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       Mahashweta, p.4

           Sudha Murty
 
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  Anupama’s father had bought her an artificial silk sari, for that was all he could afford. Radhakka had been very particular about the way her future daughter-in-law decked herself. She had showered her with many expensive saris and ornaments. While Anupama was trying on a diamond necklace, she overheard Vasumathi whisper, ‘Oh, this is only ten per cent of Radhakka’s jewels.’ This had suitably impressed all the women present.

  But Anupama said to herself, To me the greatest jewel is my Anand. The rest only weigh me down.

  Though Anand wanted to talk to Anupama, he was unable to do so because of the crowd around them. When they were finally alone, he found that she still remained silent. ‘Anu, why aren’t you talking to me? The day you came to sell tickets, you were talking so freely.’

  Overcome by shyness, Anupama did not lift her head.

  ‘Anu, I am giving you my heart today, please keep it safe.’

  Anupama smiled and dimples appeared on her cheeks.

  A week had passed since the wedding and all the relatives had left. Anupama and Anand had a room in the first floor of Lakshmi Nivas. Anupama had taken a leisurely bath and stood in the balcony, drying her long hair, enjoying the privacy and solitude. Her life seemed a perennial fountain of joy, of love and happiness. She was unable to understand how philosophers could describe such pleasures as temporary.

  Anybody would envy her. God had been kind to her and she had married into such a distinguished family without having to face any obstacles. Her only worry was that, within two months, Anand was supposed to go to England for further studies.

  Radhakka, too, was upset about the proposed trip and argued incessantly with Anand, ‘You have studied so much in our country. Why do you have to go to another country to study further? By the grace of God, we have enough money and you don’t have to go there to earn more. Now that you are married, you should settle down here.’

  ‘Avva, I am not going for the sake of money. I am going there to learn new things and it is just for two years. Please don’t stop me.’

  Anupama could not bring herself to argue with him. She was still adjusting to her new environment and that was making her diffident. Anand told her, ‘Anu, this is our only opportunity to go out and see the world. Once we come back we’ll stay in Lakshmi Nivas forever.’

  Over the next two months, Anand and Anupama went everywhere together; and every minute spent in each other’s company was infinitely precious.

  Radhakka had eventually reconciled herself to Anand’s departure, but she had one wish. Deepavali was only two months away, and she wanted her new daughter-in-law to perform the Lakshmi puja, and then leave for England.

  This was not an unreasonable demand and as it was only a matter of two months, Anand and Anu happily agreed to it. It was decided that Anupama would join Anand immediately after Deepavali.

  As the day of Anand’s departure drew near, Anupama became subdued. Her husband was going to an unknown country, and people had been making malicious comments that she could not ignore. ‘One can have a wife here and another there as well. The women there are very aggressive,’ they had said.

  Anupama constantly feared that something untoward would happen if Anand went abroad. Anand read her mind and said, ‘Anu, don’t worry. I’ll count every hour, every minute and every second till you arrive.’

  ‘Suppose something happens to make you forget?’

  ‘What a foolish girl you are! Haven’t you heard what they say in a church wedding? “Till death do us part. . .” And that is my promise to you. We shall always be together. Anu, how can I ever think of anybody other than you?’

  Anupama sighed with relief.

  Anupama stood gazing at the sky until she lost sight of the aeroplane. She felt miserable and her heart was heavy. Anand had been a stranger to her three months back and now he had become the most important part of her life. She had still not understood fully how that had happened. She looked up at the sky again.

  Radhakka understood her confusion and reassured her, ‘Don’t worry, time will fly very fast. Shall we go now? It will be late by the time we reach home.’

  Radhakka, Girija and Anupama had gone to the airport to see Anand off. No one spoke on the drive back home. As they drove through the market, Radhakka remembered that she had to collect some ornaments she had ordered from the jeweller’s shop. Radhakka was reluctant to take her new daughter-in-law to the jeweller with her. She did not want her to be dazzled by all the wealth on display and desire more than what was due to her. So she said, ‘You buy some vegetables here. I will be back with Girija in a few minutes.’

  Anupama did not ask where they were going as she did not want them to think she was prying. She told the vendor to weigh out the vegetables and was standing near the shop, lost in thought, when the driver asked her, ‘Madam, avva has forgotten to give me the money. Will you pay for the vegetables?’

  Anupama went back to the car to get her purse. She had already taken out the money when she realized that the purse was not hers. It was Girija’s. Anand had bought two identical purses when they had gone to Ooty on their honeymoon—one for Anupama and one for Girija. Anupama was disconcerted at the thought that she had handled someone else’s purse without asking. As Anupama replaced the money, she noticed that Girija’s purse was like that of any other college student. It contained a mirror, a small comb, a packet of bindis, a handkerchief and some money. What caught Anupama’s attention was a packet of oral contraceptives hidden inside with a note that said, ‘After 10 p.m.’.

  Anupama had been taking the same tablets since her wedding because Anand had not wanted children so soon. Finding the tablets in Girija’s purse had momentarily stunned her. When the driver returned to take the money, Anupama gave it to him. Confused, she sat in the car thinking about the note. Who was the person Girija was going to meet? Was Radhakka aware of this?

  By the time mother and daughter returned, Anupama had managed to calm herself. Girija looked so innocent that, for a minute, she felt she had misjudged her. Worried by the strange look on Anupama’s face, Girija asked her at once, ‘Anupama, have you seen my purse?’

  ‘No, I don’t know where it is.’ That was one of the few lies Anupama uttered in her life.

  ‘Girija, you should be careful with your belongings. Otherwise Lakshmi will never stay with you,’ Radhakka admonished.

  Anupama began to observe Girija’s activities from that day on. She dared not discuss her suspicions with anyone. She was too intimidated by her mother-in-law to feel at ease with her. At times, she thought of telling Anand everything. But she had known him for barely two months and did not feel comfortable writing to him on such a sensitive issue; nor did she wish to talk about it over the phone.

  It is said that wealth normally never comes alone. It is generally followed by arrogance, and so it was with Girija. She did not pay any attention to Anupama or try to be friendly with her. She had her own room and her own set of friends, and she was always busy with her own activities.

  One day, during dinner, Girija told her mother, ‘Avva, all my friends have decided to go on a two-day study tour to Belur and Halebeedu. I want to go, too.’

  ‘Will there be any boys joining this tour?’ asked Radhakka.

  ‘No, only the girls from our class and our lady teachers are going,’ Girija assured her quickly and was given permission to go on the trip.

  While Girija was away Radhakka’s friend, Sundaramma, who was celebrating her grandson’s first birthday, invited her to attend the function. Radhakka had not been feeling well, so she called Anupama and said, ‘Anupama, you must attend the function. Give the child a silver bowl as a gift. Remember to wear your emerald ornaments and take the car. But don’t stay too long in their house.’

  Radhakka believed that the purpose of attending a function was not so much to socialize or participate in the festivities as to flaunt one’s wealth. Her actions were never the result of love or affection. Anupama could not go out without taking the car and the d
river, and never without her mother-in-law’s permission. Before her marriage, she had been a free bird and had gone wherever she pleased. Now, she felt as if she was locked up in a gilded cage.

  She dressed to please her mother-in-law, and left for the ceremony. By the time she arrived at Sundaramma’s house, the other guests had departed, and only the members of the family were around. Anupama began talking to Sundaramma’s daughter, Kamala, who was Girija’s classmate. Casually Anupama asked Kamala, ‘Hey, why didn’t you go to Halebeedu?’

  ‘What are you talking about?’ Kamala looked puzzled.

  ‘I thought the college had taken the girls from your class on a study tour.’

  ‘The college hasn’t organized any such trip for us. Now that we’re in the middle of our seminars, no one can go anywhere.’

  Anupama was nonplussed. She realized that something was wrong, but did not want to divulge any family secrets to an outsider.

  Kamala, however, persisted, ‘Who told you about the trip?’

  ‘I can’t remember. I guess I was confused and got everything mixed up.’

  ‘Where is Girija?’

  Anupama stammered, ‘Oh, she is not well, so she stayed at home.’

  ‘Is that why she didn’t come to college yesterday?’

  ‘Yes!’ Anupama was now desperate to escape from Kamala’s clutches. ‘Oh, it is getting late; I must go now,’ she mumbled.

  ‘What’s the hurry? Anyway, Anand is not here. Stay for some more time. It seems the school for the physically handicapped is organizing a fund-raising programme this year, too!’

  ‘Is that so?’ Anupama had lost contact with the world outside Lakshmi Nivas since her marriage.

  ‘Aren’t you acting in their play?’

  ‘Which play?’

  ‘Chand Bibi. Now that you’re at home, I thought you’d go for the rehearsals. I’m surprised you don’t even know about this.’

  Sundaramma, who had overheard their conversation, exclaimed, ‘It’s out of the question. Radhakka will never allow her daughter-in-law to act. Imagine girls from decent families going on stage! Things cannot go on as they did before the marriage. Radhakka will have a heart attack if her daughter-in-law carries on like that!’

  Anupama left with a sinking heart. So that was their opinion of such a beautiful art! It meant that, henceforth, she could never act or sing. Her only purpose was to be adorned and exhibited as an acquisition, a reflection of their status in society. She had never expected to live this kind of a life.

  Her only ray of hope was that an educated person like Anand would not hold such views. After all, had he not been charmed by her play?

  She was confident that he would never let her down.

  When Anupama reached home, she found that Girija had returned from her tour. She was describing to her mother the beauty of the Belur and Halebeedu temples. Anupama behaved as though nothing had happened, and did not breathe a word of what she had heard to anyone.

  As the days went by, Anupama began to get bored and depressed. She did not feel at home in her in-laws’ house, and suspected that she would always feel like a stranger there. The only comfort she derived was from Anand’s calls and letters. They were as welcome as rain during the hot summer, as refreshing as an oasis in the desert. In his letters, he described the beautiful places that he had seen, and also his loneliness and how he yearned to see her. If only I had wings, I’d fly away to him, thought Anupama.

  One day, Anupama was in her room, reading Anand’s last letter over and over again, when Girija walked into the room in a towering rage.

  ‘Anupama, who told you to gossip about me?’

  Taken aback, Anupama asked, ‘What did I do?’

  ‘It seems you checked with Kamala about the tour.’

  ‘No. I never asked her anything. We were just having a casual conversation. You’re mistaken if you think I was trying to pry.’

  ‘No. I’m not mistaken. You had doubts about me, so you asked Kamala.’

  ‘I really do not know whether you went on the tour or not. Only you know about that. But Girija, as your sister-in-law and as someone older than you, can I tell you something?’

  Girija did not answer.

  ‘You have not chosen the right path, and your behaviour does not befit the family you come from. That’s all I want to say.’

  ‘Oh, stop preaching. Only avva has the right to advise me. Who are you to tell me anything? You have enacted so many love scenes on the stage. Was that all right?’

  ‘They were only plays, Girija. Not real life. You can ask anyone about me—you will not hear a single word of scandal.’

  ‘Just because you have married my brother, do not think you can tell me what to do. You should know your limitations.’ Girija was about to leave the room when Radhakka entered. When she saw her mother, Girija’s attitude underwent a complete change.

  ‘Avva, Anupama thinks that I did not go to Halebeedu and she asked Kamala about it. I learnt this from Kamala in college today,’ Girija began to sob.

  Radhakka was furious with Anupama. This girl who had come into their house a couple of months ago was making her daughter cry!

  Radhakka raised her voice, ‘Is that true, Anupama?’

  Things were going out of control. It was as if there was an ocean of misunderstanding between them. Anupama understood the reason for that and said haltingly, ‘I only mentioned the trip in passing. . .it was a casual question. I’m sorry if I have hurt you all.’ Tears rolled down her cheeks—the first since her marriage. She had hardly ever wept before. Silently, she withdrew to the window, and Radhakka followed Girija downstairs.

  ‘Girija, tell me the truth now. Where did you go?’

  ‘Avva, I swear on goddess Lakshmi that I went on the college tour.’

  ‘Then why was Kamala not aware of it?’

  ‘Kamala belongs to a different batch and we don’t interact much with each other.’

  Since Radhakka did not know that there were no batches at the MA level, she directed her anger at Anupama. ‘No wonder they say you should check out the family background before you bring a girl into your home. She wanted to ruin your reputation! How dare she! I agreed to this alliance only because Anand was so adamant.’

  Throughout the night, Anupama lay awake; she just could not sleep. Girija’s altercation with her had made Anupama withdraw from the rest of the household. She was desperate to go away to England; each day had become a trial for her.

  Anupama was not sent to her mother’s house for the Gowri festival. Not that Sabakka had been keen on inviting her. Her father had sent her a hundred rupees—a large sum for him—by money order. Radhakka was disgusted. ‘The baksheesh I give our cook is more than this,’ she muttered.

  At last, it was the auspicious day of the Lakshmi puja. All of them forgot their differences as it was the celebration of the year. Every nook and cranny, every room in the house was cleaned till it gleamed. Hundreds of invitations had been sent out and Anupama was decked in silk, gold and diamonds. She was waiting for her visa, and was due to leave for England in a couple of months.

  Before the puja, Narayana kept hustling everybody, ‘One should not miss the auspicious time; otherwise, Lakshmi won’t stop here.’

  Radhakka sent Anupama to get the hot coals to light the incense for the goddess. On her way back from the kitchen, a red-hot piece of coal fell on Anupama’s foot, severely burning it. She quietly poured some cold water on her foot and went to the hall to continue with the puja.

  In spite of the pain, Anupama mingled with everyone; she was the perfect hostess. Radhakka was very pleased that the function was a success.

  After the function was over and the guests had departed, Anupama poured some more cold water on her foot. The cold gave her some relief from the pain, but the burning sensation did not subside. By the time she went to sleep, she noticed that the burn had bubbled into a large blister.

  Her discomfort persisted over the next two days, but she did not tell an
yone about it. She preferred to suffer in silence as she knew that no one there was concerned about her. She applied some medication and though the wound started healing, it itched occasionally.

  A couple of days later, she noticed something very odd. There was a small white patch on her foot where she had got burnt.

  FOUR

  Initially, Anupama did not bother much about the patch. But as the days passed, she realized that it was growing bigger. She could no longer afford to ignore it. What was it? she wondered. She began to suspect that it could be leukoderma, and became numb with fear. She was too shocked even to cry.

  Radhakka noticed that her daughter-in-law was becoming listless, day by day, and assumed that it was because she was missing Anand. Anupama did not share her problem with anybody.

  In the meantime, Anupama’s father wrote to tell her that Nanda was getting married. The groom was a clerk in Lakshmi Co-operative Bank, and as his grandmother had passed away recently, they wanted the wedding to be held only after six months.

  Shamanna’s letter asked if she would stay back for six more months and then join her husband. Anupama was very happy for Nanda, but she was in no mood to postpone her journey by another six months. She wanted to escape from her in-laws’ place as soon as possible. Meanwhile, she decided to go for a check-up and if her suspicions about the patch proved to be true, she would also find out how it could be treated.

  Anupama had seen many people with leukoderma, but had hardly given them a fleeting thought. However, things were different now. She asked God what sin she had committed to be punished so. As far as she could remember she had never hurt anybody. Then why had this curse befallen her? She prayed to God to prove her fears false. Anupama knew she had to be extremely discreet, and keep her problem a secret. But how could she visit the doctor without anyone else finding out about it? Whenever she wished to go out, the driver had been instructed to take her out in the car. And if she went to the doctor, the driver would definitely report it to her mother-in-law. Nor could she consult their family physician—that would invite an even greater disaster.

 
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