Penn Kural had published 6 successful issues, and in response to demand, 200 copies were being printed and sold as well. The paper now had two writers, with Damodar showing a flair for humour. He was becoming popular with readers, especially because he wrote irreverent pieces that mirrored societal quirks. His piece on temple romances was a big hit. He had written a delightful piece about romances that began at temples even while girls were strictly chaperoned by their mothers or grandmothers. His article on kitchen gossip had received 10 postcards from readers who had loved it. Raji too got mail but these were mostly from women who wished to be anonymous.
When Damodar read the postcards, he remarked, “Raji, I think readers sometimes need relief from your heavy pieces! That’s why they like mine.” Raji went after him with a stick in mock anger. As they were chasing around and giggling, Radha walked in. He stopped short and put on a straight face again causing her to remark spitefully, “I think you laugh only in her presence.” She stormed out of the room. He grimaced and let her go. Raji and he were planning how to make his pieces into a regular feature of the paper.
“Raji, shall I write an article on the myth of happy marriages?” he asked her after Radha left.
“That’s a good idea but only if you’re ready to depart from this world after it is published,” Raji teased him.
He was thoughtful for a while and asked, “Raji, you still haven’t answered a question I asked one day.”
“Are you happy with Mama? Is your marriage a good one?”
“What answer are you looking for Damodar? What is a happy marriage? Is it about being secure and being with a good person? If it is, then yes I’m happy. Mama is a truly good person and I love him.”
“Is there another kind Raji? Isn’t this what marriage means?”
“Maybe I am an ungrateful woman but I feel a vacuum. Sometimes I feel so empty.”
Damodar said nothing and there was silence in the room till Raji broke it, “Why are we wasting time? Let’s get to work. You have an article to write on the myth of happy marriages!”
Two weeks later, sitting by the window, Raji was reflecting back happily on the events of the past weeks. Malar was in the hammock beside her, kicking her legs in the air, her anklets jingling. She was gurgling happily. Ponni had just fed her and gone back to work. Raji had heard from Harihara. He was doing well, studying hard and Shankara was happy with his progress. She longed to see him and had made Mama promise to take her. The whole family was visiting him next month. Pankajam and Chechamma were also accompanying them. They had already begun planning what food to take for the journey.
Raji knew that Mama was happy with Penn Kural. His colleagues had liked the issues he had given them and were now buying their own. He was visibly proud of her and often said so. Raji sighed happily and looked out of the window. It was mid-afternoon, and clouds were gathering, casting shadows over the brilliance of a typical Madras noon. There was stillness around, the kind of stillness that happened before it rained. The mango branches seemed to know they going to get a drenching and the leaves swayed in joyous anticipation.
Raji couldn’t go back to writing because this about-to-rain weather was crying for attention. She put down her pen and stared into the distance. Her eyes strayed towards the entrance of the main house. She saw Damodar emerge and walk towards the cottage. Just then, the first, fine drops of rain came down on him. He didn’t stop walking, but loped into the rain, baring his face to it. His long strides, small water drops glistening in his hair, and his face turned upwards made him look much like the deva, whose description she had read somewhere. Raji’s breath was uneven and as he came closer, she looked away guiltily. He had reached the cottage and was wiping his face with a towel he kept at his desk, unaware of her discomfort and embarrassment.
Raji began stuttering, “Damodar, it’s too late, we’re crossing the deadline for the next issue. Have you met the printer yet?”
Damodar stared at her. “Why the panic Raji? Things are on track.”
“Don’t forget we are leaving for Theevupatti in two weeks. We need to do so much before that,” Raji reminded him.
“Yes I remember. We’ll be ready.”
Some weeks later…
The family was packing, cooking and getting ready to leave for the village. Pankajam was going back for the first time after she left the village more than a decade ago. She was happy and yet apprehensive. How would she live in the same house as Rajagopal? She told herself it was so many years it didn’t matter anymore but was still anxious.
Raji and Damodar were already working feverishly to finish the work on time. Three issues had to be given to the printer and just two days before they were to leave, Damodar got a message from him. His equipment had broken down and he wouldn’t be able to get the issue out on time. Raji and Damodar panicked. Raji was frantically finishing the content to send it to him and now this. Damodar would have to find a printer at short notice. There were three issues to be printed, because they would be away for that long.
Soon it was evident that Raji and Damodar would not be able to accompany the rest of the family on the day they left. They could not delay the paper. Radha cribbed all day about leaving her husband behind. Subramanya invited her to stay back and that silenced her. She was not going to miss any of the fun for the sake of a boring newspaper.
Raji was crying with disappointment and Subramanya consoled her, “Raji, you have a responsibility to fulfill. I can’t stay back because there is so much to do in the village. You and Damodar can join us after this crisis is over. It’s just for a few days. You won’t be alone. Ponni and Malar are here too.” Raji felt better after Mama spoke to her, but cried some more when she saw the family leaving.
Damodar and she worked ceaselessly over the next two days. The house was so desolate, neither of them felt like going home. They were in the cottage the whole day and went home only in time for bed. Damodar found another printer and the issues were finally ready to go to print. They planned to leave for Theevupatti in two days and hoped there would be no more mishaps.
The day’s work was done. Raji had cooked a simple dinner and she and Damodar had eaten it. Malar was asleep in Raji’s room. She and Ponni had been sleeping there so Raji wouldn’t be alone. Ponni had gone home to help her mother and would be back soon. Damodar was going over small details with Raji which needed to be finished the next day.
Nothing had changed, and yet, everything seemed different. The silence in the house and the acute awareness that they were alone was creating an awkwardness between them. Better sense was telling Raji she ought to go to her room. Damodar too seemed to be reluctant to stay, and yet, both lingered. He seemed keen to say something. Raji felt slightly out of control. She wished Mama was here with her to steady her.
“I’m tired. Ponni will be here soon. Shall we go to bed?” Raji asked, rising from her seat.
“Wait Raji, don’t go. I need to talk to you,” Damodar said. His face was flushed. Raji feared he would say something that she might not want to hear. Or maybe she did? She waited.
“You know how I feel don’t you?” he asked. She nodded and whispered, “And you know that you must not feel that way, don’t you?” She held on to a chair for support. She was silently willing him to let things be because she felt herself weakening. She wished he would move away and make it easier for her. But he moved close to her and closed his palms over her cheeks. His touch was warm and firm. Raji felt herself responding. She leaned into him, wanting to hold him close.
At that moment, seemingly without logic, she remembered an incident from the past. That night when Pankajam had forced her to go to Mama just after she had reached puberty. She was scared, she had cried and Mama had understood. He had held her and rocked her to sleep like she was a baby. What was she about to do? Was she going to betray all that he meant to her? Was she going to defile the relationship he had nurtured with so much tenderness? She suddenly felt strong. Mama seemed to be holding her again, just like he had on that night.
Softly, not wanting to hurt him, she moved away saying, “Damodar, I know you care. I do too. But that doesn’t mean anything. Can’t you see how hopeless this is? We have nothing to give each other except grief. ”
“Why do you say we have nothing to give each other? Don’t you long for my touch? I do. I stay awake most nights wondering how it would be if you were next to me instead of Radha.”
“You said it Damodar. You talked of Radha. That’s what I meant. Our life is not ours to do what we want with. Tonight might be the best night of our lives. I know it will be. I want it too. Then what? Tell me Damodar. We will want more because we had tonight. Can we give ourselves that? Can’t we continue being friends instead? We have so much we can do as friends.”
She waited for him to reply. He was silent for so long, she thought she had angered him. She nudged his arm gently. He smiled at her and said, “Right, as usual. Are you never wrong?
They heard a sound from her room. Ponni had entered from the back door. Malar was awake and crying to be fed. The moment had passed. The next morning, Damodar brought her the little red velvet pouch with the blue stone in it. “For our friendship,” he said, giving it to her. Raji smiled and accepted it.
To be continued…