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       Mahashweta, p.5

           Sudha Murty
 
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  Anupama could not share her agony even with Anand. She brooded constantly and prayed to God to save her from this ordeal. But the patch continued to grow, making her terrified of what the future held in store for her.

  One evening, when Girija was not at home and Radhakka was getting ready to attend a religious discourse, Anupama decided that it was the opportune time for her to visit the doctor. She said, ‘I would like to visit my friend in the hostel. I haven’t met her in a long time. I will see her and return soon.’

  Radhakka asked, ‘How will you go? I will be taking the car and the driver.’

  ‘Don’t worry. I can take a bus or an auto.’

  ‘Don’t go by bus. Take an auto and come back before it gets dark.’

  Anupama felt as if she had freed herself from a giant web. She immediately took an auto and soon reached the clinic of a famous dermatologist, Dr Rao, in the heart of the city. Fortunately, the doctor was in, and Anupama sat waiting for her turn with the other patients who had come before her.

  The clock ticked away mercilessly, and Anupama started to worry that she would not be able to reach home on time. She was beginning to wonder why the doctor was taking so long, when she was called in. The doctor was confident and sympathetic, and his reassuring voice stilled her fears. ‘Sit down. Don’t worry. Tell me, what is the problem?’

  Anupama hesitated for a moment, then raised her sari so that her foot was exposed, and showed him the white patch. Dr Rao tested it with a needle and ascertained that there was no loss of sensation there.

  His face was expressionless as he said, ‘You have vitiligo.’

  ‘What does that mean, doctor?’ asked Anupama, thinking it could be some minor problem.

  ‘It is also known as leukoderma.’

  Anupama could not stem the flow of her tears any longer.

  The doctor was aware that tiny white patches like that had ruined many marriages, shattered many hearts, broken many engagements. Most patients who learnt that they had leukoderma were overwhelmed by the social implications of their affliction. He did not try to stop her from crying—he felt it was the best way for her to cope with her tensions and fears.

  When she regained her composure, he said, ‘This is not an incurable condition. There are new medicines available in the market today. Before I write out the prescription, can I know a little bit of your family history? Does anybody in your family have vitiligo?’

  ‘My mother passed away when I was a child, so there is none whom I can ask. But I can’t think of anyone in the family who has had this. Doctor, is it hereditary?’

  ‘Not necessarily. Nothing had been proved as yet. ‘

  ‘Doctor, did this happen because my foot got burnt?’

  ‘No. That was just a coincidence. These patches may come anywhere, at any age. There is no explanation for them at all. Some women even get them during pregnancy.’

  Anupama wiped her tears. ‘Doctor, why did I get this?’ she asked.

  ‘I don’t have an answer to your question—in fact, no one can answer it. I will write out a prescription for you. Try it and see if it helps you.’

  ‘Do you think I’ll be cured within a month?’

  ‘Let me be frank with you,’ Dr Rao said. ‘Skin conditions do not get cured within a matter of days—the time frame varies from person to person. We will try to arrest it and see if we can stop it from spreading further. But I cannot assure you that you will be cured within a certain time.’

  Anupama’s heart sank as she rose to leave.

  Understanding her agony, the doctor continued, ‘Don’t lose courage. This is not a disease. It is caused by defective pigmentation of the skin. Face it boldly—anxiety and tensions may only aggravate it.’

  ‘Doctor, will you please keep my visit confidential?’ Anupama requested the doctor in a low tone.

  ‘Of course, it is my duty.’ He wrote the prescription and gave it to her saying, ‘This medicine is a solution. Apply it only on the affected area. Infrared rays are strongest in the morning. Expose this medicated patch to the sun’s rays for ten minutes. Repeat this procedure every alternate day, and then come back to me.’

  The consultation had taken almost an hour. She now understood why dermatologists spent such a long time with each patient.

  Anupama’s emotional condition worsened as the days passed, and she was utterly despondent. She was afraid to inform Anand about her condition, and worried about the consequences if she did not get cured. She followed the doctor’s instructions very carefully, but it was of no use.

  The doctor had tried to reassure her, and told her to be patient. Anupama wondered. . .even if she had endless patience would it solve her problems? What about the people around her? Every time she had to visit the doctor, she had to weave a big lie so that nobody would guess where she was going. . Anupama now felt as though there was a sharp sword hanging over her head. She was haunted by the fear that someone would find out her secret; and the harder she tried to conceal her problem, the larger the web of deceit grew. And so did the patch.

  She started wearing her sari much lower than before in order to hide the patch, and as a result at times even walking became difficult. Was she suffering now because of her karma, because of something she had done in her previous birth? Was her affliction the result of someone’s curse? She was no longer keen to call up Anand or write letters to him. Her wretchedness made her oblivious to everything else. She felt as though she was walking through a dark tunnel that had no end in sight.

  One evening, a few days later, Anupama conjured up a suitable lie and left to meet the doctor. Girija was away and Radhakka had gone to visit one of her friends, but when she reached her house she discovered that her friend was out of town. Radhakka decided to get some saffron from the bazaar on her way home, to add to the milk she drank before going to bed. While she was waiting in the car for the driver to fetch the saffron, Radhakka’s eyes accidentally fell on the board outside Dr. Rao’s clinic. Radhakka was under the impresion that those who visited dermatologists had venereal diseases. The very thought of those patients was distasteful to her. She was about to look away when she saw Anupama come out of the clinic.

  Radhakka was shocked. She could not believe that her daughter-in-law was visiting such a place, and that too, without her knowledge! She had always thought of her daughter-in-law as a simple and submissive girl. Anupama had never crossed her in any way, by word or deed, making this breach of confidence unbelievable.

  When the driver returned from his errand, she asked him to take her home immediately. Radhakka’s furiously pondered over what she should do next as she made her way back. She had an uncompromising nature and it did not take her long to arrive at a hard decision.

  Anupama reached home sometime later, completely unaware of what awaited her there. She walked up straight to her room and found a letter from Anand. He had written about British theatre—the constant innovations and the new plays that were being staged in different parts of the country, Globe Theatre in London and Shakespeare’s birthplace, Stratford-upon-Avon.

  Anupama, I am really busy coping with the workload at the hospital, but whenever I see anything beautiful, hear a sweet song, or smell a lovely flower, my mind flies back to you. I am counting the days to your arrival.

  ‘Anupama!’ Radhakka called out from downstairs.

  Anupama was so immersed in reading Anand’s letter that she did not hear her.

  Anu, life is so beautiful and interesting. I am sure you will enjoy every minute of it. By the way, how is avva? She may be harsh at times, but please don’t misunderstand her. For my sake, you should overlook all that. . .

  ‘Anupama!’ Radhakka’s voice was sharper this time, and Anupama started as it cut into her thoughts. She suddenly realized that something was wrong.

  ‘Yes, I’m coming,’ she called out as she reached the stairs.

  Radhakka was standing at the foot of the stairs. ‘Is your friend’s house in the market?’

  Anup
ama fumbled for an answer.

  ‘Come down!’ commanded Radhakka.

  Anupama only remembered putting her foot down on the step below. Her foot either got entangled in the folds of her sari, or sheer fear blinded her—she lost her balance and screamed as she rolled down the stairs.

  Her scream brought the driver, the cook, Narayana and Girija rushing to her. Anupama was unconscious, and blood trickled from the cut on her forehead. Her sari was in disarray, and what she had been struggling to hide so desperately was now revealed to everyone.

  All of them stood staring at the white patch on her foot. Radhakka did not say anything. She looked as if a calamity had befallen them, and Girija felt a kind of vicious satisfaction. She thought to herself, You wanted to expose me, but now you are exposed.

  Narayana said, ‘Oh, this is a bad omen!’

  Nobody bothered about Anupama. Only the cook brought some water and sprinkled it on her face. She was not badly hurt and recovered soon. Covering up the patch with the end of her sari, she leant against the wall and tried to sit up as Radhakka started questioning her again.

  ‘Anupama, I saw you in the bazaar today.’

  ‘Yes. I had gone to see the doctor,’ she replied in a low voice.

  ‘Then why did you lie to me? I thought you had gone to visit your friend.’

  Anupama did not reply.

  ‘Since when have you had this white patch?’

  ‘From just a few days back.’

  ‘Oh! Are you sure it wasn’t there before the marriage? Don’t lie to me. Anand is far too naïve and you took advantage of him. You deceived him into marrying you for his money. ‘

  Anupama protested, ‘No, that is not true. I did not have this before marriage.’

  Radhakka now directed her anger towards Narayana. ‘Narayana, tell me. Did the horoscopes really match well?’

  ‘Certainly, avva. The horoscope that was given matched well. . .’

  Radhakka murmured, ‘Who knows, it might have been someone else’s!’

  Anupama did not even try to defend herself. Radhakka’s verbal onslaught had left her shaken to the core.

  Anupama was too sensitive to brush aside what had happened. She was unable to eat that night, and nobody called her for dinner anyway.

  Narayana kept telling Radhakka, ‘This is a bad disease. She cannot perform any puja now. It must be the result of a sin from her previous life.’

  Anupama spent the night agonizing over her future. The next morning, Anupama went to the garden as usual and gathered flowers in the silver basket. Soon after the wedding, at Narayana’s suggestion, Radhakka had decided to offer one lakh flowers to the goddess Lakshmi. And Anupama had been assigned the job of collecting the parijata flowers every day.

  When she went to the puja room with the flowers Narayana said, ‘Don’t come in here and pollute everything.’ He took the flowers she had collected, threw them outside, and poured some water on the basket to purify it.

  Anupama was dumbstruck. She had anticipated some problems because of her affliction, but she had not expected to be ostracized in this manner. Till that day, Narayana had always been humble and subservient, and had spoken to her respectfully because he knew she would inherit Radhakka’s mantle one day.

  Nobody bothered even to talk to her anymore. Earlier she had taken her meals with her mother-in-law and Girija. But now, food was sent to her room, implying that she was not welcome downstairs.

  In the afternoon, Sundarakka arrived and Anupama could hear her talking to Radhakka. Normally, she would have gone down to meet her, but she knew that she would not be welcome now.

  ‘Radha, I heard the bad news through your cook. It is simply appalling! I felt so miserable I had to come and see you even though it is late afternoon. I feel terrible knowing that you have been deceived.’ Sundarakka spoke as though she had come to offer condolences to someone who had been bereaved.

  ‘I do not know what to do. How will I tell Anand? Poor boy! He was deceived by her beauty.’

  ‘Radha, be careful. Do you know whether it is leukoderma or leprosy? It might be contagious,’ added Sundarakka.

  Anupama was stunned. Dr Rao had explained to her that although the clinical symptoms of leukoderma and leprosy might be similar, they were very different in nature. He had mentioned that, with the medicines currently available, even leprosy was curable. But who could argue with the likes of Sundarakka?

  A feeling of misery engulfed Anupama. She realized that her position had become lower than that of a servant in just one day. The servant could go home and sleep after finishing the day’s work. But where could she go? To her father’s house? That was impossible. She had never felt comfortable in Lakshmi Nivas, but it had been her home until the day before. Not any longer! A home, after all, is not made up of just the four walls—there must be affection and love, as well.

  So where was the place she could call home? Where would she find kindness and trust? With Anand? But how would she reach England? She did not know the answers to any of the questions that plagued her.

  Anupama was no longer allowed to do any work in the house and she began to feel humiliated and suffocated. The whole town was probably talking about her now. Sundarakka would have spread the news faster than the speed of light, and Anupama was sure people were saying all kinds of things.

  ‘Did you know that Anupama has a white patch? Poor girl!’ ‘She thought she was a beauty queen. Serves her right!’

  Anupama was worried about Anand as well. He was thousands of miles away from her. She was afraid Radhakka would convince him that she had had the white patch before their marriage. Would he believe her or his mother? He was the only one who knew that she had not had the patch at the time of their marriage.

  Anand is not like these people. He is a doctor. Surely, he will persuade his mother to see reason, Anupama told herself repeatedly.

  Each day felt like a year—there seemed to be no end to her torment. How could she carry on like this?

  The end came very swiftly. The following morning, from her first floor room, Anupama saw Shamanna entering Lakshmi Nivas. She had not expected them to send for her father so soon.

  Since Radhakka was already in the room, Anupama stood behind the door and watched as Shamanna took a seat on the edge of the sofa opposite her mother-in-law.

  ‘I received your telegram last night. But as there is no night bus service from our village to the city, I had to take the first bus this morning. I apologize for the delay. Is everything all right with Anupama?’

  ‘What can happen to her? She is hale and hearty.’

  ‘Is there any news from Anand?’

  ‘He is fine.’

  ‘Is something wrong?’ Shamanna was anxious to know why a telegram had been sent summoning him urgently.

  ‘Nothing is wrong, apart than the fact that you deceived us and took advantage of our goodness. You are a poor schoolteacher, and your daughter looked so innocent. Dr Desai vouched for all of you and we believed him. In spite of being the groom’s family, we conducted the wedding at our cost because our Anand said he liked Anupama. In return, you have given us a wonderful lesson in gratitude,’ Radhakka commented sarcastically.

  ‘Please tell me what happened. I can’t understand what you’re trying to tell me. If I have made any mistake, please forgive me. Anupama is very young. She is a motherless child. In case she has erred, kindly forgive her. Treat her like your own daughter. I will see to it that she behaves obediently, and you will have no reason to complain again. No doubt we are poor, but we have not tried to cheat you. God is our witness.’

  ‘If so, call your witness to explain all that has happened. Your daughter had a white patch which you concealed so that Anand would marry her.’

  Shamanna was shocked. ‘What! Anu has a white patch? It is not true! Nobody in our family has ever had that disease. You must be mistaken.’

  ‘Are you saying that I am lying? Then let me show you. Anupama!’ Radhakka yelled.

 
Shamanna, too, called out for her. With a heavy heart and leaden steps, Anupama emerged from behind the door. Her father looked careworn, shocked and worried; her mother-in-law’s face was calm and ruthless.

  Speaking softly, Shamanna said, ‘Anu, your mother-in-law says that you have a white patch. Is it true?’

  Anupama did not reply. Her father repeated the question but still she remained silent.

  Frustrated, he raised his voice, ‘Anu, your mother-in-law is saying that we are liars. Tell me the truth!’

  Anupama looked at her father and mother-in-law. She lifted her sari to show the patch as she spoke, ‘Appa, there was nothing like this at the time of the marriage. This patch appeared only a month back. ‘

  Radhakka looked triumphant, ‘Take your daughter back with you; she need not come back until she’s completely cured and my son returns and sends for her. We have been deceived, and I will inform Anand about this.’ She turned towards Anupama and said, ‘I hope you have understood what I’ve just said. Make sure you leave all the expensive gifts we have given you in your room, and take only what is yours when you go.’

  Shamanna pleaded with Radhakka, ‘Please have mercy on her. Don’t punish her like this. You are her mother now.’ With tears in his eyes he got up to touch her feet.

  Knowing that Radhakka would humiliate him further, Anupama went up to her father and stopped him from falling at Radhakka’s feet. ‘Appa, don’t demean yourself so much. I did not have this affliction before my marriage, and that’s the truth. Wait here. . .I’ll be back in a moment.’

  Anupama went to her room, collected the few things that belonged to her, picked up one of Anand’s photographs and returned where Shamanna waited for her. She took his hand in hers, and silently clutching her bag, walked out of the house. She knew in her heart that this was the last time she would be seeing the house or its people. . .but she did not look back even once.

 
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