Her brief glimpse into Rajammal’s cottage had told Ambuja how little she actually knew cropped-oleanders-e1525883936887about her. It was evident Ambuja had been allowed only into chosen parts of her life and she had held the rest close to herself. Was there anyone who knew all of her?

There was so much she did not understand about the family she had married into. She had wondered so often about Malar and Rajammal. Ponni was Malar’s mother and yet, Rajammal was more her mother. Ponni worked in the house, while Malar was the daughter of the house, as much as Harihara was the son. She had asked her mother-in-law one day. Rajammal’s reply was cryptic. “Does it matter?” she asked in a voice that firmly discouraged more probing.

Ambuja often chided herself for her curiosity. Wasn’t it enough she had a happy life with Harihara? Why did she need to probe into Rajammal’s life? A niggly, defiant little voice in her insisted, “You are the daughter-in-law of this woman and have a right to know.” She knew of a way now.

Ambuja began visiting the cottage everyday and pieced together the phases of Rajammal’s life she had not been allowed into. Penn Kural, of which Rajammal had not told her too much, seemed to have given her the most satisfaction. She found Malar’s story in the first issue of Penn Kural. She found a lot more. Each issue of Penn Kural was neatly numbered and meticulously filed and stored. Its growth and popularity, right up to the time it had been sold to a larger house was chronicled jointly by Damodar and Rajammal. The chronicle had interesting anecdotes in it.

Ambuja read them all. The one story she read more than once was the one about Rajammal being approached by a group of freedom fighters. They asked that Penn Kural lend its voice to the demand for freedom from British Rule in India Damodar and Raji were in the meeting. Damodar responded readily, keen to join the movement. Raji had signaled to him to be quiet. She then asked the leader of the group, “Sir, whose freedom are you speaking about?” The man was flummoxed. Was the woman so ignorant? Didn’t she know that India was fighting to be free of the British? “India’s freedom of course,” he said in a slightly patronizing tone.

“Ah yes! I’m sorry I asked. Of course you are speaking of India’s freedom. But Sir, can you tell me who you consider Indian?”

He was now convinced Raji was not quite in her senses. He looked at Damodar for support. Damodar looked away. He knew better than to interfere. Especially when he saw Raji’s nostrils flaring, as they were now. Raji waited for a reply.”Sir, please tell me. Who do you consider Indian?”

The leader was perspiring slightly, he was also a little annoyed. Was this woman testing his intelligence? “Isn’t the answer obvious? Everybody who is not British, is Indian!” he said feeling somewhat foolish. His reply sounded so lame, even to himself.

“Can you please list them out Sir? Can you promise me that every man and woman who is native to India, high or low caste, regardless of religion and caste, is included in your definition of Indian? Can you assure me they will equally enjoy freedom when we get it? If yes, you  have my full support. If you can’t, kindly leave us out of your freedom struggle. Because I don’t see any effort to end the real struggle. That will continue, regardless of who rules us.”

Damodar stepped in, sensing danger. “Sir, will you have some coffee?” he asked hastily. But it was futile because the conversation had already gone out of control. “Madam, you are being impertinent. We have come to you with an appeal and it is your duty as an Indian to join us. Your paper can influence people. You owe it to us.”

“I owe you nothing Sir. You on the contrary, owe assurances that freedom from the British will also mean freedom in the real sense. I first want to be free to say I want to be free. I don’t want to ask permission from the men in my house before doing that. Tell me that there will be no more Ponnis. She was forced to become a mother at 12. Will women like her be free to choose their paths after the British leave? I want freedom as much as you do. But I want internal and external freedom. Can you assure me that?”

The group of men got up and left the room in a huff. The next day there was a lead article in a rival paper about the arrogance of women writers who thought they knew more about freedom than people who were fighting for it on the ground. The article criticized people who were removed from reality and spoke from the comfort of rich homes. Raji’s identity was thinly disguised. Subramanya got flak and jibes from his colleagues who read the article and asked him who headed his household. He was unfazed and teased Raji when he came home. “You’ve made them fearful Raji. They’re wondering how long it is before they lose control over their wives!”

Penn Kural lent a strong voice to the demand for Independence from British Rule. But with that, Raji raised a strong voice against oppression. She questioned the definition of freedom and refused to subscribe to the belief that freedom from the British alone would define India as a free country. She spoke of a larger freedom where women, the oppressed, the lower castes and others would find expression and live fearlessly.

Rajammal’s pieces had even impressed Mahatma Gandhi. Someone had translated them for him and he had written her a note agreeing with her views about the need for a larger freedom. She and Mama, along with Damodar had met him during one of his visits to Madras and had come away very inspired.

One afternoon, sitting on the bench below the mango tree, Ambuja opened Rajammal’s red diary. She recognized Rajammal’s small handwriting, from the letter she had given her that night when she first entered this house.

…I had seen it coming. Maybe I had even encouraged it. If it had happened, it would have been adultery. Could I give it any other name? Such a relationship didn’t have legal or moral sanction and always caused pain one way or other. Who had we become that night? Why had we even contemplated it? I know now that I love him. Maybe he does to. But that is an emotion we are not allowed to feel. Why do we need physical affirmation of what we feel for each other? I’m happy he agreed we could be friends. The moment has passed. But why am I so sad? My head feels so knotted up. Only Mama can help me now but I almost defiled everything he has given me and I don’t like myself so much anymore.

I need to go in now. We have cancelled our trip to Theevupatti. Our printing problems have not been sorted out. I sent word to Mama. Harihara is coming back with him to spend a few weeks here. He loves Malar so much. I want to make his holiday joyful and am going to put this sadness out of my life.

My love has no future. My future lies with Mama. I hope Damodar too can get this out of him soon. I love him for agreeing to be my friend. This red pouch and this little stone inside are symbols of our friendship. I will love them too and treasure them. They will give me strength.

Ambuja palms felt cold and clammy. She was shivering despite the heat of the afternoon. Rajammal was usually so lucid and coherent. She seemed to be rambling in confusion, with no care paid to spelling or grammar even. She seemed so agitated. Ambuja was agitated too. Damodar? Rajammal had loved Damodar? So many questions got answered at once. She knew now why memories of Radha tormented Rajammal in her days of incoherence. Maybe she had suspected. She knew now why the red pouch and the stone inside had been so dear to Rajammal.

Should she tell Harihara? Did he know about his mother loving Damodar? Better sense prevailed. How did it matter? Wasn’t the stone a symbol of their courage and strength? Had it not sealed their friendship? They were both gone now. It was best to bury the story…

Ambuja clutched the diary to her bosom and went into the house.

Bharathi Ghanashyam

To be continued…

 

 

 

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