She is here to jump into the lake and end her life. But her mind wavers. The scene she saw when she slowed down the car keeps coming back, incoherent: the straw-covered hut, the makeshift shop in front of it, a stout woman in the shop, a baby on her lap, two bunches of bananas, and an old man lighting his beedi from the edge of the coconut shell.
… the green-leaved trailing plant which grows wildly in the lake …
From the hillock on the right, a descending car throws light on the winding road, visible, then out of sight. The bird that coos when the moon is full, what is it called? It has a shrill voice. A cool breeze blows from the lake. If I continue to sit like this, I can see, I can hear. Soon it will be morning, the sun will rise facing me. If I die, none of these.
The bush behind this one has pungent smelling leaves. Someone must be sitting behind it. He must have come earlier. Probably a man. Or maybe another ultramodern girl, like me. If the person had come after I did, I would have heard footsteps. Now, the smell of cigarettes from that direction.
She ties the hair spread over her back into a loose knot. When you die by water, the corpse has a swollen face. The mole on her left cheek, the one which was dear to everyone when she was a little girl, won't be visible on a swollen face. The body floats upside down; her black hair will spread out on the water. Her eyes will have the faraway look of stray cattle, which, as they chew their cud as if in deep reflection, stare into nothingness. Naked, it's not easy to tell if you are a man or a woman. She has worn two underpants today, one over the other, black.
Couldn't remember the decisive moment; it seemed like there had been one; it also seemed an eternal state of being. Husband slapping a wife's cheek is no serious issue; you can even hit someone in love. Die, die, die – he had screamed in a strange tone. It seemed almost like the shout had emerged from within her. His eyes stared, murderous and brutal. He collapsed after the thrashing. His face whitened, like that of a dead body's. As if something hammered in his ears. His moustache, thick, bow-like eyebrows, luxuriant hair, which still held great charm for women, appeared hilarious. His laugh, rose and fell. Son? He's at a school in Ooty. He loves his father who is a former tennis champion. He'll somehow grow up. And will slowly forget everything.
The reasons behind all this? Can't figure out. Whose mistake? Wasn't he the one who loved me? He quarrelled with his father and married me. He sold half his acquisitions, took me to America and got me to study acting in a drama school. Who made the first mistake? We have fought over it a hundred times. The mistakes intertwine – we wove them together for 15 years. In my absence, even now, how heartily he laughs. His healthy teeth shine under his black moustache. Women, known to both of us, hold only me responsible.
It surprised her that hate is an astonishingly translucent and pure emotion, just like love. Like a diamond.
She lets her hair down. Her eyes sparkle in the moonlight; there are lines around them. She is 35 years old. Her body is still taut and shapely. He hasn't touched her in the last two years. In this cruel hatred, her body has acquired another kind of a beauty. She has seen it in the eyes of others. She has even deliberately emphasised it – it gave her a sort of arrogant pleasure. She remembers: her husband wanted to kill her.
The man sitting behind the bush threw away his cigarette without putting it off. The butt must still be glowing in the moonlight. She pulls out a pack of cigarettes from her bag. But she doesn't have a matchbox.
Her hands go still on her lap, like sleeping birds. Is it okay to ask the man behind the bush for the matchbox? She suddenly felt it was inappropriate to die. This is not a new feeling, but something she has always felt, she tells herself. She is motionless, feeling surprised. Another car goes uphill. The bird coos. The water of the lake quivers mildly in the moonlight. She remembers the old man lighting his beedi. And then she recalls pinching a leaf from a creeper and smelling it when she was a girl – the pictures pass before her. Life and death, both are meaningless. I'm there only if I feel I am, isn't it?
Again, she feels like borrowing a matchstick from the stranger to light her cigarette but it is not an overwhelming urge and she continues to keep her hands on her lap, her head down, and sit quietly in the moonlight, her black, soft tresses spread out on her back. Her left big toe nudges out a smooth stone half buried in the soil; she tries to figure out its shape. When it slips, the toes on the right work like a pair of tongs and scrape off bits of sludge.
Girl of ten. Two small braids. Red frock, red shoes and black ribbons to go with it. She was adored by all, and they would pinch her plump, round cheek, the one with the mole. It's surprising that she remembers this now. Even then she was bashful; she had fears and humiliations she couldn't share with anyone. Am I real, is this really my name, are all these things happening to me – such things baffled her even then.
I was on the giant wheel with Appa. He was in a silk kurta and a dhoti – his festival attire. The kurta was all fragrant for it had been kept in a suitcase which had a ball of sandalwood in it. I was sitting on the giant wheel for the first time, ridden with curiosity and fear. As the wheel set out on its flight, fear multiplied in big leaps. As it went higher and higher and reached the tip, and plummeted in great speed, she held tight on to Appa, feeling as if she was dying. Get me off, get me off, she screamed. Appa didn't stop the turning wheel. Appa, who I thought could do anything, just sat there, unable to stop the wheel. He was probably laughing. He held me firmly. Air filled my skirt and I felt a chill between the thighs. If she peed in her skirt, her mother was sure to shout at her. And reprimand Appa too. She felt her bladder was going to burst. In the end, her great effort to hold down her urge to pee was what took her mind away from the fear.
Why was she reminded of this incident from her past now? That too, in this state of mind, that was making her palms moist? She tried to regain the sense of detachment of a few moments ago. Now Appa is an old man. His mind has become so feeble that to even ask if he loves her or not is irrelevant. He may miss her only if she doesn't write the weekly letter. The silver anklets that I bought as a birthday present for my sister's daughter – the one who lives in Bombay – is lying, packed, on the table. There are so many letters to be replied to: invitations from the Family Planning Committee, Tree Planting Committee, and the Horse Rider's Club – but everything is so meaningless.
He must have sensed my embarrassment; he struck a match and lit my cigarette.
'I have seen you, you go horse riding every morning, don't you? I have seen you act in English plays…'
He behaved as if it was normal for a woman to be seen on the lake bed, in an isolated corner, far away from the city. She said 'thanks', and sat beside him. He moved away a bit, allowing her to sit comfortably. He didn't demonstrate any urgency to continue the conversation. He seemed the personification of a friendly silence that anticipates no explanations. She felt calmed that he had recognised her, and hadn't bothered to introduce himself. Also, she felt sad that her anonymity had vanished. She tried hard to return to her earlier state of mind, failed, and, out of politeness, broke the silence herself.
'It's a small world.'
He laughed with an air of familiarity and sat quietly. He seemed to understand that she needed silence. She felt it was possible to simply tell him that she had come there to end her life. At the same time it didn't make a difference if she told him or not; she lit her cigarette and took a puff. The moonlight bird cried in supplication and startled them both. They looked at each other.
He looked at her in wonderment, and, as if sensing that she had no intention of speaking, stopped half way. She felt he would slip into a deep silence, and that she probably needed his words, 'Call me Shaily,' she said.
She waited. She pushed her thick hair with her fingers and let it fall over her shoulders, then turned towards him and smiled casually. Oh, it's so many years since she had been relaxed with her husband and laughed like this! His slender face, lit by the moon, had a soft expression; his eyes gleamed with ambiguity.
'Shaily, my wife may be dead.'
He wasn't expecting an answer from her. From his tone, it was clear that he wasn't even expecting sympathy. She was stunned.
'I was thinking of what to tell the police when they come for an inquiry. Yes, eventually the initial love began to gradually disappear. It seems peculiar to track down whose fault it all was. You can't even say. Love disappears – it's not something that is mutually visible. It's a magical allure, you stop feeling it after a while. Then, this lake, this hill, this sky… everything dies. You may be amused by this, Shaily - but when that bird cried, I was amazed. So were you. It's wonderful, isn't it? When you tossed your hair over your shoulder and laughed, I was surprised, and wondered why my wife can't laugh like that anymore. These days, I've even stopped feeling surprised. Otherwise, I would have had the courage to live as an artiste. If I had had the courage, she probably wouldn't have objected. When we got married, both of us would sleep on our stone-like-bed. Then, I was a poor man. My head was full of dreams. But now it's all gone. It just went, though I don't know why it did. The humiliation of those days is all gone. Jealousy is gone. My fears have disappeared. Along with all this, my ability to feel happy without a reason has also gone. She's forever on the edge and keeps saying we need more…, not that I haven't become acquisitive…
'I could have killed my wife today. I can't even remember why we started a fight. It's terrible, isn't it? She said I'm going to kill myself, I said go ahead and pushed her violently. Die, Die… I yelled. She locked herself in the room. I was astonished that I felt no emotions. As she climbed atop a chair and pulled a rope over the roof to make a noose, she saw me peeping through the door. Or maybe she didn't! But she was looking in the direction of the door. Our children – we have two, one boy and one girl – I was struck with pain, thinking of what they would go through when they returned from playing. I was surprised she didn't feel the same. When I realised that she was contemplating death, my entire world changed. I got up, walked out, came here and sat down. I walked for nearly two hours. And as I walked, it just felt like I was not myself, I was someone else.
'By now, her body must be hanging from the ceiling. The children will probably be weeping. The police may have arrived. The people in the neighbourhood would have assembled before our house. However, I just feel that all this is happening to somebody else….
'Listen to this pre-marriage story. She was 18 years old. I stayed in their village for about four-five days. Theirs was the only house in the forest. It was surrounded by a rubber plantation. It was lined by hills on either side. We would go together to fetch firewood. She used to draw water from the well, chop vegetables, the manner in which she thwacked the clothes, and how she sprung up to put them on the washing line… there was a dance in everything. We would giggle for no reason. When she got busy with her mother in the kitchen, I wouldn't feel like talking. She would get hot water ready for my bath, without her mother knowing she would quietly slip into the bathroom and scrub my back. When I would wake up for a pee in the middle of the night, she would cough to indicate she was awake. In the dark, she would ask me to accompany her to the cowshed… we spent quiet moments standing close to each other, our bodies touching each other's. I sometimes wonder if she was the one who did all that.
'She had a grandfather. He had flattened the forest to make a rubber plantation. He had died five years before we met, but still everyone spoke of him, everyday. He apparently was a naughty old man, roguish, an expert at writing love letters. This hobby that began when he was young had continued till he died. He not only wrote, but also kept copies for his own record. The letters were replete with raunchy, bawdy lines with graphic descriptions of all that transpired on meeting his darling, along with an invitation to get into the act again. When there was change in the woman's behaviour, there would be change in the tone of the letter. There were naïve letters too – with hearts, flowers, butterflies and ethereal damsels dressed in white.
'She'd come up to the attic with the letters and laugh, reading them with me. Her grandmother, this grandfather's lawful wife always kept a watchful eye on us. Once, when we were reading these letters, she appeared. She proudly displayed her scalded back and said it was her husband's doing. We were rolling in laughter, and with great excitement she narrated her husband's lewd adventures, his interest in sorcery, his obstinacy, and how she tolerated all of this and even tamed him. Shaily, I don't know why I am reminded of all this as I see your face now. My wife is unlike you, the home is her world. She used to sing well. Now, she has even stopped that.
'There used to be a goat in her house, a goat that ate everything it laid its eyes on. It would even eat up the rope with which it was tied. Once, it ate up my underwear that she had washed. She had laughed uncontrollably. When she saw my stern face, she had laughed even more. I too laughed. I laughed, unable to understand why she was laughing. It was a petty thing. But we have laughed about it for nearly two-three years.
'The way I am talking to you know – she doesn't even know that I can talk like this, think like this. In my fury that has gone on escalating, I didn't know this myself, till I saw you here…'
He'd spoken without a break and became quiet.
She too sat quiet. He placed his hand over hers. Again, she was surprised. Damp, translucent clouds floated over the moon. The wind blew.
'Come, let's go…,' she said. He quietly followed her. She got into her car and asked him where he lived. Pulling out a whisky flask from her back seat, 'You want,' she asked? He took a swig, 'Thanks,' and returned the flask. She shut it. 'If you feel like more, please help yourself,' she said, and started the car. As she drove, she said, 'I don't think your wife is dead.'
'But nothing would have changed,' he said, quietly. 'Yes, perhaps not,' she said, speaking for herself as well. She looked at his calm, slender face and his pursed, thin lips, and spoke no further. She stopped in front of his house. He could see his son peacefully going about his homework. He pressed her hand. She held it firmly and said, 'Goodbye'.
Apoorva, which may be translated to read Uncanny first appeared in the collection Akasha Mattu Bekku (Akshara Prakashana, Sagar, 1981).
U R Ananthamurthy is one of India's key literary figures and an important representative of the 'Navya' movement (the new movement) in the literature of Kannada. His works have been translated into many Indian and European languages and have been awarded major literary prizes, including the Jnanpeeth Award in 1994. He was honoured by the Government of India with the Padma Bhushan in 1998.
Ananthamurthy consciously writes in Kannada and not in English. A detailed bibliography and select essays may be found on his website.
Deepa Ganesh is assistant editor at The Hindu, Bangalore. She writes and translates for various journals and magazines.