By Kalki (1942)
Translated by Gowri Ramnarayan
(Continued from blog post on 26 July 2012)
‘I looked around me. On all four sides of the hall, people had packed themselves to stand like solid walls. Quite by accident, my eyes fell upon a face right at the back and in a corner. It was partly hidden by a huge makeshift turban covering half the forehead. A pair of big green-tinted spectacles indicated that the wearer suffered from some ailment of the eye. For some reason I found my own glance and attention repeatedly returning to that face. I became less attentive to the music. I wondered to whom the face belonged. Somehow he seemed familiar…
‘In a flash I knew the truth. My whole body began to quake in a panic. I had a premonition of impending disaster. Since I was sitting at the back, it was easy for me to get up and make my way behind the row of standing listeners to where the man with the green glasses stood.
‘The concert was over. The man made a swift exit from the assembly, ahead of the others. I followed him. As soon as we came out of the temple and reached a quiet spot I grabbed his hands and exclaimed, “What’s this! Why the disguise?”
‘Gopalsami Mudaliar flung my hands off. But when he saw who I was, he burst into bitter speech. “Yes, Kandappa, yes. It is a disguise. The whole world is in disguise. Didn’t you see how your dear sister had disguised herself today? She had worn a different disguise before this!”
“No, you don’t know all the circumstances. Bhavani told me this was her last concert. That is why she sang like one possessed,” I tried to calm him down.
‘“Kandappa, are you trying to fool me? You think I am an innocent child? Fantastic music! Fabulous concert…! How did she have the heart to do it? God willed the train crash only to open my eyes!”
‘To change the subject, I fired questions at him. “Certainly it was God himself who brought you back safe and sound. Tell me about this miracle. Why did the news report make such a mistake! How did you escape from the accident! Where were you all these days!”
‘“I will give you all the details later. Enough to make a novel. By God’s grace, I was saved at death’s door. For ten days I lay unconscious in the hospital. Then I saw my name included in the death list published in the old newspapers. I wished to see people’s reactions to my death, especially of those who swore they would jump into the funeral pyre with me. How would they have taken it! That’s why I came dressed like this. Now I have seen it all,” said he with revulsion.
‘We had been walking on the street as we talked. “Forget all those things. But where do you intend to go now?” I asked him.
‘“Why, I’m going there. Don’t think I will thrash her or kill her. I shall merely congratulate her on her stunning performance and go away. That’s all. If you like, you can come along and watch,” said Gopalsami Mudaliar.
‘So we walked together to Bhavani’s house. Her horse-drawn carriage stood outside. She was home. I wanted to go in alone and prepare her. But Gopalsami Mudaliar would not allow it. He shoved me aside and strode into the room first. As we entered, we saw Bhavani with a cup of milk held to her lips. When she saw the man with the huge turban and green glasses, she stood rooted to the spot in amazement. Mudaliar removed his glasses and turban. I saw a terrible change come over her face. My heart stopped beating.
‘I don’t know for how long the three of us remained transfixed. I came to only when I saw Bhavani crumple and collapse on the floor. Gopalsami was there before me. He lifted her and put her on his lap. For a few minutes I looked helplessly around. Then I ran to fetch the doctor. When I returned with the doctor there was no doubt about it. It was half an hour since Bhavani had breathed her last.’
Kandappa Pillai broke off at this point. He had narrated the whole story with so much feeling and lucidity, it seemed every incident was taking place right before our eyes. I was deeply moved. I was silent for a while. There was nothing to say.
Then I remembered where our conversation had begun. And I said, ‘So Bhavani was petrified because she mistook the sudden appearance of Gopalsami Mudaliar for his ghost. What did you do after that!’
‘What more could we do! I got the doctor to write out a certificate of death caused by sudden shock. Gopalsami Mudaliar and I performed the final rites. Poor man, there was no end to his grief,’
‘Did the Mudaliar realize at least then that Bhavani’s love had remained pure and untarnished? Did he come to value the depth of her feelings for him?’ I asked.
‘How could he know? Even though he grieved for her, he also believed that Bhavani had died from shock, knowing that he had seen through her deception. His distrust was mitigated somewhat when he learnt that Bhavani had left her wealth and property to his children. Her will was with her lawyer.’
‘Really!’ I exclaimed in surprise. I could see from the expression on Kandappa Pillai’s face that there was more to come.
‘Things had followed their natural course. Why did you then have to get a doctor’s certificate?’ I asked.
As a safeguard against police harassment which is usual in such cases of sudden death. That’s all. I didn’t tell Gopalsami Mudaliar the truth. Only the doctor and I knew,’ said he.
I thought there was still something left to be told. ‘What was the real cause of death?’ I asked.
‘It is more than twenty-five years since it happened. I don’t suppose there is any harm in disclosing the truth now. Didn’t I run behind Mudaliar when Bhavani fell to the floor? I noticed a letter on the teapoy, lying beside the cup she had drunk from. Seeing my name on it, I quickly snatched it and tucked it out of sight. I read it under the street lamp when I went to fetch the doctor. Here it is,’ said Kandappa Pillai and gave me a letter. The paper was old and frayed. The script, written in a beautiful hand, had dimmed with age. It said:
My dear Kandappa Anna,
I don’t wish to live without the man I love more than my life. Today I perform my last concert. I have powdered the diamonds from the ring he gifted to me with such tender affection. I will swallow that powder as soon as I return from the concert. I have bequeathed half my property to the temple and the other half to his children. My will is with Advocate—Iyer. Please forgive me if I do wrong. I cannot live without him.
I read that letter two or three times and asked, ‘Why didn’t you show it to Gopalsami Mudaliar?’
‘What’s the use of telling him about it? He was already a man shattered. If he had known about the letter, he too might have taken his life. Or he might have ceased to have any attachment for his wife and children. Why cause the break-up of a family? No, I did not tell him the truth.’
After a pause Kandappa Pillai got up and took his leave of me. I returned the letter to him.
He opened the front door and went away. The breeze blew cold. The black sky drizzled softly.
(Reproduced from Kalki Selected Stories Centenary Edition, Penguin India, 1999)
Copyright this version Gowri Ramnarayan 2012