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from the April 2015 issue

A Mansion with Many Rooms

With a single stab, the knife entered deep into my stomach and the blood spurted out at once. I have no idea how many more stabs followed. With each stab, only wordless questions arose in my head.  In that dizzy moment, as I fell to the ground, I must have received a harsh blow to the back of my skull. The blood flowing from my head and below my waist felt wet and sticky. If I were to shout very loudly for help, someone might be able to save me, even now. If either Thenmozhi, who lived next door, or Jaya, who lived in the flat below, knew what had happened, they could still carry me to safety. But no sound would come out of my throat. I tried as hard as I could to call out. As if all possible words were frozen by shock, they stuck inside my throat. Unable to raise any sound from the depths of my stomach, the words came out as mere air. In any case, it was Jaya’s younger sister Chitra’s wedding the next day and so her radio was turned on at full volume, belting out the song “The Jingling of Wedding Bangles.” Amid this racket, nobody would hear even if I were to call out. I tried as hard as I could to push my hands into the floor and move my body. From my chest to my thighs I felt paralyzed by the weight of the pain. With the overwhelming pain that enveloped my body, I sensed a gradual loss of consciousness and the slow ebbing away of life. And then, because it was my father who had done this, it suddenly struck me that it didn’t matter if I died. The thought of him made me utterly weary. There was no will in me to hang on to life.

If Maari were to see me now he would be in total shock. As it is, the very sight of blood makes him dizzy and even faint. When I miscarried our first child, my excessive bleeding actually made him ill and he had to take to his bed. Time seems to have decided that he should suffer all life’s cruelties for no other reason than his love for me. How much he has endured! We have had to flee from one place to another; there have been too many flights for a couple of our age. And all of this in order to fulfill my desire. Tiny memories came to mind, like pictures. I could never have imagined that my small desire would end with me floating in this bloodbath. Even as I thought this, my breath rose suddenly and then fell.

A rainy day. The light and the radiance of the rain combined to give that day an unforgettable, epic quality. It was my father who gave me a telephone number and asked me to call the electrician to come and repair the pumpset, so that he could water his fields. That was Maari’s telephone number. It’s still the same—he has never changed it. Maari came in haste, despite the rain. He repaired the pumpset, which was in a concrete room some distance from the main house, and then came to our backyard, soaked right through. He told us that the motor wouldn’t work properly until the rains passed, but we could turn it on from time to time. Amma told me to give him some tea. He stood there in the rain, wet and trembling. He took the tea and drank it, smiling at me gently. I felt as if a stone was hurled into me from his whirlpool of a smile. I must have thought back on that smile a hundred thousand times that day. And as I kept thinking of it, it grew more and more significant. I wandered aimlessly through all the rooms of our large mansion. Restless and helpless, I seemed to fill all the rooms, which seemed to keep stretching in size. I went to my own room and curled up on my bed. My own familiar room felt alien to me.

The rain showed no signs of stopping. It went on for three days. On the third day, the pumpset inside the house failed. Amma found it extremely difficult, because there was no water coming out of our taps.

“Would you like me to call the electrician?” I asked.

At once, Appa told me I shouldn’t.

“Don’t go and invite these low-caste fellows to come inside our house. You’ll just have to stick it out and manage with rain water. I’ll be going to town in a couple of days. I’ll undo the motor and take it with me.”

I felt dizzy. That sensation entered my skull like a knot, giving me an acute headache. I was haunted by the thought that I must see him again. Schools opened again only after the rains abated and sunlight returned. I went to school enveloped in the cloud of my imagination, not noticing anything around me. I began to think philosophically that the world was breaking itself up into many parts, carving out one piece from another. Whereas inside me the rooms stretched larger and larger.

Ours was a big house, stretching from one street at its front entrance to the other at its rear. There were many rooms, each one separate and set apart for its own use. Each room was pervaded with its own special light and air and its own particular smell, firm in its own purpose. Those rooms were embedded in my mind with a kind of stubbornness, as if time itself were trapped within their rectangles. My room had a window that opened out to a wide field. Beyond that, a row of Palmyra trees. I cannot put into words the beauty and fear those Palmyra trees inspired in me at nights.

I was not unaware that Appa’s eyes were always on me, because I am a girl. I readied myself to strew sand in those eyes. One day, I plucked one of the roses from the bush that stood next to the water trough in the backyard and tucked it into my hair on the right side of my head.  I dressed myself very properly in my “half-sari,” and set off in the direction of my school. There was a little marketplace between our school and the nearby town. Right in the center of the shops there stood a clothes shop where there was a coin-operated public telephone.

I dialed Maari’s number.

“Who’s calling?” Maari answered.

His voice was as sweet as honey. Or did it only sound so sweet to my ears? Even as I was thinking this, he spoke again.

“I asked who’s calling!” His voice sounded a little sharp this time.

“I am Sukanya…Rajadurai’s daughter.”

“Oh, does the pumpset need further repairs?” he responded immediately. “I fixed it with a really good wire.”

“No, no. I just…wanted to see you.”

There was a long silence at the other end. I put in another coin.

“What’s the matter?”

“I can only tell you when I see you.”

“So where do you want me to come?”

I told him to meet me within the next hour at the eastern edge of our town, where there stood a small temple on a hill. A gentle breeze was blowing there. Nandyavattam plants, full of white flowers, swayed about. Birds, in their usual fashion, were attempting to measure the skies. Maari came towards me, his face all bashful, his body all hesitant. I led him behind the temple, drew close to him, buried my face in his chest and wept.

“I want to keep on looking at you. The thought of you is like a fire.”

Weeping, I told him I loved him. Unloading a huge burden upon him, I had a sense of  having lived through many years. Maari became very serious. He repeated, emphatically, that there could be no connection whatsoever between his family and mine.

Appa always admonished Amma.

“She’s set her heart on it, hasn’t she? Just give it to her.”

Amma would become annoyed. She’d mutter, “And should girl children have such strong desires, then?”

As an only daughter, he had treated me like a queen. As if there were no end to his love. He endlessly described my good looks.

“My girl has inherited my nose and lips. Otherwise she wouldn’t have been so beautiful,” he’d say, teasing Amma. All his income went into buying jewelry and land for his beloved daughter.

“My daughter must not suffer hardship in the future,” he’d say to his wife.

She would then retort, “So would it be all right for me to suffer hardships?”

And he, in his turn, never failed to taunt her by saying, “After all, you are the daughter of that Nagarajan who hasn’t the wherewithal even to scrape his tongue.”

Amma had grown accustomed to all such digs and taunts. As for me, my love was greatest for her. My father’s habit of seeking prestige at all times and in all circumstances tended to irritate me. All the same, it was Appa alone who could fulfill all my wishes and so I made use of him to get what I wanted.

Once, when everyone was away, I invited Maari to come to our house. I led him through the back entrance, took him to the granary, held him tightly and showered him with kisses before sending him away. Having leaned against the sacks of paddy to kiss him, my body was covered in the scent of the paddy. I thought to myself how compatible he and I were. He had dark skin and the good looks and fine manners of a young man from a well-to-do family. He had applied for a government job. I had made up my mind to elope with him as soon as he was employed and to get married in a different town. Appa had noticed that I had lost all interest in my studies but did not complain, thinking education was of no consequence for girls. That big house was gradually changing into nothing more a place to rest my head.

Exams were approaching rapidly. It was summertime by then and too humid to stay inside the house. Since the exams were held in the afternoons, I walked up and down the rooftop terrace in the mornings, revising. On the last day, I finished my midday meal  in a great hurry and wrote a note to Maari on a small piece of paper. I told him that it was the last day of the examinations and so it would be difficult for me to meet him elsewhere after that. I suggested we should meet at my house on occasions when Appa was away. I folded the note and tucked it into a notebook, intending to ask Selvi, a girl from the colony where the lower-caste people lived, to deliver it.

Appa sat in his easy chair, fanning himself. The house seemed to spread itself, like darkness deepening as you descend further and further into a well. I still remember clearly the silence and tension that seemed to pervade the house that day. As I stepped past Appa, he called out to me—“Ammu!”—holding in his hand the letter I had written Maari.

He rose from his chair, walked up to me and said, “You are not going to write your exam today.”

At that moment, I could hear nothing other than the clock’s swinging pendulum. He insisted that I stay inside the house thereafter.

Outwardly, I acted as if I had accepted my family’s opposition, but gradually and carefully I made my own plans. Finally, I left the house and eloped with Maari to Palani. And I married him in a temple there. Maari was very fearful. He was in a continuous state of anxiety—his love for me shone out of one eye, his fear of my family dimmed the other. Wherever we went, Appa’s workmen came chasing after us. Maari said that we should leave Palani and took me to live in Chennai where a friend of his could let us have a room. That single room was our entire living space. I felt I couldn’t breathe. I thought to live in the open might have been preferable. In any case, it was extremely difficult to make a living in Chennai. One had to endure so much hardship just to fill one’s belly. I could not bear to think of my former life, when I had never known what it was to be hungry. Yet I would console myself that such a former life didn’t have space for my beloved Maari. And within a week of our arrival in Chennai, Maari’s father sent word though a friend that the government job he applied for had come through. So we went to Salem. And there we rented a house.

Maari insisted, stubbornly, that we must not sell the jewelry I wore in my ears and around my neck in order to eke out a living. He broke the silver chain he wore around his waist. He sold that and bought a few household goods. Slowly our home took shape. I cherish the thought of this first house of ours. A pretty, tile-roofed house. The two of us carried the house on our own backs like a crab does its shell. It brought us a joy and comfort we could always carry in our hearts. It allowed our love for each other to grow. A few days after we moved in, I found that I was pregnant. All through the night, after we first realized this, Maari stroked my belly as he lay beside me. All that night I responded as he voiced his concern and curiosity about a woman’s body.

As I remembered this, my hands moved involuntarily toward my belly. The open wound burned to the touch. It was as if my insensate body could only feel when I touched it at the source of its pain. The terror I felt when Murugayyan drew out the knife he had hidden behind his waist had disappeared entirely. At that moment, I had feared for my life. Now my body grew quiet, as if it were preparing itself for death. All sounds of movement, all moaning and muttering were over. I realized that there was no escape now and turned my face toward the left to face the window. A string of light bulbs were hung against the wall there. The colorful lights were dim, as if their brightness were dissolving. The clock showed the time: three o’clock. The radio was still blaring. I could barely make out that it was a song by M.G.R—that was all my mind would register. My eyesight was growing dim. It was only with a great effort that my sight grew clearer. And for only a short while.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 

When I thought of all the difficulties our love had encountered, I felt my lips forming a smile. Slowly, slowly, I became aware of my body running itself down like a machine. Against the wall, to my right, I could see Maari’s blue shirt, blown about by the breeze. It seemed to me it hung there, drooping with immeasurable sorrow. It seemed to tell me, “This is why I warned you right from the start. I told you not to go for any of this. Look where it has brought you.”

I wanted to cradle that shirt in my arms. That shirt felt like Maari himself. Of course, it was exactly his size, it fit him perfectly. He had bought this blue shirt a few months after he started in his new job. Maari was meticulous about keeping all his belongings neatly and carefully. I was quite the opposite. Having grown up in luxury, it had never occurred to me look after my things. But Maari often spoke very clearly about the value and worth of everything in life. The more closely I got to know him, the more my love and affection for him grew. I could keep on gazing at his fingers. They were so fine, so attractive. He had never once rebuked me. Although I had quarreled with him many times, he had only sought to quench my anger and relieve my sadness. When he pointed out that one reason why I quarreled was because I had never been parted from my parents before, I would fall on him, weeping a storm of tears. He bought me some rosebushes for our front courtyard. He was always quick to understand what made me happy and how to achieve that. After the miscarriage, I had been extremely anxious because I had not become pregnant again. But Maari was able to assuage my pain, quick to say, “What’s the hurry, now?”

This morning, he prepared to leave for his office somewhat early. We had both agreed that he would take the following day off  so that we could help with the preparations for the wedding of Jaya’s sister. Had it not been for Jaya’s family, we would not have been able to survive in Salem, a city that was so utterly new to us. They looked after us as if they were our parents. Chitra’s wedding was an occasion that would bring joy to everyone here. But Maari, ready to leave the house, seemed to be in some kind of distress, pacing about the house. I telephoned him at his office later on and asked him again and again what was wrong. He wouldn’t say anything. I realize now that my father must have telephoned and berated him. I tried once again to move. The blood began to flow again, rapidly. I lost consciousness for a moment and then recovered myself. As if I had drowned for an instant and then resurfaced.

It was after one o’clock. I heard footsteps at our front door and looked from the backyard. My father stood there.

Trying to hide my surprise, I called out, “Come in, Appa.”

Murugayyan Maama and another relation had come along with Appa. Reluctant even to speak to me, he said shortly, “I haven’t come to feast in your house. Your mother’s lying at home, at death’s door. I only came to take you to see her. You can leave after that.”

I went in, brought out a mat, and invited them all to sit down. Telling them I would bring them water to drink, I slipped away inside. It then struck me in a flash: Appa had come for a different purpose. I knew well that for over a year, ever since we were married, Appa’s fury and malice had followed us continually. But because Maari had asked me not to incite him any further, I had refrained from saying anything.

I gave them all water to drink and said, without looking my father in the eye, “Let him come home. I’ll just tell him and then come with you.”

“As if you have to ask that low-caste boy’s permission in order to see your own mother!”

My father spoke in a low voice, grinding his teeth. When he was very furious, he tended not to raise his voice. I noticed that Murugayyan Maama had put away the water I had handed him without as much as a sip. After a brief silence, they all stood up. They went towards the door. Without even saying goodbye, Appa walked out. And was lost to my sight.

I sat in the same place, without moving, for half an hour. I stood up when I heard the words, “Will you give us some water, Amma?”

Murugayyan Maama and his relative stood there. I had hardly finished saying, “I’ll bring some right away. Didn’t Appa come with you?” when the other man grabbed hold of my arms and covered my mouth. Meanwhile, Murugayyan pulled out his knife and stuck it deep into my stomach. Immediately, there were more stabs. My eyes rolled upward and then down towards the floor. My body spun round and fell. Murugayyan and that man still stood there.

“Doesn’t look as if she’s dead yet,” he said, tapping my cheek.

As they left, I heard Murugayyan say, “There was just this one daughter. What a death—look!  He killed his daughter, so who is he going to give all his wealth to?”

I heard the other man’s reply, too.

“Well, we have to finish him off next, that’s all.”

I could not believe that this was all my father’s doing. But then, how could I deny how far he was prepared to go in order to safeguard his social standing. He had decided that I, Sukanya, was his property. I felt a shock as if all the nerves of my body had been given a sharp jerk. All my bones seemed to fuse together. My muscles felt like snakes writhing and groaning with the pain. My skull felt empty, drained of blood. My body had changed into an airless, empty room. My father appeared before me, smiling contemptuously, as he always did when he won an argument. He had sought vain and useless prestige, while his own daughter faced life’s adversities. What lay ahead for him now? My body was like a piece of cloth wrung out in blood. Light filtered through the tamarind tree in front of the house and fell in long rays. Time was slipping by.

During a walking tour, Maari and I had come upon a pond full of lotuses. Bloodred lotuses. They were spread wide right across the water. Yearning after them, both of us stepped into the pond. I plucked one of the most beautiful ones there and raised it to my nose. It was in full, proud bloom. But without any scent. Maari plucked just a few. Suddenly, there was a completely different look on his face. A sound came from his throat as if he were retching. It was then that I noticed. The lotus pond was full of rotting corpses floating about. I only recognized Appa’s corpse. Before I could discover who the others were, I, too, began to feel queasy. Both of us fled wildly towards the shore. It was only when I had climbed out I found that Maari was not with me.

I shouted to him.

“Maari, Maari!”

Only the sound of a hiccup came out from my throat. Slowly I opened my eyes. The sunlight filled my eyes, blinding me. Slowly, I shut them again.

© Kutti Ravathi. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2015 by Lakshmi Holmstrom. All rights reserved.

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