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       Mahashweta, p.6

           Sudha Murty
 
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  FIVE

  Sabakka had been pacing in and out of the house all morning. Radhakka’s cryptic message had upset her greatly. In her heart of hearts, she knew that Anupama was not a troublemaker. But then why had her in-laws sent that telegram? She couldn’t help but feel that something was seriously wrong.

  It was noon when Sabakka saw her husband and Anupama coming towards the house in the scorching heat. Heaving a deep sigh, Shamanna quietly went and sat on the verandah outside the house. He looked drained and listless. Anupama walked inside without a word. Sabakka had no idea what was going on; she wanted to know why Anu had been sent home so unceremoniously. She waited for Shamanna to say something but he just leant back wearily against the wall.

  ‘Why do you look so dejected? Has she quarrelled with her in-laws?’

  There was no response.

  ‘What is the matter with you?’

  ‘I’m hungry,’ Shamanna said at last. ‘Go and get some food ready for us. I haven’t had even a drop of water since the morning.’

  ‘What kind of people are they? You went to visit them for the first time since the wedding and they didn’t even offer you a glass of water? Look at Nanda’s future in-laws! They are so kind and considerate. I told you right from the start to look for alliances within our social level. ‘

  ‘Don’t start now! I will speak to you later,’ Shamanna’s heart was heavy. He was worried about Anupama and he wanted to share his sorrows with a sympathetic companion who would say a few encouraging words. He was in no mood to deal with Sabakka’s nagging.

  Sabakka looked at Anupama carefully—her face was pale and her eyes swollen. So, she concluded, something had gone wrong between the girl and her in-laws. After lunch, Shamanna recounted the entire story to her.

  Sabakka had never felt any affection for Anupama. The girl was a living reminder of her husband’s first wife, the woman who had shared Shamanna’s love before Sabakka entered his life. But in her heart she knew that Anupama would never cheat anyone. Sabakka was not bereft of compassion and all motherless children roused her sympathy, except Anupama. Unfortunately, Anu was beautiful and intelligent while her own daughters were not. And just when Sabakka had thought she was well rid of her, she had returned home in disgrace. Her Nanda’s marriage talks could be affected by the scandal. How long was Anu going to stay with them? Would she remain there forever? The thought of seeing her face every day upset Sabakka even further.

  ‘Why did you bring her here? You should have left her with her in-laws. They are rich and can afford her treatment. How long will she stay with us? You could have settled everything before coming here.’

  ‘Why are you talking like that? How could I leave her there when they virtually threw her out of the house? It was my duty to bring her home. By the grace of God, if she is cured quickly, she can go back. We will inform Anand. He is a doctor after all, he will arrange for her treatment.’

  ‘This is a village. Everybody will ask us why Anupama has come back home, and the truth will soon come out. Once people find out that she has leukoderma, both my daughters’ future will be at stake. And who knows whwwen Anand will return?’

  Shamanna did not know what to say. There was some truth in what Sabakka was saying, but as a father, how could he have left his daughter behind when her in-laws were being so cruel to her?

  He said in a defeated voice, ‘I will tell Anupama to write to Anand and ask him what should be done. Let her stay here in the meantime.’

  Anupama could not help overhearing their conversation. She realized that Anand alone held the key to her future. She was also painfully aware that she had no money.

  There was no way she could call Anand from the village, so she decided to write to him instead and wait for his reply.

  Dear Anand, she wrote

  By now you must have heard the ‘news’ about me. But I want to tell you the truth.

  The past two months have been the most terrifying of my life. It started with a live coal falling on my foot on Lakshmi puja. A few days after the wound healed, I noticed a small white patch there and since I did not know what to do about it, I consulted Dr Rao at the skin clinic in the city. He confirmed that it was leukoderma.

  I am taking the treatment prescribed by Dr Rao. Please do not think that I hid this matter from your mother. I didn’t tell anyone about my condition because I was scared and apprehensive. But your mother thinks that I have had the patch since before our marriage. She is convinced that I hid it from you and tricked you into marrying me. But you know that is not true. I never even dreamt that you would want someone like me; I was always aware of the differences between us before you erased them.

  Anand, you know I did not have the patch when we got married. Please tell your mother that I have not deceived you. I am staying with my father in the village. But how long can I stay here as an additional burden on my father?

  Please make arrangements for me to join you as soon as possible. My thoughts are always with you.

  I shall be waiting eagerly for your response.

  Always yours,

  Anu

  Life in the village was very hard for Anupama. Sabakka was an uneducated and old-fashioned woman who believed that white patches brought bad luck and were contagious. So, she treated Anupama with disdain and although Anupama tried her best to explain the nature of her ailment to Sabakka, she failed to convince her.

  Days passed and there was no reply from Anand. At night, Anupama would sit by her window and gaze at the stars, wondering about Anand’s reaction to her letter. He must have been upset; she realized that it would take some time for him to come to terms with what had happened. But Anupama was confident that he would reply to her soon.

  Papanna told Anupama, ‘You don’t need to ask me every day. I know you are waiting for your husband’s letter. The day I get it, I will bring it to you.’

  By now, everyone in the village knew that Anupama had a white patch because of which her in-laws had sent her back, and that her husband had not written to her. There were many rumours about it. Malicious stories, which had not even a semblance of truth, spread through the village, and Anupama could not help hearing the whispered gossip. The villagers asked Sabakka all sorts of questions about her.

  ‘How come Anupama is here? It is not the festive season. . .’ Or, ‘Is Anupama in the family way that she has come home?’ Or, ‘We have not seen anyone from her inlaws’ family come to your place.’

  Sabakka would struggle with her lies. ‘Oh, she has just come here for a change. She’s going to England to join her husband in a few months.’

  Through all this, hidden from everyone, the white patch on Anupama’s foot kept spreading. The more it spread, the lower Anupama’s spirits sank. The medicines that she was taking regularly did not have any effect on the patch. Months passed, and still there was no news from Anand. At first Anupama had thought that the letter had got lost and Anand had not received it. So she wrote a few more letters, but still there was no reply.

  At last, Papanna came by the house to deliver a letter for Anupama. She ran to the door, ecstatic, Anand had not forgotten her! He was going to honour the vows he had made at the time of their wedding.

  But when she saw the ordinary inland letter, Anupama’s hopes plummeted. It was from Sumithra. Bravely swallowing her tears, she went inside and opened the letter.

  It carried good news. Sumithra was getting married and the boy’s name was Hari Prasad. He was a sales engineer in Bombay, and Sumithra insisted that Anupama attend the wedding.

  For a moment she forgot her own troubles in her happiness for Sumithra. And then she realized that she could not go for the wedding. It would only give people an opportunity to talk about her.

  She remembered a day, long ago, when she had dropped in unexpectedly at Sumithra’s house. They were hoping to finalize an alliance for Sumithra, and her mother had been extremely upset to see Anupama. She felt that with Anupama there, Sumi was sure to be rejected. Then, her beauty ha
d threatened her best friend’s happiness. Now, her skin problem would cast a shadow over the ceremony, for she was sure some of the orthodox people there would say, ‘Why did you invite this girl for such an auspicious occasion?’

  Anupama did not have the strength to cope with such stinging remarks. Though Sumi was like a sister to her, she decided not to attend the wedding. But later that night, she prayed for Sumi’s happiness: Let your husband be a man who will only shower happiness and love on you. It is better to have an understanding husband than one who is merely handsome and wealthy. Marriage is a gamble. The result cannot be predicted beforehand. Finding the right match is a matter of chance. I was unlucky in this. May you be more fortunate.

  Anupama mused. . .sooner or later her sisters would also get married and go away to start their own families. They would have a companion to share their joys and sorrows, and they would have children. But her own life would be as silent as a graveyard. She wondered where she had gone wrong. Why was she being punished? Was there no escape from this ordeal? It seemed as though even God had turned a deaf ear to her prayers.

  There was still no word from Anand.

  Was he, perhaps, too unwell to write? Or, had he sent his reply to Radhakka’s address? Should she ask Radhakka to redirect all her letters to the village? No, that would be a futile exercise. But then she remembered that in her letters to Anand she had written the correct return address at the back of the envelope. She thought of Dr Desai who had brought them together. Though he was now in Delhi he would certainly know where Anand was and what he was doing. Should she subject herself to the humiliation of asking a third person for her husband’s address? Anupama was well aware that the relationship between husband and wife was an intensely private one. But now, circumstances had forced her to ask an outsider for help. Anupama cast aside her doubts and wrote to Dr Desai.

  Late one evening, when Anupama was alone at home, there was a knock on the door. Sabakka had gone to the temple, her father had gone to the market, and her sisters were at a neighbour’s house to attend some function. Anupama was only too aware that she was no longer welcome on auspicious occasions, and even when people invited her she refrained from going anywhere.

  When Anupama opened the door, she saw two men standing outside. They looked Anupama up and down, as if they were examining her, and she felt extremely uncomfortable. ‘Please come inside. Appa will be returning any minute now,’ she said, and brought them some water to drink.

  The older of the two asked her, ‘Are you the eldest daughter?’

  ‘Yes,’ she replied. When the strangers did not say anything further, she went into the kitchen.

  When Sabakka returned home and saw the visitors, she grew visibly excited. She went inside and asked Anupama, ‘What did you offer them? Do you know who they are? They are our Nanda’s prospective in-laws!’ She happily hurried away to prepare some snacks for them.

  Anupama slipped away to her room, knowing that Sabakka would not want her around the guests.

  Shamanna arrived a few minutes later with Nanda and Vasudha in tow. Nanda quietly went to help her mother in the kitchen.

  ‘I’m sorry I was not at home to receive you properly. We did not know you were coming today. Please stay with us tonight. I wanted to meet you earlier and fix the date of the marriage, but there were some problems and I was held up. What will you have—tea or coffee?’

  The old man gestured to him to stop. The other person who was his brother said, ‘Masterji, we just happened to be in the neighbourhood, so we came to see you. We cannot stay for dinner as we have to go back soon.’

  They had tea and Shamanna then accompanied them to the bus-stop.

  Sabakka spent the next few days preparing for her daughter’s wedding. Her standard response to anything that needed to be done for Anupama’s wedding had always been, ‘It is beyond our reach.’ But for Nanda’s wedding, she did not spare any expense. Anupama sighed. She had found a husband who was far above anything she had aspired for. But he had slipped out of her reach.

  A few days later, Papanna brought two letters, one for Anupama and the other for Shamanna. Dr Desai had written to tell her that he had been to England the previous month, and had met Anand there. When Anupama saw the address Dr Desai had given, she was shocked. It was the same address to which she had written all her letters. The implication was all too clear—Anand must have received her letters but had chosen not to reply.

  Anupama turned to see what her father was doing. Shamanna had collapsed after reading the letter that he had received. Anupama wondered what the letter said as she ran to get him some water.

  The letter was from Nanda’s prospective in-laws.

  We had heard a rumour that your eldest daughter has leukoderma and because of that her husband has left her. We did not believe it and had come to see for ourselves. We now know that it was not a rumour but a fact. We do not want a daughter-in-law whose sister has white patches. As you are aware, ours is a very orthodox family and nobody will accept this alliance. . .Perhaps this alliance has not met with Lord Brahma’s approval.

  Please do not misunderstand us, but we are forced to call off the wedding.

  The news came as a shock to everyone and Anupama bowed her head in shame. The grim silnce that swept through the house was broken by the sound of Nanda’s sobs. Sabakka’s anger erupted like a volcano; if she had possessed the power of Shiva’s third eye, Anupama would have been reduced to ashes.

  ‘It is because of her that they want to cancel the marriage. There is no point in weeping about this; you must go and inform them that Anupama and Nanda are stepsisters, not real sisters. Tell them that Anupama has inherited this affliction from her mother, and reassure them that they need have no worries about Nanda.’

  Anupama knew that what Sabakka had said about her mother was not true. But if a harmless lie could help Nanda get married, she would not object. Anupama could not bear to see Nanda suffer because of her. She said in a low voice, ‘Appa, please do as she says. If you can revive the alliance by doing that, no one will be happier than me.’

  Shamanna was filled with despair, but he agreed to go the following morning. The household was in a state of nervous anticipation all day. Shamanna returned in the evening, looking downcast. They had told him bluntly, ‘You are saying this because it suits you, but we don’t want to take any chances with our son’s future. We can always get a better alliance.’

  Nanda’s marriage was cancelled, and Anupama was blamed for this misfortune. This time Anupama did not weep—there were no more tears left inside her.

  Shamanna seemed to age overnight; he became even quieter than before. Fate was conspiring against him, nothing was right in his life anymore. By the end of the month, he was transferred to another village, not unlike the one they were living in. Encouraged by this turn of events, Shamanna and his family soon settled down in the new village.

  It had been a year since Anupama had returned to her father’s house. Before moving to the new village, Anupama gave her new address to Papanna, and requested him to redirect her letters promptly. Even though she had realized otherwise, she still hoped that Anand would come for her one day. Since Shamanna was new to the village, no one had approached him for private tuitions yet. Life had become a struggle, and Sabakka vented all her frustrations and anger on Anupama. ‘Your in-laws are rich. Why can’t they send some money every month for your maintenance? It would have been better if you had stayed with them instead of coming here and adding to our burdens.’

  But Anupama could not bring herself to add to her humiliation by asking her in-laws for money. Sabakka firmly believed that whatever they spent on Anupama was a sheer waste; she refused to acknowledge the fact that Anupama helped with the household chores all day long.

  Anupama had wanted to take up a job as a teacher, but for that she needed a B.Ed. degree. So she resolved to go to the city—there she would start giving tuitions, and earn enough to study further.

  If only she had con
tracted the skin ailment while she was at college, then Anand would not have married her and she would not have lost everything. She could have continued her education and taken up a job, casting aside all thoughts of marriage, instead of being a burden on her family.

  A small white patch had ruined her career as well as her marriage.

  As a student, she had always acted in plays that had a happy ending. She would tell Sumithra, ‘I do not want to play the tragic heroine, Sumi. I want to show the audience the joy, the happiness, the magic transformation that love and beauty can bring. I believe in happy endings!’

  But real life had proved to be different—she was learning the hard way that life is not always a fountain of happiness, but rather a mix of pain and sorrow. The drama of her life had only just begun, and she had no choice but to see it through to the end.

  Sumithra had moved to Bombay after her marriage. She knew about Anupama’s problem and in one of her letters, she wrote,

  Dear Anu,

  I know you are extremely unhappy there and I want you to come and stay with us in Bombay for some time. Instead of sitting at home and brooding over your fate in that village, come to this mega city. I am sure you will get a job; even I got one! I have discussed this with Hari; so you need not worry. Have courage and do not lose your patience.

  Love, Sumi.

  Do not lose your patience, Sumi had written, but how could Anupama not lose her patience when everyone around her treated her with such contempt? The only thing that was keeping her despair from overwhelming her was the determination to overcome all her misfortunes without ever giving in.

  Savantri, the school ayah, would leave the school keys every day in Shamanna’s house. One evening, she took Anupama aside and said, ‘Can I suggest something to you?’

 
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