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       Mahashweta, p.8

           Sudha Murty
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  One day Hari came home in high spirits. ‘Anupama, I have a friend called Gopal Athrey. It seems there is a vacancy in his office for a clerk. . If you’re interested, we can go for an interview tomorrow.’

  Anupama smiled, ‘That is excellent news.’

  ‘But you’ll have to travel to the Fort area every day.’

  ‘So many people commute, why should I be an exception?’

  The following day, Anupama went to Mr Athrey’s office. She was anxious to get the job so that she would no longer be a burden on Sumi. ‘Please, God,’ she prayed, ‘please let me get this job somehow.’

  She waited in the visitors’ room and watched as the receptionist pulled out a small mirror from her purse and touched up her lipstick. Anupama had never used any make-up, except for a few light touches while acting in plays. She believed that it was not the make-up but the expression and modulation of voice that breathed life into the character that she played. She wondered where all her hopes and dreams had gone. Even in her bleakest moments, she had never seen herself looking for a job as a clerk.

  Her musings were cut short when the receptionist, Dolly, asked, ‘Are you Anupama?’

  Anupama nodded, and was asked to go in.

  There were three people inside. The senior-most of them told her, ‘Your qualifications are very impressive, but this is a clerical post. It involves a lot of repetitive work. If you are sure you want to take it up, you can join tomorrow.’

  Anupama was very happy. She thanked them and left.

  ‘Poor girl!’ Gopal Athrey said.

  ‘What do you mean? She is so beautiful and intelligent.’

  ‘My friend, Hari, was telling me that she has leukoderma and that her husband has left her.’

  ‘But we could not see any patches.’

  ‘Anyway, it does not concern us as long as she is efficient. If you look carefully, everyone has some problem or the other. We should not bother about such things.’

  Anupama’s eyes filled with tears of joy when she received her first salary. She considered it her duty to send some money to her father. She even offered Sumithra money to cover her expenses, but it was Hari who stopped her, saying, ‘How can I take money from you? If I had my sister staying with me, would I take money from her? You are just like a sister to me. You can stay in our house as long as you wish.’

  With financial independence, Anupama’s confidence began to blossom. She had become friends with many of the girls who worked with her. They were from various backgrounds and even different regions of the country, and they lived in different parts of Bombay. None of them ever talked about her skin patches or her past. Anupama, too, had begun to accept her condition and look beyond it. The darkest period of her life was behind her now. She and Dolly travelled to and from work together every day, and they became good friends over a period of time.

  Anupama constantly felt the need to take up accommodation of her own. Sumi and Hari were very cordial with her, but she was afraid that such closeness could end in unhappiness.

  She had requested all her friends to help her find a place to stay. But, so far, she had not been able to find anything that was within her means.

  When Anupama received her Deepavali bonus, she bought a silk sari for Sumi and a silver bowl for Hari. As she gave them the gifts, Hari objected, saying that they were too expensive. Anupama silenced him by saying, ‘This is a gift from your sister for Deepavali.’ She was deeply grateful for the way they had helped her in her time of need.

  One day, Dolly did not come to office. As she was engaged and was emigrating to Australia after marriage, Anupama thought that she was perhaps busy with her preparations for the wedding. But when she called up her house, she was told that Dolly had met with an accident and that she had been hospitalized. Anupama immediately applied for leave and rushed to the hospital. Outside the hospital room, Dolly’s ageing mother, Mary, sat crying, surrounded by a few friends. Most of her family was in Goa, and Dolly was her only daughter.

  When Anupama met the doctor to find out if anything was required, he said, ‘Your friend needs blood. These days the incidence of AIDS is so high that we prefer blood from a known person. Perhaps one of the relatives can help? Dolly has lost a lot of blood; she needs a transfusion as soon as possible.’

  The moment they heard that blood was needed, Dolly’s visitors quietly melted away. Anupama told the doctor, ‘Doctor, if my blood group is compatible with hers, I am ready to give my blood.’ She hesitated for a moment, ‘I suffer from leukoderma—will it affect her in any way?’

  ‘Of course not! Leukoderma cannot be passed on through blood transfusions.’

  Anupama belonged to the same blood group as Dolly. After giving the blood, she went and met Dolly’s mother and persuaded her to go home, promising to stay with Dolly through the night. She did not say anything about having donated her blood.

  Until Dolly left the hospital, Anupama stayed with her every night to help her. Dolly was overwhelmed with gratitude. Holding Anupama’s hand, she said, ‘Anu, how can I ever thank you for all that you’ve done for me?’

  Anupama interrupted her, ‘Don’t talk as though I’ve done something great. You needed some blood and I was able to give it to you. That’s all.’

  Chandrika, one of Anupama’s colleagues at the office, was getting married, and Anupama had taken half a day off to attend the wedding. She knew it would be quite unlike the small-town weddings she had attended so far where the festivites often went on for three days. Chandrika’s wedding would be a short and simple ceremony. Anupama was very excited about attending it; after a long time, she’d again taken an interest in dressing up. She went to the Dadar market and bought a silver bowl before rushing off to the wedding hall.

  It was an unostentatious wedding. Anupama sat in a corner and observed all that was going on. Unbidden, her thoughts went back to her own wedding. What a display of wealth and grandeur! How much money had been spent on the hall, flowers, decorations and the catering! She felt as though it had all been a dream. What was the use of all that expense? The real success of a marriage depended not on superficial factors such as those, but upon love and mutual understanding between husband and wife.

  After the wedding lunch, Anupama went straight home. She’d assumed that the house would be locked as usually, at that time of the day, everyone was at work. But to her surprise she found Hari at home.

  Anupama kept her purse on the table and asked, ‘How come you’re home?’

  Hari smiled at her and answered, ‘I am going away on tour today, and I came to collect my baggage.’

  Anupama did not think there was anything unusual about that as Hari was in the sales department. She went into the bedroom and shut the door behind her, but did not lock it. She started to change out of her new sari when, suddenly, she felt a pair of hands grasping her from behind. She immediately realized who it was and was terrified. She did not know what to do. With great difficulty she turned around, and saw Hari smiling at her. He thought Anupama looked stunning in her new sari. Anupama was extremely angry but Hari thought she looked even more beautiful in her anger.

  ‘Hari, how could you do such a thing?’ Anupama stammered.

  ‘Anupama, your beauty has fascinated me from the moment I first saw you. All I see in my dreams is you. Why are you waiting for your foolish husband? Do you think he will ever come back to you? You are wasting your youth instead of enjoying it. Anu, we can be together without anyone ever coming to know about it. I will protect you, whatever the circumstances.’

  Anupama was so angry now that her face turned crimson, and she did not know what to say. Hari took her silence as consent, and he continued, ‘Anu, compared to you, Sumi looks like a buffalo—I find her dull and unattractive. I have been waiting for so long to tell you how I feel, and today I found the opportunity. Anu, remember, I was the one who got you a job. Won’t you thank me for it?’

  Hari reached for Anupama again. But she gathered her courage and slapped his face

  ‘You should be ashamed of yourself. You have called me your sister. . .will you behave with your sister like this? I have always considered Sumi as my own sister and I will certainly tell her all about your edifying qualities. Get out of my way; I want to go out.’

  Hari was stunned, but he continued to stand, leaning against the door. ‘Just because I say you are my sister you can’t become my sister. I said that to mislead Sumi. I had never even met you before, how can you become my sister? Anu, you do remember that you have leukoderma, don’t you? Anand will never come back to you, nor will anyone else want to marry you. Let us not waste our time arguing when we could find such pleasure in each other’s company. No one will ever suspect us.’

  ‘Let me go!’ Anupama shouted.

  ‘Anu, you are as hungry for the pleasures of marital life as I am. If you don’t agree to do as I say, I will turn Sumi against you. I’ll convince her that you were chasing me. She will believe her husband over her friend, any day.’

  The loud knock on the door momentarily distracted Hari. Seizing the chance, Anupama flew like a hunted deer and opened the door. A middle-aged saleswoman stood outside. ‘Madam, our company manufactures liquid soap. It is not well known in the market because we can’t afford to advertise, but if you clean anything with our soap. . .’

  Under normal circumstances, Anupama would have refused, but today she felt that God had sent this woman to her rescue. She called her inside. ‘Please sit down,’ she said, taking twenty rupees from her purse. ‘Give me one bottle.’

  The saleswoman was very happy. Apologetically she said, ‘I don’t have any change.’

  ‘Oh! It doesn’t matter!’ said Anupama. Relieved, she walked out of the house with the saleswoman.

  Hari just stood there, powerless to stop her.

  Anupama went to Versova beach and sat down there. She was in a state of shock. It was a hot and humid day; very few people were on the beach. Anupama began to cry uncontrollably. She felt as if she had been climbing a sheer mountain face clinging to a rope for help, and then found that the rope had turned into a snake. She felt herself falling...

  She experienced the same sense of desolation and despair that she had felt when she had first noticed the white patch on her body, and was assailed by fear and pain. What would she do now? How could she continue to stay with Sumi? Where else could she go in that huge bustling city? Anupama’s senses were numb and her mind blank. She thought of Anand; he was responsible for her suffering. He had abandoned her when she needed him the most. And Hari, whom she had looked upon as an elder brother, had hurt her terribly by his actions. His words still echoed in her mind, causing her fresh pain. It seemed that even God had forsaken her. Did He have no one else to torture and test?

  The sun was setting and many young couples had come to the beach to enjoy the evening breeze. Anupama suddenly realized she had been sitting there for more than six hours. She had to go back now. She mustered her courage, and reluctantly traced her steps home.

  Sumi was cooking when Anupama entered the flat. As soon as she saw Anupama’s pale cheeks, swollen eyes and sad face, she exclaimed, ‘Anu, what happened? Are you not well? How was the wedding?’

  Anupama did not reply.

  ‘Go and rest for a while. I’ll finish cooking in an hour. Hari is out of station; he left a note saying he will return in a week.’

  Anupama inferred from Sumi’s behaviour that she was unaware of what had happened. She went inside with a heavy heart, and lay down on her bed. Sumi went back to the kitchen, Anupama is probably sad because the wedding reminded her of her own marriage.

  The following morning Anupama went to Dolly’s house on her way to work, and found her busy applying her make-up.

  ‘Anu, what a pleasant surprise! How come you’re here so early? Is everything all right?’

  Anupama did not know what to say. The previous day’s incident had shocked her, but she could not tell anyone about it. She closed the door and started crying, ‘Dolly, can you please get me a room in a working women’s hostel? I want it within a week.’

  Anupama wanted to shift out before Hari returned from his tour.

  ‘Anu, what happened? Why are you in such a state?’

  ‘Dolly, please don’t ask me anything. I can’t afford paying-guest accommodation in a city like Bombay. But you know so many people. . .please help me somehow.’

  ‘Anu, I’m sure I can find you accommodation with some Goan Christian family. But why don’t you stay here? My mom and I are the only people here; you could live in the spare room outside. You’ll have to cook your own food, though, as we are non-vegetarians.’

  Anupama was delighted. Dolly’s mother owned a small colonial-style bungalow with a fairly large garden in Bandra. It had been given to her long ago, at the time of her marriage, when real estate prices had not been astronomical. The house was in a somewhat run-down state. Many builders, who wished to demolish it and build a shopping complex or residential apartments, were pressurizing Dolly’s mother to sell the house but she was not willing to sell the property.

  Accommodating Anupama for a short period was not a problem for Dolly.

  ‘Dolly, I don’t know how to thank you,’ Anupama said gratefully.

  Hari returned home after a week, and found Sumi cooking dinner. The house was quiet. He noticed that the table had been laid for two. ‘Why have you put out only two plates? Where is Anupama?’ he asked his wife.

  ‘Oh! She left this morning. She got a PG accommodation in Bandra. I did try to persuade her to wait until your return but she said she would meet you at your office later. I’ll miss her a lot but in a way it’s good that she moved out before my delivery. With my mother coming to help me with the baby, it would have been difficult to accommodate us all.’

  Hari was very upset. ‘Why didn’t you insist that she stay with us a little longer?’ he almost shouted.

  Sumithra answered calmly, ‘Hari, try to understand. You already helped by getting her a job. She lived with us for almost a year. Don’t you think I felt bad when she left? But in life partings are inevitable. I know she was like a sister to you, but even if she had been your own sister, she couldn’t have stayed with us forever. Anupama is a very sensitive person; she would not have been comfortable staying with us indefinitely. I’ve told her that she is always welcome here.’

  Hari was still upset and lashed out at Sumi, ‘You are a terrible cook. This food is unpalatable.’ He washed his hands in the plate and got up.

  Sumi could not understand why Hari was being so difficult. She tried to mollify him. ‘I’m sorry. I must have added chilli twice. Let me bring you some sugar and lime. Don’t be upset, please.’

  She had no way of knowing that the root cause of the problem was not the chilli powder, but something quite different. Hari knew very well that Anupama would never enter his house again when he was around, or meet him at his office.

  As for Anupama, the days were carefree and she enjoyed herself as much as she could. She and Dolly got along extremely well, and through her she met many people in different walks of life. Lately, however, Anupama had started getting bored at the office. Her job as a clerk did not nurture her talent and creativity and was not challenging enough for her. She had begun to feel the need for a change, but she could not afford to leave her job.

  One day Dolly said to her, ‘Anu, there is a vacancy for a Sanskrit lecturer at a college in Vile Parle. Father Sebastian is the principal there. Remember, you met him at our Christmas party? Why don’t you apply for the post?’

  ‘How can I? I don’t have any experience in teaching.’

  ‘But you know the language well, and that should help. And it doesn’t say anywhere that you can’t apply just because you aren’t experienced. I will also speak to Father Sebastian.’

  Anupama went to the interview hesitantly. Apparently, there were very few candidates for the post. There were three people on the interview panel, including Father Sebastian. They were impre
ssed by her academic record. One of them asked, ‘Anupama, your certificates vouch for your academic excellence. But you’ve been working as a clerk for the last year. One would have thought that with your qualification you would have opted for research or for a teaching job. Why did you choose to do a clerical job?’

  Anupama hesitated, and then, in a low tone, she replied, ‘I had some personal problems.’

  Father Sebastian explained the nature of the job. ‘This is not going to be just a lecturer’s job. Our college has a very good cultural centre. We are looking for someone who will make the students aware of our culture, and motivate them to participate in intercollegiate events; someone who is familiar with Sanskrit plays, and is willing to participate in our theatre programmes. Our college is fairly big, so you will have to work really hard.’

  Anupama was overjoyed. ‘Certainly, Father! I would love to direct the plays.’ Anupama no longer hoped to play the role of a heroine—the white patches now covered her hands as well.

  Dolly’s wedding was a big event. It took place in the Bandra Church with all her cousins from Goa and Australia in attendance. After the wedding, Dolly’s mother went to Goa, and Dolly left with her husband for Melbourne.

  Over the past few months, Anupama had become a part of their family, and Dolly’s eyes brimmed with tears when she said goodbye to Anupama. ‘Anu, my mother and I don’t want to sell this house or get a builder to develop it, right now. This bungalow has been with our family for ages, and we want to retain it as long as possible. I don’t trust my cousins, but I have complete faith in you. Please stay here as long as you want and look after it. You needn’t give me any rent.’

  It was unbelievable! No documents were to be signed, and no money was exchanged. Based on faith alone, Dolly was entrusting her with their precious home! Anupama agreed enthusiastically. ‘Dolly, the house will always be waiting for you. Whenever you want me to leave, just tell me in advance,’ she said as she bid Dolly goodbye.

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