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       Mahashweta, p.13

           Sudha Murty
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  Anupama’s attention was immediately diverted from the serious conversation they had been having. ‘Vasant, why don’t you wear a sweater?’ she asked.

  ‘I don’t have one,’ he replied, ‘I have no one to knit sweaters for me, and I’ve never remembered to buy one for myself. So I have reconciled myself to catching a cold every winter.’ Vasant smiled and then took leave of her.

  Anand was in Bombay to attend an international medical conference at one of the five-star hotels in Nariman Point.

  After the day’s session was over, he paused in front of the Oberoi Hotel to gaze at the sea. Of late, he had found himself sinking into a state of chronic unhappiness. Feelings of shame and guilt always gnawed at him, and left him feeling helpless. I did not do the right thing because I was immature, he sometimes tried to console himself.

  As he stood looking at the sea, someone tapped his shoulder from behind.

  It was his friend Dr Prakash Apte. Prakash had been with him in England and had now settled down in Bombay where he and his wife, Nirmala, owned a nursing home.

  ‘Hi Anand, I never expected to meet you here! Where are you staying?’

  Anand was happy to see Prakash. ‘I am staying right here in the Oberoi. How have you been?’

  ‘I will tell you if you come home and join us for dinner.’ Anand laughed and agreed.

  Anand and Prakash were soon immersed in conversation. The latest innovations in surgery, seminars, their contemporaries—Prakash was voluble about them all, and Anand was unable to cut short the conversation although he wanted to get back to his room and rest.

  ‘Hey Anand, there is a Sanskrit play at the Tata Theatre this evening. Let’s go,’ insisted Prakash.

  The thought of going for a play scared Anand. It had been several years since he had last watched a play. Even when he visited England, he no longer went to any of the Shakespearean plays that he had once loved. Anything connected with theatre had become taboo for him. Plays inevitably brought back the memories of Anupama, his marriage, her disease, the betrayal and their separation.

  Unaware of Anand’s inner turmoil, Prakash insisted, ‘Anand, let’s go.’

  ‘You say the play is in Sanskrit. . .’

  ‘But the commentary will be in English. It is being put up by college students and we must encourage them. Even the German delegates are planning to watch the play. We, as Indians, ought to go, too. The Tata Theatre is as good as any in England.’

  Anand did not have any option but to go with Prakash.

  The auditorium was already packed with people. The murmurs of conversation slowly faded as a voice from behind the curtain started speaking, ‘Dear friends, today we are here to enact one of the best plays written by the famous dramatist Bhasa, Swapna Vasavadutta.’

  The years melted away as Anand remembered another such voice: Dear friends, today we are here to perform the play, Mahashweta. The theme has been taken from the novel Kadambari, written by Bana Bhatta.

  Anand began feeling restless and disturbed. He wished the voice would stop; but the commentary continued. . .

  ‘Bhasa was one of the renowned poets of his time. He was called the Smile of goddess Saraswathi. It is said that all his plays were thrown into the fire but Swapna Vasavadutta was not burnt because it was as pure as gold. . .’

  Anand couldn’t concentrate on the commentary. Was it really Anupama’s voice or was his imagination playing tricks on him?

  Prakash said, ‘Did you hear that? How beautifully she is explaining everything! I told you. . .’

  ‘Who is the lady giving the commentary?’

  ‘She is a Sanskrit lecturer from a college in Vile Parle. Every year she directs plays and gets the first prize. And the great thing is that only her students act in the plays, not professionals.’

  ‘What is her name?’ Anand’s voice trembled in anticipation.

  ‘I think she’s called Anuradha. My cousin is her student. It seems that young artistes are always looking for a chance to act in her plays. It is as good as getting a break in Bollywood, they say!’ laughed Prakash.

  The explanation continued in a mellifuous, well-modulated voice. ‘The handsome Udayana is the prince of the prosperous Vathsa Desha. He has an exemplary student, Princess Vasavadutta. She is an extremely beautiful, intelligent and good-natured girl. They fall in love and get married. For the good of the kingdom, Udayana is told that he must marry the Magadha princess, Padmavati; but he refuses. But, for the betterment of her husband and his kingdom, Vasavadutta spreads a rumour that she has died in a forest fire. Reluctantly, Udayana agrees to marry Padmavati. Vasavadutta visits him when he is asleep to console him, and helps him to accept his second marriage. Hence, the play is called Swapna Vasavadutta.

  ‘In any community, land or race, a woman always wants her husband to love only her. Vasavadutta was very fortunate to have a husband who was completely devoted to her. In those days, a king could marry any number of women, but Udayana did not wish to do that.

  ‘The exact period when Bhasa wrote his plays is not known, but historians claim that he comes before Kalidasa and after Ashwagosha.’

  Prakash said, ‘Look at the depth of her knowledge. After watching the play, you will realize what an excellent director she is.’

  Anand was not bothered about the play; he only wanted to see its director, and waited impatiently for the play to begin.

  Throughout the play Prakash kept up his running commentary, ‘Look at the sets, costumes and actresses. Don’t they look extraordinary?’

  There was thunderous applause once the play ended. The students came on the stage and bowed to the audience. At the very end came the lady who was responsible for the success of the play, and everyone gave her a standing ovation.

  In a daze, Anand watched Anupama walk onto the stage as she had many years ago. Then she had been the heroine of Mahashweta. This time, she was on stage as a real ‘Mahashweta’. Her face shone with the same confidence, the same dignity and the same love for theatre.

  When Anand came out with his friend, Prakash immediately sensed that Anand was not his usual self. ‘Are you not well? Come home and rest.’

  ‘Thanks, Prakash, but I’d rather go back to my room. I have a severe headache.’

  ‘Didn’t you like the play? One rarely gets to see Sanskrit drama nowadays. That’s why I insisted on bringing you with me. I’m sorry if you didn’t enjoy it. But don’t you think Anuradha is a great director?’

  ‘Thank you for taking me to the play, Prakash. By the way, the director is not Anuradha. She is Anupama.’

  ‘Oh, I’m not good at remembering names. Besides, Anuradha or Anupama, there isn’t much of a difference anyway.’

  For Anand it was a world of difference. He declined Prakash’s invitation to dinner. His mind was a riot of conflicting emotions. As soon as Prakash left, he hurried backstage. The attendants were closing up after cleaning the stage. It was already late. ‘Could you give me the address of Anupama?’ Anand asked the supervisor.

  ‘Which Anupama?’

  ‘The lady who directed the play today.’

  ‘They have all left.’

  ‘Could you at least you give me her telephone number?’

  The supervisor looked at him suspiciously. ‘Who are you? Why do you need her number?’

  ‘I am her relative.’

  ‘If you are her relative, then how come you don’t have her address?’

  Anand was unable to to come up with a satisfactory answer. But he looked so dejected that the supervisor felt sorry for him. ‘Come tomorrow morning at 11.30 and meet the manager and speak to him. Now, if I stay any longer I will miss my last local to Virar.’

  Anand came out of the theatre and stood gazing at the sea at Nariman Point. He felt a deep sense of grief and regret. A few hours’ delay in getting Anupama’s address had upset him so much. What had Anupama gone through when she had been struggling all alone without any money, support, or even a letter from him?

  The more
he thought about Anupama, the guiltier he felt. He remembered Anupama’s words in her introduction to the play. In any community, land or race, a woman always wants her husband to love only her . . .

  I probably never loved her as Udayana loved Vasavadatta. Though she had all the qualities of Vasavadutta, I did not have any of Udayana’s. . .

  The next day, Anand went back to the Tata Theatre and got her college address. He called the college, with trepidation, and was told that she was on leave; but he got her home address without much difficulty. Instead of calling her, he hailed a taxi. ‘46, Pali Hill, Bandra West,’ he said.

  Anupama woke up later than usual the day after the play. She was looking forward to spending the entire day in search of her next play. The play she had directed had been a resounding success, and she was very happy about it. Satya and Vasant had congratulated her warmly. The media too had sought her out, but she had persuaded her students to speak to the reporters while she herself remained in the background. She told Vasant, ‘This is not my success. It is the result of my students’ hard work, the dramatic prowess of Bhasa, and the appreciation of the audience. I am so grateful to you for introducing me to Mr Mojwani, Vasant.’ Her limpid brown eyes were full of sincerity.

  Anupama knew that choosing a play for college students would not be an easy task. It would require a sound knowledge of the history, the attire and customs of the period in which the play was set. She was immersed in her search when there was a knock on the door.

  Sakkubai had taken the day off. Assuming that some of her students had come to see her, Anupama called out, ‘Please come in.’

  Anand walked in.

  Anupama was sitting on the floor holding some books in her hand. When she saw her visitor, her smile faded and she got up hurriedly. The shock of seeing Anand after so many years left her speechless. She forgot the basic rules of etiquette and did not even welcome her guest.

  ‘Please sit down,’ she said, indicating the sofa.

  Once, Anupama had waited eagerly for even a brief reply to her letters and cried, day and night, for a single word of consolation from him. ‘Anand, please come and take me away from this hell. . .’ had been her constant prayer. But no one had come to her rescue. Now that he was sitting in front of her, she did not know what to say. She found that she had no expectations from him.

  Anupama smiled sadly. There were so many things that she had once wanted to tell Anand. She had devoted her mind, body and soul to him, loved him without reservation, and in return he had hurt her deeply.

  Every second dragged heavily and old wounds became raw again. Anupama remembered Radhakka and Girija’s indifference to her; the helplessness she had felt as an abandoned wife who had been sent back to her father’s house. She remembered, in minute detail, the moments when she had contemplated suicide. It was as if all those things had happened just yesterday.

  Anupama’s silence made Anand deeply uncomfortable. White patches had appeared on her beautiful arms, which had once been adorned by green and red bangles. Her eyes sparkled with confidence; there was not a trace of self-pity in her demeanour. Anupama seemed to have grown in stature.

  Anand spoke first, breaking the awkward silence, ‘How are you, Anu?’

  Anupama turned to Anand. He was still handsome but she thought he looked somewhat jaded. There was a distance between them now, and he seemed a stranger to her.

  Since he did not receive a response from her, he tried again, ‘Anupama, I saw your play yesterday. It was fantastic.’

  Hadn’t he said similar words to her, which had charmed her and won her innocent heart, several years ago?

  ‘Thank you, doctor.’

  Anand was disheartened by her response, but he made yet another effort to draw her out. ‘It was very hard to trace your address. No one was able to help me. . .I tried my level best. . .’

  ‘When did you come back from England?’ she cut in.

  ‘Two years back. Anupama, please forgive me. Everyone makes mistakes.’ Anand stood up.

  ‘Please sit down. Which mistake are you seeking forgiveness for? Please remember that saying the right thing at the right time is what makes a conversation meaningful. Language is a tool we use to express ourselves. It is what differentiates us from animals. Did you speak when you first got to know about my condition? Was it my fault that I got this white patch? Is it my fault that I am a poor man’s daughter? Now that you are here, answer me.’

  Anand did not know what to say.

  ‘You knew that I did not have this disease before our marriage. You could have told your mother. . .but you didn’t. You were scared that I would be disfigured because of this disease. Your mother and sister disliked me because I was from a poor family. They wanted an excuse to get rid of me and your silence provided them with the perfect cover. I ended up a victim because you chose to dishonour the vows you took.’

  ‘Anupama, I cannot answer any of your questions. I can only beg your pardon.’

  ‘Why? Even household pets are treated with love and cared for when they are unwell. I was your wife, lonely, scared and totally dependent on you. All I wanted was to hear a few kind words from you. They would have been my strength, but you never bothered to console me even once.’

  Anand found the courage to say, ‘Anupama, avva is old-fashioned. She was worried that if we had daughters their future would be difficult.’

  ‘Being a doctor, how can you even say that, let alone use it as an excuse? Nobody in my family had this disease. Then why did I get it?’

  Anand was quiet.

  ‘You were worried about your unborn daughters’ future,’ Anupama continued. I am also somebody’s daughter; did you worry about my future? You never treated me as a human being. I was only a beautiful object that you wished to possess and flaunt. Had I known your attitude towards life, I would have told you to marry somebody else. Suppose you had got leukoderma, do you think I would have left you for some other man? A marriage is a lifelong commitment; for better or for worse, till death do us part. Wasn’t that what you’d said to me before you left for England? Even though you are a doctor, you only know how to treat a disease, not tend to a patient’s emotional needs.’

  Her words weighed Anand down.

  ‘Do you know why your mother sent me back? Because she knew that you would never question her about it. I was an unwanted toy she had brought home because her son had set his heart on it. Once it was damaged, she threw it away knowing that her son would not want it any more. I want to ask you a simple question. What guarantee is there that tomorrow your children will not get this disease?’

  ‘I have not married again, Anupama.’

  ‘But I heard that you had consented. . .’

  ‘Avva tried her best to get me married again, but I refused. Everything you said is true. I’m begging you to forget the past. If you do not want to stay with avva, we will go back to England where nobody will bother us. Let us face life together.’

  ‘How can you possibly expect a burnt seed to grow into a tree? Husband, children, affection, love. . .they are all irrelevant to me now. It is too late for us. I am no longer the naive Anupama whose world revolved around you. I know what my goals are and where I am heading, and I don’t need anyone’s help to reach my destination. God has been very kind to me. I have been fortunate enough to live in a place like Bombay where even this mad rush has a humane side to it. I have excellent friends who trust me and will not hesitate to help me if I am in trouble. All my students are as dear to me as my own children would have been. Their unconditional love has never made me think of myself as blemished. I cannot help feeling sad for those women who are still at the mercy of their husbands and in-laws, and are emotionally and economically dependent on them. What will their fate be if they are unfortunate enough to get this kind of a disease? I am not dependent on anyone for emotional or finanacial support and that has given me enormous strength. I thank God for having been so fortunate.’

  Anand heard her out quietly, stil
l hopeful that she would go back with him.

  Anupama realized the time had come to make her decision clear to him. ‘It would be better for us to part now and never communicate with each other again. We met accidentally, but we were not made for each other. Let us part with a good grace.’

  Anand understood then that this would be his last meeting with Anupama. He gave it one desperate try. ‘Anupama, think one more time about what I’ve said. Please come back with me.’

  Anupama picked up her books, ‘You are a well-educated man from a good family. But there is one thing you have not learnt.’ She looked at him steadily.

  ‘What is that?’

  ‘You should never call a woman whom you do not know by her given name.’

  Anand watched Anupama walk away.

  Vasant was supposed to leave for his village in three weeks’ time, so he went to Anupama’s house to find out whether she had decided to accept his proposal. He was usually a calm and collected person, but that morning, his anxiety got the better of him. When he looked at Anupama, he was unable to fathom what was going on in her mind. The same smile, the same simple cotton sari, the same clear brown eyes. . .

  ‘Would you like some tea, Vasant?’

  ‘No Anupama, I want to hear your decision.’

  ‘I am sorry, Vasant, but please forget your idea. I don’t want to get entangled again in the same circle of husband and family. My past has taught me a very valuable lesson. I don’t want a family of my own. Please go back to your village and carry on with your work there. That is your aim in life. My life must follow a different path. I know only too well the prejudices that people like me will have to face in a small village. Bombay has become very dear to my heart; nobody reminds me that I am a leukoderma patient. I don’t have any complaints about my life here. This is my world and I am very happy in it.’

  ‘Anupama, you won’t be young forever. Who will look after you in your old age?’

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