You have no clear-cut plan of action. You wander about in faraway lands. You have no money, you don’t know the local lingo. but you speak Hindustani and English. Yet. those who understand these tongues are few there. So you will meet with mishaps. you will do many courageous deeds.
Thus you meet with danger. a stranger rescued you … Although many years have gone by since. you remember the man on certain special occasions … Why did he do it? You who remember these things, imagine that you are me. I am talking about an experience of mine. I have a somewhat vague understanding of human beings. including myself. Among those around me are good ones, crooks, those with contagious diseases and the mad – generally. One should always live an alert life, this world is mostly full of evil. But we forget this. We wake up only when we meet up with something unfortunate.
I will record that simple incident here.
A big city lies in the shadow of a mountain about 1.500 miles from here. Its inhabitants have never been known to be kind. They are cruel. Murder, dacoity, pickpocketing – these are everyday occurrences there. From generation to generation. These people have been soldiers. The rest are money lenders elsewhere or work as guard in mills. big offices banks and the like.
Money is something great there. They will do anything for money, kill anyone for it.
I stay in a tiny, filthy room in a filthy street there. I am employed. I teach some alien workers English from 9:30 am in the morning to 11 pm every night. I teach them to write addresses. To learn to do this is considered a mark of education.
Address-writers are there in the post offices. They charge a fee of between two and four annas to write down an address. This education in writing down addresses might free many from this dependence and. if need be. enable some to earn something on the side.
In those days. I would wake up at four in the afternoon. This helped because I didn’t have to spend on morning tea or lunch.
As usual. I woke up at 4 p.m. Having performed my ablutions. I set out to have some tea and lunch. See, I go out in a full suit, a wallet in my coat’s pocket.
There are fourteen rupees in it. This is all my wealth. I pressed through crowds and entered a hotel. Lunch means eating a stomach full of chapatis and meat. I drank a tea. too, It cost me eleven annas.
To pay up, I put my hand inside my coat’s pocket … I broke out into a sweat; all that had gone into my stomach was swiftly digested … the wallet was not there! “Somebody picked my pocket,” l said.
The hotel was full of a noisy bustle. The hotelier laughed out aloud and startled everybody. Then he grabbed me by the front of my coat, shook me once and said: “Don’t try to sell that to me. Lay the money down now and go or I’ll gouge out your eyes….”
I looked Into that audience. 1 didn’t see a singly kindly face. They looked like hungry wolves. He said he would gouge out my eyes; he would surely do it!
“Keep my coat here,” I said, “I’ll go and bring the money.” The hotelier laughed again. He told me to take off my coat.
I took off my coat.
He told me to strip off my shirt.
I took it off.
He told me to take off my shoes, both of them.
I took them off.
Then he told me to drop my trousers.
So, he had decided to send me out stark naked, eyeless.
“I have nothing on underneath,” I said. Everybody laughed.
“1 have a doubt,” the hotelier said, “There may be something underneath.”
My hands were frozen. In my mind’s eye, I saw one standing stark naked and blind out on the street amidst a hullabaloo. So ends my life! Well, so be it ….
This experience … oh, let it be … Creator of the worlds … my God …
There is nothing to say. All is well, yes, all is auspicious …
I began undoing my trouser buttons one by one. Then I heard a voice.
“Stop. I will give the money.”
Everybody turned in that direction.
There stood a six footer sporting a red turban. black coat, white trousers, a handle-bar moustache and blue eyes.
Blue eyes are common there. He came forward and asked the hotelier: “How much does he owe you?”
“Eleven annas…” He paid up.
Then he told me: “Put on your clothes.” I put them on.
“Come.” he said. I went with him.
Were there any words with which to express my gratitude?
I said: “You did something great. I have never seen such a good man.”
‘What’s your name’?” he asked. I told him my name, where I came from and all that.
I asked him his name.
“I have no name, “he said.
“Then your name is Compassion,” I said.
He did not laugh.
We walked on like that and reached a deserted bridge. He looked around.
“See.. here, you must walk away without looking back. If anybody asks you if you saw me. you must say that you did not,” he said.
I understood everything.
He took out five wallets from two or three pockets. Five! … And among them was mine.
“Which of these is yours?” I touched my wallet.
“Open it. ” I looked inside. The money was all there. I put it into my pocket.
“Go, ” he told me, “God save you.”
I said: “God … save … you … “
By Kamala Das
Translated from Malayalam by Ampat Varghese Varghese
When she awoke thirsty around midnight or so, Granny was surprised to find the fifteen-year-old girl curled up on her side of the bed, asleep. She did not have the heart to awaken her and send her back to sleep beside her husband. But, how could she not awaken her?
She ran her fingers softly through the girl’s hair and called softly: “Ammu?”
Ammu opened her eyes wide, startled. They were tear-streaked eyes, strained and stained with sorrow. Granny’s heart ached for her. But still, she said:
“Ammu, go back there. What will he think? Can you sleep forever beside your Granny?”
“Didn’t I stay there half the night?” Ammu asked. “Shouldn’t I get to sleep now? Does marriage mean that one loses one’s sleep?”
Granny laughed. Ammu turned her face to the wall.
“What will he think?” Granny murmured.
“Grandma,” Ammu called out to her in a tremulous voice.
“If I had passed my examination, I wouldn’t have been married off, right?”
“Shouldn’t girls get married?” Granny asked in reply. “What is the use of educating girls too much?”
“If I had passed, there would have been no marriage,” murmured Ammu. “I should have studied better.”
Ammu arose. She took off the golden ornaments from around her neck and from her ears. She opened the almirah and placed them in a drawer. Then she removed her Kasav sari and threw it upon the headboard of the bed. Her body was lean, half-grown. Granny felt compassion towards her.
But she said: “Ammu, he will be waiting; if you sleep here, what will he imagine?”
Ammu sat on the bed and hid her face in her hands.
“I could have concentrated more on my studies,” she whispered.
ABDULLAH OF THE MOUNTAINTOP
By Punathil Kunjabdullah
(Translated from Malayalam – excerpted from the book “The Blue Garden”)
It was the wedding night of Beebi, daughter of the fisherman Moitheen.
Beebi enters the nuptial chamber. She didn’t enter willingly; rather she was pushed and forced across the threshold by a multitude of bangled, silken hands. Then someone slammed shut the door leaving the fragrance of raw wood behind her. The hands that shut the door burst into laughter.
Beebi’s cheeks glowed, blushed red. Her eyes, kohl-lined and limpid like backwater lakes, shone. The rays of the lamp descended to kiss the edges of the tray she carried. Her mehndi-emblazoned arms and feet blazed with fire. The curves of her creamy white legs dripped like molten ghee into the mehndi.
The fragrance of jasmine ascended.
The stench from a Charminar cigarette displaced the fragrance of jasmine.
She was awake.
When her hands shook, the glass of milk in the tray also shook. She placed the glass on an old stool. The kerosene-lit lamp threw the shadow of the glass into that of a giant bucket upon the pale wall.
He laughed. When he laughed, she saw the black, worm-eaten teeth. The sunken cheeks.
His arms had no strength in them. There were no black hairs on his limbs. His muscles had no tone or vitality.
The walls of the nuptial chamber bore mute witness to them. Just when she awoke, he slept. That was the moment in which she experienced her life’s greatest disappointment.
When he embraced her with his weakling arms, she did not feel secure. How many such insecure nights went by when she lay entombed in that embrace!
It was on one such night that, as she lay sleepless, a fragrance swept in through the open window. It was the smell of the cashew apple that the breeze had brought down from the mountaintop. That fragrance took her forcefully back five years in time to a certain incident.
In the past, when she remembered that incident, it was normal for her to feel shaken and to shiver. But now when she remembered it, it became natural for her hairs to stand on end. With the passage of time, her emotions had turned the villain of that incident into a hero.
She was thirteen then. The age when, without knowing, she had dropped a crimson seed into the earth.
It was a time when the cashew trees were in bloom upon Valyapalli mountain near her house.
She awoke startled that dew-filled morning when the wind wafted to her the perfume of the cashew blossoms. She got out of the thatched hut that nestled at the bottom of the mountain. She found a basket to collect cashew nuts in and climbed up the mountain side. She walked through the stench of fallen, rotten cashew apples.
It was still dark under the tent-like, spreading, blooming branches of the cashew tree.
She looked around. The mountain was uninhabited like the deserted courtyard of a mosque.
In haste, she began separating the countless cashew nuts from the myriad rotten cashew apples on the ground and dropping them into her black basket.
The big red ants sojourning among the fallen dry leaves began climbing up her legs. She kicked her feet and rubbed them against the dry leaves to shake off the red ants. The ones that she could not cast off she crushed to death against her thighs. The peculiar stink emanating from the bodies of the red ants assaulted the nostrils and alarmed her.
Just when she touched a cashew apple hanging from a low-lying branch, she heard the rustle of dry leaves behind her.
Even before she turned around to look, she was entrapped in a net cast by strong arms. Well-built hands that boasted curly, black hairs.
The Haji’s son, Abdullah!
“Little thief, did you arrive so early to steal?” He had let her go and was standing at an arm’s distance. “I’ve been quietly staking this place out for a long time to catch you!”
The moment he let her go, she judged it was the right time to flee; and she did. The dry leaves laughed mockingly. Darkness spread deeper in the cashew tree grove.
She did not have the strength to call out. She felt as if someone had hooked her and was dragging her away. Through the narrow pathways of the mountain, through the forest of cashew trees, not knowing her way, she fled. The scarf upon her head flew away and dropped to the ground somewhere. Her sarong slipped away from her body and wafted away shamelessly in the wind.
Abdullah also ran with heavy footsteps following her like her shadow.
She fell down, splayed upon a bed of dry leaves. She fell, into the lap of the mountain, amidst the forest of cashew trees.
Near her, next to her, Abdullah panted like a demon, like a steam engine. He fell into her exhausted fear-filled eyes like a clear shadow.
She felt as if the mountain she was lying upon had collapsed upon her body in a heap.
Then it seemed to her as if raw bamboo was being split within a bamboo grove.
After an anguished cry in the forest, she pleaded from an agonized hurting heart: “Please, don’t kill me! Please, don’t kill me!”
Abdullah’s face now appeared with clarity in her mind, after so many years. The face swayed before her like a snake’s hood.
Her husband muttered something in his sleep. It was incomprehensible.
His ribs stuck out. She looked at his hairless chest with disinterest. In that instant, she remembered Abdullah of the mountaintop with honour.
When she remembered, the stony eyes of her breasts started awake.
She got up and left the room. Restless, she wandered into the courtyard.
Her sea-going husband slept exhausted under the net.
She wandered through the yard. The moon was about to set. The tired long shadows of the trees hugged each other. She reached the bottom of the mountain. The stench of mango blossoms and rotten mangoes lingered in the breeze.
She climbed the mountain and her legs were not tired when she reached the top. She cast off her skirt. She undid the blouse that covered her breasts. The denizen of the mountain heard the tinkling of her anklets. The lines of a folk song came to her lips. She stamped upon the dry leaves and wildly shook the branches of the mango tree. The moon set. She made feminine noises as she traversed the mango grove. Her ears were perked up to catch the sound of someone behind her. She felt like crying out loudly: “Abdullah, come running.”
But Abdullah did not come. She did not hear his footsteps.
The big red ants crawled up her legs. She did not shake her legs to cast them away. She was panting. Her breasts heaved. She embraced crushingly the trunk of the mango tree thick with red ants and cried out wretchedly:
“Abdullah of the Mountaintop, O my Abdullah!”