Short story

Desperation

Print edition : September 02, 2016

“Why don’t you sit, di? You can go later. What’s the hurry?” Savitri, who was lying down, asked her, turning over.

“No, it’s time for him to come home. If I go and heat up the water for coffee, it will be just right,” said Kamala, getting up.

“Come on, how long it will take to make coffee? You can do it even later. Just sit. Time is just not passing for me.”

Just then Raghavan returned, calling out, “Kamala.”

“I told you, no. See, he’s come back,” said Kamala and ran towards her room.

Savitri lifted her head and looked up; Raghavan entered the room, smiling at his wife. Kamala went in after him, uttering, “Is it time already?”

The room was a little away, but not that far that you couldn’t hear people conversing. Sometimes young couples don’t remember where they are, do they?

“Go, what is this. What are you playing at? Someone will come.” Savitri heard Kamala’s playful words faintly. The joyous air that filled the room wafted across to Savitri, choking her. Sorrow wracked her mind and body; she turned on her back, letting out a deep sigh.

Savitri’s husband was in the “military service”, somewhere in the north. For the sake of custom, he had stayed behind for three days after the shanthi muhurtam and then left hurriedly. It had now been two years. Letters arrived. But not the man.

People would remark, wouldn’t they, if shanti muhurtam hadn’t been observed? So the two families performed the function. After that it didn’t really matter how long the boy stayed away from the girl. No one would open their mouth.

Savitri likened that shanti muhurtam to Yama, the god of death. She could control her mind somewhat, like she used to earlier. But not her body. It constantly needled her mind. It couldn’t forget the blissful touch it had experienced those three days. It screamed out.

Savitri was blessed with a healthy body. Robust youthfulness glowed all over her. She couldn’t bear its incessant desire.

What cheek of this Kamala! Just because her husband is around, should she keep jumping like this? What is there to come and show off to me? I’m lying here all withered up. What is there to come and romp around? No, she’s doing it purposely. I think she’s doing all this just to torment me. Forever singing her husband’s praise! Did she bring him to life? Why won’t she stand on her head—looking at me languishing all alone like this while she is so happy is what perhaps makes her so conceited! I’m broken. But did she even think of that? How will she—only if she undergoes this, she will know.

Savitri slept, muttering to herself.

“Why, di, couldn’t you have got up and fetched water from the tap outside? Here is your coffee,” said her mother.

“OK, OK, it will be done. That’s why you gave birth to me. I will do it. Go.”

“Here is your coffee. I’m going to that house. Don’t know if I’ll be able to come back in the night….”

“What are you going to do coming here? Stay in your brother’s house itself and come.”

“Lock the door carefully in the night.”

“OK, OK, go!”

Her mother adjusted her sari, smeared some vibhuti and left for the street. Savitri’s coffee turned cold. But not her heart.

Kamala came after her husband left for office. “O, Ammami has not drunk coffee, is it?”

Savitri looked at her enviously. “It’s cold, I didn’t drink it.”

“Shall I give you some? I’ve kept some in the flask for him for the evening. I will give it. I can always make some more.”

“No need. I don’t feel like it. My chest is burning.”

“I asked him if we can go for a film today. Tomorrow, he said. You’ll also come, Ammami?”

“Wonderful. You two want to have fun, and I’ll be there in the middle…”

“Go, Ammami!” said Kamala, really pleased. To Savitri her joy seemed like poison.

“What Ammami! You’re not feeling well?”

“What is wrong with me? Nothing.”

“He’s brought a novel called ‘The Wilted Bud’. Shall we read it?” Kamala got up and sat down with the book.

There was a picture on the cover. Kamala showed it to Savitri, coyly smiling.

A fellow was sitting on a chair, deep in thought. The book in his hand had fallen down. Unknown to him, his wife was standing behind him with a smile.

“What is the meaning of this, Ammami?” asked Kamala.

“The husband is deep in thought. Looks as if the stupid wife standing there smiling is not aware of his mood.”

Kamala’s smile vanished. “Do you think it’s like that?”

“What else?” asked Savitri cruelly, although she smiled.

“No, Ammami. It can’t be.”

“Then what can it be?”

“See, see… the husband is reading it, thinking of her. The book falls down because he’s dozed off. She didn’t come for a long time, and then, at last….”

“O, that’s always there.”

“Shall we read?”

“Read.”

Kamala read for a while. But how much did Savitri hear?

Ayyo, it is so late. I kept on reading.” It was five in the evening; Kamala got up and went to her house.

Savitri didn’t get up. The sweeper woman came.

“I will sweep it myself. Go.”

The flower woman came.

“I don’t want any flowers today.”

It turned dark. It was now hours since it had turned dark. She couldn’t bear to hear the fun that Raghavan and Kamala were having.

Weren’t they aware that there were others too in the house? She got up angrily, switched on the light and lay back again.

“I’ve laid out the leaf for dinner. Come to eat,” said Kamala.

“So quickly… after eating so early, what…”

“I’m sleepy.”

“Sleepy?” Raghavan said smilingly. Savitri heard it all.

As Kamala threw away the leaf outside and locked the iron door and the verandah door, she saw Savitri lying down drowsily in the opposite room. She asked, “Ammami, have you eaten?”

“Finished.”

Kamala went in and locked the door.

The house looked like a marriage hall. Tenants on either side. Doors on either side of the hall and the verandah.

It was only about eight in the night. Even the town’s noise hadn’t died down. But the noise in Kamala’s room had died down. Savitri never even got up.

“Raghavan! Is he there?”

“He’s there!” Savitri opened the verandah door and turned around.

A young chap stood hesitantly.

“Just tap lightly on their door. They’ll open,” she said with somewhat cruel happiness and went inside her room and sat down. She waited expectantly for the proceedings.

The young chap tapped the door. “Raghavan.”

After a while a murmur was heard, “Who is it?”

“Me!”

“Me who?” hissed Raghavan, opening the door to peep out.

“Me, Seenu—Madurai.”

“O… come in,” said Raghavan, a bit perplexed. Leaving the door open, he escorted him through the verandah and took him outside.

A sight flashed for a second before Seenu’s eyes. The light was on. Kamala, who was lying dishevelled facing the door, jumped up with a start and ran towards the wall when Raghavan’s frame moved away from the doorway.

Savitri saw it even more clearly. A bunch of flowers were hanging from Kamala’s hair. The smell of jasmine and agarbathis wafted strongly across from the room.

She couldn’t bear to see any more of the room which lay exposed, its privacy invaded. The glow from the light, lone and naked, blinded her. Noiselessly she closed the door.

Suddenly she was consumed with sadness and pity.

“What a thing I did! God knows what sin I committed or who I separated, I’m all alone now, suffering. Ayyo…”

The two hearts which had engulfed each other with great ardour were thrown far away in pieces in just a moment. Kamala, almost in tears, adjusted her clothes angrily, switched off the light and lay down on the bed.

Raghavan came back, after sending off Seenu.

He climbed gently on the bed and touched Kamala. Kamala snatched his hand and flung it away.

“What Kamala?”

“Why didn’t you open the other door as well?”

“O, I forgot, Kamala!”

“Why will you remember?”

“Why are you blowing up such a small thing all out of proportion?”

“Small thing- aa? All my dignity gone.”

Raghavan began to get angry.

“How much of it gone?” he hissed.

“Just shut your mouth. People around can hear you,” she also hissed back.

Savitri heard this too. Lying prone, she wept, heaving uncontrollably. “What is to be done with this cruel creature?” she cursed herself.

She could hear Kamala blowing her nose.

“Happy, aren’t you, you witch!” Savitri asked herself loudly.

This story is taken from The Tamil Short Story: Through the Times, Through the Tides (Ed. Dilip Kumar; translated by Subashree Krishnaswamy), an anthology, in translation, of 88 short stories

written between 1913 and 2000.

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