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       Mahashweta, p.11

           Sudha Murty
 
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  ‘Anupama, who taught you all this philosophy?’ Satya asked.

  ‘My experiences have taught me this. I have come to realize that courage and confidence are the real wealth in life. Education can improve your chances of success, but ultimately you have to face life all alone. I don’t depend on any guru nor do I read any philosophy. My conscience is my guru and it guides me well.’

  Satya picked up courage and asked, ‘Anupama, I will ask you a personal question. If you do not want to answer, I will not mind. But I am curious—do you think of Anand often?’

  ‘I do sometimes, but I want to forget him. It is better to concentrate on things that give me confidence and happiness. I like history, literature and drama. I am extremely fond of my students as they are of me. I believe that when students love the teacher, they learn to love the subject, too. A teacher is forever young at heart. History has taught me a great lesson. People who built forts and won many kingdoms are not remembered today. I don’t do my work so that somebody should remember me; I do it because it gives me satisfaction and contentment.’

  ‘Anupama, do you consider yourself unfortunate?’

  ‘No, Satya. Of the thousands of flowers that blossom on a tree only a few will bear fruit. And out of those few fruits, insects and squirrels will eat some. The tree does not keep anything for itself. Does that mean that the life of the tree is wasted? I have great friends and good students, and I am economically independent. I neither worry about the past, nor brood over the future. I accept life as it comes and I don’t have any regrets.’

  EIGHT

  The morning breeze was pleasant but there was a nip in the air. Anand wrapped a scarf around his neck, afraid that the weather would give him a cold, and then a cough.

  In life, every decision has a side-effect, too, he mused, and we should always calculate the pros and cons of a particular course of action before taking a decision. But somehow. . .Anand sighed. His mind stubbornly continued to recall the things he wished to forget, made a conscious effort to forget. He tried to rationalize his decisions, but his mind was in constant turmoil.

  Normally, he took his morning walk in his garden, which was spread over an acre of land. There were so many fruit trees and flower-beds that the combined fragrance would waft in the breeze and make the entire house smell sweet. When Girija came from Bangalore with her baby daughter for a visit, the gardener plucked the flowers from various plants and strung them for her to wear in her hair. Radhakka was no longer interested in all those things; she had grown old, and arthritis had crippled her body.

  And what of Anupama? Anand’s thoughts stopped as he reached the parijata tree. The ground below it was covered with its beautiful and delicate flowers. Radhakka always said, ‘This is the flower brought by Lord Krishna to please his queen, Rukmini.’ As far as Anand was concerned, the parijata always reminded him of Anupama.

  When he had left for England, his heart had been in India. Anand was very ambitious by nature. In an attempt to discourage him from going, Anupama had said, ‘We just got married. Why do you have to go to England now? We already have everything we could possibly need. Besides, Mother is growing old; we should stay near her.’ Anand had told her, ‘Anu, you don’t understand life. If you go to England and get a degree, then the people here respect you. And, after all, it is just for three years.’ His mother’s wishes and his wife’s entreaties had not dissuaded him in the least.

  In England, Anand had met Nalini Pathak. She was a doctor from Bombay, who believed that, with her fair skin, green eyes, and auburn hair, she was very beautiful. Anand, however, thought she was not a patch on Anupama. Nalini was hurt when he made no attempts to be friendly with her. She had approached him one evening and said, ‘Anand, don’t you have any time at all to talk to your colleagues?’

  ‘No, I hardly get any free time.’

  ‘This is the best period of our lives. We are young and we don’t have any responsibilities; we should enjoy ourselves now.’

  ‘That is true, Nalini. But this is also the time for us to study and build our careers.’ Anand cut her short and went away.

  He was eagerly waiting for Anupama to arrive. Then, Nalini would understand the meaning of real beauty. He would feel happy for days after speaking to Anupama or receiving a letter from her. He could have brought her with him, but his mother had put her foot down. ‘Anand, I have accepted the girl you have chosen, and she should accept my condition. She can go only after the Lakshmi puja is completed successfully. Don’t hurt me by saying no.’

  Anand could not refuse his mother’s plea. She had not only consented to the alliance without a fuss but had also borne the expenditure of the entire wedding. Had it not been for her, he would never have been able to marry his dream girl. It was a question of two months. He would bide his time and somehow get through the separation. Anand had no way of anticipating the tornado that would sweep through his life.

  It had begun with the fateful letter he received from Radhakka. Though it contained only a few lines, it broke his heart.

  Your wife Anupama has a white patch on her foot, which she had concealed from everyone. It seems she has been taking treatment secretly from before the marriage. Girija had also suspected it. Now she has gone to her father’s place. I have spoken to the doctor and he says it might take a long time to cure her. She must complete the treatment before coming back. The presence of a woman with a white patch is not acceptable during auspicious occasions such as Lakshmi puja; I will not risk the purity of the household. That is my faith and belief.

  Anand was aghast. He read the letter several times, unable to imagine Anupama disfigured with white patches. Anupama’s letter reached him the next day. He opened it reluctantly—it contained her version of the story.

  Anand had always had a weakness for beauty. It inspired him to always choose the best of everything. The financial status of his family had only served to encourage his predilection. His friends had often joked, ‘Hey Anand, considering you take so long to choose your clothes, how will you find someone to marry? You will probably be old by the time you get married. We may not have the opportunity to see your bride at all.’

  But Anand had married before any of his friends, and his bride had been the most beautiful girl in the neighbourhood. His friends had even been a bit jealous of his good fortune. ‘Congratulations, Anand. She fulfils all your criteria,’ they had said. Anand had felt then that he was the luckiest man on earth. Anupama was not just his wife, she was the index of his pride.

  When Anand had first found out that she had leukoderma, he was filled with revulsion. As a doctor he knew that it was not always curable. If it did not respond to treatment, it would spread to her face, to her red lips, her beautiful fingers. . .everywhere. He did not wish to imagine how she would look. There was nothing he could do, and the more he thought about her, the uglier she became in his imagination. What would his friends say? ‘Oh! Look at poor Anand. He takes so much time to choose a simple shirt, and if the shirt starts to fade, he discards it. What will he do with his wife?’ Some would say, ‘Serves him right for being such a perfectionist.’

  Anand had never experienced failure in his life till then. Life had always been a bed of roses for him. Some people thought it was luck, but his mother belived that it was the result of her prayers. Facing disappointment for the first time in his life, he found that he was unable to cope with it. Unlike his mother, Anand knew for sure that there had been no white patch on Anupama’s foot before their marriage. I wish Anupama had had this condition before we got married. Things would have been so different then.

  He met Nalini Pathak on his way back from college a few days later. She said, ‘Oh Anand, have you already started preparing for the exams?’

  Anand did not reply. He was lost in thought about life’s exams, which were far more difficult. Once you fail, it is the end. This is the only life we have—who knows for sure if one is reborn? We can enjoy or destroy our life. Everything is in our own hands, mused A
nand. He had to make a decision. Anupama had begged him to let her join him in England to escape malicious talk back home. But if she joined him here, there would be others who would talk.

  Nalini Pathak would say, ‘Anand, I am so sorry about Anupama. I think she should go to a good dermatologist.’ Every imagined word was hurtful.

  Anupama’s letter had come some weeks ago, but Anand had not replied to it. Anand began to rationalize. Anupama is being treated by the best doctor. I shall wait and see what happens. There is no way I can call avva and ask her to take Anupama back. She is old-fashioned, and once she makes up her mind, she won’t change. And in such a situation it is better that Anupama is with her parents rather than avva. I’m sure Anupama will overcome any hurdles she faces. Did she not sell a thousand-rupee ticket to a stranger like me? And did she not have the courage to stand in front of thousands of people and enact scenes of sorrow, of passion without feeling awkward? It’s best if she handles the present situation on her own. I shall write to her after some time, once everyone has calmed down. She will also feel better about it.

  In the meantime, he received a letter from her father, begging for his daughter’s happiness. Anand thought about his unborn children. Though it had not been proved that the disease was hereditary, he couldn’t take the risk. If his children were also affected, then his state would be the same as Shamanna’s. Anand shivered at the thought of that humiliation. Even in the cold English winter, he started sweating. The only way to get out of the mess was to divert his attention.

  Anand immersed himself in work, taking on extra duties in the hospital. He forgot that there was a helpless young girl waiting for his decision, somewhere in a village thousands of miles away.

  Anand continued to receive letters from his mother. While they dwelt on her own health and conveyed news of the family, there was never any mention of Anupama. He began to write to his mother less frequently, but would call her up once in a while. India had become synonymous with bad memories for him. Anupama’s letters arrived—full of tears, difficulties, and information about the progress of the disease. After a while they stopped coming.

  Then Girija’s marriage was fixed. Anand flew down days before the wedding like a guest. His mother made it a point to introduce him informally to many people, and he soon became aware of her intentions.

  His mother broached the topic once Girija had left for her in-laws’ place. ‘Anand, I am worried about you. Now that Girija has married well, I want you to settle down, too.’

  Anand did not answer.

  ‘Last time, some strangers whose background we didn’t know used beauty to trap you. This time you should marry into a known family.’

  Anand still kept quiet.

  ‘Anupama has not tried to contact us even once since she left home. Perhaps she doesn’t want to stay with you. I heard she wants a divorce and alimony. Poor girl! Let us be fair and pay her something. Though she deceived us, I’m willing to overlook that. But I don’t want you to wait indefinitely.’

  Irritated, Anand rose from his seat. Radhakka continued. ‘Do you want to become an ascetic? Our family should grow and our lineage should continue. We have so much property. I want my grandchildren to inherit it.’

  Anand felt her words pierce through him, but he did not know what to say. Radhakka had tears in her eyes on the day he left, ‘Anand, when will I see you again?’

  ‘Very soon.’

  ‘Shall I go ahead and find a girl for you?’

  ‘Let me think about it.’

  Though Anand left without giving a firm answer, Radhakka assumed it was a yes.

  Anand completed his degree successfully and continued to practise in England for a while. One day, a couple came to his hospital. The wife was using crutches and the husband was helping her. There was also a baby in his arms. He explained, ‘My wife lost her legs in a car accident. Now she is unwell, and the baby is irritable. That is why we are here.’

  As Anand quietly examined the wife, the husband kept talking. ‘We are God-fearing people. That is why we make Him the witness in everything. In my marriage vows I had sworn that we would be together until death. It is my duty to help her whenever she is in difficulty.’

  Anand was touched by his words. Even in the West, where divorce was easy, this man had chosen to take care of his crippled wife because of his commitment to the marriage vows he had made. Anand thought of Anupama. He, too, had made many promises in front of Agni and all the guests who had come to bless them during the wedding ceremony. Now they were parted, but not by death. Had he done the right thing? His mother kept insisting that he should remarry. He would have to make similar promises to another woman. What was the guarantee that this marriage would last? Having lived alone for so long, he would find it difficult to adjust to someone else’s ways. He had not found happiness after marrying a girl of his own choice; would he be happy in a marriage arranged by his mother?

  Anand returned to India some months later to set up a practice in his home town. In the sprawling expanse of Lakshmi Nivas, there were only three people now—Anand, Radhakka, who had fallen down and broken her hip, and her helper, Narayanachar.

  When Radhakka realized that Anand was not willing to remarry, she was very upset. She cried and fasted for a few days, but stopped when nothing came out of it. So, she reconciled herself to the situation by saying, ‘I cannot change his fate. Whatever will be, will be.’ But, deep inside, she remained very upset. The only change in the house came when Girija visited with her daughter.

  Anand could not find any peace in his home. He was constantly reminded of a past that he wished to forget. Though there was not a trace of Anupama or of any of her belongings in the house, the very fact that she had lived there for two months was a source of irritation and distress to Anand. He decided to move into Girija’s room on the ground floor.

  He was arranging his books in the chest of drawers, which had been purchased by his father in Bangalore. It was made of rosewood and exquisitely crafted. A few books fell from his hand when he was putting them in the drawer. When he bent down to pick them up, he noticed a small drawer at the back, which was not visible from the front. Curious, he pulled it open, and found a letter and sundry bits of paper in it.

  Why was the letter kept there? Was it an important letter, or did it hold secrets? Anand started reading it.

  My darling Girija,

  Last night when you were going from my room, I think your sister-in-law, Anupama, saw you. She may be aware of our relationship. I will always cherish the time I spent with you in Belur-Halebeedu. I get so much joy when you are with me. At times I feel we should live like this forever. But I am aware of my situation; and I know that being born in a rich family you are used to a certain lifestyle, and want to marry a rich man. I agree with you—as long as we are here, we should spend our days happily. Afterwards, we may not meet each other at all. We will probably be strangers to one another. Will you come tonight at 8 p.m.?

  Lovingly yours,

  Vijay.

  Anand was stunned.

  Girija was not a starry-eyed teenager who had been coerced by someone. She had been a willing participant in a clandestine relationship just for fun, before her marriage! His own sister—he couldn’t believe it. Even he had never looked at another woman after he had left Anupama, though there had been no dearth of opportunities.

  None of the other women who had been born in the house, and even those who had married into the family, had ever behaved like this. He thought of Girija. What guarantee was there that she and her boyfriend were not meeting even after marriage? Even though he knew it would come as a shock to Radhakka, he thought it would be best to tell her about the affair. He hoped Girija would heed their mother’s advice instead of dismissing it, like she did his.

  At dinner, when Radhakka saw Anand’s worried face and a letter in his hand, she asked, ‘Whose letter is that?’

  ‘It is Girija’s. From someone called Vijay.’

  Radhakka’s face
reflected her unhappiness. ‘Why should we talk about it now? Let us forget the past.’

  ‘No, avva. I want to know what happened,’ Anand was adamant.

  Radhakka sighed deeply, ‘Don’t you remember Vijay who was staying in our outhouse for a while? He was Girija’s classmate. He was good at his studies, but from a very poor family. His father was a cook. Vijay would do little odd jobs for us. Girija was friendly with him.’

  ‘Is that all? There must be much more than that.’

  ‘Yes. When I came to know, I sent Vijay away and started looking out for a boy for Girija. Today she is happily married.’

  ‘If Girija and Vijay loved each other, you should have got them married. Even Anupama was from a poor family but you allowed me to marry her.’

  ‘That was different. Anand, you must learn to be practical in life. You can bring a daughter-in-law from a poor family into your house; but never send your daughter to a poor family. How could I have married off a princess like Girija to a beggar like Vijay? Or told people that my daughter’s father-in-law is a cook? What would they have said? Think of our status in society!’

  ‘But Girija loved him.’

  ‘No, Girija did not love him. When I told her that I was going to look for a bridegroom for her she was very happy.’

  Anand was unable to understand the workings of his mother’s mind. He had always assumed that his mother was an orthodox woman, but quite guileless. For the first time, he realized that his impression of her was wrong, that she was pragmatic and opportunistic.

  ‘Anand, who told you about this? Was it Anupama?’

  ‘Why are you talking about her?’

  ‘Because only she knew about it, apart from me.’

  Suddenly, Anupama appeared to him in a different light. His doubts and misgivings about the way he had treated her came surging back. Yes, Anupama had contracted an affliction that marred her external beauty, but she was still pure at heart. She had been shunned and abandoned only because of one white patch. On the other hand, Girija, who had had a sordid affair before her marriage, was held in high esteem in society and at home.

 
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