The moment I stepped down the dais reporters thronged me with flashing cameras. There were also the fans waiting with autograph books. They stopped me on my way for a short interview. I am Surya, the artist, a well-known celebrity in the art circle. I had come there to attend the meeting arranged to felicitate me for the most prestigious award my painting "The Mouse Trap" had won. My interviewers found me in a genial mood.
"Sir, why did you choose an ordinary rat caught in an ordinary wooden contraption as your theme?"
"Nothing is ordinary in the eyes of an artist".
"Sir, what is the inspiration for this painting?"
"It is a childhood recollection. I drew it from memory".
"Sir, why was it etched in your memory?"
"I don't know".
"A magnificent obsession?"
"What is the meaning of the mouse trap, sir?"
"You can interpret it as you like".
"Is it symbolic of man caught in the present day state of affairs?"
"Does it have any special reference?"
"I don't think so".
"I think the picture's poignancy springs from some deep personal experience".
"Have it as you like".
"Will you share it with us, sir?"
This was my limit. I never had the intention of becoming a cover-story sensation. I bade them good-bye and reached the exit. Just then an old gentleman with snow-white hair approached me and extended his visiting card. It read : "Prof. Adithya, M.Litt". I could not recall the name. He said in an urgent tone, "I must talk to you". I was surprised. He looked different from the young fans who sometimes pester me. What did he want to talk to me about? While I hesitated, he pleaded "Please". The entreaty in his sunken eyes moved me. I had four more hours to take my flight home. I had nothing important to do except to browse in the bookstall. So I rather felt indulgent towards the old man and decided to pamper his whim. "Where shall we go, sir?" I asked pleasantly. The man's face instantly lit up. "Oh! Let us go to my humble villa. I'll take you in my car".
It tickled me a bit to see the man overjoyed at my consent to accompany him. "You won't be sorry for coming. I've something to show you. You must see it". It sounded childish to me. I was amused at the thought of spending the evening with a total stranger who behaved in a mysterious manner.
In a matter of few minutes we reached a quiet, little farmhouse. My old companion led the way into a tastefully furnished hall. I instantly felt at home and recognized the owner's aesthetic sense. After showing me to a comfortable sofa he disappeared into the house. In two minutes he returned with two large glasses of cool fruit juice. It tasted marvelous. It stirred some nostalgic memories of my own boyhood days in our country house.
"Surya, I think you won't object to my calling you by your name. I feel comfortable calling you like that".
"It is alright, sir. Now, may I know why you brought me here?"
"You don't know how stirred I was when I saw your prize-winning painting in the exhibition. Surya, believe me, I blinked and rubbed my eyes several times to convince myself what I saw was true.
"But that can wait. I feel a strange urge in me to tell you some of my personal experiences. Surya, are you patient enough to listen to an old man's story?"
Strangely enough, I was curious to know about this old professor. "Yes, sir. I'm beginning to feel you're no ordinary person. Your story is sure to interest me".
My friend was lost for a moment in reverie. Then he began in a soft tone. "This is my winter. I am seventy-four. Old and haggard. But the memories of my spring are ever green. I love to chew the honeyed cud of those blissful days. "I studied literature - with relish. I chose to teach the same in college. In course of time my parents found a suitable bride for me. Please allow me to dwell a little on my wife's memory.
"Believe me, Surya, marriage is bliss. Yes, it is. But only for one in a million. My honeymoon days were the best in my whole life. My wife and I were complete strangers when we married. But after the knot was tied, my wife merged in me, became one with me - just like the poetic simile of the rain water turning red the moment it falls on the red soil. Though we had two pairs of eyes, our vision was one. There was perfect agreement between us. "We saw happiness everywhere - in the sky, in the hills, in the brooks, in the flowers. There was harmony everywhere. Everything seemed to be a silent part of a bigger, grander scheme. We just fitted in. "I who was supposed to be my wife's master became her willing slave. Do you know how she teased me?
She asked me, 'Will you dominate me as a male chauvinist?'
'Never, my dear. Your word shall be the law'.
'Oh, no. I can't like a man who agrees to everything I say'.
'Where is room for argument when whatever my darling says is perfectly right?'
'You can never know what a cruel dictator I can become!'
'I know you won't'.
'What makes you feel so sure, my dear?'
'Faith, my honey, pure faith. God Almighty Himself has such a faith in woman.
Why not I?'
'What do you mean?'
'Now, tell me, who is entrusted with the responsibility of continuation of life on earth? Who bears and delivers the child? The man or the woman? Don't you see the infinite trust God has in the patience and the sense of responsibility of the woman?'
'Very good, indeed! So, this is where you finally end up - with all your flatteries and falsehoods!'
'Darling, I seriously want our baby very soon'.
'Can you wait for ten months, my lord?'
"We waited, Surya. Our wonderful bundle of joy - Nila - arrived on the dot, making our life even more heavenly. Nila was such a cute, little angel. But unfortunately, this did not continue for ever like in a fairy tale. Ominous clouds appeared in our skies. My wife grew pale and sick. Our gynecologist diagnosed cancer in the uterus and advised immediate termination of my wife's second pregnancy to facilitate treatment for her deadly disease. "But my wife would not listen to the doctor's advice. The doctor was quite surprised. She pleaded with my wife to think of her loving husband's miserable life without her, to think of Nila's pathetic state as a motherless child. My wife paid no heed to her words.
"She was firm in her stand. She argued that she was wholly responsible for the safety of the little life inside her womb. In no way shall she betray the unborn baby. The baby's life, she believed was more precious than hers. She was determined to save the baby at the cost of her life. Her husband and daughter can manage without her if that was God's will. "I know her too well to expect her to change her mind. She faced the ordeal with grit. I bowed to her supreme motherhood. With no medication other than occasional alleviatives she went into coma a few days before the baby was due. The doctors were in a dilemma as to whom to save - the mother or the baby. I spoke for my wife, for all that she valued most. I asked them to save the baby. My wife slipped into peaceful, eternal sleep leaving a precious baby boy in my hands.
" I brought up the children with love, with care, doubling the duties of father and mother. I had no regrets, Surya. I never thought of remarrying. My first marriage was too satisfying for me to allow thoughts of a second marriage.
"Nila grew up. She was just like her mother - brilliant, beautiful and strong-willed. She was a wonderful blend of traditional values and modern enlightenment. She excelled alike in fine arts and modern skills. She was content to let me choose her life partner. Surya, I was awed at my responsibility. I waited till I found a groom who satisfied all my expectations. He was a doctor - well mannered, well respected and very intelligent in his profession.
"After marriage Nila began to live alone with her husband in the distant city where he had set up his practice. They were too busy to visit me. Whenever I planned to take leave to go and visit them my daughter would write to me not to bother saying they were thinking of coming to my house soon. Nine months passed in this manner without my suspecting anything odd in my daughter's letters. I wished the young couple happiness and refrained from intruding upon their privacy.
"One day, like a bolt from the blue, the news of Nila's death reached me. I was told she caught fire while cooking. I just couldn't believe it. The sight of her charred body overwhelmed me with bitterest sorrow. Before I could recover from it, a second bolt struck me. My son-in-law met with a tragic road accident and followed his wife in just four days. I felt numbed with pain.
"After all the formalities were over and the sympathizers had taken leave, finding me alone the old maid of my daughter's household - the only servant about the place - came to speak to me. Amid torrents of tears she poured out tales about the sufferings my daughter had undergone in the past nine months. Nila had been most cruelly victimized by the most unimaginable sadist of a husband. The maid's tales were too horrid to believe. They sent a chill down my spine. She concluded saying the cause of Nila's death was cold-blooded murder and not accident as it was set up.
"It looked quite impossible. I just could not imagine my suave son-in-law perpetrating all these atrocities. Was he a villain in the guise of a physician? A split personality? A freak? A pervert? A demented wretch? . Whatever he was Nila had concealed everything from me."
The professor's voice choked. The wound, I could see, was still raw, after all these years, perhaps a quarter of a century. He went on - "She had repeatedly rejected the maid's advice to seek my assistance . Just like her - too proud to accept defeat, too sensitive to expose her personal problems.
"After hearing the maid's outpouring I felt freshly dejected. I felt very helpless. I seethed with anger to realize the rascal was beyond the bounds of revenge or legal action. Trying to brush aside the maid's tales as untrue, with a leaden heart I began to pack up Nila's belongings. It was then I found amid her saris a carefully hidden silken bundle, which contained the most eloquent evidence of her misery. The old maid was right, after all."
The professor stopped his story here. His narration has moved me like a great Greek tragedy. He finely played on all the chords of my heart, stirring my innermost soul with deepest emotions. I needed a break. He seemed to have read my mind.
"Surya, shall we leave my story for a while and hear something about you? After the unspeakable manner in which your prize-winning picture in the exhibition affected me I went to the organizers and inquired about you. I heard you're a confirmed bachelor at the age of forty-three. Isn't it strange that a talented, well-to-do artist like you should be a bachelor? I'm sure your Mouse Trap picture is not uninspired.
There is a passion in it. It speaks about a haunting idea. Am I correct, Surya?"
"Yes. You're absolutely correct, sir. I don't see why I shouldn't share my private feelings with you as you've done now. I feel inexplicably drawn towards you. You're no more a stranger to me.
"To begin with, let me tell you sir, my parents were also like you and your wife were - a made-for-each-other couple - one in a million as you aptly put it. I was their firstborn, born into wealth and comfort. Our spacious house on the banks of Cauvery was my paradise on earth.
"When I was five years old, on a peaceful evening at home, my father reading the newspaper, my mother doing needlework, my baby sister sleeping in the crib, the radio playing softly in the background, I was sprawling on the floor sketching away with wax crayons when I was startled by a sudden, snapping sound in the kitchen. I looked up and saw my parents looking meaningfully at each other. It was always the same. They rarely spoke aloud. Their eyes spoke, gestures spoke and even their thoughts were silently communicating.
"Seeing the startled look on my face, my father took me by hand to the kitchen where I saw a closed mouse trap with a frightened rat inside. Its bead-like eyes glittered in terror. It began to gnaw at the trap's thin rods with panicky fervor. My father took the trap to the backyard and said the servant will attend to it in the morning. He explained what pests rats and mice were and how they had to be eliminated.
"I resumed my drawing but the sight of the pathetic rat caught in the trap awaiting its sure doom got etched in my subconscious mind. It surfaced to my conscious mind when I entered the city college. It was there I woke up to a brand new set of feminine ideals. My fellow girl students acquainted me with imported views and ways of modern women, which caught on like wild fire in the campus and in the society at large.
"I was rudely shocked by the casualness with which the girls aired their new ideas about men and marriage. I realized I had so far taken many things for granted. For the first time I became aware of the fact that there were brands of women other than the kind of my mother and sister.
"It was new to me that marriage which I had hitherto held as a mark of human civilization was a custom of the barbarians and that 'living together' was the fashion of the day. I learnt that a liberated woman was one who refused to be a childbearing machine. I found it hard to digest that a woman finds it boring to live with the same man for years together, for lifetime. These harsh realities fixed the mouse trap image permanently in my mind.
"My parents and sister tried in vain to clear my misconceptions about modern women. They tried their best to persuade me to marry. I was not ready to take any risk.
"In fact, I'm quite happy as I am. I don't feel I've missed anything. On the other hand, I've escaped from being caught in the trap."
"I guessed as much, Surya. You've presented your point of view very clearly. But I personally feel you need not have despaired of finding a suitable partner. Such women still exist. They are not rare or extinct as you've wrongly concluded. Surya, do you know that my son who is an engineer working with the navy is blessed with a wife like one your father and I were blessed with?"
"I'm glad to hear it, sir. But I'm sad to say this - the institution of marriage is crumbling. Women have lost interest in their exclusive role of homemakers. They refuse to see the complementary nature of man and woman relationship. It is an irony that women are up in arms to safeguard their sensibilities while it is the men's sensibilities that are in grave danger of being outraged. Man is more wronged than wronging."
"Surya, I fully understand and appreciate your feelings. This is a memorable day for me. Our meeting has been a delightful conference of two kindred souls. Now let me show you the secret message my daughter left me twenty-five years ago, which also is the purpose of my inviting you to my house today. But before that, let me warn you, Surya, fact is stranger than fiction."
My friend went inside the house and returned a minute later carrying a parcel wrapped in silk. As he opened it I realised it was a painting. I jumped up the instant he turned the picture towards me. I was shivering all over. I was too excited to speak. I was caught in a whirlwind of emotions. I stared at the picture with utter disbelief. My mind raved on : "How did this happen? Am I dreaming? Is this possible? No. It must be a hallucination. Is the professor a magician conjuring up images in my mind? Or, is he a perverted maniac wanting to torture me? It can't be. The man looks as sane as ever. No, I'm not imagining things either. The picture is real. It is there - solid and tangible. I cannot take my eyes from it. My good heavens!"
It was a picture of the same rat in my prize-winning painting that stared back at me from inside a closed mouse trap! Only with more pain and more terror.