He was going up the flights – one floor after another. How many more could be there? It looked to be the top but then there appeared another flight. Would he ever make it to the top? There appeared yet another. What made matters worse was that it was far away, about twenty feet. How to reach there to begin with? What if he took a leap!
What if he slipped? It must be ten floors high. Is it really possible to jump down?
The stairs appeared vanishing one after another. But then how was he able to stand erect. No, he must not fall down. He must take a leap but then … Oh, No! The stairs moved forward. He was falling … falling … He thought there would be a thud. But, no, he was just floating in the air like a feather.
-He broke into a cold sweat and that woke him up.
Rao was thirsty. Where ever did this woman go? He asked himself feeling the emptiness in the other side of the bed. He sat up, his heart going pit a pat. He got up and looked at the table. No sign of a note. He looked at the bathroom door. It was open. The light was not turned off.
The quartz wall-clock showed five-five. It was still dark outside.
The old couple must still be fast asleep.
Where could she have gone?
“Mother!” He called from outside without going into the room.
“Why did you get up so early?” the old woman asked, stifling a yawn.
“Where is Kiranmayi? Where could she have gone?”
“Perhaps out to get flowers …” saying this, she went into the backyard to the Nandivardhan tree.
She went round the tulasi too and came up the flight of stairs gasping for breath.
‘Attayya (Mother-in-law) is an angel of a woman …’ she remembered the words she asked the new bride to write to her mother in secret. She felt like having a glass of water.
She never knew fear for the sensation it was loathsome. She could stare at disasters without a shade of fear in her eyes but something was amiss. Her heartbeat was going fast.
Rao was livid in his face. His mother knew that nothing less than a wasp sting would give such redness. But then where was the wasp?
Was the poor fellow suffering, at least in his heart of hearts? She began wondering. The fellow took after the father. She it was who could rein the young bride – otherwise the fellow would have become a sucker. If she has not been cautious enough that lass would have seen to it that they were shown the door. Where could she go and how far? If she were out, she herself could make matters worse. That slip of a woman never knew her mother-in-law.
For some reason she suddenly remembered her own daughter, the poor little girl. Whatever hardships had she not encountered! The only girl child she could beget!
Where could this woman have gone?
She could never dare go to her sambandhis. They gave her a rough deal. At the bus station some women beat her along with her second son. Of course, she had given all that she could to her only daughter. There was nothing she could do except think of her with tears in her eyes.
Most of the blame had been on her younger son. He would create crises and back out. He was like his own father: he would act first and think later. In a moment he wrote out a letter and saw to it that his brother-in-law was ousted from service. But those on the other side were not helpless like her daughter-in-law.
The old woman could only make this new bride miserable for what she had undergone during her own long life. Perhaps it was all in her horoscope. If she married off her daughter there was no happiness anywhere. Now this daughter-in-law: there’s no knowing where they land themselves.
She was all confused.
Outsiders liked her. She was an angel for them: but, for her own people she was both a shrew, and a devil. It was always the outsiders who got the best out of her, the best in her. Was it not for good name that she served the outsiders? Did her people hate her so much? Why did the young woman leave their house? Did she really believe that a new daughter-in-law would be brought in? Would it be possible for her to implement the threat? What should she tell the servant maid if she asked where the ‘bahu’ went?
That little fellow never cared for her. The older son wouldn’t let them be away, separated. Perhaps all the young people in this generation behaved like that.
Kiran was conceited. She knew what they had been to that daughter of theirs. She would avenge the injustice.
Would she be so heroic in just three months? Perhaps the old man in the house had been excessively cruel. He couldn’t bear people being happy. He could never bridle his sexual desire either. Even if she went out to offer worship in a temple he would imagine her meeting a lover somewhere. A cripple, he was not sturdy or fair, even in the mind. He always believed a wife was meant to be a menial, a slave, a toy, and a tool. He was an expert in devising ways of harassment. Poor scoundrel! He thought that the ‘bahu’ would put up with his tortures as his wife did.
Wasn’t it just natural that a girl from another family would find such ways strange and insufferable? She would come to a new family becoming its member uprooting herself from the family she was born into. In her time, she was uneducated and she was always to be submissive, never to be vocal, never to answer back. Some kind of confusion would be natural. But, if she were to be confronted with abuse of not only of herself but of her father and mother too, would it be possible to tolerate? But then what was the great unforgivable lapse of the sambandhis?
No, there would be no point in trying to put some sense into any one of their heads. Each had a flair for creating chaos and unhappiness. It had been useless trying. For anything she would start, the young one would twist the meaning. One thing would lead to another and then in a brief while there would be conflagration.
These stupid fellows never would realize that eventually it would be the bahu that would should organize of all functions and celebrations in the household.
She had an inkling that something like this would come and now it came. She paid worship to the Swamiji, no matter what the old man was saying behind her back. Was there a lapse that led to this disaster?
Did she jump into a well? She had tried her best to look after her as a real mother.
“She is a stone, brother! Whatever you may call her brother, father or mother, she doesn’t even react. Such scoundrels, boors – brutes, all of them!” The young husband would start first. The old man appears to take the daughter-in-law’s side but then the younger brother would object to it. Then the young woman would be provoked to say something. That would set the three riling at their in-laws.
“Perhaps she ran off with someone!” the younger one said coming on the scene.
“Watch your tongue! You have all along been against this match!” the worried husband said firmly.
“Don’t pay attention to that fellow: you are a god to him and he never meant…” the old woman tried to placate her elder son.
“God! Am I god to this fellow? If it was so would he make such a wild guess?”
“Don’t care for what he says. His is a blind excitement, emotion and passion.”
“Don’t ever tell me again this wretched fellow has any good in him. You have driven her to this. You asked me to look stiff and unbending. You said that my father-in-law wounded my self-respect. But, did we refer to him in any polite terms, without contempt and abuse? Now I’m sure I’d land in jail. I have been dead all these months. Now you must leave, I am asking you to get out.” He bellowed.
The old man made to get up but fell back on the bed. But he went on: “It’s not that. She hated you right from the very first night. Her parents somehow performed the wedding and washed their hands off.. You told me she felt it that way alone. Didn’t you? … You talked of ideals. You said you’d go in for an educated and professionally qualified girl. You said you would never accept any dowry. But see you accepted it – saying that we demanded it. You said you believed in love marriages. Why did you consent to the arranged one? Did anyone ever fall in love with you, you numskull? How dare you ask us to get out!”
He was gasping for breath.
“Would you keep shut? Whatever is the use of blaming it on our own son?” The old lady got in.
“Who else is there, hasn’t she gone?”
“She dare not go out far. I’m sure she would bring shine and glory to our family.”
“You, useless woman! You think something, speak another and do a totally different thing. Get lost, you bitch! I know how to handle everyone around.”
“I know how efficient you are. You were jealous of everyone bright and happy. Could your meanness stop my children getting degrees?”
Rao for some reason calmed down. He began to look at the situation with the eyes of a spectator. He found it disgusting. He hated himself and then pitied himself too.
“You have always been like this. Go on trading charges and heaping abuse on one another. This is the lousiest of families. You try to nail one another shamelessly. If we closed the doors you were jealous. If we kept them open you began lecturing. You successfully divided the wife and husband. No decency, no decorum! You put her to heinous tortures, called her all kinds of names; abused her parents, jointly and severally and finally drove her to despair. She would spell our doom. Every word in her father’s letters was misinterpreted and for every thing she was blamed and taken to task. In her presence you fought like pigs over silly things. If she asked one to cool down, the other would shout at her asking her not to interfere.
“I know only going to jail. There it would surely be more peaceful. At least I would be far away from you. You brought me up like this and I’d have plenty of time to reform myself. The jail is the place for me. I’m not worried anymore about anything!”
He went into his room and locked himself in.
“You elder one,” called the old woman after she thought her son recovered from his fit, “I am your mother. I tell you, listen to me. It is because of you alone that your sister is saved and now she is able to be on her own, though they don’t allow anyone of us anywhere near them. Think carefully as to what we should do now. There is no use fighting among ourselves. We’d be exposed and all of us would become laughingstocks,” the old woman spoke in persuading tones. There was no reply. She began to loudly sniff and wipe her eyes with the sari end.
“Poor thing!” the old man began, “where can she go? It is a plot that the young wife and the stupid husband hatched to get rid of us. They dare not drive us out, as long as my pension is important for them. Now do you see they are just one?”
“Yes, they are play-acting but how about you, cunning man! Did you ever trust me? Did you ever allow me to go out alone, even if it is only to the temple? To hell with your suspicion, shameless man!”
“No, my dear! I cannot be alone, with you away. I would be sitting with you. All right, let’s get out. They and we both the couples could be happy.”
“Would you please keep shut? Still it is a joke for you; are you not ashamed to speak in that tone?”
Rao was listening to every word of this. Neither of them, nor the younger brother seem to have any thought of where the young woman must have gone. Kiran was a live coal: only ash-covered. If she should flare up none can put an end to the tongues of flames.
What should he do to save at least himself? There was nothing left of family prestige anyway.
“Rey, tell us now. You said only a few days ago that if we went, we should walk over your corpse. Now she has gone. Tell us if we too should leave. One thing is certain; she wouldn’t go to her parental house. That will never happen!”
“Would you kindly keep shut? Did she take anything with her? Or, did she walk out in the clothes she was in? The old woman began to think.
She knocked at the door with all her power but there was no reply.
The young one looked at the parents, wanted to say something but thought better of it and walked out in a huff.
The old woman went on sniffing, wiping her nose with the sari end.
“Her degree and other certificates are not here. The gold chain and ring you gave her are here. My being alive any longer would be useless!” He broke into tears.
“Why should you think like that? If she doesn’t deserve a husband like you, let her go. We will find you another.” The young man returned and said as if trying to bolster his brother’s courage. Evidently he went out to drag a quick and secret puff at the cigarette.
“You shut up, scoundrel, don’t show me you face!” came the voice from behind the locked door.
The younger one left giving the door a glaring stare.
“What if we sent a telegram to her father?
“You are a fool! Never do that. He would go to a police station and a van comes to pick us up.”
Rao cried out in anguish.
Why did Kiran do this? Did she forgive everyone punishing herself? Or, did she think that was the best way to deal with the in-laws.
Kiranmayi is one effulgent with rays: would always be brilliant, darkness can never sully it. Breaking into sobs, Rao put his head between his knees.
Original in Telugu that appeared first in Bharati, Dec.1986