Frostbite by Nidadavolu Malathi

 I was on the terrace watching the clouds which were roaming freely westward–jet black clouds like big black boulders, like water buffalos trying to hide the sunset. The Sun like a mischievous child was spreading his rays from behind the clouds. Possibly, the lord Krishna, shining in his divine glory had the same brightness,… childlike Radha, looking from the ground, unable to reach such heights, was probably asking sadly, ”Should I be the one for you to pick on, the innocent victim of your divine pranks?”…

 …The woman, my imaginary Radha, standing between me and the chain of clouds—on the terrace across from me—moved slowly and vanished into the background. Her gait was like that of a stately princess, conscious and graceful.

***

 As far as I know, there is only one old lady living in that house, located back to back from ours. She owns it. The only evidence that the two houses were owned by the same person some three generations back, is the parapet wall, three-feet high, separating the two terraces. If one wants to reach the main entrance using the main streets, one has to walk hundred paces and turn round two corners.

I said to amma [mother] at dinnertime, “I saw somebody in that house, at the back of ours…”

“Yeah. He is that old lady’s grandson or something. Got married on the 10th last month. The bride is a doll. What’s the point? Some unknown disease. Won’t talk. Won’t eat. A gal who used to jump around like a dancing horse turned into a cadaver. Her family members are crying their hearts out.” I watched Amma amusingly as she explained with her hand gestures and expressions in tune with her words like a seasoned dancer. However, even more surprising to me was the gal who wouldn’t utter a single word, even after one week of the ceremony. Her silence was more confusing to me than the question how amma could have collected this much information about them in such a short time.

“May be she is dumb!” I said.

“You are too much…”

I looked at amma. Why not?

“It seems she sang an ashtapadi[1] when the groom’s party went to see her.[2] And were just enthralled by her music That’s how the marriage was agreed upon.”

“Ha! Whatever that song could be?” I asked with a laugh.

Dheera sameere…”[3]

I was dumbstruck. I know one girl who could sing that particular song with such enchanting melody. That was Vakula, my classmate in third grade in my school days in Guntur. Marrying Vakula after listening her to music is neither a big news nor a favor. Even snakes would dance to her tune. I remember the time when she was in a school play. It was Khadga Tikkana.[4] Vakula played the role of a messenger. It was a one-minute appearance on the stage, yet she made a permanent mark in the hearts of the audience with her sweet voice. Her role in the scene was to announce that Thikkana died in the battlefield and Chanamma(his wife) will be credited with the title veerapatni [a great warrior’s wife] as long as the moon and stars shine in the sky. When Vakula finished reciting her verse, the audience were awestruck by her voice and clamored ‘once more,’ poor Chanamma hadn’t had a chance to say so much as “Oh!” Obviously it is that Vakula I saw on the terrace earlier in the evening..

After our school was closed for summer, I was bored and came here to spend my vacation. There wasn’t much to do here either. Now I am glad that I found a friend after my heart. Then it occurred to me suddenly—don’t know whether she had lost her mind or heart or afflicted with some unknown disease or hurt. How could I expect her to talk to me, when she was not talking to her husband, not even to her parents? Am I better than they to her? Furthermore, our relationship goes way back, it wa so long ago!!

I showed my irritation on amma, ”this place is a jungle, no humans, not even to pick up a fight, let alone chatting. I told you I don’t want to come here. You wouldn’t listen.”

***

I didn’t see Vakula all thru in the daytime. She however came up on to the terrace just about the same time as yesterday, in the evening. The sky was cloudy. I was with amma helping her to pick up the mango pickles kept in the sun for drying[5]. Amma wanted to move the pickles to the room in case it rains at night.

I was about to call Vakula when a man, short and dark-complexioned, showed up. He said to her, “Nobody’s home. I am going out.” Vakula glanced at him briefly and turned away.

“Did you hear?” he said again. Vakula didn’t even look at him this time.

“Cha. What kind of a person! worthless for the  mother-in-law, unnecessary burden for the daughter-in-law[6], he left, murmuring.

Quite a charmer!! I couldn’t help wondering.

Vakula and I had a unique bond in our childhood days. We never played together. Can’t even say we ate off of the same plate and slept in the same bed[7]. But if Vakula felt bad about something, she’d just come and sit next to me. Further, we never felt a void even when we had nothing to chit-chat, no problems, and no solutions. Vakula was so sensitive, she could feel others’ pain as her own … and now, living a life so scornful that somebody could say cha? I couldn’t believe it. Something big must have happened. The question is what is that big thing? I have no illusions that she would tell her problem to me, the problem she would not discuss with her own mother. But to me, a writer of one or two stories, the reason for Vakula’s silence is like a puzzle sans clue. I thought it through all night yet couldn’t figure it out.

Next morning, I finished bathing and went on to the terrace with amma again. Vakula was drying wet clothes on their terrace. I mustered courage and called her. She looked up, startled, saw me for a second and went away.

“Ha!! You thought you are better than us?!!” said amma, referring to Vakula’s indifference to me.

“Whatever could be bothering her?” I said, talking to myself.

“What a botheration?!! A big game, if you ask me!!” said amma. I was taken aback. She was so concerned about Vakula until two days back, and now is so harsh?! What is the crime Vakula has committed within these two days?

Here is the story I finally got to learn from amma: On the previous evening, Vakula’s mother-in-law went to neighbor’s house to play a board game, and her husband Narahari went out after informing Vakula. I know. I was there, witnessing his departure. During that time, a passerby seized the opportunity, and walked away with the radio in the living room and a saree that was neatly pressed and ironed and sitting on a chair.

Vakula was sitting on the cot in the porch and watched him from the moment he entered the house to the minute he walked away with the radio and the saree. She sat there with the calmness that could put even Paramanandayya’s pupil[8] to shame.

“Really? Incredible!!” I said laughing.

“Is that a laughing matter for you? Aarani saree worth 150 rupees at the least,” said amma, as if that was her own saree.

Why shouldn’t I laugh? After all, the owner of the saree herself sat there and watched while it was being stolen? Amma says we should not laugh at the people who slip and fall. I would laugh even if it were my own saree under the circumstances.

“Coffee colored saree with orange border. They said it was such a beautiful one,” said amma again. That was a shock to me.

“Vakula saw that saree after they had finished all the wedding purchases and insisted on buying it.”

I lapsed into a reverie. A wise man once stated that most of the squabbles in marriages arise from the fact that, women are not as crazy about their husbands as they are about their sarees. This time I couldn’t laugh at amma’s words. The fact that Vakula lost “the saree she loved so much” without blinking an eye got my attention. I know her love of the orange colored border.

Every evening, we’ve gotten used to reaching on to our terraces at the same time. After three days, she looked at me for a second. I smiled as I saw a trace of recognition on her face. She turned back immediately and was gone. I came down and lay down on the cot. My short nap was disturbed by the conversation in the next room. The voice is familiar. That is Vakula’s mother, Varalakshmamma garu.

”Oh! Kalyani!! You have grown up, really!!” she exclaimed as she saw me. She came, after learning about the stolen saree. Even she couldn’t understand Vakula’s state of mind.

Vakula was being shown to a different doctor each day—having x-rays taken, consulting specialists, so on and on. What could any doctor do when the patient doesn’t tell what her problem is? Even the God doesn’t grant wishes without asking. They made a vow to offer niluvu dopidi [9] to the lord Venkateswara.

They even took her to a mental hospital, suspecting if she were demented. The doctor suggested to keep her in the clinic for two days for observation. Vakula’s husband, Narahari agreed and signed up for a room in the special ward. Vakula didn’t break her silence. In fact she has shown no signs of any other problem but for keeping silent. The doctor completed all the tests and said, “Whoever has called her crazy? That person must be crazy, if you ask me. She is deeply disturbed by something. Find out what she really was looking for!!”

You must be crazy to say that. If she were suffering only from some unfulfilled desire, why wouldn’t she say so? Why would she come to every doctor we are taking to?” said Vakula’s mother, Varalakshmamma garu.

The doctor laughed and said, “I will put it in writing, if you will. She has no medical problem. Even if you take her to England, you will get the same diagnosis. Probably she didn’t like this marriage.” Varalakshmamma garu returned home with Vakula.

Vakula didn’t dance with joy at the time of fixing this marriage but she had not shown any signs of disagreement or displeasure either. There was no indication that she was not happy with this marriage. Vakula was brought up by her grandmother–which rules out things like falling in love and/or hollering freedom of choice and such. … Furthermore, she took to silence after three days after her wedding!

Vakula was attending to all the household chores without any complaint or signs of unhappiness. She was managing her part very efficiently while her mother-in-law took care of the chores in the kitchen.

At last Narahari said, “What do you really want? You tell me and I will get it!”

Narahari took her to a psychologist. The shrink asked million questions—about the environment she was raised in, about her parents’ attitude, her hobbies, likes, dislikes … Narahari answered him as much as he could, but not up to the satisfaction of the psychologist. Narahari also mentioned that Vakula watches the sunset every day. The psychologist wanted to see her at that particular time. He came in the evening when both of us were standing on either side of the parapet wall.

I was about to turn around and leave, thinking it might be improper for me to stay. Vakula grabbed my hand and stopped me. I stood there sensing her thought in a strange way. I wasn’t sure whether she felt incapable of answering the endless questions of that doctor or did not want to answer them at all. Or, may be she wanted me to tell him to get lost—meaning he was there to destroy the only few pleasurable moments she was left with …

“Today, the sky is not beautiful,” he said. Vakula stared at him for a second, crossed over the short parapet wall and came into our house! In the next minute I and that psychologist were standing there facing each other!

“How long since you have known her?” he asked me.

“Not long. When I was in the fourth form [ninth grade] she was in the third form [eighth grade],” I answered. He asked me to tell everything I knew about her. I turned around to see what was she doing. She was lying on my cot with her eyes shut.

“Well, you are the psychologist and you are asking me. I’ll tell you whatever I know. This could be just my imagination. As far as I know, Vakula is delicate like a flower, innocent like a child. So childlike, she honestly thinks that things like deception, jealousy, and ill-will exist only in the books and not in real life. When I think of her, there is a passage that comes to my mind. Probably you have read it too. That was–if a woman had lost her mind, it means we have lost a great writer/poet; and, if a woman is roaming around in the jungle collecting herbs, probably we have a great mind wasted.[10] That is what comes to my mind when I see Vakula,” I said.

“You might be right. But, please, try to find out the incident that has changed her into who she is now. It is just as natural for a human being to go into a shock as to come out of it. We can think of a remedy only after knowing the reason.”

I didn’t have the courage to go near Vakula even after he was gone. I was still standing there. I didn’t notice when she came up to me and stood behind me. She was looking at the beauty of the evening sun she loved so much. I felt guilty on seeing her face.

I felt sorry for her mother. It was like asking a woman to choose between a son with a short life-span or a daughter accursed with widowhood[11]–a no win situation for any mother, and particularly a tough one for a mother who had the child in her late forties. Varalakshmamma garu decided to take her daughter back to her village. She didn’t see any point in leaving Vakula in a marriage that apparently was not her choice. Poor soul, she is so desperate!!

I remembered the confidence with which Vakula stood beside me. How can I ask her what is her mystery? Further how can I reveal that to others? All the names associated with treason, starting from Vibheeshana[12] came to my mind. If I had done that, there would be no punishment for my treason. On the other hand, how many people would be happy if Vakula becomes normal again! In that case, wouldn’t that be okay? I couldn’t make up my mind—what is right, what is wrong?

***

Next morning, I finished my coffee and said to amma, ”I am going to their home.”

“Not necessary,” she said. Then she told me that Vakula was suspected of being possessed. They called Parapsychic healer. He examined Vakula from head to toe, walked around her like in a ritual. “Dumb ghost,” he said. Made them pour down a heap of five hundred rupees and drew a circle around it. Uttered some strange sounds. “Speak” he said. Vakula didn’t speak. He beat her with neem sticks, sprinkled turmeric and kumkuma[13] all over the house. “Talk,” he said. She did not talk. After he had left, they all noticed a red scar on Vakula’s hand, from wrist to the ring finger. They were astounded. … God knows what the disease is or the extent of her suffering. All I could see is only the torture she is put through in the name of treatment.

“To hell with all these treatments? In all possibility, she might be hurting more from these treatments than from the real problem. Leave her alone for sometime. Things could resolve on their own,” I said.

“We are also thinking the same thing. Yesterday he started bashing us; said we cheated him and plunked a beast on to him. We are worried sick about our little darling’s life, a real gem. Our baby is in shambles and we have to put up with his snide remarks too?!! Whatever happens happens. We will take her back  with us. Will send her back only after she gets better,” said Vakula’s mother.

Vakula is the luckiest if she does not understand what is happening around her, I told myself.

That evening I went to see Vakula since she will be going back the next day. I entered the house. Narahari came in right behind me.

“What can you do for her in that village of yours? Let me take her with me. I have a friend, a specialist in this kind of things. Will show her to him,” he said.

He wants to take Vakula, innocent like a child, with him to a place nine hundred miles away. Varalakshmamma garu stared at him as if she couldn’t believe what she had heard.

“Yes, I will take her with me, I will arrange for her treatment.”

Till that moment, Vakula was there as if it didn’t concern her. For the first time, she turned her head and looked at her husband. Her glance was like the blazing third eye of Siva—the eye that opened on manmatha [cupid] when he tried to disturb Siva’s dhyana [meditation]. It was the glance of the divine Cobra that bedecked Shiva’s neck, and that could look up at Garuda [divine Eagle] in defiance. It was the glance of a woman who remained submissive and patient and took all the abuse of men for centuries and finally opened her eye and spoke. There was no ambiguity in her gaze. Narahari lowered his head, turned around and left.

It was hopelessly humid that night. I moved my cot on to the open terrace. Thoughts about Vakula crowded my head, I couldn’t sleep. There was no doubt that she did not like this marriage. It was almost like challenging the laws of our times and customs. He may not be handsome as cupid, but she was not pressured in to this marriage. Why didn’t she speak up?

The clock chimed two and I woke up to the sounds. I opened my eyes feeling that somebody was sitting on my cot. Vakula!!! I sat up. Moon was showing all his glory. Her eyes were sparkling in the moonlit night, like beautiful fish in water.

I wanted to speak something. Give her courage. But in that tranquil night —Vakula looked like a part of the nature, like Jada Bharata[14] in that still night. What can I tell her? I am not qualified to interpret the zodiac chart to the angels.

“Kalyani!…”

“Vakula!…” Vakula is speaking! My heart leapt to my throat. My head was spinning with hundred questions. Which one first? What next?…

Vakula quietly took my hand in to hers.

“Kalyani! He is impotent.”

The words, so helplessly uttered by Vakula sounded horrific in the thick of that dark night. There is nothing more to tell. There is no more mystery about her. She was like a tender flower crushed and thrown out, a frostbitten flower, wilted forever, with no chance of resurgence.

I don’t know when she has gone. English news was being broadcast by the time I woke up again. I was walking toward bathroom to brush my teeth.

“Vakula …” amma said.

I was about to say “yes” and stopped, watching amma’s face.

Vakula is dead.

The family members gathered around her dead body in the porch and were crying in anguish. I sighed involuntarily. Vakula developed a severe stomach ache in the middle of the night and died on the way to the hospital. Vakula is  freed from her suffering at last. Varalakshmamma garu was wailing in heartrending sobs. It seems Vakula’s grandmother predicted her own death, and the mother was thinking may be Vakula also knew the time of her death. I couldn’t stand there any more and watch them. I turned around to leave. Narahari stood at the gate, shedding crocodile tears. I wanted to slap him across his face with all the might.

***

Vakula’s life ended like that. Don’t ask me questions like–Why did Narahari marry? Why did he squander money like that? May be, there are people who could answer the question—those who lie just for fun, ruin the lives of others for no reason, donate two rupees and have engraved the names of three generations and many more of the sorts!!

(End)

Click on manchudebba to read the Telugu original.

(Translators note:  Marital abuse leaves sensitive woman numb to shock. It is effectively comparable to frostbite which leaves no visible bruises. Even today many women are frostbitten in more subtle ways and environments. The most pathetic thing is that they are going thru all this, with benumbed existence like Vakula, in trapped conditions. I wonder sometimes–it’s like entering in to a room where all possible doors of escape are closed shut after you have entered)

The Telugu original mancudebba published in mid-sixties in rachana.)

Translated by Sai Padma Murthy (Sai Padma Anand) and published on thulika.net, March 2003.

 



[1] Ashtapadi are light classical music. The lyrics are written by Jayadeva in the 12th century, known as “Geetagovinda kavyam” are very popular in Andhra Pradesh.

[2] Traditional first step in arranged marriages. The groom and his parents visit the bride at her place.

[3] One of the Ashtapadis mentioned above in footnote 1.

[4] Khadga Tikkana is a famous war hero in the 13th century. According to the legend, Tikkana, came to be known as Khadga [sword] Tikkana, went to war and returned home fearing death. His wife Chanamma challenges his manhood. Thus provoked, Tikkana returns to the battlefield and dies a heroic death. Customarily, the wife of  a hero earns the eternal reputation as veerapatni, literally hero’s wife.

[5] In the coastal area, Andhra Pradesh, mango pickles are dried in the sun in summer time, for safekeeping year round.

[6] Aththa ki choopu chetu, kodaliki mopu chetunu!, a usage emphasizing she is useless and worth less!!

[7] Popular Telugu usage oka kanchamlo tini oka manchamlo padukunevaaLLam implies close friendship.

[8] A folklore. Paramanandayya was supposedly a teacher who had pupils that were classic examples of stupidity.

[9] A vow made to the God in exchange for granting the favor of good health to Vakula. The particular vow requires the family to present the Lord with one complete set of jewelry, head to toe, on behalf of the devotee [Vakula in this case].

[10] Author vaguely remembers these lines being taken from “A Room of One’s Own,” by Virginia Woolf.

[11]  The Telugu proverb arthaayushkudaina koDuka, aidothanam leni koothura is supposed to have been asked of a woman praying the Almighty Lord for a child.

[12] In the epic Ramayana, Vibheeshana was the brother of Ravana, the evil king. Vibheeshana was a devotee of Rama, and sold out his brother to Rama in the name of justice.  Although his act was justified in the name of protecting the innocent, the act in itself is still heinous at one level.

[13] Red powder used for the dot on the forehead by Hindus.

[14] Jada Bharata – A mythological character, known for his detachment. According to the legend, he was totally distanced from all worldly bonds. But at one time took pity on a baby deer that was hurt, took her in, nursed her and in the process became emotionally involved. He was required to be borne again in order to settle the debt. The story is usually told as an example to instill the value of detachment. In this context, the reference is to Vakula’s state of being unaware of the happenings around her.

2 comments for “Frostbite by Nidadavolu Malathi

  1. 10/21/2013 at 1:27 PM

    Narayana Swamy, thank you.

  2. 10/21/2013 at 12:18 PM

    Brilliant story. Translation is good too