[P Padmarajan passed away on 24 January, 1991. In his extraordinary and brief life, he attained the status of a living legend in Kerala. Celebrated much more as a cine director and a script-writer of some of Malayalam’s most memorable films, he was however, one of Malayalam’s finest fiction-writers. In many ways, as a writer, Padmarajan was ahead of his times; no wonder then, he never received the recognition that he richly deserved as a writer.
Twenty-five years after his passing, I still struggle to come to terms with his death. I did not witness his shockingly-unexpected passing and so in a strange way, I have, deep inside, been unable to accept that he actually died. He was my uncle, but I have never been able to pin down how we were related. I was a lonely, bookish girl given to too much loitering in the wild in a large joint family of happy, joyous, outgoing people. He was one of the few adults who did not find it strange. In many different ways, he was a comrade, in the best sense of the word – only now, at the age of 47, do I realize this. He gave a twelve-year-old girl books that no other adult would have dreamed of even mentioning; he silently encouraged me to do exactly what I wanted and never lie about it.
This is my tribute to his memory, a translation of his short story Nammal Nagnakal. Reading the fiction produced today by young and prominent male authors in Malayalam, I am dismayed by their pathological fear of non-procreative female sexuality and misogyny. To them, I want to raise this tender tale, written in the 1970s, of love and longing between two women, set in the backdrop of Kanyakumari, where the seas meet but stay forever parted, and where a Goddess awaits her bridegroom forever.]
We, Naked Women
I know the beginning and the end. I won’t exclude the hours just before the beginning and just after the end. The hours of the morning had flowed back in through the window of dawn, and then, like a wellspring, a flowing stream, they entered and dripped down. Above them leapt the hours of the dusk of the day just past. They hurtled downwards, falling out of the tunnel-mouth of the night. About the moment they collided alone, however, I will not speak. And if I don’t speak, no one will ever know of it. No one will tell Karthyayani. When she awoke rudely from stupor and pulled herself away sharply, even the door-panels had turned their heads away from me shyly. I am sure. No one has seen a thing.
Then the sun rose.
We bid farewell to each other before it was nine. Sulochana and Karthyayani. Karthyayani and her son stood outside below, waving. They will leave this hotel after some time. Let’s meet again like this some time, I hope. Just like that. My prayer — may we never meet again.
The tyres leave their hoof-marks on the wet road. Inside the car in which the shadows and the light play ball, the husband’s whispered query: is Sulochana off-mood again? Looking like one is a bad mood whenever one isn’t smiling; does that suit a woman well above fifty? A husband who thinks so is a fool. What am I to say? Should I repeat that last night was fine and make him feel alright? Shall I shove onto my pale lips, my cheeks wrinkled like worn slippers, the battered ghost of a false smile?
“What are you thinking?”
“I think of my son.”
A lie. A husband who accepts lying.
“Was it because you met your old friend’s son?”
Sulochana shakes her head in assent.
A lie, again. I never saw my old friend’s son. I only saw her. The son was but a shadow that throbbed somewhere behind her.
Evening was falling. The excreta of the setting sun fell upon the meeting seas.
“Are you not coming, Sulochana?”
She didn’t want to see the sunset.
Her mood was never right. Sunsets like this one hurt her. Sulochana did not like the day or the night, dawn or dusk.
“Shall I go to the beach?”
“Please go on. I will be here.”
A relief? Strange! That poor man has done you no harm ever. He came here all the way with you. It is you who chooses to go on pilgrimages like this, to add some colour to your glum and frozen-still days.
The empty hallway; doors like the faces of empty rooms tired of their eternal wait; on either side of the doors, hues devoid of brightness blinking out of bulbs switched on before nightfall.
No, nothing. Just excuses to not go out. I am fine. Sickness, sorrow, happiness, desire, fear of death, nothing. Then what holds me back? Who gave you the authority to hate the night and scoff at the retreating day? If that’s the question, then there can be only one answer. This was Sulochana’s duty. She wouldn’t have been born otherwise. She wouldn’t have lived fifty three years.
It is impossible to recall this morning all the thoughts that had piled up last evening. Especially when there’s so much to think about this morning. Today morning, she had but one wish. Flee this place. Get away from Karthyayani. Run away. Maybe she too thought the same. Should have never met up with Sulochana. If only she would leave soon!
What a joke! When I met Karthyayani last evening, and when Karthyayani saw Sulochana reclining on the cane-chair and taking the sea-breeze, they didn’t think this way.
How long it was since they had parted! I jolted as I recalled.
“Oh, Sulo chechi! You – here! How come?”
I first did not recognize Karthyayani who was demurely following the young man with the suitcase. They came right to the front of the room next to mine. I was watching them, listless. They waited impatiently for the room-boy to open the door for them. If only these were a young couple! A young man and a young woman! If only she were a prostitute, and he a womanizer!
This night will not give me anything. I will not stumble upon anything from the world of sounds. Nothing worth keeping as a memory.
Mother and son!
A square of light fell upon the mother’s and son’s heads from afar. I sprang up in surprise.
“Sulo chechi! How many children do you have?”
“Two”. With the same false eagerness that flashes on the face of the narrator of a much-recited Kathaprasangam tale, fixing my mind on the buzzing of the ceiling-fan, I said, “Maya is married to the son of N R Nair IAS. He is a Major in the army. Rajendran is in the US. Doing research.”
Let the sounds be yielded to the tongue. The mind races to times past, through the tongue. Husband turning a pensioner, marriage-planning for the son, the purchase of the Coonoor house. As events of the past thirty-three years come floating by, two young girls, meeting for the first time, in a hostel room of thirty years ago. “What’s your name?”
“Are you away from home the first time?” Sobs. “Don’t cry. I too felt the same when I came here first.” The girl who found refuge in the voice steadied by the courage distilled from two years’ experience. Her name was Karthyayani. Her husband was now no more. It was so unexpected. Two boys. One of them is in Kolkata, lending his brain and pen to a famous English newspaper.
“This is my younger son. Never stays steady in anything! Claims that his place is in art. I can’t make head or tail of anything he draws – it’s all Modern! I can’t bear this modern-koodern stuff! The rest of my life I want to be at temples or holy places …”
Karthyayani has grown stout. She was so slim. Her face is now wrinkled; her hair was turning grey. She had such flowing tresses once! How many young men must have gone head-over-heels at the sight of her eyes? Now, she wears glasses. I am beginning to feel sad seeing her.
I am crazy. Why I am I speaking so loud, laughing even more raucously? There must be a limit to the glad feelings a woman has on seeing her old friend. Sulochana who didn’t want to go and see the sunset when her husband invited her, now hurrying along when her friend suggested it … what does that mean?
Husband hurrying on among the solitary souls on the beach. She tells me about you all the time, he lied. No, Sulochana has never mentioned Karthyayani. But still, he, who rose to every occasion … just to flatter Karthyayani …” Are you meeting up for the first time after college?”
Yes, she said. We were in the same room for two years in college. When I think of college, it is Sulo chechi I always think about, said Karthyayani.
Two years! The husband is surprised! “I can’t imagine staying inside a room all the time with another person for just two days!” The husband is skeptical. “… And that too, with a woman?” Sulochana joked. The husband laughed. So did Karthyayani and her son. Suddenly shocked, husband stares at her. Sulochana, joking! That she can have such a face. She joked again. He laughed again. He would encounter more surprises after. Karthyayani sat a little apart on the beach-sand recounting their college days in her tired voice. About Sulochana’s leadership, her pranks. Karthyayani’s son Ashok was playing with the waves and whistling. The breeze blew over their heads to blend into the sea. It was all happiness. Husband grew happy seeing his ever-unhappy wife grow so chirpy and pleasant. The son grew happy seeing the ever-crestfallen face of his mother light up. Sulochana and Karthyayani must have been overjoyed by this meeting after many years.
But is it not that they really rejoiced when they were scattered once again? She thirsted for that moment. When it finally arrived, she felt irked – “can’t this man clear the bill faster and turn up soonest?” Karthyayani must have prayed : “ Devi! Is this what you brought me down here for? If only this woman would leave sooner!” The biggest relief was when the car began to move. Sulochana waved. Karthyayani responded. Their eyes missed each other’s.
As usual, he had had his nightcap. That peculiar laugh sprang out a few times. That laugh arose only when he crossed the boundaries of sobriety. “Oh, I don’t think we’ll get any sleep if we wait for their stories to get over! Ashok, do you insist on sleeping in the same room?”
“No, I am fine anywhere,” said Ashok.
“I am okay with sleeping there. As long as I am not bothering anyone else.”
“Okay then. Let the two old buddies talk. Stories and stories! Why should we let ourselves get bored by them?”
Right you are, said Sulochana.
“Does your son drink?”
“He pretends not to. But sometimes I catch the scent of his dead father!”
“Ha,Ha!” Ashok burst out laughing.
“He’s not a virgin, is he?” Sulochana’s husband lowered his tone as though that was a secret query. “May I get him some whisky?”
“Not with my permission.” Karthyayani said.
The door closed shut.
We, alone, in a room. Sulochana thought in wonder. After all these years, the two of us, in one room, on two cots.
Soda bottles popped in the other room.
Sulochana looked at Karthyayani. She lowered her head.
When they were finally left alone, such silence, like crafty quiet cats ready to break the pot?
“Remember old Santha Warrier?”
“I read in the papers.”
“Don’t you remember Manikkutty, Karthyayani? We used to meet now and then.”
“Yes. We’d sought a marriage alliance … her son with Maya. But their horoscopes didn’t match. Manikkutty was really keen.”
“Her son must be really handsome?”
“Oh, not really. He isn’t like her. More like his father.”
The conversation ebbed. Manikkutty and Karthyayani were the two college beauties, Sulochana recalled. Manikkutty had so many lovers. And Karthyayani?
Who was Karthyayani’s lover?
Did she have one?
“Why are you crying, Karthyayani?”
“Did you see, Sulo chechi?”
Yes, I did see. Scrawled on the door with chalk, ‘Mrs and Mr Sulochana’. Below it a drawing of an embracing couple.
“That’s how hostel life is, kutty,” Sulochana said, “envy-bitten sorts always behave like this.”
But Karthyayani was kept weeping.
Even after the lights were switched off, her sobs floated up and around the darkness.
“Don’t cry, kutty.”
“They all giggled when I went to the mess today.”
“Don’t bother about all that.”
Sulochana got up. Karthyayani’s pillow was moist. Sulochana’s cheek grew wet. Beads of sweat lined Karthyayani’s calves. Sulochana’s calves grew wet too. Karthyayani’s breath was searing-hot. Sulochana drew it into herself. Karthyayani’s lips quivered, bereft of words. Sulochana’s chest took that quiver upon itself. Moist, gentle lips.
Six years have passed since the husband died.
“I come here every year,” she said. “Sulo chichi, there’s nothing more boring than the life of a widow.”
A fleeting feeling. Sulochana says that her husband is boring. Sulochana feels that all men are lazy. She believes that they should just do a favour and rid themselves by dying soon after retirement.
But we are not here to while away the night expelling these words which we lug around. We ought to examine each other with the keen attention of house-owners who have come back home after a very long stay elsewhere.
The night in the hostel just before their parting had been like this. They had nothing to say. They merely gazed at each other. The two years lay between them like two empty cots pulled close. The scorn of the other girls. Threats from the wardens. Narrow escapes from the black shadow of penal suspension from college. Two years had gone by. Sulochana will not return. Karthyayani will be here again. Sulochana is getting married and going miles and miles away. A new life with a new person. Whatever that life, she declared again and again, “Nothing’s going to be any fun anymore. I can never adjust with another person like now.”
Very true. She has proved it with the thirty-three years of life that came after.
In the morning, as she sat in the car with her husband, she sees once again the charred bones of truth in that statement from long ago.
“Didn’t sleep last night?” Her husband asked. “You talked the whole night?”
“No, I did sleep.”
A lie. Yet another. No one slept. True, they switched off the lights late. Karthyayani reclined on the cot. Sulochana sat by the table. The widow’s eyelids fell shut briefly and opened again now and then.
“I am sleepy.” Karthyayani said.
“Don’t, Karthyayani,” said Sulochana. “Let me tell you a story. Remember, I used to tell you stories back in the hostel those days?”
The story began, but its folds were laced with hidden ennui. A story with no mind in it, no life. In the memory, a young girl reposes, exhausted. The story was swept away by the seductiveness of her smile, by the memory of that smile.
“Karthyayani, are you asleep?”
No response. Gentle snoring. The light above still burned. In the distance, the hiss of the sea. The sounds of embracing winds.
Sulochana stood up.
She was asleep.
“Shall I switch the lights off, kutty?”
She slept on.
She felt shy. That was an old pet name. Used only in moments of playful affection. If she’s pretending to sleep, then let the smile bloom on her lips.
She went up and sat near her.
Karthyayani slept on.
Touched gently the wrinkled skin of the cheek more than fifty years old. Karthykkutty.
Karthyayani was in deep slumber. Like a baby, or a girl of eighteen.
I will not speak of the moment in which the ascending hours and the descending hours collided against each other, Sulochana thought. I know. But I won’t speak. No one will know if I don’t tell. After all, it was just a single moment. The moment Karthyayani jolted awake, Sulochana switched the light off. She went over to her cot and stretched out on it. The last slice of time in the same room. Two old women on two cots.
In the darkness, someone is sobbing. Whimpering and sobbing.
A widow can have so many different reasons to whimper and cry, is it not so?
In the morning, Ashok said exactly the same thing. “Poor Amma! She seems to have been crying the whole of last night, recalling all the old stuff. Her eyes are all red and puffy.”
“You know nothing,” said Ashok’s mother. “You know nothing.”
By now, Karthyayani too must have left her room.