Short Story

The Proofreader’s Wife

Print edition : February 03, 2017

IT had been several years now since she had begun to hate printed pages. They had grown even more loathsome than the cockroaches hidden in the crevices of the bathroom wall. Sometimes she would tear the pages up till her anger was spent. But the pages never protested. Unlike cockroaches, they never scampered away or attempted to escape, giving up their whiskers in the bargain.

Other than the soft rustle when they were being torn, the pages never raised a noise. Even that she couldn’t bear. So she soaked the pages in water. As far as she was concerned, this was the worst punishment you could mete out to them. If she dunked them in the iron bucket as she started to cook in the morning, by evening they would turn to pulp.

As the pages disintegrated, where did the printed words go? Like salt dissolving in water, did they also disappear? She would stare intently at the bucket. Sometimes when she thought about it, she would wonder: What was the relationship between words and paper? Did the pages agree to have lines printed on them? Was there a gulf between the pages and the words? When her mind began to travel like this, she would often get angry with herself for entertaining such wasteful thoughts.

Her house overflowed with printed pages. Until seventeen, when she had got married to Mandiramurthy and come to Chennai, she had never seen anything other than textbooks. Also, since there was no girls’ high school in her village, she had stopped at the fifth standard.

For six or seven years she had worked, either sticking labels on matches or breaking lumps of rubber. There had been a radio in the match factory. She had loved the film music that was aired on it. In those days she had so badly wanted to own a radio that she had joined a chit fund. But whenever she got the funds, there were always other expenses. So, at the time of her marriage she had insisted on getting a radio. But Mandiramurthy didn’t like the radio, so it was always kept switched off.

When she came to Chennai as a new bride, she used to be scared of Mandiramurthy. At the time he was working in Royal Printing Press. There was always a pencil and an eraser in his pocket. Sometimes a red pen too could be found.

She didn’t know anything about proofreading. Sometimes at night when Mandiramurthy propped himself on a pillow on the floor and marked the pages with a pencil, she would watch him intently. He would look as if he was speaking to himself. Sometimes she could even hear him laugh out loud. Till late in the night, he would proofread. Then he would open the back door, take a piss and come back to lie down.

Even when his fingers roamed over her body, the thought of proofreading would unnecessarily come to her mind. He wasn’t much interested in sex. He would do it as a ritual, and after his body was spent, he would turn his face away and fall asleep—all this irritated her. Even in sleep, she had sometimes noticed his fingers moving, his face in tight concentration.

Mandiramurthy never spoke much to anyone. From six in the morning, he would proofread. When he started for work, he would put the corrected pages along with his lunchbox into his yellow bag. His office was in the Royapettah area. He didn’t have many friends. He never went out either. His only habit was chewing betel leaves. He had a small leather pouch for that. Every ten minutes, he would take out a couple of leaves, pinch off the stalks and pop them into his mouth.

Once he had taken her to his office for a function. She had been awestruck when she saw a huge machine rolling out reams of paper, which slid off endlessly, as if the skin of an onion was being peeled again and again. The whole roll of paper would be printed upon. He would have to proofread the entire lot, wouldn’t he? When she asked this, her husband had told her not to be silly and had taken her off to the binding section.

Four or five women of her age had been stacking the paper and sticking them. She had asked about their salary. Without replying to the question, Mandiramurthy had said that it wouldn’t suit her. When she had gone to the toilet at the end of the press, she had found pages strewn everywhere. Everyone seemed to be stomping around on them.

To the south, she had found a small iron door, open. When she had peeped in, she had found it to be full of waste paper. She had been frightened. Were pages bubbling over, as if from a spring? What would happen to all this paper? Even after she went to the toilet, she couldn’t wipe out the thought.

She never understood why Mandiramurthy was the lone proofreader in the office. One day she had picked up the pages that he had corrected. Every other line had mistakes, circled and corrected. When she had looked at the pages, they had seemed like the doodles of children. Sometimes she felt as if her husband was more intelligent than all the writers. Perhaps it was she who didn’t understand him well enough. She had placed back the papers with trepidation and started to serve his meal.

How did Mandiramurthy’s eyes spot even the smallest error? Was this trait of his confined only to paper, or did the scrutiny extend to her too? In the early days, she would sit out in the evening and watch the goings-on on the road. She had noticed his face hardening as he walked home. As soon as he entered, he would take out the pages and sit down to proofread. She never knew when he drank the coffee and ate the snacks she gave. Why he was so sunk in words puzzled her.

Mandiramurthy didn’t much care about food either. Sometimes he would start for work in a wet veshti. Whenever she asked hesitantly about looking for a different job, he would reply with a glare: what was wrong with this job? She never could explain.

Mandiramurthy hadn’t missed a day’s work. Even when she was ill, he would make kanji for her and leave for the office. She would lie on the mat, gritting her teeth. Why had she got married to a person like this? She fumed—how could this man, who was so concerned when a single letter was misprinted, forget to look after her?

He never gave much thought to all this. Once in a blue moon he himself would offer to take her for a film. She would then hastily change her sari and come out. She had seen him look intently at the billboards and even the wrappings of groundnuts and his lips would often murmur the errors to himself.

She had never heard him laugh in a cinema hall. His face was always frozen in thought. He was always anxious to return home the minute the show ended. He never touched her the nights they saw a film. She never understood why.

It was over fifteen years since they had got married. To date they didn’t have a child. She was used to staying home alone. Once in a while she would take a lime and set off to have a darshan of Lord Dakshinamurthy. She would even forget what to pray for and stand still in front of the deity.

On the days when she was livid, she would ask the lord to wipe out printed paper from the whole world. Her anger soon began to include pencils, erasers and so on.

A couple of years ago, when she had nothing to do, she had torn up, one by one, all the printed pages at home. In the evening, when Mandiramurthy had come home to a room littered with paper, he had scolded: “Thangamma, if you like tearing paper up, then go to the dustbin. You’ll find plenty there. Don’t do this again.”

He had gone straight to his table and started to correct the pages from his bag. She had wailed loudly. He hadn’t seemed to have heard her cries at all. He had gathered the proofread pages. She hadn’t slept that night. She had felt as if the words had dropped off the pages and stuck to her arms, legs and all over her body.

Soon after, Mandiramurthy had taken her to the doctor. With a confused look, she had said she was scared. The doctor had given her medicines for a week to sleep. Even when she slept, her eyes tightly shut, she could faintly see him proofreading. Unable to even cry, she would fall asleep.

For a year she had to be taken every week to the general hospital. She would walk silently on the streets. Neither would utter a word till they reached the hospital. He would sit her down in the outpatient ward and would go off to gaze at the vagai tree on the opposite side.

The minute they returned home with the white and yellow capsules he would set off to his press. Even the capsules had words printed on them. She would look intently to figure out if they were proofread or not. A thought usually surfaced: as the capsules dissolved in her stomach, would the words too dissolve? She would close her eyes and swallow the capsules.

Paper too increased her hatred and anger. She became obsessed with wiping out all the printed pages in the world. So she stopped talking to him. Even when he asked for water, she just stared at him, pretending she had not heard. He himself would get up and drink the water.

At night, even if he noticed her sitting still on the mat, not wanting to sleep, he wouldn’t stop working. One day she stood behind him and watched him work. Like an enraged beast mauling its prey, he kept on striking out and correcting the words with his pencil. Incensed, she asked: “What is there only in this paper?” Without turning around, he said, “I don’t know.”

When she looked intently at the papers, words seemed to split and break away and dance. Suddenly she embraced him and started to weep. The pencil fell from his hand and the lead broke. He prised her arms away, picked up the pencil and started sharpening it carefully. There was a one-thousand-page novel in front of him, waiting to be proofread. Thangammal’s sobs rolled down, filling the entire house.

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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