Asoka Kumar Edasseri
Sulu was sitting on the broken half wall of the veranda as her Appa left for the mansion promising that he will bring back her mother. When her father’s figure disappeared in the alley behind the fence, Sulu lay down on the half wall and thought of the dream that she saw the previous night. Her mother was back and was hugging her! She has been seeing this dream quite often now. Sulu was not able to recall the face of her mother. The pampering alone, the nearness alone of her mother who came in her dreams made her happy. When she wakes up in the morning, she would tell her father, “Appa, I saw the dream.” Thami never asked her about the dream, for, he knew it. Lying on the half wall she started waiting for her mother, who till now appeared only in her dreams. Sulu would be alone in that hut for the whole day. By the time her Appa is back from work, it will be dark. That four year old girl stayed alone in that miserable hut, played alone and when hungry drank kanji from the earthen pot.
Thami hung around in the courtyard of that huge mansion. The blazing sun was right above his head. The trees in the compound invited him . There it was cool under their shades. But he dared not move from his position; lest his master came out once again. “Don’t wait any longer, Thami. You go”. This is what his master had told him. Half an hour of pleading did not yield any result. But how can he go back, just like that?
When she was taken there by him, he was told, “Any day you return the money, you can take her back”. It is not that he has brought the cash today. From where can he arrange two thousand rupees! No idea about the interest to be paid. Still he was pleading. Can he take her along with him for a week at least? No; he cannot live a life like this anymore.
It is dark inside when one looks through the open door on the north side veranda. So, he saw the mistress only after she came out of the door.
“Why Thami, why are you standing like this?”
“Last time you came, you told me that Nandini the cow has delivered. When are you going to bring her?”
“After two days, mistress. Velayudhan vaidyar has asked me to give her medicines for two more days.”
“You should bring her fast. Here the demand for milk is increasing day by day.”
“So, you didn’t tell me what you are waiting for.”
Thami did not reply, instead scratched his head.
“Whatever be, you can tell me.”
“I had talked to master about Lachmi.”
Facial expression of mistress changed suddenly. Without saying a word, she turned back and went inside. Thami’s eyes searched inside the darkness of the house for a moment. On other days, he would be called to the kitchen area and be fed. And a parcel of food items would also be handed over to him, for his daughter waiting in the house. Nothing of that sort happened today. He can go back now. And once back home, he can tell his daughter, “your mother told me that she will come home some other day.” He slowly walked back.
A pair of eyes, watching him closely from upper veranda withdrew, as Thami went out of the gate and disappeared behind the trees. Lakshmi hastily went downstairs. It’s time for her master to be back after lunch. From the corridor, she entered the dimly lit centre room of the house where small bats hung from the ceiling. In a platter, she neatly spread the tender betel leaves that were plucked early in the morning from the vines that wound around the mango tree near the kitchen. And she kept pickled areca nut and fragrant lime paste along side. After applying on her body the scented rose water kept hidden in the wall-mounted cabinet smelling of clove, she went upstairs with the platter in her hand. The brass platter polished with tamarind was shining. A cool and rejuvenated breeze fluttering through the leaves of trees in the grove entered the large room on the first floor, through the wooden windows made of bulky square bars of teak wood. She made up his bed to remove any possible wrinkles. She also ensured that the pillows were soft. She was free till her master arrived. Lakshmi sat on the shining floor near the window. Beyond the grove of trees it is the vast expanse of paddy fields. She presumed that her husband must have reached home. Her four year old daughter must have enquired about her mother. He would have replied, ‘Mother will come soon, Sulu mol’. What would have been Sulu’s response to that?
Lakshmi got up when she heard the hefty footsteps on the stairs. Footsteps could be heard approaching through the corridor. Through the open door he entered the room, closed the door after him and bolted it. He hung the upper dhoti on to the wooden peg fixed on the wall and went straight in to the bath room. Lakshmi sat at the edge of the cot and started preparing the betel leaf mixture for him to chew.
Master came out of the bath room drying his broad chest covered with salt-and-pepper hair. He sat on the cot and leaned against the pillow propped up against the head rest and looked up at Lakshmi. He was studying her. Without saying a word, she gave the betel leaf mix with scented lime paste and areca nut pieces in his hand and sat near him. After putting the mix in his mouth, he started the conversation.
“Thami had come”
Lakshmi didn’t say anything.
“Do you know why he came?”
“Do you think that I will let you go off just like that?”
She did not say anything; instead ran her black fingers through the hair on his fair chest. He was opening her blouse buttons. She removed her blouse. And he adjusted himself to make space for her.
She loves the pungent smell of betel leaves. She is enthralled with the irresistible attraction when that smell is mixed with the fragrance of her master’s body. He was holding her close with his right hand, while his left hand was busy removing her dhoti. He pressed his hands against her smooth yet firm lower abdomen.
After swallowing half of the betel leaf juice, the master said.
“I have paid two thousand rupees to Thami and you are aware of that. Isn’t it?”
She acknowledged that. Her master wouldn’t like it, if his words are not acknowledged.
“Then what did Thami say at that time? Do you remember?”
She nearly missed that. On that day, in front of her, Thami had agreed to everything that the master had told him. Thami was standing in the middle of the courtyard. Lakshmi, visibly shaken, was hiding behind him. She still remembers seeing the master stepping out of that big mansion.
“You remember everything that you agreed to, isn’t it Thami?” Master asked him.
“The day you are able to bring the amount with interest you can take her back. Is that clear?”
“Ooh”, Thami said these, partially closing his mouth with his hand that clutched the towel kept on his shoulder to show respect.
“Then let it be” And turning his head towards her he asked. “What is your name?”
“Lakshmi, you go to the veranda near the kitchen on the north side. Mistress will be there.”
Maids working in the North side greeted her with mixed feelings. Those who were pounding paddy ignored her, though many of them were known to her. She became a recluse in that pounding shed. The labored exhaling sound of the maids, the muffled sound that the long wooden pestles made while pounding dry paddy and the sound produced by the sieve while winnowing grains, made up a melancholy symphony throughout the day. At noon, she along with other maids had kanji with cooked lentils. In the evening when the maids went out to collect their daily wages she was left alone. She thought of her daughter and of her husband. A devastating grief grew within her along with the looming darkness around and she started crying.
Lakshmi did not know what to do during night. The mistress did not show any kindness in her behavior. She was ignoring Lakshmi as if she was a wretched creature. She could hear mistress talking with another maid in the kitchen. She could gather the maid’s name as Madhavi. Through the wooden railings and in the dim light of the kerosene lamp, she could see her mistress and Madhavi walking around in the kitchen preparing supper.
Light from a hurricane lamp could be seen drifting slowly across the west side patio. As it reached near the place where she was standing, it changed its route and came within reach of her. The lamp was raised to her face. Master’s face was full of queries. Nothing was spoken. Light from the hurricane lamp then moved away. Within five minutes, Madhavi and the mistress came out of the kitchen. Lakshmi was escorted to the pond by the maid carrying a clean towel, body-oil in an oil pot, fragrant toilet soap and washed and ironed dhotis. After bathing, she returned wearing new dresses smelling of naphthalene balls kept in the trunk to ward off insects. She was served special food in the kitchen. There was visible change in the behavior of the maid. The arrogance seen on the maid’s face while serving kanji in the noon while Lakshmi was sitting along with other maids had softened. The Mistress too behaved nicely.
Now when she is lying in her master’s embrace in his bed, she thought of the route she travelled. In the course of days and months and not fully conscious of what is happening, she was transferred from the pounding shed to the kitchen, from the kitchen through the corridor and wooden stairs to the first floor of the mansion and then to the master’s bedroom. Time made everything look natural; even the sense of what she is doing faded away in the blazing light of reality. Whenever the thought of her husband or her beloved daughter waiting in the hut surfaced in her mind she would exclaim, ‘God, what is all this about?’
“Why are you silent?” her master repeated the question “Don’t you remember what Thami agreed to on that day?”
“Hmm” She responded. “Even then, I would like to see my daughter; at least once.”
‘Hmm’, Master said this with stress in his voice.
Next day when she was making morning tea in the kitchen for her master, mistress asked. “Is it not today that your daughter is coming to visit you?”
“Is it?” She asked.
“Didn’t anyone tell you?”
“Master did not tell me anything.”
“A message has been sent to Thami. How long is it since you saw your daughter?”
Two years! Maybe three years! She had lost count of years. Sulu must have grown up by now. Taking the cup of tea with her, she went upstairs. Master had got up from bed and was waiting for her. While he was sipping tea sitting propped up against the pillow placed against the head board of the cot, she sat at the edge of the cot.
“My daughter will be brought here today, isn’t it?” There was gratitude in her voice.
“Hmm” There was unusual stress in his voice. “Let her come in the morning and go back in the afternoon.”
“I have asked Kanaran to buy two pairs of dresses for your daughter.”
“Is it!” master noticed with satisfaction the exaltation on her face.
“You know why I am doing all these?”
“Tell me, why I am doing this.”
“It’s because you love me.”
“You know that! So, treat me with fervor.”
She was walking aimlessly; through the corridor, through each room and the kitchen with her impatient eyes always fixed at the gate. Rather, beyond that. Beyond those paddy fields where sunlight made ripples and even beyond that, where only her mind could reach; beyond the pathways and the alleys where the small girl’s feet would now be taking the little steps. How she wished she could go near the fence to look beyond that vast expanse of field to see her little girl coming from far away. But that area is forbidden to her. Master had told her so.
“You should not go out of the house except for going to the pond for taking bath. Not even to the patio. And never give a chance for Thami to see you. Do you understand?”
After that, she has seen Thami working in the compound many a time. She took care not to be seen by him; ever. Taking a break at work and resting his hands on the handle of the hoe, Thami would look at the mansion to get a glimpse of her. Lakshmi, who would be looking through one of the windows on the first floor, would hastily retreat. She was afraid of her master. It was not just fear alone, but a feeling which she could never figure out. Stories that she heard outside about her master were really bad. People were afraid of him. But to her, he was a totally different person; a man she could never comprehend. She realized with pain that it was distress that she felt when she thought of the day Thami would be bringing the two thousand rupees along with the interest amount to take her back. Immediately her master’s words would ring in her ears, “Do you think that I will let you go off just like that?” She was not sure in what sense her master had said that. Is it that she will not be allowed to go without paying the dues? In that case, if the amount is paid, will she be sent back? She fervently wished it not to be. At that same instance the reflection of her daughter would come in her mind. And she would feel terribly guiltly to have thought so.
Kanaran came near the kitchen, called out and handed over a packet. She opened the packet. Two beautiful dresses, one with red flowers in blue background and the other with green pictures in yellow background. There were two undergarments also. Sulu would look really beautiful in those dresses. She never had such beautiful dresses to wear.
When Thami brought Sulu to the kitchen veranda, it was Madhavi who took her in. Seeing Sulu enter the kitchen holding on to Madhavi’s hand, Lakshmi sobbed silently. The realization that she had even forgotten her daughter’s face made Lakshmi poignant. Sulu was looking at her mother with surprise. She did not show any sign of recognition, though. She was looking around; searching for somebody.
“Dear, come near me”, she called out to Sulu and embraced her. Sulu looked at her wondering who this lady could be, who embraced her with affection. The lady smelled of medicated oil and good smelling soap. And she was wearing beautiful blouse and dhoti. Sulu had never in her life seen anyone as beautifully dressed as her.
Another mistress came out from inside and stood before her.
“Has Lakshmi’s daughter come?’” she enquired.
Sulu stood there really perplexed. It was her mother that she wanted to see.
Even while gobbling the food from the plate kept on the floor, she was wondering. Who are these people!
After eating, Lakshmi applied scented oil on her body and bathed her using fragrant toilet soap. When she was about to wear her old dress, Lakshmi told her. “Mother has bought new dresses for you, dear.”
Now she was very happy. It is not only that she got new dresses, but the knowledge that it was bought by her mother made her happy. Even while she was getting dressed up in a room inside, she was searching for somebody. But she stood there unable to muster enough courage to ask.
Evening shades of the setting sun fell on the ‘mundakan’ paddy fields. Beyond that vast land, the figures of the maids returning from the pounding shed could be seen coming out of the shades of trees and fading on the small ridges of the paddy field. Tiny spots of fire flared up outside of those isolated huts spread across the boundaries of the fields. They must be boiling water for preparing kanji by burning the dried leaves collected from the yard. In one of those isles of darkness, Thami waited for his daughter. Kanaran had told him that master had bought new dresses for her. ‘Your wife is lucky’ Kanaran had told him. ‘Now you don’t get in her way. Through her, your daughter would also be benefitted.”
Thami didn’t say anything. What can he say? When can he arrange two thousand rupees along with the interest amount? He will never be able to repay that amount. And Lachmi would never return to the hut.
From a distance itself Thami could recognize Sulu who was coming along with a group of maids. She was talking loudly. He lifted his daughter as she came out of the alley. Those maids handed over to him the packet containing Sulu’s dress. “She got two pairs of new dresses” they told him as they hurriedly left the place.
He kissed her with fondness.
“Did you see mother?” he asked her.
“Mother!” she said with a bit of a surprise. “I didn’t see mother.”
“Then, who was there in the mansion, my dear?”
“There was a fair mistress and a dark mistress.” She stopped and then continued “It was that dark mistress who bathed me and dressed me up. She was very nice to me.”
“That was your mother, isn’t it?”
“No Appa. She is the mistress there; the dark mistress.”
Suddenly she stopped talking. She was thinking. Thami lighted the kerosene lamp. In its faded light he saw her oiled face. Sulu was still thinking. A stream of thoughts passed through her mind in a jiffy and she could not connect them. Who is that dark mistress? Why did she behave with so much of affection towards her? Why did she buy new dresses for her? When she realized that she was not able to get a satisfactory answer, she asked.
“Appa, when will my mother be back?”