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       Mahashweta, p.2

           Sudha Murty
 
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  But beauty and histrionic talent were two different things, so her play might not be so great, he told himself. He was debating whether to go for the show. But his heart told him he had to see her again; he had to get to know her. After all he had met her only once, he knew nothing about her. Not even whether she was married or single, although from what he had seen there was no indication that she was married. But what did she think of him? His musings were cut short when the razor blade nicked his cheek and blood started oozing from the cut. He imagined Anupama standing behind him, smiling. He felt elated and light-hearted at the very thought of her. Whistling happily, he got ready to go for the play.

  The Town Hall was crowded and Anand realized that Anupama must have worked really hard to sell so many tickets. While looking for his seat somewhere close to the front row, he met Vasumathi. ‘I knew you would come,’ she said, smiling mischievously. ‘Anu gave me complimentary passes for the boys but there are no seat numbers on them. And they’re pestering me for ice cream. Let them sit in your seat while I get the ice cream. Could you go and find Anupama and ask her the seat numbers of my complimentary passes?’

  ‘Where is she?’

  ‘She is in the green-room behind the screen. But you can ask anybody, they will direct you to her.’ Without even waiting for his reply, Vasumathi went away.

  Happy, but somewhat hesitant, Anand went looking for Anupama. He found her sitting in a chair, simultaneously giving instructions to several people. Clad in a deep red sari, she reminded him of a beautiful rose. Her long hair was loose and touched the ground like a dark cloud. She was holding a garland in one hand and a book in the other. Anand felt as though he had entered the court of a queen, and not a green-room! Though he went in and stood near her, Anupama was so busy that she did not even notice him until a girl standing nearby whispered to her. A faint blush stole across her cheeks, as she asked, ‘Where are you sitting?’

  ‘Oh, I have found my seat. But Vasuakka’s complimentary pass. . .’

  Anupama had no time to hear him out. She was in a hurry. ‘Oh, they can sit on one of the red sofas and you may also sit with them if you want.’ And then someone called her and she went away. As she brushed past him, Anand felt as though a beautiful parijata tree had showered its flowers on him.

  There was no reason for Anand to keep standing there, but still he did not move. Anupama did not come back though she had said that she would return in a few minutes. Then he remembered that Vasumathi would be waiting for him, and would make many suggestive comments if he delayed going back to the auditorium. So, he reluctantly returned to his seat. Anupama returned to the green-room moments after Anand left.

  Her friend, Sumithra, whispered in Anupama’s ear, ‘Anu, who is this Prince Charming? Is he one of your admirers?’

  ‘Come on Sumi, don’t imagine too many things. I sold him tickets worth two thousand. Is it not my duty to help him? It is purely professional! Anyway, I have to go and wear my make-up. You handle things now.’ Anupama dashed off.

  It was a fund-raising programme—so there were several speeches about social responsibility, humanity, and so on. Anand was slightly bored; he knew that when people got hold of a mike, they hated to part with it. Every minute seemed to last a year.

  Finally, all the speeches were over, and a melodious voice off-stage began to speak on the play that was to follow: ‘Kadambari is one of the earliest novels written by the great scholar Bana Bhatta, in Sanskrit. A part of this novel has been translated and dramatized by Ms Anupama. The essence of the novel is the love between the heroine, Mahashweta, and the hero, Pundarika. The cast includes Ms Anupama as Mahashweta, Ms Nirmala as Pundarika. . .

  ‘Mahashweta is an extremely beautiful princess and the daughter of the king of Gandhara. One day she goes on a picnic with her friend, Kadambari, and meets Pundarika, the dazzlingly handsome son of a rishi. It is love at first sight for both of them. . .’

  As the princess, Anupama looked sculpted in ivory. When she enacted a love scene with Pundarika, her face glowed with passion. She delivered her lines so naturally: ‘Darling, you are handsome and irresistible. . .you are the very picture of Manmatha. When I saw you today, through the branches of the parijata tree, I fell in love with you immediately.

  ‘I feel I have been waiting for you for many lifetimes. You are my ideal man.’ Anand realized instantly that these were the exact words he had heard in Vasumathi’s house that afternoon. In his ignorance he had presumed that the unseen girl had been talking about him. As he heard those words again, he thought, Thank God, I did not discuss this with anybody. Anupama must have left by the rear staircase the other day, which was why I did not see her.

  The play continued. Later, Mahashweta confided in her friend, ‘Like Rohini to Chandra, like Lakshmi to Narayana, am I to him. Just as the creeper depends on a tree, emotionally I depend on him. I cannot live without him, and for his sake, I am ready to renounce everything. Let society say anything it wishes. I do not care. . .’

  Pundarika, Mahashweta’s beloved, meets with an untimely death and the princess, wearing a white sari and garland, undertakes a severe penance in the forest. Her resolve is unshakable. Her dear friend, Kadambari, tries her best to dissuade her, but to no avail. Finally, Mahashweta’s heart-rending love for Pundarika brings him back to life and the lovers are reunited.

  Anand looked around—Anupama’s portrayal of Mahashweta was so convincing that the entire audience was spellbound. Anand realized that Dr Desai had not exaggerated. Truly, Anupama was not only beautiful but also a brilliant actress.

  When the play ended, there was tremendous applause as the president of the association called Anupama to the stage and spoke highly of her commitment to their cause. ‘Ms Anupama has been of immense help in raising funds for the school. I thank her on behalf of the organization. She has not only been involved with the play but has also sold a substantial number of tickets. We would like to present her with a memento in appreciation of her efforts.’

  Anupama had not expected to be singled out for such praise and was taken aback, but humbly accepted the gift. Lost in admiration, Anand sat still, raptly following her every move.

  As Anupama collected her things and prepared to go home, Vasumathi approached her and said, ‘Anu, the play was wonderful! It is quite late, how will you girls get back to the hostel?’

  There were three other girls with Anupama.

  ‘We’ll take an auto or a taxi,’ Anupama replied.

  ‘It’s too late to take a taxi. Anand’s house is nearby. I’ll tell him to drop you off on his way home.’

  ‘No aunty, we’ll manage.’

  But Anand was only too happy to help, ‘I’ll drop all of you back,’ he said.

  They were all tired and one of the girls whispered in Anupama’s ear, ‘Let’s get a lift.’

  Anand opened the back door and all four of them squeezed in. Anand had hoped that Anupama would sit in front with him. Foolish thought! A girl like Anupama would certainly never do anything so forward. Very 18th century She was only aggressive when it came to selling tickets!

  Anand drove in silence and the girls, too, did not talk. When they reached the hostel, all of them alighted, and Anupama said, ‘Thank you, doctor.’

  ‘You’re welcome, Anupama. Your play was excellent.’

  ‘All thanks to people like you who bought tickets and encouraged us to host the show.’

  Anand smiled and started the car. He was leaving behind him the most beautiful girl in the world. . .and his heart.

  All the girls turned towards their respective rooms, too tired to talk. Sumithra and Anupama, who shared a room, continued to walk together.

  They had been friends and room-mates for the last six years. They were like sisters, and could sense what was going on in each other’s mind. Although they were poles apart in nature, they liked each other a lot, and their lives had become intertwined. Whenever she bought a new sari, Sumi would insist that Anupama try it on first.

 
; While changing into their nightclothes, Sumi asked suddenly, ‘Anu, where did you discover Dr Anand?’

  ‘Sumi, don’t be silly! It seems he is Desai Uncle’s assistant. Quite a rich man, too. . .Somehow I managed to sell him two thousand-rupee tickets.’

  ‘When did you see him first?’

  ‘A fortnight back. When I was in Desai Uncle’s house. I was rehearsing for the play, and saw him from the first floor. He had come in his Mercedes. I’d hoped he would buy the thousand-rupee ticket. But I left as soon as you called and told me to return to the hostel, so I could not meet him that day. Later, I went to the hospital to sell tickets and met him there.’

  ‘Anu, you are a super saleswoman! By the way, you were fabulous as Mahashweta today. When you were sobbing for Pundarika, I felt like coming onto the stage and wiping away your tears.’

  Anupama laughed.

  ‘Tell me more about Anand.’

  Anupama was about to lie down on the bed, but at that she sat up and said dramatically, ‘Miss Sumithra Devi, I do not know anything about this Anand, who is the alter ego of Pundarika, and with whom it seems you have fallen in love. If you command me, I will dig up all the details and get back to you at the earliest. I will also convey your feelings to him. Now, it is past midnight and I would like to sleep. Please, may I?’

  Sumithra was annoyed. ‘Anu, you play so many roles in college dramas that acting has become second nature to you. You can hide your true feelings from everybody but me. Today you did not act. I know that you have lost your heart to Anand—he is your Pundarika. That is why you played the role of Mahashweta so realistically. Anand’s eyes never strayed from you. I know you will not be able to sleep tonight,’ she concluded triumphantly.

  Anupama remained silent. She turned her face towards the wall and, through force of habit, started reciting her lines: ‘Like Rohini to Chandra, like Lakshmi to Narayana, am I to him. Just as the creeper depends on a tree, emotionally I depend on him. I cannot live without him, and for his sake, I am ready to renounce everything. Let society say anything it wishes. I do not care. . .’

  ‘Princess Mahashweta, this is not your palace. This is the girls’ hostel. And, fortunately, your Pundarika is not in the forest. He resides just a stone’s throw away. Please go to sleep. . .and goodnight!’ Sumithra laughed.

  TWO

  Though Anupama would not admit it, Sumithra was right. Anupama had felt herself drawn to Anand ever since she saw him from the first floor of Dr Desai’s house. Vasumathi had spoken of Anand occasionally, and he had captured her heart the moment she set eyes on him. As Mahashweta, when she had talked of love at first sight, she had been speaking from her own heart. However, she was a practical girl, well aware of her situation. Given the difference in their backgrounds, she knew that it would be unrealistic on her part to dream of a life with Anand. She was the eldest daughter of a poor village schoolteacher, and destined to struggle all her life. She was aware that Anand was favoured by Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth. Though she herself had the blessings of Saraswathi, the goddess of learning, Anupama’s life had never been an easy one. She also had no clue as to what Anand felt about her, and did not wish to end up with a broken heart. Reaching out for a star in the sky would only lead to disappointment.

  This was the first time she had kept a secret from Sumi. Anupama had always shared her thoughts and feelings with her. But, somehow, she was reluctant to breathe a word about her feelings for Anand.

  Anupama woke up early the next morning to prepare her notes. Sumithra, who was still lying in bed, mumbled lazily, ‘Anu, the play was just yesterday. But you’re up so early as usual. You always work so hard. Don’t you need a break?’

  ‘Sumi, if I don’t work hard I will lose my scholarship and that will be the end of my career.’

  Sumithra sat up hugging a pillow and said, ‘Anu, you are completing your post-graduation this year. Why are you worried now?’

  ‘Sumi, that is the very reason I’m worried. You know that from the first year of college till now, I have survived on scholarships. If I don’t secure a good rank, I won’t be able to do my PhD and I’d have to find a job.’

  Sumithra was silent.

  It was true that Shamanna could not afford to pay for his daughter’s education. His wife Sabakka, Anupama’s stepmother, had told her husband categorically, ‘Let us not educate her further. It might become difficult to find a husband for her. Besides, she will not support us. She has to marry and go to somebody else’s house one day.’

  Anupama had been devastated. But, fortunately, she had won a scholarship and escaped from her stepmother’s clutches. Sabakka and her daughters, Vasudha and Nanda, did not like Anupama. The main reason was that Anupama was very good-looking and her stepsisters were plain. Sheer jealousy prompted them to taunt Anupama by saying that just because she could write a few lines she was too proud of herself.

  Shamanna was a timid man. He was completely subservient to his second wife’s will, and was not in a position to help his eldest daughter as it was ultimately Sabakka who made all the major decisions at home. But fate had been kind to Anupama. An endowment by a generous donor for educating a girl child from the village, stipulating that if she performed well she would get a stipend every year as long as she wished to study, had come to her rescue. Anupama, who was in the final year of her MA, was still eligible for this scholarship.

  In four months, Sumithra and Anupama would go their separate ways. Sumithra would go back home and get married. Though her family was very well off and could afford to pay enough dowry, sadly her dark complexion would still pose a problem.

  Sumithra would often tease Anupama, ‘Anu, when I stand next to you, I could ward off the evil eye from you.’ To which Anupama would say, ‘Sumi, don’t talk such rubbish!’

  Over the next few days, Anupama exercised enormous self-control and banished ‘Pundarika’ from her mind, concentrating on her studies instead.

  Anupama was never far from Anand’s thoughts. He did not know anything about her save that she was a gifted actress and a lovely girl. Anand had occasionally daydreamed about the woman he would marry one day, and he was certain of one thing—she would be beautiful. The shadowy figure that had been hovering on the edges of his dreams now stood unveiled. Anupama.

  His mother was a domineering woman. She was always nagging Anand to get married. But he had not given it a serious thought so far. Anand wanted a beautiful bride; his mother wanted one who could match their status in the community. Finding a girl who satisfied these conditions was proving to be rather difficult.

  But now, Anand could see his bride clearly. It was Anupama, with her fair complexion, beautiful long hair and dimpled cheeks. But he did not know what she felt about him, or to which community she belonged, or even whether she was already engaged to somebody.

  Deep in thought, he came to the terrace outside his room. The lovely parijata blooms reminded him of Anupama. He tried to recall the first time he had heard about her. It had been in Dr Desai’s house. Surely Vasumathi’s brother, Shrinath, would know about her. Feeling elated, he went to call Shrinath.

  ‘Shrinath, I want to talk to you about something.’

  ‘Oh! No problem. . .you can come to akka’s house.’

  ‘Not there. Let us meet somewhere else.’

  Shrinath agreed to wait for Anand at the Kamat Hotel. Anand had never been in such a situation before, and he began to grow more and more nervous—waiting for the university results had been less nerve-racking.

  Shrinath looked at him shrewdly and said, ‘What, doctor, you look like a patient today!

  ‘Oh, it is nothing. Why didn’t you come to see the play?’

  ‘I watched some of the rehearsals when Anupama and her friends came to akka’s house.’

  ‘Is that so?’

  ‘Yes. After all, her father is my brother-in-law’s friend.’

  ‘Where is she from?’

  ‘Oh, so that’s the reason you have invited me here for tea,’ S
hrinath said shrewdly. ‘If I had known this earlier, I wouldn’t have settled for anything less than a dinner!’

  ‘Yes, I do want to learn more about Anupama,’ confessed Anand.

  ‘Why? Do you want to marry her?’

  ‘Yes.’

  ‘Do you have the courage to disobey your mother and marry her?’

  Once again despair clouded his mind. Did she belong to some other community, or was she already engaged? A beautiful girl like Anupama might have been ‘spoken for’ a long time back.

  Shrinath read his mind. ‘Anand, she belongs to our community, but she is from an extremely poor background.’

  Anand was relieved. He knew that his mother was very keen on money, but as long as the girl belonged to the right community, she would come round. Shrinath, however, was more worldly-wise. He tried to point out that Radhakka might not be happy with a match that was not of the same status, but Anand said joyfully, ‘Avva will agree. My happiness is more important to her than money.’ His filial love had made him blind to his mother’ weaknesses.

  Shrinath kept quiet.

  When Anand told Radhakka that he had chosen the girl he wished to marry, she listened in silence. Radhakka was a woman of few words. She never let her emotions get the better of her. No one could ever make out what was going through her mind. Though Radhakka was in her early fifties now, traces of her beauty still remained. After all, she had not known much suffering in her life. Radhakka had sharp, piercing eyes that never held any sign of gentleness or friendliness. On the contrary, her striking looks made people nervous. They sometimes said that if she had been born in the last century, she would definitely have been a queen.

  Her late husband, Gopala Rao, had been a very successful contractor, but he had always been scared of his wife. They had two children, Anand and Girija.

 
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