The Fifth Wall…

Kalpana Rentala

Translation from Telugu (అయిదో గోడకల్పన రెంటాల) : NS Murty.

Kalpana Rentala is a well-known Telugu short story writer and novelist. Currently living in AUstin, Texas, USA. She is the editor and directors of the Saranga books. Started writing in her early 20’s, Kalpana wrote literary essays and poetry in the early phase of her writing career. She won the prestigious Ajantha Award for her first poetry book “nenu kanipinche padam.” (the words in which I appear). She wrote a poetry translation column with the title “aame paata” (Her Song) with several translations of women poets from various Indian languages. When she moved to US in 2003, Kalpana focussed more on prose writings including short story, novel and literary criticism. She won award from the Vanguri foundation for her two short stories in Telugu , one of which is ” Ayido Goda” (Fifth Wall) and her novel “Tanhayi” published in 2011 was widely read and recieved praises. Her stories basically talk about contemporary women issues particularly the status and identity questions of women in the post-globalization Telugu community. Her new story volume will be out soon next year.

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“Mommy! God damn, what does this mean in this newspaper? Have you gone out of your mind? You did not give even the least hint of what you have done,” Arti came shouting into the hall and hurled the newspaper into the sofa. As if she had expected it happen someday, Sarada looked coolly at Arti, gone red with anger

“Arti! Why do you shout at me? What’s wrong with you?” she asked, as if she was unaware of the reason for her violent reaction.

“You ask me why?” Arti looked at her mother rather searchingly.

Sarada donned a dark purple Gadwall sari with thin jari border; she put on pearl ear-studs and a slick gold chain was hanging loose in her neck; a cucumber-seed-shaped red vermillion was shining between her eyebrows; her eyes were tinted with collyrium; and in her carelessly plaited shampooed-hair, a streak of silver strand was shining here and there. There were dark lines under her eyes. But with a soft glow in her face borne out of self-confidence, her mother was looking strangely attractive.

Sarada put aside the book she was reading. Wiping her spects she looked at Arti. Her mien and manner did not betray that she passed through a calamitous experience in her life recently.

In spite of her dignified demeanor, Sarada aroused some inexplicable repugnance in Arti.

“Why do you pretend innocence, mom? What does this ad in the newspaper mean? It was not even three months since dad had died, and you need a new nuptial bed? Don’t you feel ashamed to think of marriage so soon? Is this the respect you pay to dad after years of togetherness? Huh!” Arti accosted her mother reflecting all her anger, angst and ridicule.

“Look, Arti! It’s your choice if you did not like what I did. But is this the way you are supposed to talk to your mother?”

“Well, then, is it the way to scurry for marriage no sooner your husband had died? Do you think I am dead? Did it not strike that you should consult me before? You have given the address and phone numbers as well. All our people might have known by this time. What should I answer to the barrage of questions they are going to ask from tomorrow? …”

Sarada gestured with her hand to indicate Arti to stop her flood of questions.

“What is there to be so ashamed of? I did not commit any impropriety? And, as for not informing you beforehand, well, I thought of doing once things fall in place,” she said.

“And now, at this age, do you need to run for marriage … that too immediately after daddy had died? Are you a sow burning with desire?” Although Arti did not intend it, the words she suppressed so long within had slipped out.

Sarada slapped Arti involuntarily. Though Arti got the blow, it was Sarada who was hurt more and there were tears in her eyes. Though she was prepared for such resistance from everybody else, she could not stand the words coming from her own daughter.

“Look Arti, I am going out as I have some important work to attend. We shall continue the discussion later,” Sarada walked out putting on the slippers.

Arti was dumbstruck and the newspaper appeared glaring at her teasingly. She read the advertisement in the newspaper once more in disbelief. She noticed it was a 2 months-old back number. “That means,” Arti reasoned, “she did it about one month of daddy’s death.” It read:

“Wanted Companion

“A fifty five year old voluntarily retired principal, widowed one month back needs a cultured and friend-like companion to share her life without any formalities of marriage. Persons with taste for literature and music, and interest in social service activities are preferred. Interested persons may contact:

“K. Sarada, D. No. 23/ 10/2, Chikkadapally, Hyderabad, email… Ph. No. ……”

When she read the email address and the phone number her anger resurfaced. Arti thought that her mother had been wise to use a post box number, instead. She did not realize it till now … but, her mother was very daring. Throwing the paper away, she lost herself in thoughts watching the hall and the surrounds.

***

Would anybody believe that somebody died here recently? The house looked spic and span with everything in its place. With furniture matching with wall colors, the house was giving an artistic look. There were fresh roses in the flower-vase on the dining table. The perfume of jasmine emanating from the incense stick filled the room early in the morning. There were Rajasthani Paintings on one side of the hall and Batik wall hangings on another. She felt a tinge of pain as her father’s photo was not seen anywhere around. She was somewhat happy that her mother did not remove him from her bedroom.

With a mix of orange and gold, the window curtains were shining, fluttering with the breeze.

She recalled how happy her father felt when her mother selected those curtains to his taste. She entertained this long that her mother had great love for them. But she was mistaken, her ideas were different.

But, her conscience questioned if that was all her mother had done to them and nothing else?

Of course, she had to admit that her mother prepared snacks and sweets to their liking and always kept a ready stock. She was also up-to-date with fashions buying her matching tops and chudeedars on jeans.

But then? Was it enough if she had done things to their liking? She was under the impression that she was doing it all out of love. What happened now? If she really had had any love for her and her father, would she do what she had done today? All the love she showed towards them was just a pretension. Yes, it was. Otherwise, as a wife who lost her loving husband, how deeply should she be mourning for him!

What were her expectations about her mother and the state of the house while she hurried from America and what did she find? She expected to see her mother weak without taking proper food and mentally depressed and the house in all disarray, and all that. She wanted to give her mother some mental prop, reassure her and take with her to America. But what she found here was all just the opposite. She found her mother looking happy. The house was in order to the fault. There was no shade of grief on her face. She was just as normal as anytime. Then, what did she come here for? Just to make arrangements for her marriage?

But then, had she really been stricken with grief, would she get ready for marriage within a month? Would she have given an ad in the newspaper? Didn’t this all seem to suggest that she was only waiting for dad to die? Strangely, things were happening in this house in great contrast to what she had read in the papers or watched in the movies. It was only yesterday she read in the paper… it was in Vijayawada or there about, a wife died instantly of shock when she heard about the death of her husband.

She could never forget the news she read in the paper when she was at college. That happened in Hyderabad. It was still green in her memory.

A lady by name Punyavathi, committed suicide by jumping down from the top floor of a hospital when she came to know her husband, a cancer patient, reached his terminal hours. For, she did not want to outlive him. All papers covered the news very prominently and hailed her worthy of her name.

What happened to Padmavathi, wife of poet Jayadeva, in the story the Sanskrit Lecturer had narrated at college? When her confidante informed Padmavathi that Jayadeva, who accompanied the King for hunting, had died, she collapsed the moment the news fell on her ears.

While the papers and books were saying something, her mother was behaving the opposite.

***

Coming out of abstractions and worrying that the whole morning was spoiled thinking about her mother and her marriage, Arti suddenly looked at her watch. “My god it’s 12.00 noon. That means it is night 10 O’ clock in US,” and doubting whether Bhargav, her husband, would still be awake Arti dialed him; and when there was no answer even after four attempts, she hung up in great disappointment.

“Well, why should I over-reach? After all, it’s only an ad and it need not end up in marriage so soon. I shall try to reason her out sometime this evening or tomorrow, and take her with me to US. The problem will be solved.” That idea gave her great relief.

***

In the evening, Sarada was reading “Salam Hyderabad” leisurely sitting in a chair in the courtyard and sipping her favorite cardamom Tea. Freshly garlanded jasmines and double jasmines on the tea-poy beside were spreading fragrances like good friends to the surroundings. As she was reading the true history of Hyderabad, now lost in the glitter of Necklace Road and flashy Neon lights, she felt a lump in her throat out of inexplicable grief and remorse.

Arti, who was looking for the right moment to strike since afternoon, thought it was the right time. Pulling a chair close to her mother and taking her hands into her own, she said, “Mom, I am sorry. I am really very sorry. I can understand your feelings and the situation you are in. But, can’t you wait for a year? It looks odd to think, or answer, that you are going to marry barely three months after the death of daddy.”

“Why are you so upset about this issue baby? Just think coolly for a while. Do you remember what happened when your aunt died?”

Arti nodded in assent.

“When your aunt died of cancer, did you not passionately console your uncle? Her death was long expected. You remember how happy you felt when you came to know that he gave an ad for marriage when you visited him for the first month ceremony of your aunt? How eager you were that your uncle should come out of his bereavement and went on sharing with him the details of prospective brides, sometimes even taking the help of your friends? Why does it look unnatural when it comes to me? Why do you think that I should drag the rest of my life with you in America thinking of your dad forever?” questioned Sarada.

“What do you talk mommy? You speak as if you have suddenly become a great feminist? Uncle’s case is something, and your case is something else. Missing aunt was a great loss to him. Why only to him? For that matter, it is a loss for any man. Not only with regard to the difficulty of cooking, they will have several other issues. If there is no home maker in the house, their life is a veritable hell.” She answered.

“So true. My case is something else. Wasn’t my life a compromise for all these years? Did I not lead my life to the dictates of your father without ever inconveniencing him? Was it my life I lived really? How could you ever know how restless I was for not living a life that was not of my choice? OK. Forget about that. Tell me honestly, if I were to cease and your father were to survive, what would have been your advice to him? Would you have given the same advice to your daddy … to employ a domestic help and visit friends whenever he felt bored?”

“That is precisely what I was talking about, mom. Daddy’s case is different. You took care of every single need of him from the beginning. That was why he was always insecure whenever you were not around. He felt really suffocated. But you are different. See, how well you are able to manage yourself on your own today… even in the absence of daddy. Why should you exert your body and mind inviting another person into your life? Well, if you are not interested in coming to US, no issue. Stay back here. Enjoy your life. Tell me if you need some money, I can send you. Employ a cooking maid. I shall present you a car. I shall also employ a driver. Visit whatever place you feel like. All that I ask of you is, try to enjoy your life. That’s all.” Arti presented her opinion straight and simple.

“Arti, when will you try to understand me? It’s not money, jewelry, saris, car or some such other comforts I am need of. What I need is a person; a person who can accept me as I am; who is caring, affectionate, loving, and moves friendly with me, and conducts himself the way I like. I may or may not meet such person. But a small hope that I may. This ad is a small attempt in that direction.” Sarada made her intentions clear.

“Fine, mommy! But, is there any use giving an ad in the paper? We don’t know what kind of people shall respond. You have to talk to them all. You have to verify their antecedents. Instead, you look for any suitable person in our known circles. You can put a word to your friends. Or, you can even start making friendship with someone. And if everything goes to your liking, you can think of marriage later.” Arti mentioned as if the solution was as simple as that.

“No baby. I have already wasted a greater part of my life. I lived a lonely life this long. Enough! I don’t want to waste a second more. I want to live the rest of my life for myself than to please anybody. That is reason why I simply placed the ad in the paper.

“Do you know how many applications I received for the last two months? Many people contacted me in response. It was great fun to read them all and interviewing them. Of course, occasionally I felt irritated. Poor guys! There are many men in need of a wife in this country… for some to cook their food and to serve them as nurse for others etc. I mentioned clearly the kind of person I was in search. Yet, everybody used to commence the conversation with the enquiry about my state of health, if I was suffering from any diseases like cancer, whether I would change my surname or not, what was the property I have and on whose name, if I am a good cook, whether I am sexually active or not etc., etc. Of course, it is good for me to know their expectations. I could gauge them whether they fit my bill.” Sarada opened up.

“What kind of person you really need? Do you honestly believe that your life will pass off peacefully from now on if the person has a taste for music and literature? Just for academic interest I ask you mommy? Were you and daddy not happy all these years? When I watched you two, I never had an inkling of any disharmony. What was actually wrong with him? ” Arti attempted for the first time, though belated, a peep in to the deep recesses of her mother’s life.

“I talked to your father many times, not about my life but about leading our lives together, and how we could better it. But he always liked to lead his life the way he wanted. He left me to myself. I did what I wanted. But how? He never took part in my interests on his own volition. If there was anything that we shared together, it was you. My pleasures and my pains were my own. If ever I attempted to share my grief with him, he would say, “Oh! I see”. Just that! He never said a word more. I never heard a comforting word or received a reassuring hug from him. In our opinions and tastes we were diametrically opposite. Where is the beauty of companionship if it is not in walking the joys and woes together?” Sarada opened heart out.

“Mommy, why didn’t you tell me all this before?” As she came to know more about her mother, Arti grew warmer towards her; and putting her head in her mother’s lap, started listening keenly.

“I thought of sharing my feelings with you. But where was the time for you? You were always busy with your studies, exams, music, painting and a host of other activities. After your studies you were away to Delhi with your job; and next you said you loved Bhargav and wanted to marry him. After the marriage both of you were off to America. You never noticed how your dad and I led our lives. You asked me if I did not lead a happy life with your dad. Well, I must have to unfold my entire life to answer that. Life is not what it looks without. It is what is within. We are four sisters. I am the eldest. Because there are three more behind for marriage, I married your dad as per my parents’ wish. There was no room for my likes and dislikes. It was within our reach. Your daddy was not bad. But a wife for him was an educated woman that can organize all his things and attend to his needs. That’s all. However, he did not object to my studying further or doing a job after marriage. But that came with a rider: there should be no compromise on his necessities.

“I have a passion for music and literature. Your father never had any interest in them. Buying the book on the blurb and reading it is my habit. Whenever I tried to speak about an exciting book or a song, he would cut me short and jeer at me saying, “Oh! Madam! Stop this tutoring. They are damn boring. You better teach these things at the college. You will be hailed as a great teacher.” I like going places. But, after coming home from office, relaxing in the evenings with his friends or playing badminton was his choice. I liked your father helping me in the kitchen chores or once in a way, taking up cooking for a change. But he never liked to enter the kitchen. It was his settled opinion that it was a woman’s job. He was afraid that his friends would look down upon him if they were to know he helped her in the kitchen. Instead of making issues out of problems in life, I like to make life easy by suitably adjusting to the problems. That is why within the constraints of time for attending to you people’s needs, I used to enjoy my interests to whatever little extent I could.”

“Then are you more happy than sorry for daddy’s death?” There was a hint of doubtful anxiety in Arti’s voice.

“It’s definitely a loss in my life to physically miss the important person who was by me till now. But then, just because he had deceased, I don’t entertain the idea of grieving for the rest of my life in his memories.” Sarada reiterated.

“Because he was by you all these years, you were not able to lead your life the way you wanted. Now that he is no more, why can’t you lead it now to your liking? There is nobody here to object you. You do whatever you like. Why do you enter into the snare of marriage again? Who knows what kind of person shall enter your life this time?” Arti expressed her doubt.

“Arti, it is true. I can happily read anything I like; I can listen to good music; I can go to places. But, why should I live all alone without sharing my passions and emotions, if I can find, with someone I like? Even though I lived with your daddy, I was all alone within. I cannot be alone any further. I need a companion. I need a friend who can understand me. I need someone who can share my inner passions.” Sarada made her mind clear to Arti.

“Mommy! If all that you want is friendship, haven’t you had friends till now? Aren’t Parimala auntie and Vijaya auntie your good friends? Invite them here. Share your views with them. Isn’t that enough? I don’t know why but, mom, your going in for marriage seems to me a bad decision. How can you ensure that you can meet a good person, one you feel close to your heart, just by giving an ad in the paper? Everybody talks sweet with an eye on your money. I fear that you are only asking for the trouble. I wish you think twice before you commit yourself,” advised Arti.

“You are still talking like a child Arti. Do you suppose that by sharing my views with Vijaya auntie or Parimala auntie my physical and inner angst would cease? Can you imagine how I spent three last these months? You asked me about my welfare once in a week but how can I explain to you the loneliness I felt here? I spent many evenings reading books and listening to music. However close they might be, friends can’t talk to you every day or remain with you. For fifteen days everybody called me. Asked if I need any help? Or, if I expect them to come to me? What I need is not sympathy. I want soothing… consolation… alleviation of my angst. I did not sit distraught wailing for the death of your father as if my life hit a cul-de-sac. There is no change in my daily routine. Except, of course, for the small difference that I no longer have to attend to your father’s every single need. You may ask me if he did not come to my mind, I should say he did come to my mind many times these three months. But I don’t like that pain or the burden of those memories eat into the rest of my life. I want to put a full stop to that loneliness. Money is never an issue with me. My health is perfect. Well, I have the desire to enjoy and experience the life further. So, I gave that ad in the paper.” Sarada explained.

Once she could understand her mother’s mind, Arti grew interested in what she was doing. “Then, did anybody pass your interview? Did you meet the person to your liking?”

“Well, I found the thinking and opinions of one Mr. Rammohan close to mine. He lost his wife a year ago. More than the physical relation, I understood he shared his ideas and emotions with his wife. For the last one month we were meeting rather frequently. And in the morning, I went out only to meet him.” Sarada disclosed.

“Then, are you going to marry?” Arti asked eagerly unable to bear the suspense any more.

“We want to live in. And not to spend life, he like my husband and me like his wife. We want restart our lives to suit our common tastes. We want to do what we failed to do so far. We live wherever we feel like living, sometimes in his house and other times here in our house.”

Arti noticed a kind of excitement about the new life in her mother’s eyes she unveiled her future plans. She felt so happy.

“By the way, I am going to Rammohan’s house tomorrow. I have to collect songs cassettes of Suraiya and Nurjahan from him. If you are interested, you can come.”

Arti nodded to her mother’s proposal in assent.

Sarada got up and walking into the kitchen asked, “I am making tea for me. Arti, would you like to have a cup?”

Arti hailed in response from her place, “Yes mom, I want special tea with cardamom and ginger.”

Looking at her mother adoringly as she found her not only pleasantly different but also more attractive, Arti took the greeting card on the tea-poy into her hands: Two birds flying free on the azure sky. She opened it… on one side she found the lyrics of Faiz in excellent hand…

She thought her mother was lucky.

***

Srividya gave another look at her story. She checked up for errors and omissions once more. It appeared the story came to its logical conclusion. But she had a gut feeling that there was something wrong somewhere which she could not identify. While on one hand she felt the story was over, on the other she felt it was not and she missed saying something. She was unable to get at that.

The breeze coming through the window blew the papers off. Collecting them all and placing a paper weight on them, she started reviewing the whole story again.

“What? You have not finished your story yet?” Sasi said, entering into the room.

“I just made a fair copy as there were many corrections. Can you give me your opinion reading this?” she pleaded.

“OK.” Taking the papers into his hands Sasi walked towards the sofa.

She noticed the change of expressions in his face as he was reading.

As expected, he exploded after reading it. “Is this a story at all? It looks so unnatural to me.”

“What is there in it that looks so unnatural to you?” Srividya asked.

“Look, a second marriage for a 55 year old lady stands in complete contrast to our practices in Indian society. You can understand these things happening in America. But we have never heard such things happening here. Do you think that an aged lady, almost like your or my a granny, would go in for a second marriage instead of passing off her life in prayers and devotion? Can you imagine your mom or my mom doing this? And tell me how embarrassing we feel if they really do?” Sasi expressed himself without mincing words.

“That’s it. If a fifty-five year old man marries a second time, it doesn’t look unnatural. But if a woman of that age marries, it looks there was something wrong. Why? Where comes this objection from when a fifty five year old woman marries, that was not there for a man of her age? That means, it is innate in us to judge or decide at what age a woman should go in for a second marriage. But my question is whether there is enough freedom in our society for a woman, irrespective of her age, to select a life partner of her choice and the way she wants, or not. That is what I wanted to address in this story,” replied Srividya.

“You have your gang of friends, isn’t it? Just ask them for their view?” Sasi said impatiently walking towards his PC.

Srividya looked at her watch. It was getting 10.30 in the night. Though she wanted to call her friend Vasanta, on second thoughts she decided against it. As the following day was Sunday, she thought she could to call her first thing in the morning, and went to bed. The completion of story left her with a lingering dissatisfaction, and she started thinking about the objections raised by Sasi…

The character of her story Sarada walked up to her…

“You think I am a toy of wax in your hand, isn’t it?” she asked.

Then Srividya realized what was wrong with her story. Sarada was not a real life image but a fictitious character shaped out of her imagination.

Nevertheless, Srividya did not like to admit defeat before her character. She tried to convince her.

“You did not attempt to get the societal approval for my action. “ Sarada confronted Srividya.

Accepting the blame honestly, she replied, “but that is for your good. I carefully sculpted you as dignified as possible, lest people should think mean of you.”

“That is exactly what I want to complain about. Even you did not honor my decision. In the first draft you wrote in the ad that I was looking for a companion to enjoy life. You were afraid that your readers would look down upon me if you write that I was marrying for carnal pleasures. In order to convince them, you revised it and added that I was interested and intending to do social service, and for that reason I was looking for a companion. Am I right?”

“Yes, of course. But just think why I had to do. It’s out of love for you. I was anxious that the reader should look at you in awe. Does my anxiety seem selfishness to you? Can you imagine what would happen if I write that you were marrying because you were burning with desires, just as your daughter had asked you?” Srividya asked with a tinge of anger. Sarada burst out in laughter.

“Hah! Do you see? You did not dare to present the true picture. It was long decided why or when a woman should marry. You wanted to cross that barrier. But, without your knowledge you have drawn another barrier for yourself. You are just driving me from one boundary to another. Confined within the four walls, you are not able to see the fifth wall… within you.”

Sarada hurried without looking back.

***

Illustration: Ru Das

One thought on “The Fifth Wall…

  1. Pingback: Content And Contributors – November 2014 | aainanagar

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