“How did you know that she’d be arriving by this train?” I asked Sastri. It must be about six., the time for the train from Bombay to arrive. Sastri and I were on the platform chatting. “I got a telegram today,” replied Sastri. Telling me that she was a friend, Sastri brought me along to the station. From what he had told me, I gathered that she must be a very interesting person.
“A wonderfully pleasant person, a wonderful person,” says Sastri whatever I ask him about her. He would only say “You’d see her yourself!” He would also say, “I don’t know, I am not able to say, there would be no such person in our society. In the society to come there may be such women like this. Perhaps now in Russia there may be such women!”
“Then, what is her husband? What does he do?” I asked.
I felt like knowing more and more about her.
“He must be doing something. Every now and then she’d say that ‘Kameswarudu is like this and that. How active he always is, do you know?’”
“Perhaps she has great love for her husband.’
“She has four children in all. One boy and three girls,” said Sastri mischievously.
Really, when he mentioned her children my mind got a little jab of pain. Like the rest of the women, should even this woman have children? For some reason I couldn’t stomach the idea.
Meanwhile, “That’s it: the train is coming,” said Sastri. At that my heart was aquiver.
Suddenly there was movement on the platform. Two passengers getting their things together stood away from the edge of the platform. An old woman held a knapsack in one hand and her grandson in another. A farmer standing just like that was agog. For a while he took the stick for the cheroot and the cheroot for the stick.
As soon as the train stopped, Lashmanasastri reminded me “Third Class”. She would always travel third, he said. She did not like being alone. For that reason she liked to be in the crowded third class. The more crowded, the more convenient for her, she seemed to have told him… I felt like going in search of her but my legs didn’t move. I stood there looking around.
That was a small station: not many would get down there.
“There! She is getting off,”
I looked towards the guard compartment but couldn’t find her.
“Hello!” he said shaking hands with someone. That person was in an overcoat with a leather-bag in the hand.
“I thought you wouldn’t turn up,” he said.
“Why so? Why did you think like that?” She was saying.
Then I knew that the one in the overcoat was a woman. The eye looking for a woman couldn’t see the person in the overcoat. While in Kerala I was in such situations. Those in lungi-like wraps with towels thrown over could not be identified as women. Now the same thing happened.
Lakshmanasastri said: “Where there is expectation, there is apprehension too. Along with the expectation and hope of your arrival there’s the apprehension of your not turning up too.”
She laughed and said, “Kameswarudu would talk like this!”
When she brought up her husband’s name Lakshmanasastri was worried and tried to change the topic. By way of introducing me, he said, “This is Sarat Chandrababu, my best friend. A writer, has connections with films. A good …”
Still holding Sastri’s hand without letting it go, she looked at me sizing me up and said: “I read some of your stories. Your stories are good.”
She stayed in Sastri’s house!
That night I was unable to sleep and so I woke up a little late the next morning. After quickly completing my morning routine, while I was thinking of going to see her, Lakshmanasastri came. “Come to my house once. She wanted me to bring you along,” he said.
“Why,” I asked. Inwardly I had the wish to go. I knew that she had been calling me for no purpose. Even so, effortlessly, I asked as much.
Lakshmanasastri looked at me with a little surprise in his eyes, stopped for a while, “All right, come along!” I set out.
We entered. There were a few friends of Lakshmanasastri and some youngsters of the town. She sat with them and seeing me asked with a smile: “What sir, did you think you shouldn’t come till asked?”
“Our friend is shy with women.” Said Sastri.
Everyone laughed. Only her face fell. I didn’t understand the reason but I clearly saw she was hurt. That was only for a short while. Again as usual, she started chatting with all. She narrated her experiences descriptively as stories. At the end: “You don’t have even one tenth of the experience I have,” she said.
True, everyone agreed. “So, not to speak of age, I am a mother to all of you.” She said.
This fell like a thunderbolt between us. Some hung their head in shame. Some laughed emptily. Some pulled a long face.
I felt like being in a different world. She went on talking to everyone in the same way as though she hadn’t observed anything. The youngsters were all listening to her in absolute silence. None dared say ‘yes’ or ‘no’. For them it was a matter of shame to ask her to go on by making little sounds to signify it. She wouldn’t remember at all that she was a woman. I felt very happy. But when she was saying: “In the past for progeny there didn’t appear to have existed a need for woman-man contact. But it is necessary now. After some years, once again it may not be necessary.” Even my mind registered a jab of pain.
After a little while all of us set out to a coffee hotel. Even she was agog. But then how to tell her?
While we were walking along the way, I noticed people in little groups gaping and ridiculing.. One or two words they said about her also reached my ears. Everyone finished the coffee thinking of going home quickly. But she was in no hurry.
“Look, pass the halwa to me,” she said and took half of it from Subbarao’s plate, “Take a little of this boondi,” she said as she emptied some from her plate into Sastri’s.
One should listen to the whispers from the other tables.
In the evening we went to the park. It’s the same even there. All those there began looking at us as though we were animals in a zoo. Whatever was happening, no change was visible in her. But what I observed was that she was more shy than me with women. She talked to Sastri’s wife with her head bent. She used to feel extremely shy to answer her questions.
“How many children do you have?”
“How could the children be tended if you went about like this?”
“How much did you pay for the stitching of this blouse?”
She used to be confused trying to answer queries like these. Though she wanted to reply politely, for some reason, either finding no answers for those or for lack of habit, she used to feel choked. It is not just that alone. The same thing happened when she saw little children. While we were all talking when Sastri’s son calling his mother crept into her lap, I’d never forget the fright that she experienced. She reacted as though a scorpion fell in her lap. When Sastri’s wife said: “I’ve to put the seasoning in: keep an eye on this fellow,” and proffering the kid went in, only almighty knew the agony she experienced. Not knowing how to carry the child in the crook of her arm, she held him as Sastri’s wife would hold the pot on the chula. But however much the pain, she would forget it the next moment. Coming out she’d talk happily as usual to all as if nothing had happened. She would not mention anything about that.
After my meal I sat thinking about her. Meanwhile after finishing hers at Sastri’s house she came saying “Come, let’s go to a movie.”
After hesitating a little I asked: “Where’s Sastri?”
“Wouldn’t you come without him?”
“Why shouldn’t I?”
“I’d have a carriage called.”
“Let’s go on foot.”
We set out. None was walking along on the road. The municipal lanterns were standing watch just twinkling. From a distance noise of the horse drawn carriages was audible. We were walking abreast. She threw a shawl over her for cold. For that reason she didn’t appear like a woman for me. After a little while, she heaved out a sigh and said: “Your town remained very backward.”
Not knowing what to say, “It’d have been better had Sastri accompanied us.”
Waiting for a moment, she said, as if to herself “Very backward.”
“If not so, how could it look like Bombay!”
“It’s not about the place. It’s the people. I’ve been observing all the time since I came. Oh! I wonder how you all live here! One would get angry if I talk to another. If I talked to all, all are angry. Perhaps, this is what is called jealousy. I observed you all. I observed this in Sastri’s house. When we went to the coffee hotel I saw the condition of others here. What an injustice? All primitive qualities. The condition of women is worse. Every wife feels it her duty to protect her husband from other women. She thinks that every woman who speaks to her husband does so to steal her husband from her. How primitive! You seem to be living in the era of Mandhata.” (The ancient Hindu law-giver prior to Manu)
I didn’t say anything. I knew what she said was true. From the moment she came, I’m able to see clearly our inhuman ways.
“You are intelligent. You are more intelligent than you think of yourself. Therefore you interest me. But what’s the use? Since you are part of the primitive society around you, you too have many primitive instincts in you. Right from the beginning I’ve been observing you. I’d give you a piece of advice. You organize a Women’s club here. Unless women are made to mix freely, this beastliness wouldn’t go.”
Those words brought to my memory the quality of life all if us have been living. Keeping wives at home and roaming about the streets in small groups and, when a woman is seen, resorting to monkey tricks and ridiculing her – always discussing women – all these appeared hateful. The recent murders for the sake of women have come to my mind. Is the reason for all this the one she said? I fell into thinking without replying to her. She too seems to have guessed and didn’t raise that topic.
After we entered the cinema hall, twice or thrice she made me speak. Once she said “I like Charles Boyer and Kameswarudu has a liking for Greta Garbo.”
“I know those who’d like Charles Boyer. But it is surprising that you like him.”
“He’s very masculine. I’m afraid the screen would be torn apart when he kisses a woman. “‘Let it be torn,’ That’s what I’d tell myself.” After a little while she added slowly: “That opposite qualities have attraction for each other is an old theory.
Again, after a little while, “I remember one thing when you say that. Why not tell you! I sent in an application to enroll in a Women’s club in our place and they sent it back saying, ‘We admit only women,’” she said and began laughing aloud. As for myself I pitied her.
Again we sat watching the film.
After the first night passed and it was morning, when the hero and heroine with great enthusiasm went about merrily, one smelling a flower and another singing the duet holding a tree’s bough, “How’s this scene?” she asked.
“Not good. She should have acted for some more time.”
“The previous night was the first for her. For that reason, on seeing his face it would be natural to feel very shy,” I said.
“How do you know that that was her first experience?” she asked and laughed. While laughing she put the Champak flower she was holding in her hands into mine. Though I didn’t like flowers I sat smelling it.
“Did you see Greta Garbo’s ‘Queen Christina’?”
“Yes, I did.”
“How was that scene?”
I knew which scene she had in her mind. In that till Greta lay down beside him, the hero would be under the impression that it was a boy! Suddenly he would realize it was a young woman. She was asking me about that scene.
“How was it shot?”
I knew which shot she was asking me about. But she was not asking about the beauty of the shot. She was asking me about Greta in that. Garbo was standing She was in a loose shirt with nothing inside. She was asking me as to how that was.
“Basically, while watching Garbo in films, I feel odd and suffocated. I don’t enjoy feeling so.”
She didn’t say anything.
As soon as we came out from the cinema hall she said: “I can’t live here any longer. You are all primitive peoples. You are now leading the kind of life, which obtained four centuries ago. When I see you, I am reminded of the hill tribes in Barua’s pictures. He would show ultra-modern families and then suddenly dump the audience in a village of hill- tribes. I feel just like that having come here after seeing other places. I can’t survive here: I’d leave tomorrow.”
I felt it would be fine if she stayed there a little longer. I had the hope that with her around our lives stood a chance of slight change.
Not able to confess more I said: “Please stay for a day, just tomorrow.”
“I tell you truly: in this atmosphere I cannot live even a moment longer. You have seen Tarzan! Amidst those animals, in that wild forest: the girl by his side filled me with fright. In your place, in such a plight, how can I stay! No, I wouldn’t.”
The next morning, Lakshmanasatri and I along with some more friends took her to the station. We all stood looking at her when she got into the train to Bombay.
After that I have changed a lot. She has changed my entire attitude and life style. Earlier I used to have no incentive to do anything. I became more cheerful now. Earlier I was never enthusiastic to attend lectures. But it is not so now. Now I wish to write stories, give lectures, and have the desire to invite praise. More important is the desire, whenever there’s a chance, to have a wash. These are just examples to indicate the change in me. Whenever there was something to do, some one to be talked to, every time, I used to feel overjoyed as though I had learnt a great secret of life or got into an inspiring initiation of chanting a mantra. Her words and her being intimate and not yet not being so … being very familiar and at the same time not being cheap or vulgar… discussing everything without inhibition… whenever I thought of these, my heart used to exult. It is said that if a woman goes out with a man she’d get ‘contaminated’: what a mistaken saying!
That evening I went to Lakshmanasastri’s house. Along with him I remembered her. Even while I was talking about her I used to feel she’s been smiling sitting, by my side. When I went in there were Subbarao, Krishnarao, and Venkateswararao. Lakshmanasatri was telling them about something. I discovered that they were discussing her. I pitied them. They were sitting glum. With her gone, their lives became dim and confused. They felt like birds that lost the shelter of the tree. They sat like bereaved children. The words she uttered, “I’m your mother,” rang in my ears.
As soon as I sat down Lakshmanasastri began “You, my dear man, did you hear what our Krishnarao has been saying? He says we should call her and get Women’s Societies started.”
“Good! Make necessary arrangements and send word for her,” I said without revealing that I felt the same desire.
“It’s not enough to say that. You have to write to her: there’s no knowing whether she’d come or not,” said Krishnarao.
“Would she come for us? Whoever writes, the result will be just the same,” I said.
“Why? Aren’t there things like good bad and friendship? She has trust in you,” said Subbarao. I did not like Subbarao’s looks and manner. The whole thing looked odd. I felt that their whole attitude had changed. I was angry about their tenor.
“All of us are friends here. Whoever is not?” I said.
“What is our friendship? It is all empty. Do we write stories? Do we speak humorously and make people laugh? Do we take them out for films?” asked Subbarao.
For his last words everyone laughed viciously. Since Krishnrao’s health had never been very good, whatever he felt he would not be able to contain. . He couldn’t restrain his laughter and went on laughing noisily. Even their laughter, apart from their conversation, appeared unnatural. Anger was rising in me by the minute.
“I looked sternly at Subbarao and said, “Glad you’re intelligent. Couldn’t you stop even now?”
“It is common knowledge that, amongst all of us, she has a special liking for you! When it is a man and woman, when once going together started…”
“Sastri!” I shouted.
He didn’t heed. He went on speaking in an odd way: “What’s wrong with that? Is she so innocent and pure?”
Everyone broke into a loud laughter.
I was growing more and more furious by the moment. ‘Even if you say one word more about her, I would not tolerate.’ Saying so I got up.
While my fury rose, Sastri’s playfulness went on increasing. His face was full of mischief. – “Look, How furious he is when I mentioned her name! He implies that we shouldn’t utter even a single word against her! You listen to me with attention. Not one word, I’d say a thousand. She is a devout, dedicated wife- a pativrata – Recently our friend tried to protect her chastity. She …”
He said this much but I could hear well beforehand what he was going to say next. I didn’t like those words: I couldn’t restrain myself. Meanwhile Sastri was talking about a flower, honey and a honeybee.
What more! I leapt on him. I don’t know how many blows I delivered. I don’t know what happened later. After a while I stood up. Subbarao, Krishnarao, and Venkateswararao were trying help Sastri sit up. I pitied the way he was looking at me. He could not have ever imagined that I’d resort to this kind of action. He looked at me pityingly and said: “You have gone mad!”
I never repented for what I had done. Why should I repent? Without knowing good and bad, what to say and what not to say, if he had just blabbered how could I tolerate! They may be my friends, all right, but even then? That too, about her? Is she that kind of a woman? Shouldn’t they know that much! Though I sat by her side, talked to her and laughed along with her such a foul idea never came to my mind. It’d appear to be floating in imagination, in another world, in clouds where bodies are not remembered! Should they ascribe such a mean feeling to her! Even these are under the impression that a woman who goes out with a man is fallen! However great friends they are of mine, why should I tolerate them?
I really felt glad for what I had done. At one moment, I felt like writing to her what exactly had happened. But hesitating that it would hurt her I never did it. I knew how bad she would feel and how her pious heart would flutter if she knew how some people were discussing her and thinking about her. For that reason I did not write to her of the things that had happened here.
Even so, on the fifth day I got a letter from her. How I wondered! My joy knew no bounds. I quickly tore open the envelope and read the letter. If the arrival of the letter surprised me, the reading of the contents therein made me feel that my heart had stopped.
This was the letter:
” I am fine enough. I reached home like an unruffled flower. Ever since I came I have been thinking of writing to you. But I’m not sure as to how to write. I was wondering what you’d think and whether I’d write in a way you can understand. I don’t know the language you understand. Even if I knew, I must have forgotten it.
“Today I got a letter from Lakshmanasastri. Don’t be surprised. You already know we have been friends, don’t you? He wrote to me in detail about your fight. He hasn’t written any lies. He wrote whatever has happened. It was like a piece of detective fiction, a scene in a stunt movie.
“Sir, is it to defend my honour that you fought with Sastri? Did you beat him for that? In my imagination I can clearly see your tousled hair, reddened eyes, excited trembling hands and feet, Lakshmanasastri falling down, you leaping on him, pulling at his hair, scratching his face. While I imagine all these, my admiration for Nadia grew. It’s not just a manner of saying. I admire Nadia. How she would beat groups of men with her hunter!
“The chivalry you have displayed attracts me. Travelling on a kite, landing in front of you, I’d like to express my gratitude. If I were to sit in front of you with my folded hands you’d raise me holding my hands and say ‘Do you have to praise me so much for this: I’ve carried out my duty’; right? I remember to have seen such a thing in some film. I like such scenes too.
“But I’d like to ask you one thing first. If you give me a right reply I’d come to you on wings and enact that scene before you. How did you know that I am not a ‘nanganachi’* -one <deliberately putting up a show of enticing innocence. What is the basis for your thinking so? Did my words give you that impression? It is not so since I am not that. Lakshmanasastri told you the truth. I never had the desire to become one either.
“Don’t misunderstand me. I tell the facts as they are. About your chivalry too I have a doubt. I feel that the reason behind this chivalry is the belief that it is the duty of a man to protect the honour of a woman. That opinion has a close relation to the idea that a woman is the property of man. If she is thought to be a piece of property, and if she is not in a position to protect herself, the necessity of protecting arises. For the simple reason that I spent some time and went to a film with you, such conclusion on your part, and that the onus of protecting my honour devolved on you is unjust. What’d be the difference between you and people like Lakshmanasastri then? They spoke as they pleased out of jealousy that I have become someone else’s property. Feeling hurt and insulted that they were ridiculing your property you fought with them. Where then is the difference? Your fighting for me brings to my mind the Rajput hero’s valour, courage and bravery risking his life for saving a fortress that’s empty.
“How much is the difference between you and your stories! Your behaviour is one thing. and your stories are quite different. While one pulls you back, the other urges you to go forward. As I think of it, it makes me wonder if it‘s you who had written them. I know several writers. Many of them are so. The opinions they express in their writing are progressive, but their behaviour is worse than an ordinary man’s. I think the reason for this is the lack of effort to translate thoughts and feelings into action and experience. You too have the strengths, weaknesses, emotions and passions generally found in other writers.
“You have to change, please, you have to. This I’ve told you even while I was there at your place. I am saying that again. The reason why I say this so emphatically is that I like you, in spite of all your weaknesses. For that reason I deeply wish to make you better. There’s only one way out I can see. You organize a ladies club. If you can be the secretary, it’d be all the better. I’d be happy. Don’t neglect this. If you allow the disease to get worse, it’d be no use how hard you tried later.
“‘I feel choked if am the secretary. I don’t like to be that’” saying this does not strike as the posture of a devout and pious wife, a pativrata. You say that emptily but what else happens if it does not? All the time you were preoccupied judging me whether I was speaking beautifully and intelligently. Why didn’t you ever feel like speaking up naturally and truthfully? I don’t like your being a ‘pativrata’, afraid of society and becoming thus a slave, spending your time always grunting and grumbling
“Now I take leave. I have written frankly and sincerely all that I wanted to. It is my wish that you too would do the same. Reply without fail.
“I’ve forgotten to ask you, sir, in the theatre when offered a flower, does anyone sit smelling it all through? Is a sampenga flower just given to smell alone? Why did flowers come into being? To smell. Why does a stream flow? To sing. Why is the sandalwood tree born? To shelter serpents. Only this much and not beyond. You don’t know that according to situation and circumstance man either creates or infers new meanings, or tries to put across feelings, which cannot be expressed in words. How primitive you are! Above all this there’s an attempt to spread the impression that I’m a ‘nanganachi’! Is it not your implication that I’m primitive too? Perhaps it’s your wish!”
P.S. Not Lakshmanasastri’s letter. (1953)
(Translated by Dr. V.V.B. Rama Rao, and published on thulika.net, January 2005.)