Narayanappa's was a modern home. Though he was a Brahmin, his house presented a European look--- with bamboo partitions in the verandah, bonsai plants, sceneries hanging on to the walls, upholstered sofas, cane chairs, flower vases etc., etc. People living in there also looked very pleasant. Narayanappa’s shoes, shirts, buttons, coats, his well groomed hair all looked neat and tidy. His lean and tall wife looked so delicate. Be it the way she dressed-up, combed her hair, applied Vermillion to her forehead, or her gait, the way she spoke, everything seemed just perfect and beautiful. Even if someone were to see her just after getting up from bed, he would not find a single strand of hair out of place or a single flower in her tresses worn out. Her sari, her blouse, her belt, her thin bangles, her necklace with a clock-like pendant, or her Velvet chappals adorning her feet—all seemed just created for her. Her name was Suseela.
Even their cook was as tidy. The butler of the Governor would look quite a shade or two less in comparison. Their pet dogs won’t make any noise. They won’t go out; they won’t bark when you take biscuits under their very nose nor stamp the sophas with their feet. They won’t even lick without permission. Narayanappa had no children. But even if he had had children, they wouldn’t certainly be making mischief or pestering him with all sorts of questions. They wouldn’t even weep if a scorpion were to sting them.
Narayanappa was a propertied man. He never had to look out for a job to make a living. That however did not mean he kept himself idle. No. Not in the least. He was Chairman, President, or Secretary to half a dozen associations and an honorable member in as many. He had no leisure except in the evenings when all the bigwigs and important officers of the town gathered at his house. His house would then look like a club at that hour. And, in fact, the Officer’s club of the Town had to close down for want of patrons. Any officer posted to the town for the first time should make friendship with Narayanappa within an hour. They would all turn up at his house to play tennis, take tea, play cards and return to their homes only after ten at night. Suseela moved with all of them freely shaking hands, serving tea and discussing current events. She sat with them all through.
Those were the heydays of independence struggle and newspapers were rife with information about the Satyagrahas. Roulette Act was over. And the Punjab massacre was nearing. The country was almost on the verge of a civil war. Suseela became curious and was interested in knowing from the visitors what was happening around. Narayanappa knew many people outside the circle of govt. officials. He also knew the pulse of the people of the country at large. That is why there ran serious discussions between him and the govt. officials. Suseela’s ideas were mostly influenced by the views of govt. servants since she was a woman of conservative brought up.
Narayanappa and Suseela never took notice of the caste or religion of their visitors. If you ask them about their caste they would answer ‘Brahmins’ but it was difficult to find where their Brahminism lay. They treated Brahmins, Muslims and Christians alike in their home and those who disagreed with their views were welcome to cease coming there. They did not care. They were never looked own upon by others for that reason. People came to them, invited them for luncheons and dinners on importance occasions. They even took pride if they were invited in turn by the Narayanappa. The respect he commanded and the popularity he enjoyed were unparalleled. Of course, it was an altogether different matter if people gossip so many things about them on their back. But then, when were great people exempt from such gossip?
Suseela and Narayanappa had great love for one another. They never quarreled for anything. If one said something, the other obeyed it without demur.
Narayanappa was not a man who would kill her ego conquering it first, and then putting his ideas into her and declare that they held identical views on all matters. She was given absolute freedom for holding her opinions and actions. One never doubted the integrity of the other. They would blush in shame to entertain even a semblance of such idea. Many people would be visiting their home and sometimes Narayanappa would not be at home. Yet there was never a question of doubting her.
A Muslim youth was appointed as Police Superintendent to the town. His name was Suleman. He was very young and charming. It was his first place of posting. Looking at himself in the uniform, the sword hanging by, and the salutations of his subordinates he was not only pleased immensely with himself but also took little pride too. He was a bachelor just returned from England. It would be very hard for anybody to guess his creed or religion by just looking at him. Like all other officers before, he came to Narayanappa’s house on the first day of his reporting for duties here. Suseela, her pet dogs, the evening tea and the gossip had all pleased him no little. Rather, it would be more accurate to say that he was surprised a bit. He never expected to find such a home in India. He made friendship with Suseela on the first day itself. They got closer within a week and so close that it was discernible to everybody around.
After living with Narayanappa for ten years, Suseela started liking another man. It was against her wish, for, she still had a lot of respect for Narayanappa. She struggled to wriggle out free. In the beginning she comforted herself saying that it was only a friendship, later she wanted to keep Suleman at a distance. But Suleman was after her. She waged a war within to sustain her love for Narayanappa. But she found the newfound live for Suleman was sweeter! Now she no longer adored Narayanappa nor feeling guilty of committing a sin. Those thoughts, she now thought, were all old-fashioned and irrational. Had she not been married these thoughts would not have cropped up in her mind and there would not have been this war. She had a painful feeling, however, that she was giving Suleman what Narayanappa. She wanted to speak to Narayanappa plainly. She was not afraid of him. But she was afraid that it would upset Narayanappa and cause him unrest and, as a consequence, he might discourage their friendship. In her battle between love and passion, ultimately passion was victorious. She still loved her husband but was seized by the new friendship and was under its total control.
All women start immediately loving the man whom they were married to. Their behavior reflects it in no uncertain terms too. They believe it themselves and there is no hypocrisy about it. They are most loyal faithful. But someday, they fall head and shoulders in live with a stranger and start believing they were made for that person. In that fire of passion, their earlier love, morals, loyalty and the rest will all be engulfed. Nobody can prevent it. Some episodes become public; some stop with the knowledge of two or three and others will never come to lime light.
Suleman was tenacious by nature. He did not rest until he had achieved what he desired. As a young boy he wanted to become a Police Superintendent some 15 years thence, and till he became one, he never lost sight of his goal. The day he saw Suseela he thought he loved her and wanted to make her his. That’s all! He did not relent till he had won over her love. Come what may, he would dare anybody to succeed. It was unfortunate that he was at a wrong time at a wrong place; otherwise he would have become as great as Hannibal! He never bothered if Suseela reciprocated his love. He saw her struggling to avoid him, her fears and her repentance and he swept them all aside with his vigor and made her surrender to him. He never looked back. A faint feeling of being unfaithful to a friend did surface once, but he did not permit it to swell up. He never entertained the slightest apprehension that somebody might be watching him and that it would result in ignominy to him and would also become a nuisance if they two were found out. No. On the contrary, he would not hesitate to reveal everything if someone were to really ask him about it all.
It was 10 o’clock one night. All visitors started leaving the garden calling it a day for their cards game. Narayanappa had informed that he would be returning home late after midnight. Suleman made no attempt to leave. After the last man had left, Suseela and Suleman embraced each other like two streams when the sluice between the two was lifted. Slim and fair Suseela resembled a creeper enveloping a rock-like-standing Suleman. She kissed him on his sleeves and on his shoulders. She held him such a way that it seemed she would remain a permanent adage to him. “I have been waiting since morning. I will not leave you anymore. Where did you hide from me all these years? I won’t leave you. Let me see how you can get out of this grip…”
It was long after midnight. She was lying on her bed feigning sleep. The light was dim. Narayanappa was preparing to go to bed. “Suseela!” he called. There was no reply. Sitting by her on the cot and leaning over her he turned her face towards him with fondness. He found wakes of tears on her cheeks. He also found her hair disheveled and few locks sticking to her cheeks, which was very unusual. He was terribly surprised.
“Suseela! What’s wrong with you? What made you cry? Why these tears?” He pulled her into his lap. She opened her eyes. There were tears in her eyes.
“Nothing in particular. Just, an inexplicable fear.”
Narayanappa was feeling uneasy for the last one week. He could not really make out the reason for that. And when he saw Suseela now, it occurred to him that she was the cause of his unease.
He said, “No. There must be something. You are only trying to hide it from me.”
“I said no. There is nothing really.”
“I can’t believe it. Will you keep it away from me? Won’t you tell me? Don’t you know that I never chastised you? Come on. Tell me. Aren’t you my darling, Suseela? No. No. You should not weep. Come on. Let me know. I’ll tell you what t do next.”
Suseela felt a great urge to disclose everything to him and buy peace of mind. But if she had told everything…. A doubt lingered and she decided to tell him later and later in the night she did not tell him anything. Narayanappa understood that Suseela was under great mental stress. He couldn’t make out why she did not share it with him. He decided to somehow get at her problem and dispel it. He did not doubt her. But for no reason he started disliking Suleman. He would always oppose what Suleman had proposed. Suleman and Suseela had, however had identical views…. They backed the government where as he stood by the people. And he even started fearing Suleman. But he was able to laugh at his unfounded fears about Suleman.
One morning Suseela said she would go to the police lines. Suleman invited her to see the drill. He wanted her to see him in the uniform. Narayanappa dissuaded her saying, ‘don’t go there. Among so many officers around it doesn’t look nice to see a woman like you. Better don’t go.’
“I promised him. Poor fellow, he will be looking for me,’ she answered.
‘Why? Will he stop his drill if you don’t go there? Forget about it,’ he said.
“No. No. I don’t find any reason to stay put at home,’ she declared.
Differences started cropping up between the two.
Donning a fine China Silk sari and adorning her hair with roses she went there on a horse-drawn carriage. Suleman was in his bungalow and he had not started yet. He was about to take his coffee. He was in his full uniform with the sword hanging by.
She stared at his long hands and the bulging neckline and rounded jaw. ‘How charming you look in this dress! Only I can feel it and no body else.’
‘I invited you for the very reason.’
‘I feel every youth should turn a foot soldier. With that sword and that rifle you can kill any number of people you like. No body can stop you from that. You remind me warriors of good olden days. You are like a King that upholds Dharma. Meanness and injustice must shudder before that sword.’
‘Why? You are becoming a poetess today.’
‘That’s the power of love. It transforms even commoners to demigods.’
‘Yes. If I am a soldier, you are the goddess that blesses him,’ and knelt before her and kissed her hand.
‘I am afraid you can chew my hand like sugarcane-stem with those jaws. Where did you get that strength from?’
‘You can’t get strong feeding on broth and buttermilk.’
‘I wish I were as strong as you.’
‘No. You can’t be. I like slim figures. Their hands should lock my neck like laces when they hug me. And all my vigor and strength they should bind with their frailty of their smoothness. What about you?’
‘Don’t you know what I like the most? I like this…’ she said running her hand round his waist. ‘This strength, this power and this arrogance are all mine. Aren’t they?’
‘No doubt about that. But your strength is not yours at all. Our desire to surrender before these hands is our strength. We can brave any rounds of fire but not these eyes, these lips and this sweetness…’
Suseela returned home late at 3 p.m. in the afternoon. And now Narayanappa had his own doubts. Their faces betrayed everything but he never wanted to look into them. Only professionals and experts can deftly cover-up their guilt. Suleman never even attempted to hide for once. One or two friends sounded about it to Narayanappa but he was not quite sure about it. He was not like any other husband trying to pretend innocence, pry over his wife and then harass her. He preferred to suffer than to stoop to do such mean acts.
In the mean time non-co-operation movement shook the whole nation. The country as a whole is angry with the other country. Narayanappa was the first to get agitated about the events. Any movement first touches the people who have nothing to do on their own, than those that struggle to earn their livelihood. And these people will always be on the wait for an opportunity. They can’t live without raking up something or the other. If the nation was full of people who attend to their own work, how could these conferences and the congresses sustain? Narayanappa immediately shunned all his fine clothing and started wearing Khadi. He replaced all his servants with harijans. Gandhi’s photo now adorned his walls. The same person and the same elegance, yet there was a metamorphic change in Narayanappa. He was a party to every meeting present in every procession and why, he was everywhere. He started criticizing government severely. Some government servants stopped coming to his house for fear of consequences. But Suleman did not.
One night Suleman and Suseela were standing near a bathtub in the darkness. That was a new moon day. Stars were blinking like eyes in darkness. Even white flowers could not be made out. That was a clandestine meeting. ‘I don’t think I’ll be able to come to this place any longer. You please come and stay with me. To hell with my job, I don’t care. But I can’t leave you. Wont you come Suseela? Come. Come you must!’ he said.
‘How can I? How can I desert him now? I can’t.’
‘Why not? Come on. I will not come here any more. I don’t like it. I am ashamed to look into his face. Let us get away from this darkness.’
‘To live with you in the same town? I am afraid I can’t muster that much courage.’
‘Tat! Don’t lose heart. One may fear anything, but should never lose promising life out of fear.’
‘Then let me think over for four or five days before making up my mind. After all, there is no hurry.’
After this new affair, she felt there was no meaning in her remaining in the house. And what should she stay back for? She questioned herself. At the same time she thought she could not leave the place either. She was standing there even Suleman had left and was lost in her thoughts. Narayanappa was at home all the while. He new they were there. Having heard the retreating sound of Suleman’s boots, he came over to her in the darkness and put his hand over her shoulders. Without looking back and trying to put her hand over his back, she said, ‘why did you come back?’ and could not reach for his neck. Narayanappa was shorter than Suleman. She then looked back. Narayanappa hugged her.
‘Wont you tell me? Even now? Why do you suffer it all within yourself? If you speak to me you shall be relieved of that burden. We lived happily all these years and do you separate from me now? Wont you have faith in me? Please tell me.’
‘No. No. Don’t ask me for anything. Enough that I suffer. I can’t put you to it. When the time comes, you shall come to know of it.’
‘Then I may not be in a position to help you. You are spoiling your cause by dallying. You are under the spell of a great infatuation and unable to resist it on your own. Let me help you if I can. Let me lend my strength to you and so my wits. Didn’t we live like one soul! How could you lose confidence in me? Just think over. How long was it since you talked to me heartily? Since you opened up your heart to me? Did I fall out of your favor? What did I do to deserve it?’
‘It’s not you but me alone is responsible. Don’t touch me like that. I am useless. Don’t deserve you. Please leave me. I told you, you would come to know of it. For the present, leave me alone.’
Narayanappa stayed for a while thinking and then decided to ask her everything. ‘I did not believe it, and even now I am not sure of it and for long I did not get even an iota of doubt. But, I get a feeling that what I heard might me right. I ask you with the belief that you will tell me the truth.’
She hid her face in her hands and leaning over the tub started weeping.
‘Don’t think I am angry with you. Stop it. I don’t like things happen this way in my home. What’s the sacred agitation I am working in and what is happening at my home? Will you tell me everything from the beginning?’
‘No. Don’t ask me. I will not. I can not.’
‘At least, can you promise me to end this affair forthwith?’
‘I can’t say. But I’ll try. I yielded because I was unable to resist.’
‘Whatever had happened, happened. I don’t like it to happen anymore.’
‘Be it so. I ’ll forbid him to come here.’
Suseela started going to Suleman’s bungalow in the evenings. Narayanappa strongly objected to it once. Having known that she couldn’t continue it that way, she told Suleman that she would be coming to him once in two or three days.
As things were going this way, the non-co-operation movement grew intense. Student stopped going to schools and colleges. Lawyers boycotted courts. Everybody was doing some sacrifice or the other that was within his means. Patriotic fervor shot up in every heart. People were liberal in donating money, ornaments, and gold and were not sparing their energies, time or their comforts and for the sake of the country. Everybody believed that something was going to happen before 31st December and was eager to know what it would be. And in the town of Narayanappa, there were great expectations in the air. Bhajans, songs, meetings, processions, lectures, bandhs, hartals, and what not, was a daily fare. Narayanappa led them all from the front. His house was full of ‘non-co-operation’ people day in and day out. All activity and all discussions revolved only about it. Narayanappa threw all sofas and chairs and other furniture to a corner and Looms and Charkas replaced them.
Suseela was not touched by these changes. All her views were that of Suleman. Earlier she used to share her ideas with Narayanappa. But now, she was not even talking to him properly. Suleman told her that all this was a mere show… futile and prompted and supported by the foolish and the fanatic idlers who had nothing else to do. And she believed it in spite of being aware of Narayanappa’s broad outlook and greatness. She thought that Narayanappa’s love for people and the encouragement of his friends dragged him into the movement. But as she watched the things going on, she was not without her doubts if she, Suleman and others of their ilk were badly mistaken. Witnessing genuine sacrifices being made, and the tenacity and volunteering by people to embrace hardships prompted her to reassess her views.
When she returned from Suleman’s house one evening, the house was abuzz with activity. Here were people were everywhere and yet there was a steady flow of visitors. Narayanappa was the subject of their discussions. She asked somebody what was the matter. He was surprised at that and said, ‘don’t you know? Strange. Narayanappa was summoned to attend the court on 20th.’
‘On the charges of abetting treason, encouraging arson and for selling khadi on the roads.’
‘Then?’ There was anguish in her voice.
‘Then what is there to it? He will not give any surety and so, will be put in prison. That’s all.’
Suseela ran upstairs to her room. ‘Jail! Narayanappa will be put in jail! And he did not even mention it to her! Why should he? What is she to him? Poor creature! While he was undergoing all these tribulations, she was blissfully oblivious of all these things and seeking after her own pleasures. But then, who prevented him from being happy? Why should he go to jail, after all? Who asked him to speak all those words against the government? And, besides, why should he refuse providing security? What would he gain? One may rationalize that this would provide some avocation to those that had nothing else to do. But when he knows that that he would be sent to jail why should he be mad about it?’ She mused for long. How far apart they had been… she thought. When he was going to be arrested and put in jail, she was entertaining the idea of running away from here!
She sat like that for three days. She read ‘Young India’. Discussed with others the state of the country, the necessity and the meaning of the movement. And slowly she understood. She believed, now, that her husband was being summoned unjustly. She bought khaddar sarees. She threw all her fine garments including the Chinese silk on the road and set fire. Along with other women who gave lectures and sold khaddar, she went to Suleman’s bungalow once and asked him to buy some. He laughed her away taking it as a joke and asked, ‘how many do you want me to buy?’ She asked him to buy all and he promptly did. Though he was laughing about the spectacle on one side, he paled a little noticing the changes coming in Suseela’s behavior. Pitying him, she promised to turn up in the evening and left.
She visited him as usual in the evening. They discussed about the non-co-operation movement. This time around, she did not agree to what all he had said about it. She was bent upon doing what she wanted to do. Until the fate of Narayanappa was decided, she said she would not come to him but would only continue her visits.
Suseela’s joining the movement pleased Narayanappa a lot. He expected that she would sever her relation with him. The hon’ble court had tried and acquitted him on 29th. And he immediately left for a special conference somewhere in northern India. As such, part of the work of Narayanappa fell on the shoulders of Suseela. With the arrest of some important leaders, she took upon herself their responsibility too. Now from the moment she got up from bed early in the morning up till evening she was totally busy. Now people in the town held her in great esteem. There were lingering doubts about her affair with Suleman but nobody had any time to spare thought to it. She was no longer able to find time to meet him everyday. Stopping the vehicle at his gate she would go in and say, ‘here is no time for today. Leave me for today. I shall see you tomorrow,’ and would run away as speedily as she had come. And later she did not go to him for four days in a row. Day by day Suleman’s love for her was growing without bounds. The more he looked at her as a leader who could get her things done on her own, a sort of respect and veneration for her were kindled in him. He was also afraid that by listening to her friends she might even abandon him altogether. He was not able to bear her separation. He started going to her. But usually she would not be at home. But no matter, he got used to waiting for her till ten at night.
She would then take dinner. ‘My darling, Sulem, you have been waiting for me? What can I do? I am so sorry. I am damn tired. I don’t have the strength even to sit with you. The eyelids have already become heavy. I must get up at five in the morning. Isn’t this enough for this day…’ and she would turn him away. Suleman didn’t stop pestering her to come and stay with him. ‘If it is bad to keep somebody’s wife, it’s worse if she were to be the wife of a non-co-operation man. It’s only asking for the trouble,’ she would say with a gentle laugh. Disagreeing with her, he would constantly remind her of her promise. ‘The whole country is reverberating with patriotic fervor. People are volunteering to do every sacrifice. When I look around, I find people starving. The bread earners of most families are put in jail. In such an ambience, you want me to come and enjoy life with you? How can I do it? And even if I did, how can you suppose that I will make you happy? Let the Dec 31st pass. The country by then will be free and you‘ll be relieved of this job. We can spend the rest of our lives looking into each other’s eyes.’
Narayanappa returned. Suseela almost stopped her visits. She was now going places to sell Khadi Suleman had not stopped following her wherever she went. If she was going in a company, he waited eagerly till she crossed his path and when she threw a smile at him, he took it as a reward for his waiting and turned back his motor cycle. Wherever there was a meeting of non-co-operation people, he would present himself there. When Suseela was in town, his beat was at ‘Swaraj Office’ only. In the beginning people thought he was spying over their activities and hated him. They called him by all names; ‘Police Fellow’, ‘Slave of the government’, ‘A Traitor’, ‘Spy’, etc., etc., But when they came to know about his overtures, they started laughing in their sleeves.
Once in a way, Suseela contrived to meet him alone. “Suleman! Don’t you love this country/’ she would ask.
‘Why don’t you resign this government job?’
‘Let the country go to the dogs. What do I care? All that I am interested in is you. You are my religion. You are my country…’
‘Then do you resign the job if I insist you doing that?’
‘Tell me now. Get me a pen and paper. But why all this? You just come to me. There is no question of doing this job any more. I shall follow you carrying those bundles of Khaddar on my head. Satisfied?’
Within fifteen days of his returning from that special congress Narayanappa was arrested. There was a furor in the town. He should either provide a surety for Rs 3000 or face three months’ imprisonment. From the very beginning his lungs were very weak and his restless activity in the movement only compounded his problem further. Doctor had advised him not to prefer jail sentence. But Narayanappa knew if he backtracked, even for a genuine reason, people would blame him. He would appear shirking his responsibility when it really mattered, after having aroused them all in the first place. So he did not dare to provide the surety and so was sent to jail. People unanimously declared that the charges framed on him were frivolous and totally unjust. Suseela felt the same. She was angry with the government for unjustly sentencing him. She spoke the very words Narayanappa spoke in a public meeting and challenged the government to arrest her if it dared.
But the love for Suleman had not diminished a little. The more Suseela was lost in her work, the more were the hindrances for them to meet, and the more had become their craving for each other. He was constantly making her the same appeal and was constantly getting the same reply from her.
And finally the much-awaited 31st December had arrived and gone without ado.
He then told her, ‘stop this work, then, this campaign and this coarse clothing.’
She answered him firmly, ’Suleman! The movement might have abated in this country, but it did not from my heart. And with it my views, my thoughts and my whole life had changed. I am no longer the former Suseela you knew. May be this movement and some of the sacrifices were rendered waste. They might not have served any purpose. But it did a world of good, at least, to one being. And that was me. It gave me a new ideal, new pleasure, and new interest in my life. Don’t mistake me for speaking the truth. I still love you. A love that’s devouring me. A love that made me surrender my body and will. . But I no longer hold with awe or respect your status or job. In my opinion it is slavery for sustenance. I don’t go bonkers about your uniform now. It now reminds me of the Punjab massacre--- the killing of the innocent and the unarmed ‘
She came to know that Narayanappa fell sick in the jail. She was worried. She was alone in her garden and lost in thoughts about Narayanappa, his state of health, his resolve to work for the movement knowing fully well the consequences, her love for Suleman…
Motorcycle stopped in front of the house and Suleman entered. Walking up to her and locking her neck in his hands he said, ‘ at last, I could catch you alone. Why there is nobody around?’
‘I avoided them all.’
‘For my sake? Then why didn’t you come to the bungalow?’
‘No. I am just thinking.’
‘About everything. About this amusement.’
‘Say what you may, I am not amused. I am terribly bored, to say the least. I have only one thought consuming me. It’s my food and it’s my rest. Suseela! How long shall we remain like this? Won’t you ever come to me?’
‘Suleman! I want tell you something serious and you shouldn’t be angry with me. Don’t think I am hiding anything from you. You say you love me. Isn’t it? Then that love must give you the strength to understand my mind. Otherwise it has no meaning. I told you many times, and telling you once again, that I have an insurmountable love for you. And with every passing day it’s only waxing. I don’t feel like staying here anymore. I yearn to come away and stay with you. I am not afraid to do it and don’t care this world. I know fully well that my life is futile without you. But, ever since Narayanappa was put in jail, I am ashamed of thinking about the moments I spent with you. It must have come to your knowledge that he is sick. When he went to jail for the independence of this country, of you, and of me, do you expect me to forsake him and come to you to enjoy life? You can’t imagine how intimate we were before you entered my life. Your love had destroyed it all. Don’t think I have regrets for that. I am not ruing over spilt love. I long to stay at your feet. I long to die in that crushing embrace of yours. But did you spare a thought how he suffered because of our love? You never knew him. I pray you Suleman. Please don’t touch me till Narayanappa had returned from jail. And after he returns, I shall speak to him and come there to stay forever with you. OK?’
‘Well, then be it as you say. What more can I say? You will only have to imagine how I have to drag these fifteen days. I have my own fears. Something or the other is always coming in our way these days. Just see. Why this non-co-operation should come up all of a sudden now? And like never before why should women folk join it? Surely you come? No more excuses? See how long you have been keeping me at arm’s length… like that legendary princess in the story who kept Polisetty away in the name of one religious observance after another? There was no love in that case, but here…’
‘Here? Here everything is yours. This heart is yours Sulem! Do you doubt it? Forget about you. Tell me, what else can I do than coming to you?’
Narayanappa was released from the jail. Doctors had diagnosed that he had signs of consumption before going to jail, and after examining him thoroughly, they confirmed it while discharging him. They had also advised that keeping him in a sanatorium like the one at Madanapalle might improve his chances of survival but he would have to spend the rest of his life confined to bed.
Three days passed. Evening was turning into night. Sitting in front of his desk Suleman was examining some important papers. Cigarette was burning between his fingers. A table lamp was spreading its light around. Suseela came and stood in silence at the door. Suleman sprang up to his feet and ran up to Suseela after seeing her.
‘So you have come to me at last! Welcome, Suseela, welcome.’
‘Unless you sit in your chair like a good boy I won’t enter into the room.’
‘What’s the matter?’
‘I ’ll tell you. But first, sit there as I said.’
Her voice had become unsteady with tears streaming down. She was desperately struggling to contain the emotions swelling up in her. Turning pale, Suleman took to his seat as dictated by her. Their faces were under the limelight now. Cigarette had slipped down the fingers and with he lit another. Resting her head on the arms leaning over the table, she was crying. Touched by her state and unable to see her anymore like that, Suleman ran his hand over her head with concern, and called, ‘Suseela!’
She sat up. ‘Sit there. I will not cry any more. Let me tell you my decision. I will not be coming to stay with you. Understand? You might have known the state of Narayanappa’s health. Who will look after him now? Who is there for him other than me?’
Suleman thought for a while before answering and said, ‘well, I think he had some siblings.’
‘I don’t know. But even if there are, do you think they care for him as much as I do? And having not cared all these years to know where and how they are, do you thin it meet for me to leave him to them when the need arose? Imagine how awkward it looks? And even if somebody comes forward to take proper care of him, can I rest happy leaving him to him? Won’t he have served me if we were to trade our places? And if I turn out to be such a heartless woman can you treat me with any respect? Just imagine for a moment yourself in his position, and think how it feels like if you were to be deserted?’
‘Leave it at that. It’s exactly how I have feared all the time. It seems he got this illness only to bind you to him. OK. Then, if you cannot come to me, I shall come to you. You come whenever you can make time. That’s all we can do for the present.’
‘But let me think over. I lost my balance. Your love for me on one side and my duty towards him on the other… I am slivered between the two...’
Suseela did not see him again. She left for Madanapalle with Narayanappa. Suleman waited for two long months for any communication. There was none. Finally he decided to go there and see for himself. It was 9 in the morning by the time he reached the ward. Suseela was reading a book sitting beside the bed. Medicine bottles were seen on the table behind her. He was seized with overwhelming passion looking at her. Tears rolled down involuntarily. He stood there like that for sometime. Narayanappa moved uneasily. Setting the book aside, she attended on him adjusting his pillow. Even a mother will not, perhaps, attend on her sick child. Suseela was compassion personified. Suleman felt ashamed. He wanted to get back. He was totally disappointed. He realized that all his attempts were simply useless. But, how could he get back home without speaking a word to Suseela? He walked gently towards her. Looking up she saw him and waved him aside. ‘He did not have a wink the whole night. He just slipped into sleep now,’ she whispered to him. After they were sufficiently away from Narayanappa’s bed, she asked him, ‘why did you turn up?’ He said, ‘you ask me why? How can I help it? ’
Tears rolled down her cheeks. ‘Poor Suleman, you have occupied my thoughts. There was not a moment I did not think of you. I know how I vex you and can imagine your plight without me beside.’
‘You came here without even informing me?’
‘What’s the use in telling you? I was afraid that my strength and resolve would melt away if I were to see you and I would do something against my will. That’s why.’
‘Forget about it. But you said that you would think over and reply me?’
‘Sulem! Can’t you forget me? Hear me. Marry. How long you remain like this?’
‘Is this what you have to say to me ultimately? How can I forget you? Wherever I look, I see you, I hear you and I recall all your actions.’
‘But what can I do? I am helpless. Look at him. Can you dare ask me to come away leaving him like that?’
‘No. But I have made up my mind to resign and come over here. Let me come here and stay.’
‘But I can’t come to you as I did earlier. Suleman! Have you given thought to it?’
‘Why? Don’t you love me any more?’
‘I love you, no doubt. But I am seized with love for him. Don’t think it is pity. It is real love for him. Why do you look at me that way? Are you surprised? You wonder how can I love that heap of bones? Well, yes. Its not the same kind of love I bear for you. It’s a love out of my respectful feeling that I don’t deserve even to hold a speck of dust off his feet on my forehead. Can you imagine for whose sake he has reduced to such a heap? It’s for my country, for the people of my country he wagered with his health. You may think it all futile and sheer madness. Well you may be right. But he made such a great sacrifice nevertheless for a cause…a cause he was hopeless and not sure to win. He paid a deaf ear to the doctor’s warning and heaped upon himself the trouble knowing the consequences beforehand. And in that great honour, that great endeavour my ‘ego’ had dissolved…and I submitted this ‘I’, this body, this mind and all my energies to him. Forgive me saying this: we are not fit to touch those feet.’
‘Then what about me, Suseela?’ he asked in desperation.
‘You must excuse me. A thousand apologies. You don’t know how bad I feel about it. It pains me to think that I might be playing with your love. Oh, if only I could find a way, other than what you expect, to alleviate your grief!’
‘Suseela, it is all your imagination that he had done great sacrifice and that he is in real danger.’
Cutting him short, she said, ‘Suleman, it’s beyond you to appreciate how awful I feel if I can’t keep my hands clean for his service. Don’t entertain any more hopes. Don’t write to me. There is no use in your coming to this place either. I can’t ask you to leave but I am helpless.’
‘Pray, leave me! Don’t try to break my resolve. I will not. When I loved you, I loved you with all my heart and enjoyed it. That’s all.’
‘Suppose he dies?’
‘Never say that. I can’t even imagine that eventuality. It hurts me. Do you think my life is worth anything without him?’
And in the distance, Suleman was seen walking down the hill. Suseela was weeping silently beside the bed. Narayanappa caressing her back with his hand, said, ‘I am following you. How can you be here? Don’t you seek happiness?’
‘Don’t talk to me about it any more. It’s all over.’
‘Really? Don’t you feel sad?’
‘I do whenever I think about his infatuation for me.’
‘But what about you?’
‘I have no regrets for myself. .. except the one that I could not keep myself pure enough to deserve to serve you. To be with you and being able to serve you gives me a feeling of bliss. Tell me, who is more fortunate? It’s my fortune that you agreed to receive the services of a woman like me. I am so…’ she choked.
‘Yes. Really. I was wailing for my past. That’s all!’