Short story

The beggar woman

Print edition : February 02, 2018

Mukesh Thali is a Konkani writer, translator and lexicographer, the recipient of Goa State Literary awards and co-author of the Konkani English Dictionary. He works with All India Radio, Panaji.

Hema Naik quit her job in a bank for full-time literary activism to promote the Konkani language. She produced the first film in Konkani and founded a publishing house, Apurbai Prakashan. One of the most well-known writers in Konkani, she has published novels, short fiction, and plays, focussing on the oppression that women face across class and caste in Indian society.

AFTER wandering about the village for almost a week, Anjali was back home, exasperated. Usually seen carrying two bags, today she carried only one.

Her face showed no sign of satisfaction. She pushed the door open and stepped inside.

“Sushi, Bai has come,” Shashi said to her sister.

Anjali felt at once that their joy at her entrance came not from any affection but from the prospect of taking their pick of the items in her bag.

Sushi and her husband who had been sleeping behind the curtain came out. Anjali placed her heavy bag on the wall shelf and sank to the floor. Leaning against the wall, she let out a deep sigh. Having walked a long distance she was tired and breathless. Neither could she hope to get a cup of tea at home now.

Both the daughters pounced upon the bag; the son-in-law too joined them shamelessly. Irritated, Anjali rubbed her forehead. By then, Shashi and Sushi had already grabbed the saris from the bag. Needless to say, the son-in-law took the only pair of trousers.

“Bai, didn’t anyone give you any money?” queried Sushi.

Anjali disapproved of her greedy nature and contemptuously snatched the wallet tucked in her waist and hurled it at Sushi. The son-in-law leapt on it like a greedy dog, promptly put on his chappals and went out.

Anjali went inside, hungry. Except for a cup of coffee and bread in the morning she had managed to get somewhere, she had not eaten anything. She moved her hand over her stomach, pitiably. The stomach had almost touched the back. To her surprise, she found all the utensils in the kitchen empty. There wasn’t a single morsel or grain in the utensils. Dismayed, Anjali went out through the backyard door to the well from which she drew a pot of water and drank it instantly. Momentarily, thirst was quenched and hunger appeased. She eased herself onto the rock near the wall of the well. Since the backyard door was broken, she could easily see all the happenings on the other side. Several women had gathered at the other well. Their usual talk covering various worldly issues was in full swing. Anjali had no interest whatsoever in their prattle. However, the words jangled discordantly in her ears.

One of the women asked her, “Anjali, when did you come?”

“Just now.” She didn’t intend to prolong the useless conversation.

“Hope you have brought ample stock and wealth for your daughters and son-in-law?” Another lady refuelled the conversation that now centred on Anjali.

They mocked her for roaming the world, begging at doors and accumulating old, worn, ragged clothes and other leftovers, that too exclusively for the sake of her daughters and the son-in-law. Anjali could not stand it anymore. She got up and ran inside.

She placed the torn mat on the ground and curled up on it. She was haunted by the jibes. However idle their talk was, it carried some substance. She cursed her idle son-in-law for squandering on drink the money she earned by the sweat of her brow. Daughters usually leave their parents’ home after the marriage, but Anjali boiled with rage to see her married daughters lording it over her and above all, sticking like leeches to their mother’s abode. Anjali was deeply depressed and frustrated at her miserable existence. She was annoyed by the absence of structure and direction in her existence. She had never experienced peace in her marital life. She was subjected to a daily round of ordeals, physical as well as mental.

Sheer ill luck made her pair up with the boozer. Her husband ran a kiosk. Her earning of about five rupees could hardly suffice for their daily needs. They could have still managed to scrape along, but he would throw away half the amount on liquor. She taxed her every nerve to pass the days, many a time making do with pej, rice-water, and eating it with amli, raw mango. Through all the problems, she did not react. Never did she utter any word of rebuke or rage at her husband. In the fury attendant on his intoxication, he would beat her and hurl filthy abuse at her almost every day. At times, he would even pull out clumps of her hair from her head. She clearly remembered how one day he had actually bitten her hand like a beast. All his acts were devilish, she felt. Never did he hold her in his arms with love and affection. Be it a festival, be it a jatra or be it any auspicious day, never did he bother to gift her a sari or anything else.

The neighbouring women would deliberately claw at the fresh unhealed wounds of her heart. “My husband has brought me a gorgeous brocade sari.”

Wouldn’t another woman instantly covet a similar gift from her husband? But she never had the opportunity to unburden her feelings for he would invariably return home drunk, his eyes enraged. Not a drop of tear rolled down her face at his death. Even those two rupees he used to bring, on which four bellies relied, would go missing from their daily count thereafter. This was the only thought which made her heart sink. With a drawn face she had wiped off the kumkum from her forehead. She removed her mangalsutra too. She wore no gold upon her person and her hands shed the four glass bangles she had worn. The kiosk too was closed down with his death. Three miserable creatures found themselves shelterless, vulnerable to a harsh future. Sushi and Shashi were grown up. A job somewhere might alleviate some of the nightmare, she felt. But it was a pity; they wanted a job without going through the rigours of education. They were unwilling to work as maidservants. When they learnt that Anjali had made up her mind to work as a maidservant, they were reproachful. It was quite below their dignity, they felt. Since then it became a habit with Anjali to go to the village. To move from door to door and gather whatever the people placed in her hands became her daily routine.

Without much to bother about and with no worries gnawing at their minds, Sushi and Shashi grew into voluptuous full-grown women. Naturally, lecherous eyes followed them around wherever they went. They hadn’t yet entered their twenties but looked like women of twenty-five. Anjali was hoping that someday someone would bring up the question. She grew worried about their marriage. Bunches of young fellows gambolled round their house. Anjali observed this and fretted. Many circled like bees, eagerly waiting for their chance. She desperately wanted to move the much-sought-after treasure out of her honeycomb.

And, unfortunately, her wishes were fulfilled. Shashi fell in love with the ice-cream vendor, who was seen quite often peering in through the window... Anjali still couldn’t bring herself to accept Shashi’s marriage with him because he seemed a coarse and common fellow. But one day Shashi eloped with the boy and returned after six months with an unadorned forehead.

Anjali bore it, allowing her into the house again, and here she was today, behaving in a flagrantly unjust manner. Though she did not mind letting her daughter have whatever she earned, she could not stand being subjugated by her. Many a time she felt like driving her away, but her conscience checked her.

Sushi’s case was much worse. One day, Anjali was shocked to know that a bus conductor was responsible for Sushi’s three-month-old pregnancy. Anjali was reminded of her husband when she first saw her future son-in-law. The same malevolent, reddened eyes. The same intoxication. She knew at once that he was a boozer. But there was little she could do, since Sushi was on the way to becoming a mother. Unwillingly, Anjali married her off to the conductor who slept on the footpath. She offered them shelter in her home. Sushi and her husband camped there forever as if the house was theirs. A couple of weeks passed, and the son-in-law was dismissed from his job. Since that day Sushi and her husband were loitering idly around the house. How can a boozer concentrate on a job anyway? Not surprisingly, the employer fired him. But the crux of the matter was that he wasn’t upset at all by this development. Meals were easily available. They were absolutely unconcerned about how much hard work Anjali put in to maintain the household. And to top it all, she had to suffer their biting jibes.

She had become already a subject of ridicule among the people on whose doors she knocked like a beggar. Her daughters were only interested in the items she would bring home. Though they refused to work, they craved for money and were unashamed at wearing cast-off clothes.

Nowadays, Anjali found herself often losing her temper. Her jaws would work involuntarily in anger and her teeth would gnash.

Sushi and Shashi were laughing in the next room. The intoxicated son-in-law was babbling nonsense.

Anjali felt a sudden surge of energy. She leapt up in rage, picked up a stick and rushed to her daughter.

“Until now you fattened on the fruits of my labour like parasites. Are you going to suck me for a lifetime? I’ll teach you a lesson.”

At first both of them laughed at her, taking it as a joke. Anjali couldn’t tolerate their mirth. The stick came down upon their calves. A few strokes followed on their backs.

Lashing out wildly, she shrieked, “Get out. Are you ruling this house or me? I do not want to see your faces anymore.” Sushi and Shashi stood there, shocked, rubbing their wounded legs. Seized by panic, they ran out. Without hesitation, Anjali thrashed her son-in-law. Sushi tried to help her husband escape by hauling him up by his collar. But Anjali didn’t stop beating till they were out in the courtyard.

The bell in the church rang. Dusk was falling. Anjali went on shrieking until they were out of sight. She turned inside and slammed the door, feeling light-headed and unburdened, as if the parasites had been driven off the mango tree.

Translated by Mukesh Thali from the original Konkani Kukma Adar. Unpublished.

Source: Hot is the Moon edited by Arundhathi Subramaniam.

Published by SPARROW (Sound & Picture Archives for Research on Women), 2008, pages 251-255.

Story selected by Mini Krishnan.

Hema Naik quit her job in a bank for full-time literary activism to promote the Konkani language. She produced the first film in Konkani and founded a publishing house, Apurbai Prakashan. One of the most well-known writers in Konkani, she has published novels, short fiction, and plays, focusing on the oppression that women face across class and caste in Indian society.

Mukesh Thali is a Konkani writer, translator and lexicographer recipient of Goa State Literary awards and co-author of the Konkani English Dictionary. He works with All India Radio, Panaji.

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