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Thursday, October 24, 2013

MY STORY SERIES – 15



The Flower of the Seventh Season

Sarojini Sahoo


(In her The Diary of Ana├»s Nin, Vol. 1: 1931-1934, Nin once told “Man can never know the loneliness a woman knows.” This story relates to such feminine loneliness. The original story is included in author’s Odia anthology  Srujani Sarojini (ISBN: ISBN: 978- 81-7411-483-1) under the title ‘Saptam Rutura Fula’. Unlike author’s other stories, so far it has not been translated into any Indian languages.)

The rainy season was slowly and steadily coming to an end. Whenever I saw her, she appeared as if she was a sadhab bohu who turned into a cute red velvet insect for her love from a bride of a merchant, according to folk tale. Since the day I met her for the first time, I had noticed something unnatural about her. Of course she reminded me of the days when I was a newly married bride as well.    
     
Around eleven o’clock at night, I could hear a lot of hustle and bustle in the house next door. Earlier I had heard the sound of a vehicle stopping. So they have finally arrived. But why would I go and meet them at night; I’d rather go in the morning and meet them I thought to myself, and quietly went to bed. Yes, I have to go in the morning. Otherwise what would they think?

She was surprised to see me. I introduced myself to her and told her that I lived in the house next door. As she folded her hands to wish for her namaste, I told her to call on me if she needed anything. “If everything else fails, I can even hear you if you call out from your kitchen,” I said smiling.  

When she heard me saying those words she pretended not to listen and said, “All right, namaste.”

I felt offended by her behavior and I was surprised as well. We always greet everyone with namaste when they come and when they leave. She wants me to leave, but why? I had not gone there to cause any harm. She did not even offer me to sit. Instead, she asked her brother to put a nail on the wall. I noticed there was no sofa or chair in the drawing room. Had she given me some attention, I would not have minded even if she did not offer me to sit.

 Even though I felt offended, I could not help but notice the shine in her eyes and the satisfaction on her lips which reminded me of the days when I was newly married. When I was setting up my new home what an excitement it was, as if heaven was within my reach. The dreams I saw in her eyes forbade me from being angry with her. I thought to myself, after she adjusts to her own new world, she will come out on her own to mingle with the neighbours.

However, after a week, some very surprising and unnatural events began taking place. These events made not only me but everyone around curious about them. The girl had brought a constable and her brother along with her. The constable would drive the police jeep. He had come to drive the car the girl had received as a dowry. He also had another duty which involved teaching my neighbour Srinivasan how to drive. Just after a day of his arrival, the driver was loitering near our gate when my husband Rudra asked him, “Do you need anything?”

He opened the gate and came inside saying, “I was having a look at the garage. Really, it’s in the right place. A similar garage could be constructed on the other side.”

‘On the other side’ meant the neighbouring house. The neighbouring house was the last house in the row of houses. Next to the house was a road and fields with bushes. Almost ten days had gone by since she had come. Her brother and the constable had gone back but she remained. During that time, the building of the walls of the garage was only halfway through. After they left, the work had stopped completely.

I was not able to meet her during those ten days because I was busy with a lot of things. I sometimes wondered how the poor girl must be spending her time. I wouldn’t know as I am never at home. Around ten o’clock I had to leave for my consultancy office which was located on the ring road. By the time I come back from the office, it was almost four o’clock in the afternoon. I remembered the days when I was newly married. I used to keep waiting for Rudra. And then just like the girl next door, I was so fed up with my lonely existence, I opened up the consultancy office.              

But there was something different about this girl. The other day I was leaving for my office in a hurry, the jeep driver from Srinivasan’s office stopped me and asked me, “Isn’t there anyone in their house?”

“Maybe they are there. I did hear the sound of the whistle from the pressure cooker the other day.”

He replied, “I have been honking for sometime but there is no response. Look, the gate is locked.”


I then noticed the gate was indeed locked. But just five minutes earlier, I had heard the sound of the whistle from the pressure cooker. I could hear the noise of utensils clanking as well. How could they get out so quickly? Why would anyone lock the door when they are inside? How will the milkman, the vegetable man, and the newspaper vendor come in? I told the driver to wait a bit longer since they could be in the bathroom.

Within a few days, the juiciest gossip of the colony was that Srinivasan locks the girl indoors when he leaves for the office. I also noticed their gate was locked throughout the day and night. So I did not get any opportunity to visit the girl at her home since my meeting with her the first day she came here.

Some people had started enquiring about her because I was her next door neighbour. The question always was, are they really locking their gate?

As a neighbor, I was interested in getting to know more about them. I had found Srinivasan’s behaviour quite mysterious. I could not understand why he left the big house and moved into a smaller house after his marriage. Why did he choose a house in a desolate corner of the colony over a house with a garage and nice garden in the middle of the colony? And finally, why did he lock himself and remain distant and aloof from everyone in the colony?

I came to know from Rudra the Superintendent Engineer had summoned Srinivasan to his office and had scolded him. When there was a breakdown in the substation, he had come to his house only to go back after honking at the gate of his quarters. There was a lock on his gate and no one came out of the door. No, these kind of incidents never happened when I was newly married. On the other hand, I used to sit next to the window and wait for Rudra; and as soon as I heard the sound of his vehicle coming from a distance I would run outside with the key to the lock in my hand. As soon as he reached the gate, I would say, “I am feeling claustrophobic inside the house. Let us go for a walk towards the hill.” 

It would never occur to me Rudra might be tired after his day in the office but perhaps he understood my situation so both us used to leave for our walk, right from the gate.

Almost four months had passed during this period. In December, almost halfway through winter, it was quite cold. There hadn’t been much change in her house. The construction of the garage remained in the same half-way stage. There was a heap of sand on one side of the gate and on the other side, a few rows of bricks still lying there. There were no workers to be seen. And Srinivasan hadn’t gone for his driving lessons either.

One day the girl smiled at me through the opening between the walls of our houses. I was watering the plants in my garden and I asked her, “How’s everything?”

She nodded her head with approval and said, “Are you quenching the thirst of your plants?”

“Yes,” I replied, and added, “Do come over to our house sometime.”

“I will. The door is open. I have to go,” she said and hurriedly left.

It was a common practice to invite people to visit their homes when anyone meets someone from the colony in front of their gate. However, Srinivasan never took the girl to anyone’s house, not even to our house. Once the managing director was coming for a tour of the colony and superintendent engineer summoned Srinivasan and told him “You should give a party. You have gotten married and you have not even introduced your wife to anyone. What is this? You should bring her to the club once.”

 Srinivasan listened to everything but pretended as if nothing went into his ears. The managing director came over and there was a big feast organized by the relevant authorities. Srinivasan came all alone, had his dinner, and left.

Everyone had come to terms with the fact that Srinivasan was a loner. He was not interested in maintaining relationships with anyone. Some people felt sad for his wife and thought of her as a ‘poor girl.’ She was such a smart and pretty girl too; Srinivasan was not a good fit for her.

One evening I went to her house. After being hassled by the SE, Srinivasan was not locking his gate anymore. The girl opened the door and happily ushered me inside. She had changed much from my first visit to her house. She made tea for me and showed me the album with her marriage photos. I saw many pictures of her. Some of them were taken before her marriage. Before her marriage, she had cut her hair in a short, low-maintenance style. In one of the photos, she was sitting bravely on a pony about the height of her waist. I enquired her about the picture, “Did you go to visit someplace?”

“No, no. This was the picture taken when I was learning horseback riding and my father was the sergeant.”
  
“Do you know how to drive?”

“Yes.”

“Does Mr. Srinivasan know how to drive?”

“No, and he is not learning. Sometimes I take out the car and drive around a little; otherwise it may become rusty.”

“Where are you keeping the car? The garage is still only half done.”

“In the division office. I have been telling him to get it finished. My father can also send someone and get it done.”

I could not understand why the girl had married Srinivasan. The girl had given her part 1 exams before her marriage. She must be around twenty-one years old. I have seen Srinivasan working here for the past twelve to thirteen years.

The girl told her “Five years back, there was a proposal for my sister to arrange marriage between her and my husband. He did not approve of her at that time. My elder sister got married to someone else and then I got married to him. Really amazing isn’t it?”

I said, “Yes, they say destiny takes us to the place where we belong.”

“How do I look in the salwar kameez?” she asked, changing the subject.   

“Oh, you look wonderful. You’re looking smart and beautiful.”

“My husband does not like all these dresses. He asks me to dress up by putting on my saree by the time he comes back from the office.”

“Yes, not everyone has the same sense of fashion. It is better to follow your husband’s wishes and save yourself from trouble, isn’t it?”

I got up to go and as I did, she told me, “I really enjoyed chatting with you.  We’ll do it more, I hope.”

“I am generally not at home during the day, so do come in the evening sometime.” She nodded her head in approval.

# # # # # # # # # # # # # # # #

In the meantime, winter had given way to spring and as it was getting less and less cold, I had resumed going on my morning walks. One day the girl peeped through the wall and asked, “You go for morning walks?”

“Yes, I do.”

“I used to go for morning walks with my parents”

“You can come with me. I don’t mind. If you want, I’ll give you a call in the morning.”

“I will ask him and let you know,” she replied.

Throughout winter, I had seen an old maid sitting with the girl in the evenings. She used to be there until Srinivasan was back from the office. Sometimes it would be dark by the time he came back and the old woman would be complaining. Sometimes she would peep through the wall and ask me, “What are you doing? Why don’t you come over and chat for a while. I am here to guard her. Most times, by the time I reach home it is night.”

Srinivasan’s wife would come out from the house and complain sometimes, “I can’t understand a thing both of you are saying.  I don’t know Odia.”

“She was inviting me to your house” I would say.

“Why are you in a hurry, aunty?” She asked to the old woman.

 The old woman started laughing loudly. “No, no nothing serious dear! I was just asking her to come over. The older woman reminded me of the flower seller old woman in the folk tale story of sadhab bohu, who performed her role of the middle person in the love of the bride and the merchant. She did not have a family of her own and had taken shelter in her brother’s house in the nearby village.

Srinivasan had still not yet mastered driving so their car was not taken out everyday. Sometimes he used to take his wife for dinner in the hotel in the nearby town. However, even during their trip, the car was driven by Sur, a caretaker of a guest house where Srinivasan used to stay during his bachelor time. He knew driving and somehow Srinivasan had gotten a hold of him. So Sur would also have dinner in the expensive hotel along with the couple. Gradually Sur had access to the house, just like a member of the family.
Another person who could enter Srinivasan’s house without permission was Banambar, the caretaker of the guest house. He had a moped and he used to buy vegetables and mutton and run other errands for Srinivasan’s household. Banambar also used to guard the girl whenever the old woman did not turn up.

Everyday Srinivasan used to come home riding behind Naresh on his motorbike. Naresh would come to his house around ten o’ clock at night. Like the famous musician pair Kalyanji and Anandji, Naresh and Srinivasan were often seen together on their motorbikes. Naresh had a son who was doing his engineering studies somewhere outside the area. Naresh’s wife did not like to stay in the government quarters as she felt claustrophobic. She preferred to stay in the village in her own house and never bothered to take account of Naresh, who had been working with an insurance company.
   
Everyone in the colony was surprised that even though there was no dearth of high-ranking officers in the colony, how could an engineer type like Srinivasan associate himself with a worker from the lowest  grade, a caretaker from the guest house and a mere clerk?

Sometimes, Srinivasan would take the group whenever he went for dinner to expensive hotels. Be it Puri or Similipal, he always took the group with him.

Almost a year had gone by since the girl had come. One rainy season had gone by and within no time, another rainy season was here. The only change was the girl had begun going on morning walks with me. We used to walk for about two or more kilometers, chatting as we went. I did not dare stop going on morning walks even though it was sometimes difficult for me because I felt for the girl. The mornings were her only opportunity to be free from her cage -- to breathe the air of freedom rather than the air of control and oppression.

During our conversations I had come to realize the girl was very sad because she could not bear children. She confessed to me one day, “I have some problems with my hormones.”

“This place has something to do with it. Many couples are childless here. Even after ten to fifteen years, they still have not been able to bear any children. They think there is something wrong with the water. Initially, I also had some problems with my hormones as well,” I remembered those days when I had no child to fill the loneliness in my life. Life seemed so meaningless for me back then.

The girl said, “I did not have any such problems before; only after coming here I am having them.”

“Did you undergo any treatment?”

“Of course, how can you sort these things out without treatment?”

Another day during our morning walk, the girl had said “He does not have time to go with me to the doctor. He is saying he will send Sur tomorrow. He will take me in the car to see the doctor. I do not know anyone in this town. I don’t know what to do. I would have taken you along if you were at home. Banambar, the caretaker of the guest house, will accompany me.”

“What keeps Srinivasan so busy? Why don’t you ask him to take leave for a day?” But I immediately felt uncomfortable after uttering the words. ‘What if there is no fight between husband and wife over the matter? No, this was not right at all,’ I thought.

I did not know whether the girl went to the doctor or not and I did not want to talk about it. I knew that that was a sensitive question which often hurts most women. Only experienced women would know how insulting it is to answer questions posed to women who are not blessed with motherhood.

Previously we used to meet for at least half an hour or even forty-five minutes during our morning walks but gradually, that had to come to an end because of the heavy rains. I had not seen her for ten days. She also often stayed behind locked doors.  One day when I came back from the office, I saw her walking up and down the road in front of her house even though it was drizzling.

“What happened? Why are you getting wet in the rain?”

“There is a snake in the house.”

 “Oh, really? Where? What kind of snake?”

“I don’t know what kind of snake.” The girl was shivering. I could make out from her gestures that the length of the snake was about half a meter.

“It is pitch black in colour,” she said.

“I hope it is not a cobra,” I offered. I had also started shivering, “This is so dangerous. How will you know where the snake will hide? Have you informed Mr. Srinivasan? You come over to our place and take a seat. Don’t get wet in the rain. Let’s see what can be done. My husband knows a snake charmer who can get hold of the snake by chanting some mantras.”

The girl came with me to our house. But she did not sit on the sofa. She was very restless. I tried to console her, “Don’t worry. I am telephoning Rudra. He will inform Srinivaan. You can also telephone Srinivasan if you want.”

She appeared not to pay any heed to my words. She was constantly running to the gate in a very restless state. After I telephoned Rudra, Mr Srinivasan telephoned our house a short while later. I called the girl and handed the receiver to her. The girl burst out in rage and told her husband, “You went off leaving me alone to fight with the snake.” 

I could not know what Srinivasan said but the girl put down the receiver and said to me, “He is coming with some people.”

I was a bit surprised after I heard her so I asked “Was Mr. Srinivasan at home when the snake was seen at home?”

“Yes. He was at home. It was around three-thirty and we were watching television. There was a small gap near the door and all of a sudden, the snake entered from the garden. He was scared and ran and sat on top of the slab in the kitchen. I noticed the snake had gone into the guest room. I shut the door of the guest room from outside. After a short while, he left for his office.”

“He left without solving the problem of the snake?” I asked.

The girl did not answer my question. I tried to understand Srinivasan. It was acceptable that he was scared of the snake. I had to admit that he could not have killed the snake. But he could have arranged for someone to do that. How could he leave his wife alone at home with a snake and work peacefully in the office? What would have happened had I not met the girl? If I had not telephoned?

Of course that day, the snake was caught. The snake charmer caught the snake very easily and showed everyone. The snake was pitch black in colour. The snake charmer said it was junglee chiti, a wild krate. From that day on, I had lost respect for Srinivasan.

The rainy season had given way to autumn. The garage in Srinivasan’s house still was not constructed. During autumn, small snakes would come out to eat frogs so Srinivasan’s wife got some workers, arranged through Banambar, and put the bricks onto the top of the boundary wall. The sand was lying for a long time and so people began thinking it to be common property and had carried it away in bags of one and two and had turned the heap into a plateau. Srinivasan also had abandoned his driving lessons. That may be because whenever he wanted to go out, Sur, the care taker of a guest house, was always there.

The rainy season had come to an end and we resumed our morning walks. I came to know from the girl she had gone with Sura and Banambar and had her hormone test. She had very sadly commented, “He is not taking care of me at all. The test report has been lying for a long time. Should not he go and consult the doctor? I am getting very bored here. I have nothing to do throughout the day. He is not letting me mix with anyone. He tells me that the women here only spend their time in gossip and backbiting. I only get to talk to you. Otherwise, I just sit at home all to myself.”

“There’s some truth in the fact that when three women come together they start gossiping. However, if you are really bored why don’t you do gardening? You will never know how time will fly with the trees and plants. Before you moved into this house, a family used to live here. And their garden was full of roses. After they left, the Mali household moved in. Mali always used to spend his time reading and was a bit spiritual as well. And his wife was always busy with their twins. And that’s the reason why the garden was spoilt. I do not understand why Mr. Srinivasan left his old house and moved into this one where there is danger from everything, from snakes to thieves.”

“No one knows why he does not want to go inside the colony,” she replied.

I knew why Srinivasan did not let his wife meet with the women in the colony. No. It would not be right to say I knew but rather I could imagine. Before he got married, he had become close to the girl living next to his old quarters. Some people had seen the girl going to his house at night. Now the girl and even the family had transferred and moved out. However, he was still afraid someone may disclose the matter to his wife. Initially, Srinivasan did not even have faith in me. He had said something about me to his wife and that was the reason why the girl remained away from me. Gradually it was as if Srinivasan developed faith in me. I decided not to say those things to Srinivasan’s wife.

One day, after I came here and was married, a high school student who was living in the house in front of our house had come to get some old newspaper; he wanted to use the newspaper to cover his books. After taking the old newspapers for a couple of times, the boy told me, “A girl used to come here before you came here.”

I was surprised at the audacity of the boy and asked him with a very strong tone, “So what? I know the girl.”

The boy could not stand my strong words and left the place immediately, and never came back to ask for newspapers.

The long running autumn festival Navratris was over and winter was approaching. The dew drops were shining on the petals of the flowers in the morning. The wind was fragrant with the smell of the flowers in the paddy fields. However, the girl was gradually becoming morose. She looked like the flower which had bloomed for three, four days and was drying out. She was drab and had lost her radiance. Even her health was deteriorating day by day.

I could understand the girl was sad for some reason. I said, “Why don’t you do some gardening? Some nice plants have arrived at the nursery in the village.”

Sometime after I had said those words, I noticed that Srinivasan purchased a rose plant and had planted it under the neem tree. I told her the plant may not survive under the big tree.

True to my words, the plant did not grow. Nothing grows without sensitivity. Gradually Srinivasan brought more and more plants for the girl. Since the plants were not growing under the neem tree, Banambar had come and cut the branches of the tree. The old maid of the house grounded the cow dung and made manure for the plants. However, one day Srinivasan, put so much synthetic fertilizer on the plants that within a few days, all the plants were dry.

The girl would look at my garden over the wall and would be very delighted. She would say, “In my parents’ house, orderlies would do everything. We had a big area around our quarters. We grew vegetables as well. But the soil here is not very fertile. Look at the height of the trees. Whenever I feel like it, I stand here and look at your garden. I feel very happy.”

By this time the mango trees had started sprouting buds. The cuckoo had begun to rehearse her musical chords for the season ahead. The breezes ran wild like naughty children. I noticed from the area from where the half-constructed garage stood to where the garden was, small plants of marigold had come up, looking green like a field of green leafy vegetables. I inquired of her, “Have you planted marigold plants? It’s already going to be spring, will the marigolds bloom now?”

“During another festival day of Deepavali, I had decorated a garland of marigolds for the doorway. When I took down the garland I scattered the seeds all over the garden. Now the saplings have come out.”

I pretended not to notice the fresh saplings. Everything had its time. Nothing blooms; nothing bears fruit unless it is the right season. I realized then the girl could never do gardening, and she didn’t have the interest either it seemed. Some motivation is needed to live. Why couldn’t the girl understand? I tried not to think about it but somehow, it would keep creeping into my mind like an unwanted guest.

I noticed one day a big yellow flower had bloomed on the five-inch tall plants. The flowers appeared as if the moon had come down from the sky. The flower appeared as the smile of the family; such a big flower in such a small plant!!!! If the whole bed of plants bloomed like that, the whole place would be illuminated.

Even though she was a neighbour, I had never asked the girl for salt, sugar, or ginger. I had never sent curry or cakes to her house either. We had never had any meals together. I never nurtured any jealousy towards her as a neighbour. However, the flower had struck a chord in my heart and I couldn’t resist asking her, “Could you please give me a few saplings from those flowers?”

“Yes, please feel free to take some. There are so many,” she replied. However, I felt a bit hesitant to get the plants as soon as she gave me permission; I came back at a later time. However, that one marigold flower had stuck to my heart like a flash of moonlight. I would look at the flower as I went back and forth to work. Four days after receiving permission to take the plants, when I was watering the plants in the garden, I asked my daughter to go to the neighbour’s house, “My dear, please go and ask Aunty to give you some marigold saplings.”

My daughter went. I was in the garden picking weeds and tending to some plants and was picking up the dry leaves lying under the plants. In some plants, I had to put fertilizers and insecticides. I finished everything and washed my hands and face and stepped out onto the verandah where I noticed the marigold plants kept there at one corner of the garden. Instead of being happy I was very upset to see the uprooted plants. That beautiful yellow flower was smiling there with four or five other plants.

I became angry with my daughter and scolded her, “What have you done? You got this plant…..” I felt very sorry as she had picked it up from next door.  I immediately went to my neighbour’s house to beg forgiveness for my daughter’s mistaken deeds. As usual, the neighbour’s house was locked from the inside. I did not press the calling bell but went directly to the spot where the flowers has been uprooted and re-planted the sapling of the yellow flower in the original place. In the meantime, I noticed the girl standing behind me. I felt like the culprit, “It was not right to uproot a plant blooming with a flower.” 

“Maybe she was too young to understand this,” the girl responded. “I saw her uprooting the plant but I didn’t want to say anything.” She started to smile but at the same time, tears welled up in her eyes. While putting the plant in the soil I asked her to get a mug of water.

The girl followed my advice. I then realized the flower planted here and uprooted should stick to the soil of the girl’s household, not mine. Its yellow smile should intoxicate the girl. Even though there was no specific season for this flower in this world, it would always shine like a petal of smile on the lips of that girl. 
 


(Translated by Gopa Nayak and edited by Paul McKenna)