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Authors: Anita Nair

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BOOK: Ladies Coupe
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Akhila walked towards the stationmaster’s office. Outside on the wall, she searched the noticeboard for the list of passengers. The sight of her name reassured her. Beneath her name were five others. Sheela Vasudevan, Prabha Devi, Janaki Prabhakar, Margaret Paulraj and Marikolanthu. They must be the other passengers in the coupé. Who were these women, Akhila wondered for a brief instant. Where were they going? What were their lives like?
Akhila moved away from the reservation chart to locate her compartment on the position chart. Eleventh from the engine. She shifted her suitcase to her other hand and began to walk towards the signboard marked eleven. All the benches on the platform were taken, so she went to stand by a dripping water faucet. She bit her lip uncertainly. Was
this the right place? She turned towards an elderly couple who stood a little distance away and asked, ‘Is this where the S7 compartment of the Kanyakumari Express stops?’
The man nodded. ‘I think so. We are in the same compartment too.’
There was something about the elderly couple that made her eyes home in on them again and again. They radiated a particular calm; an island of unhurried waiting in that sea of fidgety humans. As though they knew that sooner or later the train would arrive and it would be their turn to climb the three steps into the compartment that would take them to their destination. That there was no point in craning their necks, shuffling their feet or manifesting other signs of dissatisfaction until then.
The pong of urine rose and settled with the breeze. Redshirted silver-armbanded porters stood alongside the piled suitcases. A beggar with maimed limbs thrust his tin cup this way and that. An urchin and a dog ran busily from one end of the platform to the other. A bored policeman stared at the TV screen.
The Udayan Express, scheduled to arrive before the Kanyakumari Express, was late. The platform was crowded with people. Alongside Akhila stood a whole family of uncles, aunts, cousins and grandparents who had come to see a lone man off. He was headed for Bombay from where he would catch a plane to a Middle-Eastern country.
She wondered what it must be like to be the wife of a man who was away for many years and when he came home was claimed for their own by parents, siblings, cousins, relatives, friends … Akhila looked at the man who carried on his shoulders the burden of other people’s dreams. That she knew all about. That she could understand.
She turned away from the man and watched the elderly couple. The woman wore a pale pink sari with a narrow gold border, a slim gold chain around her neck, and metal-rimmed spectacles. Her hair lay gathered in a little bun at
the nape of her neck. A gold bracelet watch gleamed at her wrist. One hand held a water bottle while the other clutched a narrow leather purse. In a few years’ time I will look like her, Akhila told herself Except that I won’t have a man like him beside me.
He seemed nice enough. The well-tailored clothes, the horn-rimmed spectacles, the still muscular body, the pleasant features, the manner in which his hair had receded, the way he stood at his wife’s side, they all seemed to suggest a non-aggressive confidence. The couple looked like they belonged together.
What is it about marriage that makes it possible for a man and a woman to mesh their lives, dreams and even their thoughts in such a complete fashion? Her parents used to be like that. They even resembled each other with broad high foreheads, a slight hook to their noses and a cleft in their chins. They liked their coffee sweetened with two spoons of sugar and their curds set just so. It had to taste almost milk-like.
Often her mother only had to think about something, and her father would voice exactly the same sentiment within the fraction of a second and her mother would say, ‘I was about to say that.’
He would beam at her then and guffaw with pleasure, ‘That’s because we are so well suited. We are two bodies and one soul.’ And her mother would smile back coyly.
When she was a teenager, Akhila remembered reading a novel about a couple who were passionately in love with each other even after many years of being married. Years later, she could recall neither the name of the book nor its plot. All she remembered was a line: The children of lovers are no better than orphans.
As a child, her parents’ togetherness did not vex her. She was part of that enchanted circle as well. But as she grew up, their playfulness, their affection, the obvious pleasure they found in each other’s presence made her feel excluded.
Later, it embarrassed her. But they remained completely oblivious to her mortification. And even if they sensed it, nothing would deter or diminish what was practically a lifelong love affair.
When her father died, her parents had been married for almost twenty-two years. Every year thereafter, on the date of their wedding day, her mother wept. ‘For our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary, your father had promised to buy me a diamond nose-ring. A diamond for the queen of my heart, he said. He loved me so much,’ she would moan. With every passing year, her mother’s grief seemed only to increase.
She had lost more than a husband. He had been part of her life from the moment she was born. As her uncle, he had carried her in his arms, pointing out butterflies and crows, the moon and the rainbow, the wonders of nature. In many ways, it was only natural that he should be the one to show her the wonder of being a woman.
Akhila’s mother married her father when she was fifteen years old. He was twenty-four. Akhila was born two years and eight months later.
‘But Amma, how could you have agreed to marry your uncle?’ Akhila asked her mother once. ‘It’s so unnatural.’
‘What’s unnatural about it?’ she had demanded angrily. ‘It is a perfectly accepted norm in our community. Who do you think you are to question it?’
Akhila was only fourteen. But even so, she heaved a sigh of relief that there was no uncle waiting in the wings for her to grow up.
Her mother threw her a dirty look and suggested that she go out and bring in the washing. ‘An idle brain causes idle thoughts. Dangerous thoughts,’ Amma said darkly.
‘When you have finished folding and sorting the clothes, iron them. But leave your Appa’s shirts for me. He is satisfied only if I do it,’ she added.
Akhila grimaced because she knew that it wasn’t so. Her father didn’t care who ironed his shirts as long as they were
done. But Amma liked to perpetuate this myth about a tyrant husband who was easily annoyed and could be placated only by her complete devotion. Unlike other men in the neighbourhood who let their wives rule them. Like Karpagam’s father.
Karpagam’s mother taught dancing. Every evening between four and six, she gave lessons to the children in the neighbourhood. At the end of a year of lessons, her students knew enough to participate in school dancing competitions and win a few prizes. So she had plenty of girls coming in for dance lessons. Besides, she only charged thirty-five rupees a month per student. She made enough money to be able to buy little trinkets for Karpagam and herself. Maybe that’s why Amma kept her distance from Karpagam’s mother. Amma didn’t like anyone who was different from her.
One morning, when Akhila was about nine years old, Karpagam brought to school a foot-long pencil with a cunning little pink plastic hand attached to its end. Akhila immediately wanted one like it.
‘Where did you get it?’ she whispered when Karpagam showed her how she could scratch her back with it.
‘My mother brought it for me,’ she said, giving her back another long drawn out scratch.
‘What does it cost?’
‘Six rupees. But Mother bought it at Moore Market. She bargained with the shopkeepers and got it for three rupees. Its real value is six rupees,’ Karpagam said, giving Akhila the pencil to hold and scratch her back with.
‘Doesn’t it feel lovely?’ she asked, seeing the pleasure on Akhila’s face.
‘It’s beautiful. Can I take it home with me for a day? I’ll show it to my mother and ask her to buy me one as well,’ Akhila said, caressing the lines of the pencil hand as if it were a real hand. To have and to hold.
Karpagam hesitated. ‘I have to ask my mother …’ she began.
‘I promise to bring it back tomorrow. Look, if I get a pencil like this, then we can scratch our backs together,’ Akhila said in earnest.
‘You are quite silly,’ Karpagam giggled, tickled by the thought of the two of them going at their backs with their pencils. Perhaps that was why she let Akhila take the pencil home.
Amma was annoyed and then furious. ‘Karpagam’s mother can buy her all kinds of things. Karpagam’s mother has an income of her own. I can’t afford to buy you such useless things. Do you realize that Appa works so hard and in spite of it, we find it difficult to make ends meet? And I do not want you bringing other people’s things into our home. What if you break or lose the pencil? Where will I find the money to replace it?’
The next day Akhila returned the pencil to Karpagam. ‘What happened?’ she asked. ‘When will your mother buy one for you?’
‘She said she can’t afford to buy me things like your mother does,’ Akhila said.
But all day and later all night, Akhila thought about it. If Amma had a job, she too would have money of her own and she would be able to buy her the things she needed without troubling Appa about it. But what could Amma do to earn some money?
The next morning, Akhila heard her mother singing under her breath as she went about her chores. It was a holiday and so Akhila had all day to prepare herself before she approached her mother with what she considered was a master move.
‘Amma,’ Akhila said when she thought Amma seemed in a receptive enough mood. Amma was combing her hair and singing softly. ‘Why don’t you give music lessons?’
Amma looked up in surprise.
Akhila hastened to explain. ‘You sing so well and Appa always says that you have one of the best singing voices he has ever heard. Why don’t you teach music like Karpagam’s
mother teaches dance? Then you would have some money of your own …’ she finished lamely, wondering if she had said too much.
‘I don’t approve of what Karpagam’s mother is doing. All kinds of people come into their house. Brahmins and non-brahmins. Do you think your father would allow such comings and goings on here? Don’t you know how strict he is? Anyway, do you think your father would let me? “If I wanted a working wife, then I would have married someone like that,” he told me when we were first married. “I want my wife to take care of my children and me. I don’t want her so caught up with her job that she has no time for the house or for taking care of my needs.” And that’s all I wanted to be as well. A good wife.’
Amma had her own theories on what a good wife ought to be like. First of all, no good wife could serve two masters – the masters being her father and her husband. A good wife learnt to put her husband’s interests before anyone else’s, even her father’s. A good wife listened to her husband and did as he said. ‘There is no such thing as an equal marriage,’ Amma said. ‘It is best to accept that the wife is inferior to her husband. That way, there can be no strife, no disharmony. It is when one wants to prove one’s equality that there is warring and sparring all the time. It is so much easier and simpler to accept one’s station in life and live accordingly. A woman is not meant to take on a man’s role. Or the gods would have made her so. So what is all this about two equals in a marriage?’
Amma left all decisions to Appa. ‘He knows best,’ she said. ‘We have never had to regret any decision that he has taken, even when it was on my behalf.’
Which is why, when they had been married a few years and Amma inherited a small piece of land in her village, she had watched her husband sell it without a word of dissent. Several years later a cousin had written to tell her that the same piece of land had been sold for ten times its original
price. ‘If we had kept it, we would have been able to buy a small house of our own,’ Amma sighed.
When Akhila sighed along with her, she changed her expression and said, ‘Mind you, I’m not saying that your father made a hasty decision. Who would have known that the land prices would soar so high and that too in a place like Mettupalayam?’
Amma’s family was quite rich. But she was the daughter of a first wife who had died when she was eleven years old. Her mother had died trying to give birth to a baby boy who hadn’t survived either. A year later, her father married again. He was too smitten by his second wife and the sons she produced easily and regularly at eighteen-month intervals to bother too much about a daughter. When Amma was of marriageable age, he arranged for her wedding. A very austere one with Appa. After all, it had been arranged and settled many years ago. In fact, the moment she was born.
There was enough of everything, so no one had any reason to find fault, but there wasn’t too much money or jewellery or anything that was of any enduring value. The piece of land had been her only inheritance from a father who left everything else to his sons.
But Appa had been adamant that she have nothing more to do with her family that had treated her so shabbily and he decided to sell the land. ‘From now on, I am all you have,’ he had said. And Amma had accepted that happily. After her mother’s death, no one, had loved her as much. And this was to her another declaration of how much she meant to him.
Many years later, Akhila mentioned to a colleague and perhaps her only real woman friend, Katherine, that her mother was also her father’s niece. Katherine had stared in shock. ‘But how can anyone marry their uncle? It is incest!’ she had cried, her mouth a round ‘O’.
BOOK: Ladies Coupe
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