Pankajam was an unhappy woman. The distance between her and Raji had grown so cropped-oleanders-e1525883936887much she didn’t have a hope of bridging it anymore. Did she want to? She didn’t have an answer to that. Images of a little girl in thin plaits tied with ribbons, playing hop-scotch by a river often troubled her at night and she woke up in a sweat. She looked around for the girl, and not finding her, lay awake all night. That was the little daughter she had given away to an ageing widower to pay the debts her husband had left her in. Rendered short-sighted by grief and anxiety she had acted in haste. Raji had been her possession to do what she wanted with. She had not spared a thought for the little girl. What life would she have with him? Was that the only option left to her? These were just some of the thoughts that harrowed her.

There was envy in her when the contrasts in their lives showed up to taunt her. With her limited vision she had seen Raji settling into marriage, bearing children and living a docile, uneventful life. She was even comfortable with that vision. What she saw now was a woman who had shattered glass ceilings and battled alone to make a place for herself professionally and personally. She had ensconced herself in the heart of an erudite, mature man who had seen worth in her and nurtured, even ignited ambition in her.

In stark contrast, Pankajam saw herself as a lonely woman, delegated to an unimportant corner of the house as a designer of menus. The kitchen was her domain and she was undoubtedly the hand that ruled it. The household budgets were controlled by her. She wielded power over every individual who moved in the house, master or subject. But that was a role she regarded as a lowly one. She still saw herself as a minor element in the larger picture in the mansion. Not the picture itself. Raji had become the picture and she was merely a prop.

Greys were troubling her too and she saw an adversary and not a daughter where Raji stood. Her foggy mind responded readily to Radha’s machinations, and that increased the alienation. As a woman who had seen misery and colorlessness at every turn of her life, the brilliance of the colours Raji effortlessly flaunted blinded her and she sometimes wanted to turn away from them. At others, she claimed credit for all that Raji had become. When Sundaramma, their neighbour once complemented her for one of Raji’s stories, Pankajam said somewhat tartly, “You should have seen me when I was younger. I could write too, and people from five villages around spoke about my cooking.” Sundaramma was bewildered. Had she said something wrong? Why was Pankajam so angry?

When Harihara got close to her, she had encouraged him to stay away from his mother. As a little boy he had obeyed her. Now, she saw him getting close to Raji and her own sway over him reducing. More greys and more complex layers got added on and the distance grew. Even when they were in the same room Pankajam didn’t find a connect with Raji anymore.

Raji sought her out very often. She wanted to share her life with her mother. But every effort she made met with cold disapproval. When Mama brought her his mother’s ruby necklace, she had worn it and run to her mother. The grimace on her mother’s face felt like a slap and she walked away.

Pankajam was struck by guilt too very often. The cold manner in which she had gambled away her daughter’s innocent life felled her sometimes and she stayed in her room for the day when that happened, leaving Chechamma and Radha to run the house. Her blood ran cold thinking of what could have been. Raji’s stubborn will to fight and her stars probably saved her.

The love and pride that spilled out of Subramanya’s eyes when he looked at his wife seemed almost unkind and perverse to her. Couldn’t he be restrained in public at least? Shankara had not once been so demonstrative towards her. He was dignified, her envy-laden mind consoled her.

And yet, Pankajam was not a bad woman. She had not willed a bad life for her daughter, she had not even envisioned what could be. She was a woman with narrow vision who had unwittingly chosen a larger canvas than she could fill, and tried to fill it with specks. Her efforts to colour it with the limited palette she possessed had failed. The canvas was like an unchecked river and had cried to be filled with vastness and colour and life in all its hues. It had broken free with all the defiance that a river in full flow can exhibit. It had chosen its own colours and left her behind holding a powerless brush.

She cried in the privacy of her room very often. Why had she not taken a small loan and got Raji married to Gopu? Her own life would have been so much simpler. Every day in this house held surprises she could not encounter with equanimity, let alone deal with. She had been so complete wearing her misery and poverty like a protective cloak around her. She had got attention in the form of pity and sympathy. Now, all she had was anonymity and the identity of the mother of a strong, successful woman. The same woman she had set out to stifle and gag and mould into an object of pity and subjugation. What had she created? What had she lost control over?

She directed her anger towards the supari she was cutting. There was still a big pile to be negotiated and she had refused help. With anger, she had asked Chechamma, “Do you think I need help for a silly task like this? Am I not even capable of making scented supari? Leave me alone. I can make the best in Madras. You go and attend to the sambar. It must have spilt over by now.” Chechamma hurried away, grumbling below her breath. Raji walked in just then to show her a letter she had received from a reader who had loved her story on the strength of women who held a home together. She received a heap of criticism in response. She was also told to stop being a hypocrite.

Bharathi Ghanashyam

To be continued…

 

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