Benign Flame: Saga of Love – 1
Continued from "What is 'Benign Flame' all about?"
That winter night in the mid-seventies, the Janata Express was racing rhythmically on its tracks towards the coast of Andhra Pradesh. As its headlight pierced the darkness of the fertile plains, the driver honked the horn as though to awake the sleepy environs to the spectacle of the speeding train. On that, in the S-3, were the Ramaiahs with their nine year-old daughter Roopa.
Earlier, from Ramavaram, it was in the nick of time that Ramaiah took Janaki to Vellore for the doctors to extricate her from the jaws of death. Now, having been to Tirupati for thanksgiving, he was returning home with his wife and Roopa they took along for the sojourn. While her parents were fast asleep, Roopa sat still on a side berth, reminiscing her times at the hospital where Janaki took one month to recuperate under Dr. Yasoda’s care.
Soon the train stopped at a village station, as though to disrupt Roopa’s daydreams of modeling herself on the lady doctor at the Christian Medical College Hospital, and as she peeped out, the ill-lit platform seemed to suggest that the chances of her being Dr. Roopa could be but dim. Ramaiah too woke up to the commotion caused by the incoming passengers, and was surprised to see his daughter still awake, lost in her thoughts.
“My darling,” he said in jest, “what are you scheming?”
“Want to be a doctor,” she said as though in a trance.
“Didn’t the nurses say,” he said affectionately, bringing her escapades at the hospital back into her mental focus, “you’re a junior doctor?”, and pleased with her idea, he patted her to sleep, even as he recalled his anxieties associated with her birth.
Ramaiah was jolted from his reverie as someone in the compartment switched on the light, to prepare himself to alight at the coming station.
‘Surely she would shape up into a dusky beauty. Won’t she be bright as well?’ he thought, looking at Roopa in her deep sleep, and recalled her escapade when she was hardly three.
“You know how clever Roopa is?” said Janaki, at bedtime. “She wanted the timepiece to fiddle with and when I refused to give in, she cried no end. When she forgot what she was crying for, she cried to know why she cried at all! What a unique girl our Roopa is!”
As the train moved into a major junction, Ramaiah got down, looking for a coffee vendor. Unable to find even a tea vendor, he lit his Berkeley without a beverage. When the guard whistled the start, a half-naked urchin jostled past Ramaiah into the bogie to crouch in the vestibule. While the train was on the move, Ramaiah wondered whether the urchin had crouched to draw warmth from his heart to ward off the chillness, and pitying him, as he gave him some money the lad took as a matter of right.
‘Isn’t there something called gratitude?’ thought Ramaiah, feeling disregarded. ‘Is he so naive that he knows not civility? Or could he be an outcast, unfamiliar with the niceties of society?’ Ramaiah looked at him intently as though for a clue.
‘Is it possible that his exposure to the elements in his nakedness should’ve robbed his body of its sense of feeling?’ he thought, finding the wretched lad as cool as a cucumber. ‘Now, what he needs most is a piece of cloth to cover himself with. After all, money wouldn’t provide warmth by itself, would it?’
Ramaiah went to his trunk to fetch a vest for the urchin. Seeing him wear it without even looking at him, Ramaiah wondered whether the lad was indifferent to the world in general.
‘Could life get worse than that?’ Ramaiah wondered, as he tried to go back to sleep on his allotted berth. How was he to know that one day, despairing for love, Roopa would personify the wretched side of life itself.
The outbreak of the day, which brought the sun on to the horizon, woke up Ramaiah. Realizing it would still take an hour to reach Ramavaram, he was inclined to inaction. The chillness of the wintry breeze and the warmth of the sunny dawn struck him for their contrast. Looking yonder, he saw the dew filled fields bejeweled by refraction and thought that they brought luster to the Master’s Creation.
When Janaki woke up, as Ramaiah folded up the berth, providing space for those in the aisle to rest their weary legs, there was enough room in the compartment for the assorted characters waiting in the vestibule.
Soon, the newspaper of the day was split into four that preoccupied as many. As its center page landed in the lap of the one opposite, Ramaiah couldn’t help but crane his neck to screen the bold print therein. However, all the pages came to him, though in a crumpled shape, enabling him to go through the copy before the vestiges of the paper were restored to whom it belonged, but not before the scandals in it were savored by those present.
Having finished with the newspaper in that intermittent reading, Ramaiah puffed away at his freshly lit Berkeley, and looking out from the window, he began to admire the scenery filled with greenery. When the landscape around looked familiar, he woke up Roopa and goaded Janaki to move towards the exit. Soon he too joined them with the bag and baggage.
Waiting near the wash-basin, Ramaiah remembered the lad and looked for him, and not finding him, he thought, ‘That is life. It has a destination even for the destitute.’
Soon Ramaiah leaned out of the slowing train to ascertain the platform.
When the train screeched to the welcome chores of the waiting staff of the Ramavaram Station, alighting from it with the precaution associated with an occasional traveler, Ramaiah hurried his family towards the exit like a habitual commuter who catches the train on the move.
“The postmaster must have brought bagfuls of news,” the ticket collector at the gate greeted Ramaiah, alluding to the village postmasters’ penchant to peruse the post before delivery.
“The only news is that the Mails are running late,” was the Ramaiah repartee as he handed over the tickets.
Once out, he engaged a rickshaw to take them home.
Ramavaram was a mini town as its residents loved to call it. With just five hundred houses, it was no more than a village in Ramaiah’s childhood but grew rapidly to house thirty thousand souls by the time Roopa was born. Well, the explosion in its population owed more to the migration than to procreation, and that represented the trend all over. While the natives lamented that the place was bursting at its seams, the settlers felt it was brimming with activity. However, all were proud to belong to it, not to speak of the Ramaiahs.
Life was running its routine course in Ramaiah’s household until fate ordained a tragedy, as though to ensure Roopa’s resolve to become a doctor was not dissolved in the myopic dreams of her imminent maidenhood, Rukmini, her elder sister, orphaned her son for want of postnatal care at the government maternity home that came up by then.
“Nature’s victim of procreation and man’s means of recreation, that’s what woman is,” bemoaned Janaki.
‘Only as a doctor can I help women,’ resolved Roopa to herself.
With Rukmini’s premature death causing consternation in the concerned households, the elders, in due course, went into a huddle, and decided it would be in the best interests of the motherless child if Suguna, the deceased’s sister, married the widower. So after a decent wait, while Suguna replicated her sibling in her brother-in-law’s life, Roopa too matured as though nature intended to synchronize her body with her mind.
While Roopa resembled a flower at dawn with its dew on, her complexion of tan was in consonance with the radiance of her velvet skin. Even as her vivacious features acquired softness as though to project the sweetness of her nature, her gaze gave way to glances as if to convey her innate inclinations. While her nascent bust was akin to a curious maiden peeping out from behind the curtain, the oni she wore strived to veil her maiden form. Her emerging figure and her diffident disposition lent tentativeness to her gait that seemed like the calibrated movements of a virtuoso danseuse on the way to the crescendo. Though in her interaction, she was modesty personified that strangely enhanced her sensual appeal, nevertheless, while watching the boys on the sly, she withdrew from them with inhibition. However, embellishing her unique persona, she came to have a mind of her own.
Once when she debunked the puranic tales of cock-pecked wives as perverse male stratagems to enslave women, Janaki was truly alarmed. “These tales of female fidelity have a purpose of their own,” said Janaki to Roopa. “Since nature made men promiscuous, it’s the female loyalty that holds the marriage in the long run, for the benefit of the family and the society as well. These tales have a moral for men as well for they underscore the fact that it’s the wife who sticks through thick and thin with their man and not the lascivious lasses with whom they come to stray.”
As Roopa remained unconvinced and minced no words about the fallacy of the proposition, Janaki realized that old wives tales were no longer a currency with the educated girls. So she thought it fit to reason it out with her and Chandrika, her unmarried daughters, about the pitfalls of premarital sex and thus closeted with them one evening.
“I think it’s time I talk to you about the proclivities of youth,” Janaki began enigmatically. “To be drawn to boys at your age is but natural and desirable even. It helps the healthy development of your sexuality. Infatuation is the narcotic of the nascent youth, and if only the dosage is right, it could bring in small pleasures that delight. On the other hand, a thoughtless overdose could cripple your womanliness forever. While being friendly with the boys, beware of their attitudes and be aware about your vulnerabilities. They pursue for the final favor doggedly until they are dog-tired. Nature made them that way and for a purpose; female fulfillment is the purpose of male desire. It’s left for you to draw your own premarital lines. Do not get into those situations that might let you part with that for which they court you so fervently. If only you interact with easy virtue, your date could doubt your ability to resist a future seducer. Thus, if you favor your lover in a hurry, you might end up losing him besides that by which men measure women. And that would be enough to put you in a doghouse for life.”
Janaki extracted a promise from Chandrika and Roopa that they wouldn’t indulge in premarital sex.
Ramaiah’s household was jolted from its routine that April at the news of his impending transfer to Kakinada, though on promotion. And as if to relieve them from the obligation to stay back, Janaki’s parents passed away in quick succession even before the transfer order was on hand. Whatever, Ramaiah welcomed the development as it would entail better schooling for the children, especially to Raju his only son, and expose them to a liberal environment as well.
Once the dynamics of change came into play in Ramaiah’s household, the inertia of lethargy gave way to the novelty of life. The house with a backyard that they rented in Ramaraopeta made everyone feel at home. While Janaki enjoyed the company of better-educated women from the neighborhood, the children were excited at the prospect of their schooling in the English medium. Exercising his increased power over an enlarged body of subordinates, Ramaiah too felt at home at the Head Post Office.
When he got Chandrika admitted in the PR College in the intermediate, he felt as though he was paying due respects to his Alma Mater. While Roopa enrolled in the Govt. Girls High School for her pre final, Raju joined the McLauren High School in the eighth class.
While Ramavaram became a distant memory for all of them, Roopa came to realize that she became the object of boys’ attention and the subject of girls’ envy. Nevertheless, she didn’t see any contradiction in that, for she had come to appreciate the value of her sexuality. Her teachers’ compliments about her cerebral caliber only furthered her sense of confidence.
Mid way into the first-term, when Roopa was on top of the world, Sandhya, the daughter of the new Joint Collector, joined the class. About the same age as she was, Sandhya was shorter by a fraction but rosy in complexion. While she looked cute and lively, in her slim frame, she carried herself with that grace often associated with the children of the well-off from the cities. The sophistication of her manner, and the chastity of her accent, acquired at the Hyderabad Public School, put everyone in awe, the teachers included, but her modesty and friendliness enabled her classmates to flock to her in their numbers.
However, Roopa felt like the spirited person at a dinner party, who would have lost the audience upon the arrival of a celebrity, and acted in a like manner; she didn’t join the bandwagon but when Sandhya herself sought her help to catch up with the syllabus, Roopa obliged her, having felt vindicated. While Sandhya was impressed with the keenness of Roopa’s intellect, the warmth of Sandhya’s persona attracted Roopa. The closer they became, the more they admired each other. Moreover, the more they came to know about one another, the fonder they became of each other. Soon, they were seen only together.
As the final exams neared, they co-studied at Sandhya’s place during the preparatory holidays. With Kamalakar and Damayanthi, Sandhya’s parents, having readily taken to Roopa, she felt at home at the Joint Collector’s Bungalow, where she found a large collection of fiction, which she began to pore over. Ramaiah, recalling his teacher’s advice to him that classics would improve one’s language, deepen his vision and broaden his horizons, was glad that his daughter was on the right track though he himself had missed the bus.
Soon enough, Ramaiah was forced to take stock of his situation. Agricultural income became meager ever since they left Ramavaram. After all, the lessee of their depleted landholding made it a habit to blame it upon the drought to deny Ramaiah his due. Besides, as all the eligible accounts were discounted, there was no way to have a loan from his office. As for their ancestral dwellings, the modern houses that came up made them antiques already. Thus, Ramaiah began to feel as if he reached the dead end of Ramavaram.
“Why not dispose of all that? What with the diminishing returns, they’re assets only for the record,” he broached the topic with Janaki. “Well if only the old man were alive it would have been a different story.”
“With the ‘land for the tiller’ thick in the air, better we come out clear,” she gave the green signal. “You better sell away whatever little my father left me as well.”
When he returned from Ramavaram, after having sold what all they had, he felt as though his umbilical cord with the place was severed. With those proceeds, he proceeded to acquire an old building in Gandhinagar as their ‘old age shelter’ as he put it. The rest of the fund he deposited in a scheduled bank to take care of future needs.
Continued to “Realities of Life”