Translated by E. Annamalai and H. Schiffman
That night Alamu couldn’t get to sleep. Her thoughts all came crowding into her brain; an unutterable anguish filled her heart; her mind leapt about, uncontrollably, like a monkey. She turned up the single lamp beside her. Her body was perspiring, experiencing an inexpressible, unexplainable agony.
She was a widow. Her thoughts went back to five years ago. The first of those years, the dawn of her life’s happiness, had passed so quickly that she hardly had realized it. With the sacrifice of attending to her sick husband, the next four years changed from day into twilight. At the end they brought the night of widowhood.
From then on, life was an endless chain of days for her. The rites of mourning for her husband brought sorrow, but they helped to pass the time. And so one year went by .
There had been, of course, the ritual for sixteen days after his death, of being made to lie prostrate and death-like with women wailing around her. To rub in the fact that she was a living corpse?
Alamu, mind you, was a rich woman. She had 20,000 rupees in the bank. Of course, that doesn’t mean her life was necessarily happy. She was in the state of a person who has all the food he wants but can’t eat it.
Her mother was dead; her father a bookworm who knew nothing about life. His pleasures in life were books and lectures. Now and then he took Alamu along to those lectures. Now, can a man condemned to capital punishment enjoy a Charlie Chaplin movie? Asking a woman shackled to widowhood to listen to an ”interesting” lecture is rather meaningless.
So on that day she couldn’t get to sleep. Anguish filled her heart. She felt as if something were stuck in her throat. Her lips trembled, on the verge of tears.
Sleep would not come. She got up, wiped her perspiring face on the end of her sari and went out into the courtyard. The sky was completely dark, the stars scattered above like some high unattainable ideals twinkling there. She felt them to be laughing . . . mocking her. The time must have been about midnight. How nice it would be to be like that darkness, with no consciousness and nobody.
The British were fools. They are so proud to have prohibited ”sadi“* . Foolish Indians read of this and praise them. Of course, at first there is a little suffering; but then – for this virtuous act of the British, the widow has to suffer the heat of the fires of ”sadi” the rest of her days. What do the British know about widowhood? Widowhood is a ”sadi” of eternal fire.
If he were alive – with this thought her mind went back to five years ago. Old thoughts and unrealized dreams began to crop up. Her body trembled as these thoughts stormed and clashed through her mind.
Across the street was Visalam’s house. Isn’t she asleep yet? What worries does she have, the lucky one! Fate has been kind to her.
Then, ”Sugar-baby, honey. . .” wailed the words of a song from a record player. The song, of course, was a vulgar one, but for her it was like adding fuel to the fire in her mind. They were sweet words. Then she blushed. Even in the darkness it would have been obvious. No one will ever use those words to her again. The root of all her wants was the drive of nature. ”WANTED” in capital letters.
This conflict brought forth from her a brutal boldness. ”Why shouldn’t I do as Mr. Guhan, the reformer on the next street, advocates? But I can’t confide in my father. On the other hand, that man is a stranger, yet he knows that I am a widow. Won’t he understand my reason for coming to him?”
The seed planted by Mr. Guhan’s lectures grew and took control of her. Hindu women are not accustomed to thinking and acting on their own. But speared on by her natural urges, anything would have been possible for her. If her mother had been alive, she would have consoled and guided her. So far she has had to do everything on her own. There was no one to whom she could turn. Her mind tells her that if she goes to the reformer the world will be her paradise. Chi! Is he some sort of street vendor you can haggle with? She wished she could kill everybody on earth, including the reformer, and watch them writhe in the throes of agony. ”No, that’s a sin! But what is this world worth, anyway? It should burn to a crisp for all I care.”
Her heart was pounding as if on the point of bursting. The comfort she had found in the darkness evaporated with the wail of that song. She hated Visalam for no particular reason; she just wanted to crush Visalam, her husband, the record player, and everything.
She came in, her hands over her ears,and threw herself down on the bed. The point of a tweezers, which she kept on her key chain, and which had been left on the bed, stuck her in the chest.
”Aaah!” She removes it at once. Blood spurts out. At first, panic. Alamu has never seen blood before. Therefore, the fear. But then she feels the relief of a huge weight being removed from her chest. Bleeding gives her a feeling of great peace. She watches without batting an eye. The blood spurting forth saturates her upper garments and makes them sticky; she removes them. What a wonderful feeling to have blood spurting out like that. As time passes, she becomes weaker. ”I have made a small hole through which my life can flee to him. In a short time it will be gone. Why shouldn’t it go? If it goes, the pain of mortality will no longer be able to plague it.”
Alamu’s father was, as mentioned, a bookworm. That night his book kept him awake until very late. After finishing it, he came out onto the veranda. There was light in Alamu’s room. Isn’t she asleep yet? He went in.
What . . . Blood on her chest? Why is she just watching it with that smile? ”Alamu! What’s wrong with your chest?” he shouted, rushing over to her.
”A little door for the worries of my heavy heart to leave by,” she breathed. Though the voice was low, it was clear. There was no sign of physical pain.
”I’ll stop the blood!” he said, and tried to put his hand on her chest.
”Don’t shut off my only exit!” she brushed his hand aside. Is she mad?
” But you’re bleeding!” he shouted.
”Go smear this blood on the face of Brahma, but don’t block my way!” she managed to utter; then her head sank down to one side.
Blood can be thrown in the face of Brahma when there is justice in the world.
*”Sadi” or ”suttee” the practice of widows sacrificing themselves on their husbands’ funeral pyres. (Editor’s note: This was an ancient/old practice, no longer prevalent)
The above translation first appeared in Mahfil, Vol. 4, No. 3/4, TAMIL ISSUE (Spring and Summer, 1968), pp. 49-51. Published by: Asian Studies Center, Michigan State University.