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       Mahashweta, p.12

           Sudha Murty
 
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  Anand felt responsible for Anupama’s misfortunes. Why had he allowed his sense of fairness and his judgment to become so warped that he had turned away when she had needed him the most? Why had he shirked from honouring the vows he had taken when he had married her? Why had he assumed, all these years, that his mother was right? A deep sense of guilt and shame pervaded his mind.

  Whatever I have done was wrong, but the time that I have lost cannot be recovered. However, I must rectify the mistakes I have made and shape the future properly. I will beg Anupama to forgive me. She is far superior to anyone I know—in morals, intellect and conduct. With new-found determination he got up.

  Looking at his face, Radhakka asked him, ‘Where are you going?’

  ‘I am going to bring Anupama back into my life again. I just hope it is not too late.’

  It was Deepavali, the festival of lights. All of Bombay seemed to be exchanging gifts, consuming enormous quantities of sweets, and throwing parties.

  Satya had left for Mysore where his mother and sisters were eagerly waiting for him. Anupama had helped him buy gifts for his family. When he had tried to buy her a sari as a gift, she had refused to accept it.

  ‘Satya, I have everything I want in life, and I am very thankful for that. When I need something I will definitely ask you.’

  Vasant had tactfully intervened, ‘Satya, buy lots of crackers for Anupama and I will help her burn them on Deepavali night.’

  Since Vasant did not have a family with whom he could celebrate the festival, Anupama invited him home.

  ‘Vasant, please stay for dinner. I have called my students, too.’

  Vasant happily accepted her invitation. It had been a long time since he had celebrated Deepavali. How different it had been in his childhood! Even though they had been poor, they had celebrated the festival with great enthusiasm and in keeping with its true spirit. His mother would give him a leisurely oil-bath early in the morning, despite his protests. And then she would prepare sweets for the festival. Although they had lacked the comforts that money could buy, their poverty had cast no shadow on their happiness.

  Vasant arrived early at Mary Villa on Deepavali. He had bought a collection of Bernard Shaw’s plays as a gift for Anupama. She looked relaxed and cheerful, as usual. Watching her, he wondered if she had ever felt any unhappiness. Her face always glowed with contentment—it was as if she was one of the lucky few who were happy all the time.

  ‘You shouldn’t have bought me a gift, Vasant.’

  ‘My mother taught me never to go empty-handed to meet a friend.’

  Anupama’s mind suddenly went back to her mother. She did not have a single photograph of her. If she had lived, she would probably have given her advice just as Vasant’s mother had.

  Vasant was looking at the beautiful rajanigandha, marigold and cosmos blooming in her garden. They were all dancing in the evening breeze in harmony with one another; and yet, they were all so different. He looked at Anupama and, noticing her silence, said, ‘It is difficult to forget one’s mother, isn’t it?’

  Sadly, Anupama answered, ‘I never had the luxury of knowing my mother. It is impossible to replace a mother’s love.’

  With her father, it had always been more a bond of duty than love. When she had got a job in Bombay, she had sent half her salary to her father. But she had never felt like going back home. She never shared her difficulties with him either. Her father had mixed feelings about her. He was happy that Anupama was economically independent and had settled down. But he was an old-fashioned person; and he felt that she should go back to her husband. He believed that a woman’s ultimate sanctuary should be her in-laws’ house—single women were not respected in society. Shamanna was worried that people would gossip about her and it would reflect on him. He repeatedly wrote to her to plead with Anand to take her back, and not get upset with him. Anupama found such advice distasteful after the emotional trauma she had endured. Despite that, she knew that Shamanna cared deeply for her.

  One day, a telegram came from the village—Shamanna had died of a heart attack. With his death, the last link with her past had been severed. Sometimes, she felt that perhaps her problems and the way she lived now had caused him unbearable tension and ultimately his heart attack. But Anupama was unable to cry. There was no point in returning to her old house now that her father was gone. Anupama sent some money, which she had saved with great difficulty, for her father’s last rites.

  Unexpectedly, she got a four-page letter from Sabakka.

  In life, one should not take the things people say so seriously. I might have been harsh to you, but that was only because of the tensions at home. When you got married into a good family, we thought you would settle down well. But when things went wrong, we faced a lot of problems. Please forget all those things. Bombay is a big city and you must feel lonely. If you want, I will send Nanda to keep you company. I am going back to my mother’s place. My brother will help me find suitable alliances for my daughters. Your sisters do not have a father now and you, being the eldest, should step into his shoes and look after them. Your financial help is very essential for your sisters’ weddings. . .and so it continued.

  Anupama was disgusted. The same person who had spoken of Anupama as a ‘bad omen’and a ‘rejected wife’ among other things, knowing very well how those comments would hurt her, was asking her for help today. All her life, Sabakka had taunted Anupama and made her cry. But now that she was earning, she had suddenly become important. Anupama felt sick. But somewhere, deep inside, she felt she had a duty towards her stepsisters. She decided to send money just as she had when her father had been alive, but have nothing to do with Sabakka and her daughters. Emotionally, they meant nothing to her.

  As for Anand, he, too, had shown with his actions that an emotional bond could be broken all too easily. I am truly alone.

  ‘Anupama, what are you thinking?’ Vasant’s voice broke into Anupama’s reverie.

  ‘How do you define beauty?’ she asked.

  Vasant was startled by her abrupt question. ‘I am not a philosopher or an artist, so my opinion on the subject is immaterial.’

  ‘Still, I want your opinion,’ Anupama insisted.

  ‘Nature has taught me all that I know about beauty. Look at these flowers, Anupama, they come in so many different colours and fragrances; the sky with its myriad shades of blue; and the birds each one so different from the other. No artist can recreate the vibrant colours of nature on canvas. We think we know all about beauty, but what we understand is that external beauty is shortlived. Even the most beautiful people change as they grow older. But the beauty of Nature is permanent.

  ‘Once I was travelling with my friends through the Valley of Flowers in the Himalayas. The sheer beauty of the valley made me realize how foolish human beings are to seek artificial beauty with cosmetics.

  ‘One’s beauty is seen in one’s nature. A good human being who is compassionate to others, who tries to understand the other person’s difficulties and reach out to them in their hour of need has real beauty. Such people should always be cherished and honoured.’ His passionate speech surprised even Vasant. He saw a flicker in Anupama’s eyes, but did not know that she was thinking about Anand. Anand had been bright, sharp, and intelligent, but very immature! He had never ever thought of beauty in such terms.

  Just then, Anupama’s students bustled in and, pushing back all thoughts of the past, she stood up to greet them.

  ‘Vasant, this is Vinuta, Shashi, Rekha. . .’

  ‘Ma’am, we know Doctor Vasant. We met him when you were in the hospital.’

  Anupama smiled and Vasant felt as if a thousand lights had been lit in the room.

  Anand was going to his father-in-law’s house for the first time. But instead of feeling happy, he was consumed with shame and guilt. He had known that Shamanna was a teacher who lived in a small village, but he had never thought of visiting him there.

  At first he had thought of writing to Shamanna to
gauge his reaction, before going to the village to bring back Anupama. But since he did not want to delay matters any further, he decided to go in person to apologize to Anupama. He was well aware that she might not forgive him immediately, but he was determined to persuade her to return home with him.

  Lost in thought, he steered his car along the mud track that led to the village. As soon as it came to a halt in front of the school, the village schoolchildren promptly reported his arrival to the headmaster.

  The headmaster was perplexed. Even the education inspector always came on a scooter, and that too once a year after giving him prior intimation. Besides, he had visited the school recently, and his inspection was over and done with.

  Then who is this new visitor and what is he doing here? wondered the headmaster. He looked curiously at the wealthy-looking, slightly grey-haired man who stood before him.

  In a low tone Anand said, ‘I want to meet Shamanna Master.’ He looked very uncomfortable in the squalid surroundings. All the children were peeping at him through the window.

  The headmaster politely dusted a chair with his bare hands and asked him to sit down. He said, ‘I joined only recently. There is no Shamanna Master here. He was probably transferred somewhere.’

  Just then one of his colleagues who happened to come in said, ‘Shamanna Master got transferred to Hunase village long ago.’

  Anand was in such a hurry that he even forgot to thank them before he left. It would probably mean another three-hour drive, but he was impatient to meet Anupama that day itself. He wondered what Anupama’s reaction would be when she saw him after so many years. Would she be angry or surprised, or maybe even happy? After all, her husband had returned for her.

  When he neared the village school, his heart began to thump in anticipation. He was aware that the reality could turn out to be very different from what he had imagined. When he reached his destination he hesitated, wondering what his father-in-law would say. Would he look at him with contempt and call him a coward? He contemplated going back, but only for a moment.

  To err is human, to forgive divine, but have I erred beyond the point of forgiveness? I will plead with Anupama to forgive me. After all, we are all human and this is part of life.

  He got out of his car and went to the school office. This was a bigger school than the one he had visited earlier. There was no one in the office room other than the clerk who was busy writing something.

  Anand asked him politely, ‘Could I meet Shamanna Master? Where is his house?’

  The clerk looked at him strangely and replied, ‘You can’t meet him.’

  ‘Please tell him Anand is here. I am sure he will come.’

  ‘How are you related to him?’ The clerk’s inquisitive eyes bored into him.

  ‘I am his son-in-law.’

  ‘Strange. Don’t you know anything about your own family?’

  Anand was becoming impatient with the clerk. ‘Please tell me where he is. I am in a hurry.’

  ‘He died a few years back.’

  Anand was shocked. The news was totally unexpected, but he had come to meet Anupama and that was more important at that time.

  ‘What about his family?’

  ‘I don’t know anything much about them,’ the clerk replied indifferently. ‘His wife had come here once to sign some papers and take the arrears of pay. It seems she stays with her brother somewhere near Miraj.’

  So Anupama was in Miraj with her stepmother and sisters, Anand thought to himself.

  ‘Do you know where his daughter Anupama is?’

  The clerk looked up from his work. He felt he had stumbled on something that promised to add spice to his humdrum life—a husband who didn’t even know the whereabouts of his wife! ‘So you’re here to enquire about your wife?’

  ‘Yes.’ The rich and well-known Dr Anand was being humiliated by a petty clerk. But Anand knew that he would not get any information about Anupama from the clerk if he did not keep his temper in check.

  ‘Shamanna Master never mixed with the others, so I really don’t know much about him. And he wasn’t here long in this school, but I think I can help you. Rao Master was slightly acquainted with him. I can call him, but he might not know the details either.’

  Feeling self-important, the clerk went in search of Rao Master. Anand sank into a rickety chair and waited. He was mortified by the fact that he had been forced to find out about his wife from a stranger.

  Rao Master came into the office room and looked at him sympathetically, ‘Shamanna was a very troubled man. He would never talk about his family, and if we did, his eyes would fill with tears. So we rarely talked about personal things. There was a rumour that his daughter’s in-laws sent her back because she got some disease. Some say she’s left home and gone to a different place and others believe she committed suicide. Something tragic must have happened to her.’

  Heartbroken, Anand left the school in a daze. He did not know where Anupama was, or even whether she was alive or dead. No one seemed to know what had happened to her. But one thing was evident. He had deserted her when she needed him the most and that made him morally responsible for whatever tragedy had befallen her. If only he had not obeyed his mother’s wishes blindly, had given his marriage and Anupama a chance instead of brooding over her disease, he might have had a family of his own. But he had thrown it all away in the pursuit of beauty. Guilt engulfed Anand and his eyes brimmed with tears. There was no salvation for the sin he had committed. He would never have peace of mind for as long as he lived.

  Anand’s repentance was sincere, but it was like the coming of the rains after the grass had dried.

  Anupama had left a message for Vasant on the answering machine. ‘Vasant, I want to talk to you about something important and personal. Could you come to my house at six this evening?’

  Vasant wondered what it could be, but somewhere deep inside he was thrilled. Satya had also heard the message but, rather uncharacteristically, had not joked about it. He looked at life from a different perspective now. He told Vasant, ‘I respect Anupama a lot. She is such a balanced person. Even with all the odds stacked against her, she is always optimistic. Life has treated her badly and given her so many shocks, but she is never bitter.’

  ‘That’s why I never consider her unfortunate, Satya. She has a soft heart but great strength of mind. Whoever marries her will be really lucky.’

  Satya smiled and agreed with him.

  When Vasant reached Anupama’s house, she was waiting for him in the veranda. A cool breeze was blowing in from the sea.

  Anupama said, ‘Vasant, I have a small wish. And only you can help me fulfil it. I cannot do it alone.’

  ‘What is it?’ Vasant was intrigued.

  ‘There is an international medical conference in Bombay. After that, there is a cultural programme. The organizer is Mr Mojwani and I know that he is your patient. The theatre group in my college wants to perform Swapna Vasavadutta as part of the programme. Mr Mojwani says that people will not understand the play as it is in Sanskrit. But we will give the commentary in English. Could you request him to at least see our play and then decide whether to include it or not? If he finds that it is not really suitable, he can always reject it. Will you please talk to him on our behalf?’

  Vasant was disappointed. He had hoped she wanted to have a more personal conversation with him.

  ‘Who told you Mr Mojwani is my patient?’

  ‘Satya.’

  ‘Anupama, I don’t expect anything in return when I treat my patients. Nor do I think that they should feel obliged to me forever. Some people don’t wish to have anything to do with the doctor once they’re done paying the fees, but Mr Mojwani is different. He firmly believes that I cured him of a chronic infection and is always eager to help me. I’ll definitely put in a word to him but the decision will be his. I know only two people who are always trying to help others, and he is one of them.’

  ‘Who is the other person?’

  ‘You, An
upama. The way you looked after Satya, the love you show your students, and your deep commitment as an artiste. . . No one else could be like you.’ Vasant’s admiration for her grew stronger each day—she had asked him for a favour but on behalf of somebody else. She was truly an extraordinary woman—compassionate, caring and eager to serve anyone in need. She took so much pleasure in everyone else’s happiness, and that was indeed a rare quality. Perhaps, there were a few other women like her, but what were his chances of meeting them, wondered Vasant.

  He decided, at that moment, to voice something that had been in his heart for a while. ‘Anupama, I’d like to ask you something. . .’

  ‘What is that?’

  ‘I came to Bombay to do my Master’s and have worked here since then to gain some experience. Now I want to go back to my village and serve the people there. That is my dream. Will you be a part of my life and complete my dream? Will you share my happiness and sorrows in future?’

  Anupama stood dumbstruck for a while. She had never expected this from Vasant. And then she laughed ruefully while her eyes brimmed with tears. ‘Vasant, what are you saying? What do you know about me? Aren’t you aware of my condition? Just a week back, a new patch appeared on my ear. My disease is beyond any cure now. Within a couple of years, my face will also be white. How will you feel then?’

  ‘Anupama, Satya told me about your past. Being a doctor, I know the nature of this disease, and it does not bother me. I admire you more for your inner qualities than your physical beauty.’

  ‘What will your people think of me, or haven’t you thought of that?’

  ‘I don’t care what others think. I decide what I’m going to do with my life. If you’re worried that leukoderma could be hereditary, well then, so are many other problems such as diabetes and hypertension. Take your time and think over what I’ve said. I am going to be here for two more months. I promise to respect whatever decision you make.’ Vasant sneezed and shivered slightly as a cold gust of wind wafted in through the billowing curtains.

 
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