her home along with him. When the child is at home, it is my responsibility to look after her. I feed her, bathe her, dress her up and put her to sleep telling her stories. Now you might ask, what do the parents do for their daughter? They buy her anything that she asks for; and they caress her whenever they feel like doing like that – that’s all.”
Kuppamma put her index finger on her nose in wonderment! How are they able to live in peace leaving their beloved daughter alone miles away from their home. If by the grace of God she became a mother, she would bring up her child as though it were the pupil of her eye! But she was not fortunate enough to realise that dream. She could not give birth to a child although it was four years since she was married – whose fault was this? Her? Or was it his? But Muniyaandi was not at all concerned that he had no children. Buying more buffaloes, earning more money, lending money on interest during the lean months of winter – it was in these things that he found pleasure and satisfaction. From what knowledge she had gained of the world she knew that in case she approached someone practising witchcraft, her desire would be fulfilled, she was sure. But Muniyaandi was not ready to spend money on witchcraft –
The ayah walked toward the hearth to see if the milk was about to boil. Kuppamma ended the conversation and got out taking the empty milk bottle in hand. The day had advanced much. In these hills, when the time is past four o’clock in the afternoon, the sun will have gone down the western mountain ranges.
A cold and piercing wind was blowing. She walked quickly down the mountain slope and reached home. Muniyaandi was not to be seen anywhere there. He must have gone to the market junction – she surmised. She had a lot of things to finish before he got back home. Who was it that she saw for the first time in the morning today? There was no respite in her chores for the day. Taking an earthen pot in hand, she walked toward the well at the foot of mountain range.
The rice was not cooked by the time Muniyaandi came home. The night had advanced much. Standing by the burning coals in the hearth, he chastised her for being lazy – of late, she has become defying. Does she think that he has grown old? It would be better if she remembered that her hands still had the strength to discipline her – like that his usual volley of abuses was well on course! But, without giving off any hint that she had heard all those bad words that he had said about her, she went about grinding a dollop of chutney. As she was crushing dry chillies, salt and tamarind together on the grinding stone, it was the amazing world of the new occupants of Ganesan Chettiyar’s house that she thought about!
Once the rice gruel was consumed, as usual, she pushed the earthen hearth in which the cinders were dying down towards his cot made of palm frond fibres. Then she set two or three dung cakes by the mouth of the hearth. Lighting a beedi of cannabis to which he was addicted, he set about enjoying the comforting warmth of that narrow room.
Almost all chores of her for the day are over. Now she was to light a slow burning fire in the buffalo shed built close to their hut. That was the last job she would do before going to bed. The calf of the Karachi buffalo that was only a few days old required a warmer atmosphere. She lost no time in pulling off a blanket from the clothesline and covered her head with it. Was it a blanket? It was strange outer covering made of three old sacks sawn together. That’s all! Taking a dung cake that had just started to burn in hand, she opened the door and got out.
It was around eight o’clock at night. The sounds of cars screeching through the middle of the city boomed in the silence of the mountain range. Without being aware of it herself, she looked towards the cottage above. The house lay immersed in darkness. So the Sahib and the Memsahib have not returned from their evening rounds yet? Ah! They must have fallen asleep pulling a warm blanket over them already. She remembered. Suddenly yellow light from the car spread all over. Her eyes were dazzled. No sooner had the car came to a stop on the portico than the Sahib got out of it and opened the door for the Memsahib. It was by grabbing the hand of the Sahib that the Memsahib got out of the car. Thus, hand in hand, they slowly moved toward the Asoka tree that was standing by the side of small flower bed there. They stood there motionless looking at the full moon slowly coming into view from behind thick white clouds that had collected in the eastern sky. She too could not restrain herself from taking a look at it – her heart tickled. How enchanting the nature was! The Sahib led her towards the bench at the foot of the Asoka tree. Kuppamma stood motionless looking at the couples who were lost in themselves in one tight embrace. They were not feeling even the piercing cold either – she wondered.
After lighting the dampened straw heaped outside their buffalo shed, she stood there rooted to the ground as it were in the subdued moonlight fondling a host of varied emotions. The Memsahib was lying with her head propped against the bosom of the Sahib. He had wound his hands around her. Suddenly the Sahib bent down. When their faces drew closer to each other, Kuppamma was excited all over. The Memsahib plucked herself free with a suppressed laughter from the Sahib’s close embrace. Now the Sahib too stood up. Like two doves in love they moved into the cottage, brushing against each other as they walked. Kuppamma sighed deeply as though she herself was not aware of it. How harmonious their life is!
She looked toward the fuming heap of straw. It was almost burnt down. She hastily walked into the hut closing its door from behind. Muniyaandi was lying with his body covered from head to foot with a thick woollen blanket. He must have fallen asleep – she inferred. Taking care to not make much noise, she pulled off two old sacks from the clothesline and spread them over the old deal wood boxes arrayed as a cot for her lie on. And over it a torn piece of sari! When she unfurled a blanket prior to lying down, Muniyaandi moved a little. He put out his hand from under the blanket and called:
She tarried for a moment. And then moved towards the cot, mechanically.