By Kalki (1942)
Translated by Gowri Ramnarayan
(Continued from blog post on 25 July 2012)
‘Once while attending the temple festival at Tumbaivanam, I called at Mudaliar’s home. His wife belonged to a village close to Iyampettai. I knew her well. Poor thing! She was plunged in misery. “Kandappa, that Poonthottam bitch is the cause of all our misfortunes,” she wept. I felt extremely sorry for her. I deplored the existence of the devadasi community. I resolved to make known to Bhavani the deep-seated anger I felt the next time I went to Tiruvarur.
‘But when I saw Bhavani’s condition, all hostile thoughts vanished. She was grief personified. She repeatedly blamed herself for Gopalsami’s tribulations. I had to console her by reiterating that it was not her fault at all; there was nothing she could do about it.
‘“Anna! I tell him to cut off all connections with his land, house and property and to make his permanent home here. But he doesn’t listen to me. Can’t you persuade him? It has become a daily ritual for him to go to court every morning! Why should he get involved in all these legal hassles when four generations can live off the property we have here? Who else is there to enjoy it all?” said Bhavani.
‘“Talk sense, Thangachi, he’s a man, isn’t he? Doesn’t he have some self-respect? Will he run away from home and town simply because people create problems for him? Even if he agrees to your proposal, what about his wife and children?” I reproved her.
‘After this Bhavani would ask me frequently about his wife and children.
‘I spoke my mind to Bhavani’s mother. “Why invite notoriety? Throughout the district, gossip has it that Bhavani is bringing a respectable family to ruin.”
‘“Let the people talk. It would be a great sin to separate them. If that happens, my daughter will not stay alive.”
‘“How many people have mouthed the same dialogue? Haven’t we heard it all?” I shrugged.
‘“You don’t know Bhavani’s nature,” was her answer.
‘Then I enquired about the state of their relationship. Was it just as stormy as before? I learnt that Bhavani’s personality had undergone a total transformation. She was now the image of tranquillity. In direct contrast, Gopalsami Mudaliar had become highly temperamental. Moreover, he was tormented by jealous doubts. I was surprised by the vicissitudes of human nature. Why should Bhavani love a man so dearly and without any cause or compulsion? That a man should doubt a woman who gave him heartfelt devotion of her own accord aroused my anger and aversion. I went quietly away. I had no wish to get involved further.
‘For about a year after that, personal problems kept me busy and I could not visit Tiruvarur. I did go once to offer my condolences to Bhavani when her mother died. I stopped going there because I felt I should not become embroiled in what was really no business of mine.
‘But I did often hear that things were going from bad to worse for Tumbaivanam Mudaliar. They said he would become bankrupt if he lost the case then being heard in the Madras High Court.
‘It was also at that time that we heard the report of a terrible train accident. The train had derailed between Vizhupuram and Kudalur. Three compartments had been reduced to debris. Forty or fifty persons had died on the spot. I had been an avid reader of the newspapers even in those days. Anxiously did I await the arrival of the Swadesamitran to follow the details of the dreadful accident. A list of the names of those who had perished was published the day after the accident. Imagine my feelings when I came across Tumbaivanam Mudaliar’s name there. It was Poonthottam Bhavani who came immediately to mind. The poor girl was stranded, alone in the world, losing both her mother and her lover within the same year. What would happen to her now?
‘I also thought of Gopalsami Mudaliar’s wife and children. Poor things! All their wealth had been lost in fighting legal battles. Would they now be reduced to utter penury?
‘I had to go to Mannargudi the week after. From there I made a trip to Tumbaivanam. I couldn’t bear to see Mudaliar’s wife. She was totally crushed by despair. The children were a pitiful sight. Luckily, their grandfather and grandmother had come from their village to take care of the children and to console the mother. “What to do, my dear?” they told her. “You have to accept your destiny. For the sake of the children you must take hold of yourself and carry on with life.” They made sure she did not starve herself. I too did my best to put some heart into her before I left.
‘After meeting them, I felt the urge to visit Bhavani as well. I went straight to Tiruvarur. It was with great trepidation that I made my way to her house. How could I bear to see her drowned in grief? How would I find the words to speak to her, much less condole with her?
‘But when I saw Bhavani my anxieties were dispelled. Because she was neither tear-stained nor confined to her bed as I expected and feared. No agonized shrieks when she saw me. She appeared quiet normal. She even welcomed my eagerly.
‘Did I say my anxieties were dispelled? Yes, they were. But I also felt deep disappointment. Finally the world was proved right in upbraiding the devadasi community for its callousness. What a tremendous contrast between the wails of the wedded wife and this casual welcoming of chance visitors!
‘I did not reveal my true feelings. I offered routine words of sympathy, more to discharge my duty than for anything else. As I took my leave of her Bhavani said, “Anna! I am going to give a concert before the sanctum of the goddess in the temple, on Friday evening during the Navaratri festival. You must come to hear me.”
‘I was flabbergasted. A concert? So soon? “Thangachi, do you have to perform this year? Can’t you wait till next year?” I asked her.
‘“No, Anna, I had agreed to give that concert. They have printed my name in the festival invitation. I don’t want to back out now.”
‘My indignation was directed at both Bhavani and the temple trustees.
‘“I will come if I can,” I replied.
‘“Don’t say that, Anna! This may be my last concert. You must certainly be there.”
‘My heart melted at these words. “Why do you say that? Whatever happens, your music must continue to grow and flourish.” I left, promising to attend the concert. ‘I did go to Tiruvarur on the Friday during Navaratri as I had promised. I reached her house just as she was setting out for the concert. I was stunned to see her magnificently dressed in silks and jewels. She looked like a bride about to enter the wedding hall.
‘Bhavani was endowed with great natural beauty. Adorned as she was, she seemed a celestial nymph. Had Rambha, Urvashi, Menaka or Tilottama left the heavens and come down to the earth? But I cannot tell you how that vision tormented me.
‘“Anna, so you did come!” Bhavani smiled at me.
‘I was outraged. But I answered with outward calm, “Yes, Thangachi, I did.”
“Anna, I had been expecting you since morning. Never mind. You must come straight home after the concert. It is about a crucial matter. You must not let me down.”
“All right, Thangachi!”
‘“I swear it on your head. It is important. You must not fail me,” said she and got into her carriage.
‘I had never heard Bhavani talk in this manner. Clearly something significant was afoot. I went to the temple in a thoughtful mood.
‘I have heard any number of concerts in my life. I have heard famous musicians, both men and women. But never have I heard anything like the concert Bhavani gave at the temple on that Navaratri Friday. Her voice was as mellifluous as honey. Nectar flowed from the strings of the veena when her fingers plucked them. But there was something in it above and beyond the allure of melody and musicianship. It evoked the pain of an incredible sweetness. There was pin-drop silence in the assembly. You couldn’t even hear the sounds of breathing. Nor were there the usual cries of appreciation-”Aahl”, “Bhesh”, “Shabash!” The crowd savoured her divine music as if bound by a spell of enchantment.
‘Finally when Bhavani sang the lines of the Tiruvachakam “Paal ninaindootum taayinum saala parindu…” in the ragam Kambhoji, I looked at the figure of the Divine Mother inside the sanctum. I was surprised that her stone image did not melt as she listened to Bhavani’s song. I thought I saw teardrops in the eyes of the goddess. I wiped my own eyes, chiding myself for yielding to such hallucinations.
(Reproduced from KALKI Selected Stories Centenary Edition, Penguin Books, 1999)
Copyright this version Gowri Ramnarayan 2012