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       Mahashweta, p.7

           Sudha Murty
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  ‘Our village goddess is very powerful. She never rejects a sincere devotee’s prayer. If you worship her with white flowers every morning for twenty-one days your disease will disappear.’

  ‘Savantri, I have prayed to many gods and goddesses in various temples. I have gone to dargahs and churches, but nothing has helped me.’

  Savantri persevered, ‘This is a different goddess. Why can’t you try?’

  Anupama kept quiet. Despite the cures that people suggested for her condition every now and then, it was spreading quietly and inexorably.

  Shamanna and Sabakka were discussing Nanda’s future. ‘If you carry on doing nothing about it, my daughters will die unmarried. Why aren’t you trying to find husbands for them?’ Sabakka urged her husband.

  ‘Who says I am not trying? I have met Vishwanath’s family four times already. They said they would let us know within a few days whether they are interested in pursuing the alliance, but I have still to hear from them.’

  ‘What about Kulkarni’s family?’

  ‘They are even worse than Vishwanath. They told me straightaway that they knew why the earlier engagement was broken off, and they do not want an alliance with our family.’

  ‘This is all because of Anupama,’ muttered Sabakka.

  Shamanna was tired of all the troubles that had beset him. He said in a pained voice, ‘Why did I have to father girls? They have become millstones around my neck. My worries have doubled since Anu returned home Why does she have to remain here? I am going to retire soon; how will I fend for all of us?’

  Shamanna’s words had pierced Anupama’s heart like a hot skewer. She constantly tried to find ways to reduce her father’s burden, but to no avail. She sometimes wished the ground beneath her feet would split open and swallow her. But she was no Sita, born of the earth, to be taken back into its folds; she was the ordinary daughter of a poor schoolteacher.

  There was only one option left for her. She would pray—one last time—to the goddess of the village as Savantri had suggested. She thought of the innumerable shrines she had visited, the many types of medicines she had tried, the saints she had prayed to, and the vows she had taken. Would the village goddess be the one to help her? She did not know, but she was so desperate for a cure that she was prepared to try anything.The next morning, she got up early, took a bath and collected the white flowers for her visit to the temple.

  While combing her hair, Anupama looked into the mirror and shivered with shock. A small white patch had appeared on her arm. It was the death knell for her happiness; a sign that she should abandon all hopes of a cure. She felt as if she had caught a thief stealthily entering the house. The patches would spread rapidly over the rest of her body. . .and the doors of her mother-in-law’s house would remain shut forever.

  Tears blurred her vision as sorrow welled up in her heart. What was the point in going to the temple now? She started sobbing, but there was not a soul to console her. She was like a lonely traveller on a long and arduous road.

  Anupama heard her father stir. She didn’t want him to know that she was crying, so she took the flowers that she had plucked, and silently walked out of the house.

  The temple of the goddess of the village was on top of a hillock two kilometres from the house. At that hour of the morning, the only people out were the devotees who were going to the temple. Exhausted, Anupama slowly made her way up the path, completely oblivious of her surroundings. It was a while before she noticed the two women walking ahead of her. They were talking so loudly that Anupama could hear them without any difficulty.

  ‘Sharada, why did you take this vow?’ the older woman asked her companion.

  ‘My husband had some problems at office. His boss is very strict and wants to transfer him. Someone told me that if I prayed to the goddess and offered her a sari, the transfer would be cancelled.’

  ‘Oh, I never knew the goddess was so powerful.’

  Even in her present state of dejection, Anupama smiled ruefully. Could the goddess satisfy everyone’s wishes—cure her white patches, cancel a transfer, grant children to the childless, and who knew what else? How could the goddess fulfil such endless desires?

  The conversation went on.

  ‘Indira, by the way, you never told me anything about the wedding.’

  ‘Oh, it was fabulous. Girija looked like the goddess Lakshmi herself. And the groom. . .he is so handsome! He works at a very high position in his office. Radhakka is truly blessed, but for one thing.’

  ‘They have Lakshmi’s blessings, what problems can they possibly have?’

  ‘Life is never perfect, Sharada. God gives everyone their share of woes, otherwise they’ll stop thinking about Him. In Radhakka’s case it is her son, Anand.’

  Anupama’s breath caught when she heard Anand’s name and, for a moment, she forgot her own worries as she waited for the older woman to continue.

  ‘It seems he fell in love with and married a very poor but beautiful girl.’

  ‘Have you seen her?’

  ‘No. I couldn’t go for the wedding as there was some problem at home. It seems Anand liked the girl so much that her father took advantage of it, and Radhakka had to perform the wedding at her own expense.’

  ‘How fortunate for the girl’s family!’ sneered the younger woman.

  ‘The story does not end there. The girl had white patches, which she had hidden from everyone. The moment Radhakka found out, she sent the daughter-in-law packing. Now she is searching for a new bride for Anand.’

  ‘Has he agreed to that?’

  ‘Of course. Otherwise why would Radhakka search for a bride? The first time, they brought home a bride from an unknown family, and look what happened. She doesn’t want to be deceived again. So, this time, she is looking for an alliance within her own circle.’

  Anupama was shocked. Till that moment, a part of her had been sure that Anand still loved her and had good reasons for not writing to her. The fact that he had agreed to remarry meant that he was prepared to discard her like a rag and move on with his life. So, when he had talked about being together ‘till death do us part’ his words had held no truth. Anupama had essayed many roles on stage—Samyukta, Vasavadatta, Noor Jahan and countless others. She would get so immersed in the characters that, long after the plays had been staged, she would still remember the dialogues. But Anand, who had never been on stage, had surpassed her in real life! Anand was a doctor; he knew more about the ‘disease’ than most people. Then why was he behaving in such a manner? What would he have done if his mother or his sister had fallen prey to the affliction? Would he have deserted them as he had her? He would probably have sympathized with them and taken care of them, but when it was his own wife, the woman he claimed to love, he had abandoned her. The rules were different. . .and society would not question his behaviour. But then, his family had never experienced a problem such as this; they did not know the meaning of suffering or poverty. They could not imagine the difficulties, the sorrow and the despair of someone in her position.

  Anupama was jolted out of her thoughts by Sharada’s voice.

  ‘But has he divorced his first wife?’

  ‘Oh, they’ve been separated for the last three years. That is not a problem. She is from a poor family. Radhakka will pay her some money, and that will be the end of the matter. She has nobody to support her, so she won’t have the courage to fight her in-laws. When the girl’s husband is not bothered about her, why should anybody else care? Sharda, do you know of any good girl?’

  ‘I don’t know anyone. Besides, I’ve heard that Radhakka can be very domineering, so I don’t want to recommend anybody. And, after all, this will be a second marriage. By the way, how is Anand to look at?’

  ‘Oh, he is such a handsome boy, but obviously very unlucky. I feel sorry for him. He has come for his sister’s wedding and will be going back soon.’

  Anand had come to India but had not even bothered to contact her! How could h
e have been so heartless? Anupama suddenly felt very tired and her steps faltered. She was in two minds—should she go to the temple and offer her prayers, or just return home? Could the goddess do anything for her any more? As the sun rose behind the hill and its warm rays began to dissipate the fog, Anupama turned her thoughts to her future. There was really nobody who loved her enough to bother about her.

  As a little girl, she had never known her mother’s affection. Her father, who had no self-confidence, was a puppet in the hands of his second wife. Only her grandmother loved her, but after her death Anupama had grown up unwanted. Meeting Anand brought joy in her life again. She thought he had showered all his love on her, and she too had loved him in return.

  She suddenly realized that she had reached the top of the hill. The entire village spread out below her. Near the temple was a ledge that overlooked a deep valley. If anyone jumped from there, they would definitely die. The temple authorities had hung a board warning people not to go there.

  Anupama sat down on a stone outside the temple. What did she have to look forward to? Nothing! As long as she lived, she would have to face hundreds of problems; and she would be a burden on her father, and a bane for her sisters. Sabakka’s taunts would only add to her misery. Anupama could see only one way to solve all her problems. She gazed at the ledge—it was only a few steps away, and death was waiting. What it required now was a little courage—after all, what did she have to live for? The more she thought about it, the more appealing it seemed. She could imagine what people would say. ‘Oh, poor Anupama, she had a white patch, so she killed herself.’ Or, ‘The unfortunate girl slipped from the hill.’ Or, ‘Poor girl, her husband rejected her, what else could she do?’ Or, ‘Her husband left her. She must have had an affair and got into trouble. So she committed suicide. How shameful!’

  But how would it matter once she was dead? Nothing would hurt her. Would anybody feel sorry for her? Miss her? Her father would probably shed a few tears and then forget about her. That was only natural. Sumi would definitely feel sad and weep for a while. But she had her own family, and Anupama would soon become just a memory. Anand? He would feel relieved once she was gone.

  Her mind was made up now. But still she couldn’t bring herself to move. Some unseen power was holding her back. Anupama thought of Girija and her loose morals. With money and her mother’s support, she had married into a rich family and was a respected member of society. In conduct, looks and disposition, Anupama was better than Girija, but a small white patch was pushing her to her death. Was this fair? It was not her fault that she had white patches. Then why did she have to die? Even if she died, no one would care. Society at large would take Anand’s side and sympathize with him.

  She had finally discovered the real Anand. He had loved her beauty and married her for it. He was not ready to accept her if her beauty was in any way marred. People would pity him and that would be unbearable for him.

  Why should she die for a husband who didn’t even care about her? Though he had talked about a union that only death could sunder, it was a small white patch that had parted them!

  He had taken his marriage vows in front of hundreds of people, in the presence of Agni. Yet, he had betrayed her and the commitment he had made to her.

  She recalled a line from one of her plays, ‘Why did God give strong arms and the courage of a lion to man?’ ‘So that he can rescue helpless women, the distressed, and the forsaken,’ was the reply. But Anand had failed to rise to the occasion and come to her aid.

  Naturally, one should respect one’s mother. But when she was wrong, was it not the duty of the son to stand up to her and tell her that she had made a mistake? Anupama realised, for the first time, that Radhakka and Anand were very similar. The only difference was their gender and age. Anand was obedient because he did not have the courage to stand up to his mother. Also, because he himself was just like her!

  Anupama’s thoughts were racing. She was beginning to feel uncomfortable with the decision she had made. She was practical enough to realize that what she was contemplating was not the correct solution. What would happen if she jumped but did not die? She could be crippled for life, and would be worse off than she was now. Her decision would not make it any easier for her sisters to get married or reduce her father’s burdens. Anupama calmed herself and decided to return home.

  She looked down at the valley again, and saw it in a different light. The sun had risen higher; there were numerous wild flowers getting ready to blossom; birds were flying out from their nests in search of food. Life had begun to have new meaning for her.

  Anupama climbed down the steps. Whatever the circumstances she found herself in, she would meet the challenge head-on, and win. She was now ready to face the world, determined to stand on her own feet and build a new life for herself. She looked back and prayed to the goddess, Give me the courage to live no matter what happens! and started walking home.

  Shamanna was engrossed in writing something when Anupama walked up to him and said, ‘Appa, I am getting bored here. I want to go to Bombay and stay with Sumi.’

  Her voice was bold and firm. Shamanna raised his head in surprise and asked her, ‘When will you be back?’

  ‘I do not know. Maybe, after a few months.’ She knew in her heart of hearts that she would never come back.


  Anupama stepped onto the platform at Dadar railway station, feeling anxious and tense. She had never been to Bombay before, and was flabbergasted by the huge crowds. For a moment she wondered whether it had been a mistake to bank on Sumi’s help alone, now that she had decided to take such a big step. She had come to this unknown city with just a small suitcase of clothes and some of her favourite books. As she stood irresolute on the platform, she saw Sumi and felt waves of relief wash over her.

  ‘Sumi! I am so glad to see you. Bombay scares me.’

  ‘Which is why I thought I’d come to the station to receive you. I’m on leave today,’ Sumithra said as she led Anupama to board a local train.

  Everything was new for Anupama—the language, the people, the sultriness of the air. . .everything. She stuck close to her friend until they reached Versova where Sumithra had a tiny single-bedroom apartment. Accustomed as she was to the wide-open spaces of the village, Anupama found the flat and its surroundings congested, although it had all the modern conveniences.

  Sumithra worked six days a week, with Sunday off. Her husband was an engineer, and his weekly holiday was on Thursday. ‘Anu, you’ve stopped taking care of yourself in the three years since your wedding. Now that you are here, you must treat this as your home. I want you to relax here; we’ll look after you,’ Sumithra’s voice was charged with emotion.

  Anupama was so overwhelmed by her friend’s affection that she could hardly speak. No one had spoken to her so tenderly for a long time.

  ‘Sumi, please try to get me a job as soon as possible. I have been idle for the last three years, and I am going mad. Appa has a lot of financial worries and I must take up a job so that I can support him.’

  ‘Don’t worry. I will talk to Hari. He will help you. Anu, isn’t it Anand’s duty to send you some money to support you? Can’t Dr Desai tell him this at least?’

  ‘Sumi, I do not want money from someone who doesn’t love me. God will provide for me. I have my education, and it will serve to feed me.’

  ‘Anu, your mother-in-law is so religious and godfearing. Doesn’t she know that these things will be useless if the basic quality of humanity is absent? How can she treat you so badly?’ Sumithra’s anger rose with every word, before Anupama calmed her down.

  ‘Sumi, let’s not talk about them. I want to look ahead rather than remain stuck in the past.’

  ‘Okay. What kind of a job do you want? You’re far too intelligent to be an ordinary clerk like me.’

  ‘Sumi, what I like or dislike is not important. I cannot afford to be choosy. Any job is fine by me!’

  ‘I feel terrible about this. You were
so fond of plays and literature when we were studying. A person like you should be a lecturer in a college.’

  Anupama laughed. ‘Forget all that now. My life has become a play now.’

  They had their lunch and Anupama, who was tired after the journey, slept for a while. When she woke up, she heard Sumithra talking to her husband, Hari. She felt a little awkward because of her situation, but nevertheless greeted him with a smile.

  ‘Anu, this is Hari Prasad, that is, Mr Sumithra!’

  Hari was surprised when he saw her. From Sumi’s description, he had imagined Anupama as an ordinary girl with white patches marring her face and body. But the girl he saw standing before him was breathtakingly beautiful; she was like a heavenly vision come down to earth. Compared to Anupama, Sumithra looked plainer than ever before.

  He greeted Anupama politely. Anupama’s smile faltered in the face of Hari’s worshipful gaze. Many boys would look at her with the same expression during her college days. But she calmed herself; once the patches appeared on her face things would be quite different.

  ‘I want to thank you for letting me stay with you. Sumi said you would help me get a job in Bombay.’

  ‘Oh, that will not be a problem. Since this is your first trip to Bombay, why don’t you do some sightseeing first? Take a look at the Elephanta Caves, Victoria Terminus, Borivili Park, and so on. Please make yourself comfortable in our house.’

  Although Hari’s words reassured Anupama, she continued to feel somewhat apprehensive. Sumithra was her friend, but how would Hari feel if she continued to stay there for some length of time?

  A month passed. She and Sumithra had visited a few places in and around Bombay, and Hari too had accompanied them on occasion. Though he was very nice to her, Anupama was always conscious that she was a guest in their house, and felt that it would be best if she moved out as soon as possible.

  Hari and Sumithra would leave for the office early in the morning and return late in the evening. Anu would finish all the household work in the meantime. In her free time, she would sit on Versova beach and let her thoughts wander.

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