Shadows by R. Vasundhara Devi.

There was only one scene visible all around – a hardened expanse of red soil.  Some red mounds and hills lay scattered here and there.  A small signboard next to one of the hills said “DOKKA  SEETHAMMA’S  SHELTER” in rounded white letters.

Along the slopes of that hill, several people hung around, playfully. Their sport was tearing up each other and chewing the body parts. One man was running around actively; he was of thin build  and wore dark blue pants and a blue shirt. He was laughing with his mouth wide open and for no perceptible reason. As he laughed, his strong set of teeth and his red gums enveloped half his dark, long face. Still laughing, he broke off the left hand of the man standing to his left and started chewing on it. At the same time, his right hand plucked off the entrails of the man on his right. He moved around briskly and preyed on everybody around him. His movements were precise. There was no fumbling, no flaw. He got whatever he reached for.

A few feet away from this ghastly crowd, a baby girl sat on a stool, looking like a sandalwood statuette. She had a radiant face and a sparkling glow emanated from her. Her large dark eyes followed their movements with an innocent look. Suddenly, some of the group noticed her and trotted over toward her, jovially. The dark man was leading them. He was almost there; he could extend his arm and reach her. His arm shot out…

Nirmala woke up and sat up on the bed. Her heart was beating rapidly. She was terrified of getting caught by him. It took ten minutes for her to realize that all this was just a dream. She had a strong feeling that she was the baby in her dream, and was greatly alarmed. In a world, where selfish people were chewing up others, Nirmala was that little child.

Based on the features of the dark man in her dream, she had no doubt that he was the very same Bhaskaram that ran errands for her. He worked as a janitor in her husband’s office. He had been doing a good job, no matter what kind of work was assigned to him. Since he was terminated from several of his previous employments in the past, he was afraid that he might lose this job as well and for that reason he was being cautious all times. That was the reason he was assigned to work at Nirmala’s house. In general, there were not many who could finish a chore to her satisfaction. Bhaskaram finished each job thoroughly, meticulously, patiently, and neatly. Nirmala was impressed with his work but she could not bring herself to like him.

Bhaskaram came from that ethnic group who had suffered patiently all the hardships meted out to them out of communal prejudices, and continued merely to exist. That’s how it had been for them for generations. Nirmala noticed that his undershirt looked like a rag thrown away after cleaning the grime off a greasy machine, and similarly revolting underpants while he did the yard-work. But he would put on a clean shirt and a not-so-objectionable pair of pants over them when he was “on duty”. He was twenty-five and already a father of three children. Although skinny, he did his job with great zeal. He listened attentively to people while they talked, but never expressed his opinion except for an occasional ‘yes’.  It was in his nature to be silent. He was skilled though in entering into the innermost recesses of the other person’s mind –as easily as water slithering under a mat. Since he had understood very well that the power that made any man act was the need born out of selfishness. Therefore he could identify their needs; he knew what pleased them and what annoyed them. Whenever he could, he would go and undertake odd jobs for ‘important’ people; sometimes because he was asked to and at other times on his own.

Every such acquaintance developed into something of value within a short period; he was showered with gifts that were useful for his living. Even Bhaskaram was never sure of what things he would receive, when he would get them, and from whom; things like used shirts, pants, children’s  clothes, left-over foods, last year’s pickles, sarees, and empty wooden crates came to him unasked. But these oddments could never match the labor he had put in, in an attempt to earn their goodwill. People stopped short of recognizing his ability to intuit their needs; they didn’t appreciate his concern for them.

When nobody else was home and Nirmala was taking her bath, he would sit in the yard on the other side of the bathroom wall coughing and clearing his throat and spitting it with a rude cackle. Nirmala would interpret the din as meant to assure her that he was sittingoutside and did not enter the house to steal things. When she was in the kitchen, dining room or bathroom, he poked into the sewer pipes connected to that particular room from the other side and scraped them with a grating noise. For Nirmala, his actions seemed to tell her, “I am doing this cleaning work unasked; you’d better make a note of it.”

Sometimes, when she was busy with something and turned around, she would find him standing right behind her with a smile on his face, as if eagerly waiting to help her, to please her and simply to exist in  a matter-of-fact way. On such occasions, Nirmala would be alarmed and shudder at this startling presence. His very silence would become a huge roar in her heart. She would get annoyed, angry, afraid and despondent. She would think without thinking: this subservience is a gimmick to hang on to his job and to serve his own ends. He would not hesitate to smash my head if he thought fit and he would have no compunctions if the world and me disappeared without a trace – I, me and my living, my living and me – that’s all there is to it. With such thoughts, her misgivings about Bhaskaram grew rapidly. True he lied at times, but everybody lies. He did not steal or do anything wrong. He never said ‘no’ to her command anytime. Yet Nirmala’s mistrust continued.

There was another reason for Nirmala to be apprehensive about Bhaskaram  – that was his shadow. Nirmala did not like any shadows for that matter. She was scared of them; she hated them. Shadows possessed a peculiar trait. They would sneak upon and into each other; diminish the value of things and blotch them; give us the impression that there was no concrete object that could be authenticated; the only verifiable object was the Sun existing at a great distance and making rest of the entire array of objects in this world—animate and inanimate—into a bunch of lies.

There was also another reason why Nirmala disliked shadows—the way she perceived them. When a person behind her walked towards her left, she would see the shadow moving towards her right; and when he moved to her left, the shadow moved to her right. Nirmala was not in the habit of seeing a person straight; she noticed only his shadow. When a servant went into the house and she would wonder about he might be doing inside, then she would turn around only to find him outside. Or, when she thought he was busy in the backyard, she would see the same person coming from inside the house. This confused her very much.

Bhaskaram’s shadow baffled her even more. Was he intentionally trying to confuse her? Did he have the habit of walking sideways like a crab? – many such thoughts had crowded her mind in the past. Not that she was an unjust person. She never liked suspecting people without proof and without questioning them first. She believed that all persons deserved respect, every person was entitled to self-esteem, and the entire world was divine.

“Our Nirmala is pure-hearted, befitting her name. She is literally nirmala – pure and untainted” her father said once in her childhood days. She would never forget those words. To her, her father equaled God.

In looks, Nirmala resembled her mother. A mother of two, short and burly, Nirmala looked like a bulb. She had a big head. But her eyes, nose and mouth were delicate, as if they did not belong to that big head. She was always in a rush, running around with an easy gait despite her size. Because of this agility, people mistook her for one under thirty, which was her real age. She wore expensive clothes but put them on rather carelessly and shabbily. Her resemblance to her mother stopped there.

Ever since her childhood, Nirmala had a low opinion of her mother. Her mother was not educated; she was not sophisticated; and she had no principles. Nothing in the world mattered to her except her family and their well-being. She did not have the sense to recognize others as human beings. Nirmala was convinced that her mother was coarse, that she behaved rudely, especially toward servants. She yelled at them constantly and found fault with their work. Anytime something was missing, she blamed them even without proof. There were times when the missing object was found in some corner in the house. Wouldn’t that mean that the person was blamed unwarrantedly! Even when the thing was really stolen, only one of the four servants questioned was the real thief; the other three were innocent. That was not right, not fair and it was even a great sin to disgrace people in that manner for no fault of theirs. Nirmala did not appreciate hurting people for small losses. Why in the world one stupid little thing is valued higher than a human being’s self-respect, she would wonder. In such situations she would attack her mother; and her father would support Nirmala. That kind of honesty, principles of social justice, and higher values strengthened the father-daughter relationship between them.

If God came to her and asked her, “This is your final moment. So, decide what you want to be in your next life?” she would have given the same answer, whether it is right away or after thinking it over for one long year. She would have said, “God, let me be born as nirmala, with a pure heart and an untainted existence.”

But Nirmala was confronted with tribulations after she got married and assumed family responsibilities. It was getting harder for her to live according to her principles. What should she do when a thing disappeared from her house? Unlike the stuff at her parent’s home, all the things she possessed were very valuable. There was not a single thing about which she could say it’s gone, so be it. She did not like suspecting somebody without proof either. At the same time, she could not let go of things either. Unable to figure out how to proceed, she developed a habit of not ‘seeing’ the problem. She could ignore things she did not ‘see’!

With this disavowal, a second profile started taking shape in her mind. That second self noticed things that Nirmala would rather not ‘see’. She told herself that she had nothing to do with that second self. But this caused problems for her. Things showed up like shadows in her mind; they were neither real nor unreal.

A stainless steel mug disappeared from the bathroom the day before. There was no clue as to how it happened or who might have taken it.  A shadow crept up in her mind; it was the incident that happened the day before. As she was passing by the bathroom, Nirmala had noticed the new servant-maid, Chandra, hanging around there. The maid saw Nirmala; she cringed, quickly picked up a bucket, and started cleaning the gutters. Nirmala did not ask herself this is not her usual cleaning time; why is she here now? She did not ask the maid; she walked away without ‘seeing’ it. Therefore she could not recall for sure that Chandra was there at that time. It was a phantom shadow of a memory. Did she see Chandra there at the time? No, she was not sure. So, what happened to the mug? Did Chandra take it? Or, was it Bhaskaram? She has realized that the mug was missing but she did not question anybody yet. Whom could she ask? Everything was so hazy.

Nirmala fretted over the mug for a long time the night before. While she was in her natal home, she was never worried about such things, not things like steel mugs. But Nirmala got this steel mug because she wanted it!  She had given a street-vendor two gold-threaded silk sarees, almost new, in exchange for that mug. If she were to buy the same kind of sarees again, it would cost her god knows how much! Not only that. What if tomorrow a bucket disappeared the same way as the mug was lost today, a few more dishes the following day, and then jewelry…Nirmala saw this idea of people’s nature to steal mushroom to a point that would swallow her up totally. Probably that thought lay behind her dream, she reasoned with herself.

Nirmala’s father-in-law came for a brief visit. Even as she hurried to finish the extra chores, she came to a decision – she must settle the mug business one way or the other soon. Chandra and Bhaskaram sat quietly chatting in the yard. She went up to them and said curtly, “A steel mug is missing from the bathroom. Nobody goes there except you two. Between the two of you, you decide who’d taken it, and bring it back.”

“I know nothing about that mug” Chandra blurted out right away.

Bhaskaram stood up silently. Chandra said she was done for the day and left. Bhaskaram who had been standing there lost in thought, suddenly said, “Saar’s shirt is hung outside. Please ask him to check if any money was stolen.”

A sum of fifty rupees was missing!

“I‘ll go and get Chandra”, said Bhaskaram and ran out in a hurry.

With several things disappearing from her home, Nirmala lost her equanimity.

Chandra was already halfway to her house, but he brought her back.

“How would I know anything about your money!” Chandra protested vehemently. She went to a corner, loosened her clothes, and shook them off to prove her point. Could she have hidden the money in her bushy hair? The thought crossed Nirmala’s mind, but she could not demand, “Undo your hair and let’s see.” She watched helplessly as Chandra left, still entertaining her suspicions just the same.

Within five minutes, Bhaskaram returned with five ten-rupee bills, neatly folded, and handed them to Nirmala. He said he had noticed that Chandra had gone behind a tree briefly on their way back to the house. While she was disrobing and proving her innocence, he went to check behind the tree and found the stash. “Honest people like me lose our jobs because of crooks like you” he had told Chandra, spat on her face, and returned, Bhaskaram informed Nirmala pompously.

Chandra returned with a group of her relatives within fifteen minutes and said, “I am not the only one working here. How would I know about your mugs and money? Who knows who took them? I don’t want to work for you any more.”

Bhaskaram stood there quiet, watchful.

Nirmala was upset. Is this the same man who had called her a crook and spat on her face earlier?

Bhaskaram went and stood at the back of the house. Chandra followed him, conferred with him in a low tone, and waited there.

Bhaskaram returned and said, “She came only for her wages, madam.”

Nirmala called in Chandra, paid her up and sent her away.

Nirmala was puzzled. She could not make sense of the incident. What could have transpired between Bhaskaram and Chandra? Why did Bhaskaram ask her to pay off Chandra? If he were really an honest person, why would he confer with a thief behind my back? How is it possible for the good and the bad to commingle! Her suspicions of him, and the feeling that he was somehow behind the entire incident grew stronger.

Now the second self in her mind raised an even more disturbing suspicion: how did he know that the money in the shirt pocket was missing?

Although there is no proof, he too must be a thief; Or, a partner in crime at the least!

It takes a thief to catch another thief.

Even if he had not committed the crime, he possesses the same mean quality for sure. That’s why he could catch her. …

The second self from within continues questioning on these lines.

Then, Nirmala was beset with another frightening question. It has been proved that Chandra had committed this theft and not Bhaskaram. Then, the question is, how did she herself suspect that it was in Bhaskaram’s nature to steal? What made her suspect him?

This new line of inquiry troubled her a great deal. She tried to calm herself by thinking, why should I compare myself with that low life? Why should I bother so much about a stupid steel mug?

Where do these thoughts come from?

Where is the origin for these shadows that plague the mind?

Is it not possible for a person living in this world to stay pure?

What is the relationship between man and the world?

What makes the inconsequential things important?

What is the meaning of  nirmala ?

Nirmala was unable to find the right answers for such questions. She struggled to find the point of her whereabouts in the intricate web of existence and gave up.

(End)

(The Telugu original needalu has been translated by Nidadavolu Malathi and published on thulika.net, October 2010. A modified version of it has been published on cerebration.org.

The Telugu original is included in the anthology R. Vasundhara Devi kathalu.)