Even Ashokan’s mother used to say that Shyamala’s life got better after her husband had passed away. Her own father came to take her back home a month after Ashokan died. She refused to go with him. She stayed in her husband’s family with his aged mother and father and took care of them. Even her step mother appreciated her decision. Though she didn’t reveal it to anybody, her real reason was that this was good for her child. Moreover, she had become dear to the people around her.
Ashokan had died of tuberculosis. After his death, many people, including the doctor at the primary health centre said that with better treatment he would have survived. In the early stages of the disease there was no money to take him to the city hospital and when they finally came up with the money, it was too late. So, more than the disease it was poverty that killed him. He had already a habitual cough when he married her. She still remembered how he was coughing while tying the holy thread around her neck. Her own brother who worked in the saw mill used to cough like that. But that was only when he went to work which itself was very rare.
She was hardly twenty-five when she was brought from Thalavoor to Ezhukone. Born and brought up in a remote village, she was a little anxious about coming over to this small town. But she adjusted with the new life very fast. Ashokan and his parents considered that she was a blessing to all of them. It made her happy to hear that. At the same time, she felt a burning sensation within and thought it was her internal resistance to be proud of her achievements. She was always a humble person and there weren’t many reasons for her to be otherwise.
Ashokan’s parents were aged and Ashokan himself was sick. He could go for work only a year or so after he got married. In such a bleak situation it was easy to see how she had became the family’s sole support and blessing. She was happy about it but she often wondered how it is to have such a blessing. What would it feel like to have someone to look up to in times of need and distress? She knew she could manage without so much of a support, but still she was eager to know what it would be like, just once. After her husband’s death she found such a support in Prasanthan who used to work with her husband. Apart from that, she had only liabilities, burdens and problems. Her child was her major liability. However, she preferred to consider him as the main stay of her life without which it would have come to a sad ending not long after it began.
Early memories about her child are rather vague and foggy. One of the earliest and vivid memories is an incident which happened when she was in the sixth standard. She could get away with the killing of a garden lizard by blaming it on her child. It was hiding among some bright red colour flowers on her way back from her school. At first she was shocked to see it. It was smaller that she had thought it to be but there was more to it to see than what she had feared. She saw it lashing its tongue at a moth as if it was throwing its entire mouth at its food. The tip of the tongue sucked on to the moth and in an instant it was all gone. True, the moth would have ended its life the same night on a burning flame. But, then it was of its own choice. But, this was aggression and violence. The hairs on the small of her neck stood up. This ugly reptile would also use its long tongue to suck blood from the navel of small children. She pulled her half skirt up to cover her navel. It had bloodshot eyes and its ears had a tinge of blood on them. There was also a tinge of blood right under its mouth and all along its belly and it continued like a crayon line along its long tail. It was panting like a dog and raising up its head like a rooster looking around to spy a hen. She would have spared it but her child was stubborn. So she had to kill it. It took only a pelted stone to make it fall of the bush and on to the ground. When it was on the ground, Shyamala used whatever she could find to dash it to death. Then she threw a big stone on it to make sure it was dead and won’t come after her later. Her child also told her it was enough. When she reached home, there were still spots of blood on her ankles and when the story came out, her step mother scolded her for hours. Had her uncle been not there, she would have been caned, the way she had done to the lizard. But her uncle said it was not so bad for a child to want to see a lizard dead. It was then that she found the endless possibilities and the benefits of having a child.
She was very eager to see her child growing up like herself. But as days passed by she became more and more convinced that her child would never grow up. When she saw how the seeds and the tubers in the class garden they had started sprout and grow up, she felt really bad. She prayed to several gods, even those of other religions, to make her child grow. That was her only prayer when she lit the holy lamp in the evening. None of the gods favoured her. Eventually she herself thought it was all very foolish. Almost all the gods she had prayed to were also babies forever, especially Lord Krishna. It was a comforting thought for her. From then onwards, her child’s stunted growth became more of a happy thing to see than a sad thing to worry about. True, it is all in the way we look at life. She had learned that in the week-end Gita class.
Whatever was left of her life which was spent to take care of her husband and her in-laws, she set aside for the child. She had at times questioned her own sincerity in serving the others. May be she was serving them with such eagerness in return for the love and affection they were lavishing on her child. They were pampering her child, making no complaints at all and competing to compliment. This thought had come to her mind when Ashokan had become really sick and bedridden. She often wondered why her husband’s sickness and untimely death didn’t break her heart so much.
Apart from this, what would she ever get in return for the care and concern she was showing the others? What does she expect in return and what is it that they are capable of giving? Her life was almost over. She needed nothing anymore. She suddenly thought that she had the same feelings when her mother passed away. Life seemed to have come to an end. But it didn’t. She stopped attending school, her father remarried and they sold their house.
Her child should have a different life from all this. It had its own likes and desires and nobody understood them. But she could see all that. She also saw how others could be so cold and ununderstanding. Her own life was a saga of poverty. What used to pain her more than that was how people could be so insensitive. She couldn’t blame her step mother for what she was. She would have been terribly jealous of her good looks which she had got from her mother. This woman was ugly, as ugly as a step mother could possibly be. All this had led to an innate mutual hatred between them. However, she never had an idea her own father could change like this.
What more can happen to a person in this life? She regretted the cruelty and hatred she had unleashed on all life forms when she was very young. She didn’t want to hurt anything or anyone anymore, knowingly or unknowingly. She was happy that she was able to bring up her child also in the same way. It got hurt but it didn’t hurt others.
Even then, she doubted whether this was genuine maturity since the child had not spared herself. In fact, all the cruelty that it used to take out on others, it now took out on her. Stubborn attitudes, tantrum throwing, insensitivity and all kinds of bad behaviours were still very much there and she was its only victim. Childhood, as far as she knew, was the time to enjoy, the time of mirth and laughter. But, for her child it was a time of restlessness, dissatisfaction and fleeting interests.
After all what was there to make her child happy? Was it possible for a child to have a clear idea about what to be happy about or what to be cautious about? Her happiness depended on her child’s happiness, true. But it was never the other way. It had to grow up like her and pass through all that she had passed through to have such clear ideas. But, she was comvinced it would never grow anymore. If something happened to her child, would she have anything left to live for? She didn’t want to think about it.
When her husband was on his death bed, he was all the more cruel. He hated even his bosom friend Prasanthan. He didn’t even want him to come home asking about him. Prasanthan told her that it was the severe pain that had changed him like that.
Her own husband was the first one to refer to the intimacy between herself and Prasanthan. Prasanthan took it with so much calmness and composure. May be it was that calmness and composure that won her respect and brought her closer to him. He was a friend in need. It was with his help that she was able to take a loan from an NGO which did microfinancing. He also found two nice rooms outside the town, for her to start her business. The thirty-four thousand she got from the organization was spent on buying the equipment and furniture. The death benefit she got from the insurance after her husband’s death was used to pay off the hospital bills. It was Prasanthan who paid the advance for the rooms.
In a matter of eight months she was able to pay back her loan. She worked round the clock. Her in-laws also helped her as much as they could. She had completely forgotten about her child and it also seemed to have forgotten her.
It was only when she had put her business on stronger rails that she found some time to relax and rest and her child returned to her. It was all the more stubborn and made her run around quite bit and even meddled with her business. It forced her to send away one of her employees who was related to Prasanthan and he didn’t like it. She discussed it with him and he said it was in children’s nature to do so. When he uttered the word ‘childish stubbornness’, she flinched a bit. She didn’t remember whether she was happy or sad to hear that.
He repeated the same words on several other occasions. She liked him more when he said that. Her child also was passionate about him. She was not interested to join a pilgrimage organized by the NGO. It was her child’s stubbornness that made her go with them. The child wanted to be with Prasanthan for a few days. That was the reason behind its stubbornness; it loved him so much.
She herself was like a child when she sat with Prasanthan in the luxury coach, cuddled close to him. She wondered why it took the child’s stubbornness for her to get this close to him. He was a nice man. He had beautiful arms with dark curly hair and an assuring strength and a warm softness. Could it be possible that he liked her child more than he liked her? It was possible. He liked her more when she herself acted like the child. Her husband had never liked her child. He had told her so not long after they got married. When he was closer to death, probably because of the intense pain and agony, he used to hurt her child really badly. It had become too much for her to take and at times she had prayed for his early demise.
She was shocked to recall all that. It was also possible that the winter of hatred and bitterness might come back to her life, like a season returning. When she saw her child with Prasanthan, she reminded herself that it was a girl child and that in spite of her hopes, the girl had grown up without her noticing it at all. He didn’t have to think hard to see why Prasanthan had taken a fancy to her. Making herself a clone of her own child, in words, deeds and thoughts, she enjoyed the incestuous venom fermenting in her veins. Seeing her daughter sleeping peacefully near her, with the vicarious satisfaction for having landed a man, she feared what nightmare might be manifesting behind those pearly eyelids.
Though she had planned her business only as a small-scale industry, making ready-made dress, it went beyond her own expectations. It took only less than a year for her to have such a good business that she had to have an accountant to manage her financial deals. It was not just her hard work that made her business a great success. She had done a very common sense thing in business. She was supplying something that the society demanded so much. It was not in the clothes but in its design. She specialized in making clothes for children and small kids. The only special thing about her designs was that they were all traditional and her customers demanded more and more of that. She stuck to the patterns of children’s dress she had worn as a child and those kids around her wore when she was young and in school. Once, Prasanthan made a funny comment about them. He said that they were like coffins. He didn’t get the joke and he had to explain it to her. He said that those who bought her clothes never wore them and those who wore them never bought them and that those who were made to use them couldn’t even say no.
It was then that she noticed his eyes. They were too sharp for a man of his temperament. They drilled deep into you. Recently her child also had mentioned something like that about him. Ashokan never liked her child and never wanted to see it. It was a mutually felt hatred. But Prasanthan was different. He liked her child and knew how to keep it happy. But even though it liked him, it never wanted to be near him. This only made him approach it all the more. Quite different from her earlier marriage, she had definite ideas about who to be with if there ever was a tiff between him and her child. She had decided to side with Prasanthan. She expected that some day he would propose to her and was all prepared to accept it unconditionally. The child won’t stand in the way, she was sure.
It happened quite unexpectedly. A famous textile mall offered her some good business. It was a heavy order which would be hard for her own medium size unit to deliver. But they were so impressed by her success that they readily gave her a heavy sum in advance.
The first objection came from her child who told her that the city people were too big a party for her to deal with. Big people always cheated, especially the big businessmen. The consequences would be too much. But she was even more surprised to hear Prasanthan saying the same thing. He said it was not child’s play and that she should also listen to the child. When he said these two contradictory things in the same breath, she found it more curious than shocking.
Apart from her uncle who used to speak highly of her child, it was only now that someone was showing her child more concern than what she herself would show. Wasn’t it more of her child’s initiative than Prasanthan’s? When and how was he lured away from her? Her life was totally devoted to her child. She had made so much sacrifice to keep it happy and settled. But now when it was a time for her to enjoy whatever was left of her life, the same child was coming in the way. A more free and independent life came so close to her and now it might just go down the gutter. He was really surprised to see Prasanthan and her child being of the same mind in this as well as a few other things.
When Prasanthan told her that he was planning to go for a movie the next Sunday, she thought it was a godsend chance for her. She asked him whether she could also go with him if he was going alone. He had planned to go with his friends and watch an English movie. But he changed his plans and went with her to watch a Malayalam movie. It was the story of a girl who has a neighbour, a young man who helps her get married to the person she dreamed of marrying. Her neighbour was a magician in disguise. Finally, it turned out that he was not a real man but the incarnation of a god whom she had worshipped earnestly. Shyamala said it would have been better if the magician was a real man and Prasanthan said that then the movie wouldn’t have had the charm. He asked him whether he would take her once to the same temple and he agreed to do so the next week.
That night as she lay in bed with her child, she thought a lot about her ill spent. When did this baby, now lying peacefully near her like young Krishna, come to her? Whom did it look like? No one, not even her in-laws, were worried about it. Her own parents were never bothered. How long can the child be with her now? Other than herself, it was only Prasanthan who was concerned about the child anymore. Even that might change when they get married. The better part of her life which she had wasted on her child passed through her mind. She could still hear her husband cursing the child in between his loud coughs. Why was it that she had suffered so much humiliation, teasing, torture and censure for the sake of her child? All for this selfish child who never showed an iota of love for her. Her life was never hers. It belonged to her child. With stubbornness, temper tantrums, anger, jealousy and contempt, he had managed to waster her life, all the time being a timid and fearful ugly child unwilling to come out of its crib, cradle and the dark corners of her bedroom where it played its own games, unmindful of her or the others.
She feared she might even lose Prasanthan to the child. He liked to see her child rather than herself. They had become allies against her. Not only them, others too were scared of the freedom and independence she might come across if she moved to the city and developed her business any further. Even she herself was afraid of that. Or else, why she was seeking their opinions on each and everything, even when she knew none of them would favour her?
She looked back at her life. It was not all that bad, given the disasters that had loomed large in her life. She had managed to pull herself together every time something had gone wrong, like when her mother died, her father remarried and her young husband died. With the new prospects in front of her, it cannot be any worse either.
Her right hand which was gently massaging her child’s soft chest came closer to its neck and lingered there. Even though its eyes were still closed, a smile appeared on its lips as if she had tickled it. In a second, it opened its eyes and stared at her. It was only then that she understood the meaning of its smile. Its eyes were like that of a lizard. For the first time, she noticed their squint. They were also bloodshot. She feared that it may stick out its tongue any moment now and suck her life blood out of her. She moved away not letting go her hand from its neck.
In fact, her hand had instinctively tightened around its neck which looked like a shrivelled umbilical cord. Its skin developed wrinkles and came off in patches covering it with scales. Ashokan was dead right. It was ugly. She had never noticed it. The more she looked at it, the more ugly it grew. Thank god Prasanthan never got a chance to stare at it this long. Its limbs were growing and they got entangled like the roots of a banyan tree and long claws appeared at their ends. Both her hands were now clutching at its neck.
She felt the hairs at the back of her neck stand up straight. She was choking. Pain permeated every tissue of her body like a million ice-cold needles driven into her. She was sucked into a massive flood. Everything in the room was whirlpooling down into the muddy water. She held on to the only life saving cord she could find. Her entrails wriggled like a hundred serpents entwining one another. She had only heard about labour pain but this was surely worse.
The child had grown itself like a monster and it filled the room. Then, like a nightmare disappearing behind the morning fog, it blurred in her vision and shrank to nothing but an umbilical cord. It changed into a beautiful snake, like the ones she had heard people say were seen in snake temples. It slithered out from her relaxed fists and moving up, tickled her arms, neck and breasts, and found its way into herself through her navel and disappeared leaving nothing but a line of goose pimples only where it had slithered over her.
The huge wave became ripples and the sea became a river, then a stream and then a small clear pool of water on solid rocks. As she lay in it, the freezing water went into the joints of her limbs and disappeared, leaving her on a plain rock which was not smooth but as harsh and rugged as reality. She thought her head was on her mother’s lap and her husband was sitting at her feet. She started to cough and woke after coughing a few times.
She turned on the bright light in her bedroom even though the sun had risen up hours ago. Bright whiteness filled the dark corners of her room. No one needed the darkness anymore.
No one missed her child. And no one ever talked about it afterwards.
Only Prasanthan seemed to be missing something. He was rather tense and nervous when he was near her. When she told him she was moving over to the city, he was quiet for some time. Then, without looking at her, he asked her whether he should arrange porters for her. She reminded him that he had promised to take her to that temple. He sighed and said that there was a direct train from the city to the temple. His cold attitude gave her a tinge of pain but she had expected both, his words as well as her pain. However, she told herself that she should never forget how helpful he was in times of need. She should try to employ his niece who would finish her course in fashion designing in a month or two.
The first thing Shyamala did after moving over to the city was to give a matrimonial ad in the newspaper. She didn’t want to hide anything and asked the copy editor to add that she was a widow who had never borne a child. He commented that widows with children were in better demand. She thought it would be silly to ask him whether child brides were in good demand too.