Ambuja buried the story without effort. It was easy for her. She was far from the actors. The emotions did not touch her, the situation did not confound her. But for Raji and Damodar, burial took a while. How were they to inter something that was pulsating with life? Raji couldn’t recognize the shade of grey that had suddenly appeared on her black and white canvas. Damodar had used a very subtle brush and she had not even seen it coming. She, on her part had made place for it.
Such difficult weeks they were. They had cancelled their visit to Theevupatti to get the paper printed and out on time. The family had returned after two weeks and brought Harihara with them to meet his mother. Those were weeks that Raji had waged war with herself. She feigned indifference but her senses were at odds with her intellect. It seemed she knew nothing of herself. Everything familiar to her suddenly took on different forms. She began to fear the warm, black-pepper spiced oil that wrapped itself around her like a lover’s arms before she bathed. The arousal she felt, her longing for the touch of firm, warm fingers scared her, they were so intense. The fragrance of jasmine as it wafted in from the open window of her room, the sandal scented fumes from the puja room, and even the softness of silk against her as she draped her saree made her aware she was not all arms and legs. There were parts of her body that demanded to be touched, caressed and sated. Why had they been dormant all along? Why did they now demand attention? Confusion clouded her senses. She had known love, and yet, she felt like a virgin because she had felt none of this with Mama. She stood before her mirror. Was she looking different? The mirror showed her the same face, but she felt more beautiful. Her skin glowed and her breasts felt fuller. She didn’t merely walk now, she felt herself moving sinuously. She felt desirable and all woman. She wanted Damodar’s love but questioned her right to want it. She like the feeling and hated it too. Confusion had become a way of life now.
One afternoon, she paused writing and looked out of the window, shaking her head in disbelief. Was she obsessing, hallucinating or rationalizing? There seemed to be sexuality everywhere she looked. In the mango blossoms, in the birds that wooed each other sitting on the branches, hidden among the leaves, in the clouds that welcomed vapour rising from the earth, waiting to be impregnated so they could release rain. It was in the flowers that spilled colour from every petal to attract bees and butterflies that would carry their erotic messages to others of their kind. It was evident even in the lowly lizard that clung to the wall, waiting for its sluggish mate to make an appearance. She felt Damodar’s gaze on her and pushed her chair back hastily and left the room to walk around the grounds in the heat of the afternoon. An hour later, tired but somewhat calmer, she returned to work, but was unable to write. Giving up, she threw her pen down and went into the house, leaving Damodar staring at her.
Ponni was cleaning her room and Malar sat on her bed, playing with her wooden rattle. She reached out to Raji with a happy gurgle. Raji picked her up and called for Rama to bring the carriage. They visited a temple in the neighbourhood where Raji prayed for strength. Pankajam would have been surprised. It was not like Raji to pray. Damodar did not come to the hall that night. He had gone to bed early. He seemed so much more in control. What was going on in his mind? She did not have the courage to ask.
The next morning the family returned. In one noisy, happy group, they brought life back into the house. Harihara was rapidly growing into a young man. He even had a black sliver of hair-growth on his upper lip and an occasional squeak in his voice. Raji called him close; she wanted to hug him but he declined and touched her feet instead.
Subramanya seemed so happy to be home. Later in the night, in the quiet of their room, he held her close and felt her warm breath on him. She was wearing a soft cotton saree with bright checks and a big woven border. It complemented her ripe-almond complexion perfectly. Soft tendrils had come loose from her tightly braided hair and framed her face. Her eyes were bright and shiny. “I missed you,” he whispered. She rested her head against him, feeling a painful lump in her throat. “I missed you too Mama. Don’t ever leave me alone again.” Her words seemed so false and forced to her ears. The room was dark but neither wanted light in the room. Raji felt comforted by the darkness. It concealed the turmoil in her. It covered the greys that had suddenly surfaced in her. Black had a way of doing that. It was intolerant of grey. On his part he felt he was with a different person. There was a passion in her that he had never seen or felt. Tonight he was with a woman, not a girl and he liked the new Raji.
Later, they spoke late into the night. He had brought her a gift from the village. In the light of the dim lamp they had lit, he placed a solid gold and uncut ruby necklace around her neck and closed the clasp. It had 30 oval rubies, dull red in colour but with a sheen from deep inside, placed one next to the other. In the centre, it had a large pendant with emeralds and a large diamond. Raji felt it with her fingers and unclasped it and held it in her hand for a closer look. She heard herself gasp. “It is beautiful Mama! Is it for me?”
“Yes Raji, there’s more,” he said handing her a big sandalwood box. The box had necklaces, gold chains and large ruby earrings in it. “We divided my mother’s jewellery. Appa had left a note which said all these must come to you. Rajagopal and I have also divided the property in the village. From my share I have given Radha and Mythili their portions. The rest will be in your name. You will be a rich woman now!”
Raji was alarmed. “Are you alright Mama? Why now? Why the hurry? I don’t want anything. I have you.”
“I want you and Harihara to be protected Raji. Don’t forget I’m growing older.”
“Mama, you’re scaring me. Don’t say any more.” She held him close and they slept.
The next morning she put away the box of jewellery but wore the necklace with her bright red crepe silk saree with the big gold border. Radha and Pankajam were in the hall drinking coffee. They looked at her and grimaced. Radha was bristling with envy and Pankajam thought she was showing off. Raji was not concerned.
She wore the necklace the whole day. Damodar remarked about it, “You look beautiful. You are beautiful. You know that don’t you?” Her heartbeat seemed audible in the quiet room. She was sure he could hear it too. The greys were troubling her again. How could she feel desire for two men? Then the truth hit her with force. She had never desired Mama. She had submitted to him out of a sense of duty. What she felt now was desire. Which was never to be fulfilled.
That evening Mama came home and announced he had resigned. The Chief Justice had spoken to him. “Your wife’s paper has become a matter of concern for us. We view her involvement with the freedom movement, her articles and the stand she has taken as confrontational with the British Administration, and even as acts of treason. In such circumstances, your continuing in office would constitute a serious conflict of interest. We will expect you to shut down the paper or resign from your position.”
Subramanya did not think for long. “Sir, I object to what you say. My loyalties have been unquestionable, and I have always discharged my duties with utmost integrity. However, I now see where my duties lie and they are with my country. I wish to resign. My letter of resignation will reach you soon Sir.” He walked out feeling like a free man. The Chief Justice gaped after him, stunned by what he viewed as this “brown man’s arrogance”.
Subramanya said, “Raji, I will now offer my advice pro bono to those who cannot afford legal help. My study and the room next to it will be my office. Can you bear my presence at home all day?” He was smiling and seemed relieved he had made a decision.
To be continued…