Translated by E. Annamalai and H. Schiffman
Old Gowri waited patiently inside the bus for everyone else to get off.
Then she stepped off last, carrying her heavy khaki bag on her hip.
”Can I carry your bag, Granny?” ”Give me an anna.” “Want a cart, ma’am?” ”It’s the home of the lawyer’s clerk in Pudupaalayam you want, isn’t it? Come on, let’s go.”
She looked kindly at the crowd of coolies and cart drivers who were clamoring at her and preventing her from getting off the bus, and smiled.
”No, thanks, no thanks. If you’ll just let me pass, I’ll go along on foot. Young man, if you are so smart as to know my house, why don’t you remember that I come here once a month and never take a cart,” she said, with an answer for each one of them. Pushing her way past them, she walked slowly on, her bag on one hip causing her to lean to one side. She pulled the end of her sari further forward on her head and plodded resolutely through the scorching sand and hot sun.
Though she was seventy, she was still spry. But she tended to forget that such exertion at her age would leave her panting for breath by the time she got home. Younger people who looked to her like they were born only yesterday whizzed by her on rickshaws, horsecarts, and bicycles. She thought about how people try to flee the rain and the sun, and smiled to herself. She was past caring about these things. What effect could a little rain or sun have on someone like her who had survived the passionate floods of her early life, followed abruptly by the arid desert of widowhood? She was accustomed to these things; even if they had some effect, it would be negligible.
On the way there was a small neem tree whose shade was big enough to shelter four or five passersby. The old woman stopped under its shade for a while, alone. Like an oasis in the midst of the hot sun, that neem tree, its leaves rustling in the breeze, was like that old lady herself who relied on her legs at a time when other people had no use for anything but machines. She thanked God for the shade and took pleasure in the breeze .
There was a child-like charm in her round face. She would still surprise people with her neat rows of teeth when she smiled. On her right cheek there was an attractive black mole, slightly larger than a peppercorn; there were two black hairs on it. People who noticed these things about her couldn’t help wondering what she was like in her youth. The colorless silk sari on her golden body fluttered in the wind. A grey stubble was visible at the end of the head-piece of the sari–she had not had her head shaved for some time. She was wearing a rosary around her neck. The ash on her forehead had become smeared from perspiration. She took the end of her sari and wiped her face, her hands, and her bare breast. As she did this a small mole, the color of coral, was visible on her right side.
Abandoning the shade and striding firmly, but swaying from side to side as she went,she walked without flinching onto the searing-hot concrete bridge that crossed the Kedilam River. A man she knew was coming from the other side–a barber with a small tin box who stood aside, pressing himself against the railing to give her room. He folded his hands in greeting.
”Are you just coming from Neyveli?” he asked politely.
”Who . . . Oh, it’s you, Veelaayudam! Has the blessed event happened yet?” she asked warmly.
”Yes, it happened . . . it’s a boy.”
”May he prosper! It’s God’s will. Is it your third boy?“ ”Yes, ma’am,” he said and beamed happily.
”You are a lucky man. No matter what it takes, you must educate them, do you hear me?” He smiled at this, scratching his head.
”Don’t laugh. Times are changing quickly. Your father’s time and your time have passed, and they have taken their tin box with them. This is no good any more. Men are all working in shops; women can’t be like me any more. That is the way things are now. People should change with the times. Do you hear what I am saying?” she said and laughed as if she had told a joke. he, too, laughed in return.
”Here’re a couple of cucumbers to chew on and cool you off,” she said, taking them from where they were sticking out of the bag on her hip and dropping them into his outstretched hands.
”They were selling them on the bus, four for an anna. I bought four annas worth thinking the children would like them,” she said. Veelaayudam folded his hands, waited till she had passed by, and went on his way.
Gowri was born and brought up in Chidambaram and was married into a well-to-do family in Cuddalore at the age of ten. When she became a mother and a widow at the age of sixteen, she stayed in the house she had inherited from her husband with her baby boy and never left that town. When her son’s eldest daughter, Githa,changed into widows’ garb as an actor changes his make-up, and came back to throw herself screaming on her grandmother’s knees, the old lady accepted the situation as her life’s last tragedy. She accepted it as her duty to provide her granddaughter with love, care and affection and to share her tears. Up to then Gowri had loved Githa as the daughter of her only son whom she loved all the more after her husband’s death, but now her attitude changed, and not only because she wanted to console Githa: old Gowri saw in Githa a new incarnation of her former self.
The old woman’s son, Ganesayyar, had been untouched by the death of his father and grew up without the deprivations of most fatherless children. As his wife Paarvathi chided him in private, he was a mama’s boy. Groping for a solution to the problem of what to do about his widowed daughter, he went to his mother one day and hesitatingly asked what she thought about the idea of sending Githa, who had completed high school, to a teacher-training school. When she agreed with his decision and applauded it, he realized that he had underestimated his old mother, while, on her part, the old lady rejoiced inwardly that Githa had the good fortune to be born in a time of change.
After her training, Githa worked for some years in Cuddalore, but during the last year she had been transferred to the newly-developing industrial city of Neyveli. Ganesayyar was again in a quandary.
”What of it?” said Gowri. ”I’ll go with her.” And so she, in her old age, decided to go off, leaving her son with his family. She left because she was afraid that otherwise Githa, who was not yet thirty, would have to relinquish her job and be confined again to the constraints of widowhood.
In the past year, apart from the long holidays when both of them would come to Cuddalore, old Gowri would come alone on weekends now and then. One of the reasons for these frequent visits was that she was unaccustomed to having her head shaved by anyone other than Veelaayudam and before him, his father. Gowri knew that Veelaayudam, whom she met on the bridge, would appear at her house the next morning, just as he knew that he should. It had become a routine.
It took her half an hour to cover the distance of less than a mile. When she got to the house, Ganesayyar was sleeping in an easy-chair with a newspaper over his face. At his side, her daughter-in-law Paarvathi sat with her glasses perched on the end of her nose sorting stones from black grain in a winnowing pan; an empty can stood beside her. On the veranda enclosed with iron railings and shaded by a bamboo awning sat her youngest granddaughter, Jaanaa, playing house with her toy pots and babbling to herself. Since no one noticed her arrival, Gowri had to rattle the lock on the gate to attract some attention. Little Jaanaa, hearing the sound, turned from her game to look; recognizing her grandmother, she beamed with big eyes and said softly, ”Grandmother!”
Before Gowri could ask her to open the gate, Jaanaa flew inside shouting ”Mama, Mama, Grandma is here! Grandma is here!” Gowri smiled at this little tyke who had to run inside to announce her arrival without bothering to open the gate.
Ganesayyar pulled the newspaper away from his face, opened his eyes, and looked. Awakened suddenly by the excited cries of the child, he blinked his red eyes uncomprehendingly for a few seconds. Paarvathi rushed to the gate and opened it. ”Worthless child! Must you scream and run around like that?” she scolded. Paarvathi then said to her mother-in-law, ”Come in, come in, have you walked all the way in this sun? Why didn’t you take a cart?”
”What is the use of taking a cart when it is so near? They’ll only make you pay eight or ten annas,” Gowri protested, as she mounted the steps.
When Ganesayyar saw his mother coming, he got up from the easy-chair and welcomed her, ”Have you come in this hot sunk Paarvathi, get some buttermilk for Mother.”
”Oh, what a shame, you were sound asleep . . . go back to sleep,“ she motioned to him, and put her bag on a stool beside the easy-chair. Then she went to the courtyard and splashed water from the tub on her face, arms, and legs, and finally sprinkled some on her head. Then she dried her face with the end of her sari, took some sacred ash from a container in the hall and spread it on her forehead. Ganesayyar was still standing next to the easy- chair when she came back. That easy-chair was the old grandmother’s throne. Other people would sit in that chair only when she was not there. As she sat down in it, Ganesayyar drew up a chair near her and started to fan her. As soon as she was seated, little Jaanaa, as if waiting for this opportunity, climbed onto her lap.
”Grandmother is hot from being in the sun–get off!” said Ganesayyar, tapping Jaanaa with the end of the fan.
”That’s all right, stay here, child,” she said, pulling her back onto her lap.
”Now you can’t get me,” Jaanaa said triumphantly, making a face at her father.
With Jaanaa on her lap, the grandmother took her bag from the stool and spreading the cucumbers from it on the floor, gave one to Jaanaa. She took out a sari and put it aside to be hung up to dry. Holding the bag up-side down, she shook it to remove some raw peanuts which were in the bottom. As she did so, an envelope fell out.
”Where are Mina and Ambi? Not here?” she said, looking around. ”Githa asked me to give this to you,” she said, handing Ganesayyar the envelope. As he took the envelope, he was dreading his mother’s probable displeasure when she found out that his twenty-year-old daughter had gone with her younger brother to a matinee movie, even though it wasn’t far from home.
”Well, she liked the book, and when she found out it had been made into a movie, they made a nuisance of themselves all morning, driving me to distraction with their pestering to go. Since it was just a matinee, I said yes,” Ganesayyar admitted.
”Oh, is that that serialized story? I saw it advertised,” she said, mentioning the names of the magazine and the author. ”Why do you call them a nuisance? You and I know nothing about movies. Most children nowadays know nothing else but movies. Be glad your children aren’t that bad,” she told her son. Then she asked,”Tell me, what’s in that envelope? When I asked her, she sort of said that you would tell me.”
Ganesayyar opened the envelope, removed the single sheet of paper, put on his glasses, and read the short letter. As he read, his hands to shake and his lips to tremble, his face was drenched with perspiration. When he had finished reading, he raised his head and stared blankly at the wedding photo of Githa hanging on the opposite wall. Darkness replaced the pleasure in his face. Gripping the arms of the chair, he looked at his mother with a blank expression. He didn’t even notice the letter slipping from his fingers. His mother, shocked, snatched up the fallen letter, and holding it in the bright sunlight, began to read it, she could still read without glasses.
“My dear Father , Mother , and Grandmother:
”I write this letter with a clear mind: after thinking things over for six months, I have come to a definite decision. I write it fully aware of the fact that after this letter, our relationship may cease to exist.
“I have decided to get married in a civil ceremony. I and a colleague of mine, Mr. Ramachandran, who teaches Hindi, have decided to be married in a civil ceremony this coming Sunday. He knows that I am a widow. I have come to this decision after fighting with my conscience for the past six months–the feeling that it is a sinful act, I felt that it is better not to risk spoiling the family name by hypocritically wearing the garments of widowhood when I can no longer truly act like a widow. Since I can’t bear it any longer, now at the age of thirty, I didn’t see how it would be any easier five years from now when it would be even more difficult to change my situation.
”My action is right as far as I am concerned. I do not feel that I am making a mistake and that I should regret it and beg your pardon. But the sorrow that I feel, knowing that I am breaking up our relationship and our love, grieves me. Nevertheless I am consoled and happy that I am starting a new life with new light, and that I am going to be a citizen of a new age.
“One cannot say how the minds of people change nowadays. If you somehow find a way to accept my decision (there is still a week’s time), I shall be looking forward to your loving greetings. Other wise you can consider me, for all intents and purposes, as dead.
“”Yes, it’s a selfish decision. But Grandmother is the only one who really aver sacrificed her comfort for my sake.
Your everloving Githa.”
“Well !, who would ever have expected that !” said the grandmother ; unable to do any thing else, she stared blankly ahead of her .
”She is dead … we must cash our hands of her,” said Ganesayyar dispassionately. The grandmother was shocked. It was the first the that the mama’ s boy had made a decision of his own without waiting for his mother’s advise, permission, or command.
“Do you mean it?” the old lady asked, her hand on her heart, her eyes brimming with tears.
”What else can I say–this, in your lineage, in your family–my God!” Ganesayyar exclaimed, as if unable to grasp the extent of his family misfortune.
”Things were different in my time,” she was about to reply. Then she suddenly realized something she had never realized before. ”My son has always waited for my permission, not out of filial devotion alone, but because I was the representative of an age; it was an orthodox one. I was born in a family which followed the Shastras. In the belief that I alone can run this family along these lines, and to honor that orthodox age, he waited on my word.” The grandmother sat in silence, thinking about herself, her son’s brutal decision, and the abandoned and pitiable Githa.
Paarvathi appeared on the veranda; she saw the letter that had brought the strange atmosphere in the house, picked it up and read it.
”She has brought ruin upon our heads!” she cried, beating her forehead with her fists.
The grandmother took the letter again in her hands, with the calm mind that was her nature, and read the last few lines.
”Yes, it’s a selfish decision. But Grandmother is the only one who really ever sacrificed her comfort for my sake.”
She shuddered and bit her lips. Others may not know the meaning of those words, but the old lady knew. Just as Githa, at the age of eighteen, had had to give up wearing cosmetics, her family had forgotten her sorrow,since it was, after all, her fate. It was after Githa had become a widow that Paarvathi had given birth to Ambi and Jaanaa. So what? That was life. How can they know the dreams, desires, thoughts and feelings which swarmed like ants through the mind, and eroded away the heart, of Githa, who had lost her whole life? But how could Gowri, who had experienced these things on the pyre of widowhood herself, two generations of Hindu society ago, not understand these emotions. That was why she neither scorned nor could abandon Githa as Ganesayyar and Paarvathi did. But mentally she wrung her hands in despair and helplessness.
When it was time to light the lamps, Mina and Ambi returned home from the movie. When Ambi climbed the stairs and saw his grandmother reclining in the easy-chair, lost in thought, he whispered the warning to Mina: ”Grandma!”
”Where? Inside or on the porch?” Mina asked, stepping back from the gate.
”She’s sleeping on her throne,” Ambi replied .
Mina stopped and began adjusting her sari, which had been draped stylishly over her shoulder and arm,by gathering it up and tucking the end in at her side; then checking to see that her bosom was properly concealed, she went in with her head slightly bowed, and an air of studied innocence.
When they entered, they found that their grandmother was not sleeping. Their father was sitting on a chair, and their mother was weeping in a corner. They stood, bewildered, unable to comprehend the strangeness of the situation.
Then Jaanaa ran to Ambi and said, ”Grandma has brought us cucumbers.” With the sound from Jaanaa, Gowri turned and regarded Mina.
”When did you come, Grandmother?” Mina asked, and gesturing around, indicated her confusion at the situation. Her grandmother’s eyes were filled with tears. When she saw Mina she could understand the reason why Ganesayyar could abandon Githa, and the force and justification of Paarvathi’s cursing her.
Mina took the letter and began to read. At first Gowri would have stopped her; then she thought, ”She might as well read it,” and regarded the expression on her face. Mina’s expression reflected her revulsion.
”Oh, damn you!” she muttered and continued reading. Ambi, who was reading the letter over her shoulder, made an expression which looked like he had swallowed castor oil.
The whole house took on a deserted air. Everyone was looking at each other like people in a plague-ridden town who had just found a dead rat in their house.
Gowri didn’t sleep that night. She didn’t touch any food. She didn’t leave her easy-chair. Whenever she saw her son, daughter-in-law, or her grandchildren, she sighed.
”For once, Githa came to the bus stop to see me off. When the bus started, she wiped her eyes with the end of her sari. l thought there was dust in her eyes . ”
”What has she done, what has she done?” Gowri asked herself over and over again. A little before dawn she fell asleep. When she opened her eyes, it was mysteriously light. Veelaayudam was standing at the gate with his box. Gowri wished that everything that happened were only a dream. But the letter lay on the stool, saying,”No, it’s true.” She picked it up and read it again. Ganesayyar came out from inside,and to console her for her night-long contemplation of this problem, said, ”Mother, Veelaayudam the barber has come–when you bathe, wash your hands of her.“
”Stop it!” she cried. ”Why do you say these inauspicious things so early in the morning? What has happened, why do you want her to die?” She could say no more and wept, her face flushed. Then she asked angrily, her eyes red, ”What wrong has she done? What wrong has she done? Tell me!”
Ganesayyar was perplexed for a moment. ”What wrong? What are you saying, Mother? Are you mad?” he shouted.
Gowri became calm. She stared into his face for a moment,thinking that this was the first time he had ever spoken like that to her. In a low, steady voice, she replied, ”Yes, I am mad, and I’ve been so for quite a while. It’s an old madness, an incurable one. Let me keep it for my own. Githa has escaped from this madness. What can anyone do about it? She has said that her action is right as far as she is concerned. She has done it smoothly without ruining her name by leading a life of hypocrisy . . . ”
“Is her action justified by that?” Ganesayyar interrupted.
“She says that her action is right as far as she is concerned. What do you say to that?” his mother replied, punctuating her remarks by hitting her hand with her fist.
“The wretched girl has violated the Shastras. She has ruined the name of my orthodox family. I say wash your hands of her, she’s dead!” shouted Ganesayyar with clenched teeth.
The grandmother looked down at herself and her son in front of her for a second like an independent observer, and said with a bitter smile, “Our Shastras and customs! What should you have done if you had wanted to preserve them, do you know? Do you know what a Shastra did to me? You were a babe in arms then. I was fifteen years old. My son screamed when he saw my face, as if he saw a ghost. You screamed rather than let me nurse you. You screamed with fear when I approached you. People made me sit in a corner. When did you observe all these customs with Githa? Why didn’t you?” she asked with tears streaming down her face. Ganesayyar also wiped his eyes.
She continued, “Did your Shastras tell her to wear colored saris? To go to school with her hair plaited? To earn her own bread? When you asked my permission for all these things, I said Yes. Why? Times are changing, people also should change, that’s why. When I became a widow, I had you. There was a house and some land. The age was such that it would have been unthinkable to do what Githa has done. It was possible then to live that way. Now it is no longer possible. I understand your situation. You are living with your children. You have to set them up well. I understand. She has also understood this and written it in her letter. Can your Shastras give her life? She has denied the Shastras; but, my Ganesh, I cannot deny her. I want her. What else do I need in life? Let me keep the Shastras to myself. They can burn with me at my funeral. May you fare well, I am leaving. I am going to Githa. It’s the only solution. You can take heart that things have worked out this way. Think it over. Otherwise you can wash your hands of me along with her. I’m going, goodbye,” and she rose to put her spare sari into her khaki bag .
“Mother!” Ganesayyar folded his hands in entreaty. Tears flowed from his eyes.
“Stupid, why are you crying? I’ve come to this decision after much thought. Whatever she does, she is our child,” she said slowly. “Paarvathi, take care of things,” she said, and took leave of everyone. “I must see Githa as soon as possible,” she muttered to herself, and turning, saw Veelaayudam at the gate.
”Run along, I have to go to Neyveli on an urgent matter,” and giving him four annas, she dispatched him.
”He won’t have work here any more,” she mused. ”Well, so what? So many things are changing in the world–can’t I change barbers?” She smiled to herself, descended the stairs with her bag on her hip, turned, and said, “Goodbye !”
*Orthodox Hindu widows share their heads, use no cosmetics, and wear no bodice. (An old/ancient practice, no longer prevalent during current times – Editor)
The above translation first appeared in Mahfil, Vol. 4, No. 3/4, TAMIL ISSUE (Spring and Summer, 1968), pp. 91-99. Published by: Asian Studies Center, Michigan State University.