“Om bhur bhuvasawaha, tattsavitur vareniyam.Bhargo..” The tape played on. It was 6:00 AM and Shantha, after a quick ‘head bath’ and with a white towel wrapped around her hair, was prancing about the kitchen and puja room making arrangements for the puja.
Her husband, Sridharan, was seated in the diwan sipping coffee while reading the newspaper. “Shantha, readyaa? I must start in the next 10 minutes. Else rahu kalam will start.” He said in an authoritative tone.
Sridharan and Shantha had been married for nearly four decades now. Shantha was a fifteen year old girl at that time. A simple, meek and carefree girl who had been brought up in Pudukottai. The only daughter of a rich landlord. She had been far too delighted at the idea of her ’kalyanam’ to understand any of its implications. The first few years of her marriage were not without their trials and tribulations but they were exciting for a new bride who had been brought up to look up to the husband as “paremeshwar”. She did everything to please her family. Then the children came. Two girls followed by a boy. They all did well in life and were now settled outside India. She believed that her piety and her husband’s discipline had been the prime reason behind her children’s success.
Sridharan was a dignified man. A chartered accountant by profession, very well respected in his circle. He was only eighteen when he married Shantha. However, even at that young age he had complete clarity on his position in a marriage. He believed his station was clearly superior to that of a wife, who deserves a husband’s shelter and financial help but should know her place. Subservient, ever obliging, ready to please and completely devoted to the husband and family is what a woman should be. While Sridharan was popular for his generosity amongst his family and friends he was also feared for this short temper. His beliefs and his temperament had defined Shantha’s life in the past four decades.
“Bring the flowers, sheekaram. You have to learn to hurry up”, ordered Sridharan as Shantha harried around apologetically.
Just then the bell rang, it was ‘Babu’.Their maid, Parvati’s, 8 year old son who announced that Parvati will not come for work today as she was not well.
“Another beating and bashing episode at their house. Disgusting! How these uneducated, low caste people ill-treat their wives. Disgusting indeed! ” observed Sridharan. And he proceeded towards the small puja room.
A couple of hours later after a routine breakfast Sridharan left for work. Shantha spent the remaining day inundated in household chores. Her younger brother called in the evening and announced that his daughter’s marriage had been fixed.
“Shantha Akka, kalyanam fixed. We plan to do the nichiyatartam (engagement ceremony) next week. Please come in a day or two to help with all the arrangements. You are the only ‘athai’ (paternal aunt)” informed Hari.
Shantha was very excited. “Great news Hari! I will definitely come. Let me ask your brother in law as well. He might also want to join early.”
“Ok Akka. But you know how Sridharan usually is. He is usually upset about something or the other. He may not want to come at all” said Hari sarcastically.
“Tchhaa- tchha. Nothing like that Hari. He has office no? That is the only reason he may not be able to join. Otherwise he will come.” insisted Shantha, a little hurt by the sting in Hari’s tone.
“Wedding is after three months. We have not finalised on the date yet.”
The conversation thus went on till Hari had given all the details and Shantha had procured all information on the ‘boy’ and his family.
During dinner that day Shantha mentioned about Hari’s call. Sridharan listened nonchalantly to most of it with a few generic remarks here and there. Shantha hesitatingly mentioned that she would want to travel to her brother’s city in a day or two.
“How? Is Hari coming to take you? How will you go alone? ”demanded Sridharan.
“What is the need to accompany me? It is just 8-9 hours away. I can take the train or the bus. Anyway, Hari wanted you also to come.”
“Me also to come? What is it? A silly birthday party! If Hari wants me to come he should call me first and talk to me.”
“I am sure he will do that. This was just an informal information. You were in office no? That is why he might not have called.” Shantha made an unsuccessful attempt at pacifying Sridharan.
“Whatever! I do not have the time for all this. And you cannot go anywhere till Hari comes himself”, concluded Sridharan.
This was not the first time Shantha had been rebuked this way. In fact she had been so used to not having her own way that she had started believing that she was usually wrong. She had told Hari that she would not be able to come for the engagement ceremony because she had a terrible back pain. Hari understood his sister’s predicament.
The remaining of the week was rather dull. The maid, Parvati, did not show up for a few more days and Shantha kept herself busy with household chores. She did not have the time to even go to her weekly music class. Shantha loved singing. She had learnt Carnatic music at an early age but due to the pressures of a family had not been able to pursue it. However, after her children were all settled she had sought Sridharan’s permission to join the school in their locality. She not only learnt there but also had the opportunity to teach beginners. She felt absolutely blissful when she sang. It felt as if the entire atmosphere around her had devoted itself in integrating her to her music. The joy of singing was so great that the people around her ceased to exist and what remained was the purity of the elements of the earth and the divine beauty of the ragas.
A few days later Parvati, their maid, walked in. “Amma Parvati, finally you have blessed us. You are giving darshan after four days.” commented Shantha
Parvathi, a woman in her early forties but looking a decade older limped into the house. She did not answer Shantha directly. Her body language conveyed stress and desperation.
“What happened to you? What happened to your leg?”
“Show your foot. What is wrong?”
“Nothing Shanthamma!” insisted Parvati.
Shantha still moved forward to take a look at Parvati’s foot. It had a dark black scar across it. After some persuasion Parvati revealed that her husband, Raju, had hit her with a hot iron rod.
“Aiyo!! Why? This is terrible? Why did he do this? ” questioned a concerned Shantha.
“I went to meet my sister that day. Raju had told me not to go because he does not like my sister’s husband. I still went, so he punished me”, complained Parvati.
“Oh God! This is terrible”, agreed Shantha.
Although both Parvati and Shantha agreed that it was terrible that the husband had hit but they were not so sure if it was wrong. They exchanged a few more sentiments on the subject and returned to business as usual.
Shantha was glad Parvati was back as now she could go to her music class. She had to make so many arrangements and had many rehearsals planned. Next month the Carnatic music celebrity, Murali and his wife Lakshmi were coming to their institute. Murali was from Shantha’s village near Pudukottai. He had learnt Carnatic music from his father and had gone on to become a celebrated stage artist at the early age of thirteen. Shantha had known him since childhood. When she was just seven and Murali was about twelve they had performed together in school. In a childlike innocent way Shantha had felt drawn towards him. He was not only exceptionally talented he was also a wonderful person. Amazing temperament, very gentle and soft spoken. The people in the town were so fond of the boy Murali that when he first won a music competition even the meanest person in the village felt no envy. He received blessings from everyone and went on to win award after award and brought immense fame for himself and his people.
The institute was adorned with flowers of all colours and there was a lot of hustle bustle all around. Shantha had not slept in the past few days. She had been busy planning everything. Finally the day arrived and Murali and his entourage were here. After the usual introductions and speeches, the performances started. Towards the end of it Shantha invited Murali and his wife to her place for lunch.
“Shantha, that is so nice of you. You are always so thoughtful. We would love to come. Let me check with Lakshmi” said Murali. “Lakshmi, have you made any other plans for tomorrow’s lunch? Can we go to Shantha’s place?”
“Tomorrow? Oh no no! We are going to my friend’s place. I already promised. Sorry Shantha”, informed Lakshmi
“I am so sorry Shantha. I did not know about Lakshmi’s plan. May be next time.” Murali apologised.
Shantha was a little disappointed but also relieved as she had not had the time to check with Sridharan. What if Sridharan did not like her inviting guests over? Earlier when a couple of her distant relatives had arrived while on the way to the nearby temple, Sridharan was extremely cross. He had walked out of the house to express his disapproval. It had grieved and embarrassed Shantha but it was usual for Sridharan to act on his whims. She had learnt that by now.
“I will look forward to the next time Lakshmi. Where are you going after this?” inquired Shantha.
“Oh there is a wedding in my family. My sister’s son is getting married next month. So we are going there. Murali will drop me off and go for his next recital program while I will stay with my brother”.
“I see!” said Shantha not without a twinge of envy. She was reminded of Hari’s invitation and her inability to visit him. She could not stop noticing the attention and care Murali was giving his wife. He seemed to care so much for her. They never seemed to impinge on the other’s space and yet the affection between them was very perceptible. She wished Sridharan was like Murali. She started thinking of the time when Murali and she had been playmates as children. How much she had enjoyed being with him. He was caring and gentle in his manners. Never lost his cool and was forever ready to oblige. Suddenly a bizarre thought occurred to her, what if she had been married to Murali instead? Well considering how she had felt for Murali at one time this was not a very outlandish idea. However, it was certainly so long back in time that is seemed like previous life. She immediately dismissed the idea and shunned herself for thinking of it even for a second. How immoral! And at her age!
Murali and Lakshmi took leave and Shantha hurried home. She had not noticed that it was past 5:00 PM already. It was time for Sridharan to be back home. If she did not have hot coffee ready on his arrival he would be very angry. It started raining heavily and there were no auto rickshaws around. She hoped she would get a drop from someone at the institute but everyone who had come for the function had left. It was 5:30 now. Fifteen more minutes for her to reach home. No auto in sight yet, no familiar faces. What should she do? She started walking towards the bus stand hastily but it was a good 3-4 km away. She could not have covered it by walking that too in this rain. What should she do? She begged and pleaded every autowala who passed that side but nobody came. Oh no! It was 5:45 PM already! Sridharan might have come home. May be she should call him and tell him her situation. No No! That would only make him angrier. When she could not find an auto for another ten minutes she nervously called Sridharan on his mobile.
“Shantha, where are you?” demanded Sridharan
“I..I..am. It is pouring here in this Civil Lines area. No auto is..is..ready..” mumbled Shantha.
“Are you not aware that I would be back by 5:45 PM? Should you not plan accordingly?”barked Sridharan.
“I did. Still we ..we got..delayed..and I was talking to Murrr..and Laksh…Lakshh…mi..so..I”.
Click. Sridharan cut the call. A wife who knows that her husband will be back by a certain time of the day should be waiting for him at home and not socializing with her friends.
Shantha finally reached home by 6:30 PM fully drenched. She could not get an auto so she had walked to the nearest bus-stand. She had waited there for ten minutes in the rain before she could finally board a bus which was fully crowded. She had found no place to sit and it was so full of people that she had felt dizzy from the suffocation. After disembarking at her bus stop she had to walk a good half a mile in the rain to reach her house.
The minute she entered, Sridharan was seated on the sofa watching a religious channel on TV. An empty coffee cup was on the table beside him. He looked at Shantha disapprovingly when she entered. She was so scared that she could hardly face him.
“Ittt iss my fault. It did did..look like.. it woulddd rain today but I..I”. She was almost in tears.
Sridharan shouted in response. “Music class! Since when did a woman’s music class become more important to her than her husband? Is it more important for you to enjoy than to take care of your duties? Now go inside and change fast and at least let the man of the house have timely and hot dinner”
With tears in her eyes, Shantha obeyed.
The rains disrupted routine life for the next couple of days. For Shantha it meant no music classes. After the showdown she had had with Sridharan she was afraid she may not be able to go to her classes anymore. The rains also prevented Parvati from coming to work on time thus making it only tougher for Shantha. For the past few months her knees had been hurting a lot. Too much of bending and squatting for household work was getting harder for her.
“Parvati, why so late today also? At least you should understand a woman’s problems. I am not able to bend my knees and still I have had to wash all the utensils because you are late” lamented Shantha one morning.
“Shanthamma, it had been raining nonstop and Raju is another trouble. He beats me almost every day. He comes home late after drinking too much. He came after midnight one night and demanded hot chapathis. At that hour I had to make chapathis”, complained Parvati. “Last week he again singed my feet with a pair of thongs because the roti was not hot enough”.
Shantha listened in terror. She did not know what consolation to offer. Although Parvati had been with Shantha for many years now, Shantha had never met Raju. Based on what Parvati had told about Raju, Shantha had created some image of Raju. An image of a mean, illiterate, insensitive and arrogant man was the visual she had formed. Today, however, when Parvati was narrating her incident Shantha subconsciously visualized someone very similar to Sridharan. She was shocked at herself for seeing Sridharan and Raju in the same light. One an educated Chartered Accountant so well respected and the other an illiterate vegetable vendor.
Inadvertently she let out an “Aiyo..chhi chhi..!” and dismissed the thought and focussed on simpler problems like household chores.
It had been quite some time since Shantha had gone to her classes now. A few days after the clouds had sobered down Shantha went to her classes, of course in Sridharan’s absence. She was so lost in her music that she did not realize how time flew. When she looked at her watch it was 5:30 PM already. She rushed home only to find to her terror that Sridharan was back before her. He gave her a chagrined glance and threw the empty coffee tumbler into the kitchen sink. Cling cling clang cling was how the tumbler rolled but tears rolled down Shantha’s cheek without a sound.
“This music business ends today. From tomorrow onwards you will be at home.” Sridharan shrieked in his fury. Without a word Shantha went about her work.
Days and weeks rolled by Shantha missed her classes very much. Still like a good wife she obeyed her husband and took care of her routine duties. Parvati occasionally told Shantha of her struggles with Raju. One bright sunny morning, Shantha was reading the newspaper while waiting for Parvati to come. She flipped the page and realized something in the obituary column had caught her eye. She flipped back the page and was shocked to see a column which read “Left for her heavenly abode on…Smt. Lakshmi Murali Sankaran”. Lakshmi’s photo was just beneath. The sound of Parvati’s footsteps brought her back from her thoughts.
“Shanthamma, you please find another maid. I am tired of Raju and his daily fights. I might leave this place one day.”
“What are you saying Parvati? What happened now?”
“Arre, the usual amma, the same quarreling, beating shouting for petty things.”
Shantha was too occupied with Lakshmi’s news to probe Parvati any further. She did not even take Parvati seriously. She wanted to call Murali but could not reach him. After trying a number of times she left a message. She was not sure what to say or how to console. She abruptly wrote, “So shocked and sorry to hear about Lakshmi. Need to talk to you.”
A few days after this, Parvati suddenly stopped coming. Shantha’s attempts to reach her went in vain. When she finally managed to catch hold of a Madhu, who lived beside Parvati’s house, she learnt that Parvati and her children had left the place a few weeks ago. In a fit of drinking Raju had attacked the children and threatened to kill them. Next day morning there was no sign of Parvati or the children. Nobody knew where she went.
“Aiyyo Rama! What am I to make of all this. Why did the woman leave so suddenly? Now I need to hunt for another woman. Till then there is so much to do.” ruminated Shantha
She spent the next few days, neck deep in work. She completely forgot that Hari’s daughter’s wedding was next week. The wedding card had come and Hari had invited Shantha and Sridharan as best as he could. She had not discussed much with Sridharan but had assumed they would both go. Tonight during dinner she brought up the subject.
“Nivedita’s wedding is next week. So soon time has passed”, Shantha said meekly.
“Hari’s daughter! So when can we go? Should I ask Mani to book tickets?”
“What tickets? What is the need to go? It is not possible for a man of serious profession to attend weddings.”rebuked Sridharan.
“Ok! If you are busy then perhaps I will go alone.”
“Shantha, how can you even think of something like this? You have no sense of responsibility. You have the courage to say this when you know that there is no domestic help in the house. Did it even occur to you how I will live in the house by myself? Who will take care of my needs?” Sridharan screamed.
Shantha wept almost the entire week. Nivedita was one of her favourite nieces. She was present at the hospital when the she was born and Shantha fondly cherished the fact that she had given the new born baby its first bath. Memories of the times spent with Nivedita flashed before her eyes. For the first time in her life she felt very angry at Sridharan. She felt that he was being extremely unfair to her. All her life she had devoted to this man. She had assumed an acquiescent state and submitted to each of his whims and fancies over the years. It had never occurred to her that as husband and wife they were not equal and still she was happy in the knowledge that she was lesser than him in every way.
But tonight the umpteen instances of Sridharan’s self-assertiveness and insensitive behaviour over the decades distressed her considerably. She mulled over the lives of women around her. Had it been the same for her mother? Her friend Vani? Her cousin Lata? That Uma who lived next door? Her heart gave her varied and confusing answers. She was not sure how to compare her situations with that of the others. Even if she did find answers what was she to do about this? Suddenly another name struck her, Parvati…Aah..Parvati! “Do I relate with her? Perhaps at some level. But even that illiterate low class woman had the courage to walk out and I….?” Shantha’s bitterness increased. She felt as if her heart was about to burst with the sorrow and helplessness she felt within her.
When she woke up the next morning, her head felt heavy with pain. She had no recollection of falling asleep. Anyway, she went about her chores. Somewhere around noon, her phone rang.
“Shantha, this is Murali here. How are you Shantha?”, inquired a friendly voice.
“Muraliiii..How are you? Murali..I am sorryyy..soo sorryyy about Lakshmi’s demise. I meant to call..but..I..I..”
“Yes. It was an accident. It was a big shock for all of us. It has still not sunk in Shantha that Lakshmi is no more with me.”Murali confided. “Shantha, I have called you to ask you something. You know how Lakshmi used to accompany me for all my performances. She used to sing with me for most of my renditions. After her death, I did not want to sing, I thought it would never be the same again. But I realized if there is any way to recover from her loss I must sing again. I want you to accompany me for my performances.”
“Whatt? Me? How can I..I am..no..nothing..compared..”Shantha was at a loss of words as she felt honoured and surprised at the same time.
“Why not? You have a beautiful voice and I feel the same comfort with you as I did with Lakshmi. We will be travelling across the world most of the time. Are you ok with that?
Shantha was still reeling from the feeling of amazement at the idea of being offered such a position. She had started visualizing herself drowning in her own world of music and enjoying glory. It was too good an idea to resist. But Sridharan? Of course he will not agree. It is unthinkable.
“Shantha..Shantha..I know what you are thinking. You are concerned about your husband. But don’t you think it is time you started living your life? I know how you feel about music. I also know how good an artiste you are. You can achieve immense success in this field and a lot of joy. Why are you restricting yourself due to someone who does not even realize your worth?”
Shantha was shocked. What does Murali mean? How could he know about Sridharan and herself? “What..how can you say that?”
“Shantha, I met Hari at Nivedita’s marriage. We had a long conversation and he told me Sridharan’s general attitude towards you and your family and that too for no specific reason.As a friend and wellwisher, I want you get out of this place and start living your life.”
“But, how can I? I am too old and..what will…everyone..” muttered Shantha trying to swallow her emotions.
“No. It is never too late. This is an opportunity of a lifetime. This is your life. You have done your duty of a good wife and mother. Now it is time to live for yourself. If not now, then when Shantha?”, persisted Murali very convincingly. “I am sending across a flight ticket for you for next week. I will meet you at the airport.” And he put down the phone.
Shantha did not know if she should even bring this up with Sridharan. There is no question of his allowing her to go ahead with this. The entire idea of she becoming a performer travelling the world at this stage would have been preposterous to anybody. And that too at her age. No…she can in no way agree to this and should never think about it again.
For the next few days Shantha went about her work in a stupor. She kept tossing and turning in her bed night after night. She thought about Parvati, how different in position and yet how similar in predicament! How different the manner the suffering was inflicted and yet how similar in the effect it produced! While she fought desperately with the turmoil within her, Murali’s words echoed in her mind “If not now, then when..!”
“Om bhur bhuvasawaha, tattsavitur vareniyam.Bhargo..” The tape played on. It was 6:00 AM. “Shantha, where is my coffee?”, shouted Sridharan impatiently rustling his newspaper. There was no response. He shouted her name a few more times before he angrily got up to look for her.
He went to the bedroom and noticed the usual red suitcase was missing. He hastily went to the kitchen, there was an empty coffee mug on the slab and underneath was a note from Shantha, but there was no Shantha in sight.