Story : An investigation-Vaidehi

The evening was merging into the night. I had been sitting by the window in the verandha for quite some time without switching the light on. There was a sound on the gate. It was Babi. It was a long time since I had even thought of her before her arrival that day. But as I watched her coming, I felt that I had been seeing her everyday.

Babi came up the steps with her familiar airs. Her gait was quite unlike that of a girl working in a kitchen. It didn’t even become her body. With her was a girl arround fifteen or sixteen with tightly plaited hair.

She could have been her daughter—-a spitting image. Nose and complexion just like her father’s. Even before I could open my mouth, Babi laughed aloud and said, ” Oh …ho ho Kusumkaka! I could see you because I came…”

” Come in,” I said getting up.

” Is your mother home?” she asked as she came in right behind me. ” Is it true tha you stay here now ? left your husband? Why? You might have kept it a secret but I found somehow.”

…The same Babi. Hadn’t changed a bit. Hadn’t matured either. I said nothing and called her in, even though she was in.

” Who is that?” mother asked from the kitchen.

” Babi,” I said.

”Who?” she asked, though she had heard me, as if to get confirmation.

”It’s me, Gowrakka, Babi”, she said laughing. She never needed any reason to laugh.

” Oh, it’s you. I could recognize your voice. What a rare visit!” said mother, coming out.

Babi sat down with her daughter next to her.

”Gowrakka, this is my daughter , Sumangla. My husband has come too. He has gone to see fields. I got off here. I am leaving tomorrow,” said Babi.

” Did I ask you when you were leaving? Stay on for a few days.”

” Stay on? Not this time. The wedding day is approaching. Not much has been done yet.”

” Wedding? Whose wedding?”

” This girl’s. We found a boy. If we leave him now, who knows what we shall get? We may not even find anyone. That’s why we decided to do it off.”

” Why on earth are you getting her married so early?”

” This is the right time. Children should be married off before their heads begin to swell up. If you ask me, a couple of babies need to arrive soon. Everything will be alright then.”

”A mother of three preaching to a mother of six.”

The proverb found expression from my mother with a slight smile. But did a secret sigh escape as well? Presently she said nothing.

Why is mother struck dumb before this worthless Babi, hair full of lice, who had grown up even as she cleared the floor with cow -dung? I was in a mood to shout ‘nonsense’, but had to go to kitchen because mother told me with her eyes to make coffee.

The girl must have got up to walk around a bit. ” Where are you off to? jingling your anklets?” I could see Babi pinh her cheek and pull her back to sit beside her. Mother was a chatterbox while the girl was mute. I poured out the thick decoction from the filter. As I mixed little hot water to make coffee, Kali mooed from the cow-shed and so did the calf.

It’s time to milk the cow, said mother, getting up.”I’ll come too,” said Babi following her, her daughter in tow. ” Hey coffee,” I called out. ” Very little. Just a couple of spoons,” she said. When I told her to drink and go, mother told me to put a lid on it and roast a few papadams.

” How many milch cow do you have? I have a buffalo. It yields quite well. I sell milk to a few houses without letting my husband know. Taking cash the same day. Who can go around collecting credit? I’ve had ear studs and nose rings made with that money. And a pair of earings too for this girl. Do you think Gowrakka , that we can have all these if we wait for men to have them made for us? We should use our own skill. Am I making sense?”

Babi’s gong-like voice droned on and on.

Babi, who had left long ago, was back that day. The same tough body. Decaying stained teeth, riding one over another. A brightly colored ribbon tied to her hair, tightly plaited like a mouse tail. She would bye ribbons, talcum powder and hair clips at festivals. Nagamma would grumble at her shameless parading. With her saree worn a little above the ankles, without a pleat out of place, she would look even more off putting. Even her speech was a riddle.

One day she found a match too. Th e boy was very tall. A clean white dhoti , shirt and shawl. Red teeth and lips from chewing beetle. Streaks of white here and there in his hair. He married her without seeing her. Babi was furious when she discovered that he was a bridegroom the second time over.

I wasn’t married as yet then. Babi, working at my aunts , used to come to see her mother who was our cook. Nagamma had been sent by my grandmother to help mother. Her husband was a cook. A man who would pull out burning stick of wood from the hearth and chase her when he got angry. Nagamma took her five children along wherever herhusband went to cook. Nobody would question her presence. Time wasn’t what it is now. Nor did she eat for free. She would sweep and clean, wash up and leave for home towards the evening, her mouth stuffed with betel leaves and tobacco. She would visit grandmother often. She would eat there and make tins full of sandige and papadom to be fried and eaten. She would grind any quantity of rice. People said that rice and urad daal would jump into water even if she passed by.

Days changed. She became a widow and her head was shaved. Then, grandmother sent her to our house. She wore a red saree and a short sleeved blouse. Later on, she gave up wearing blouses because other widows with red sarees mocked her. Two red sarees a year. Five rupees. A head shaved once a month. Betel nuts and leaves at the town market once a week. Some tobacco.

Sometimes when Nagamma got into trance and rolled over the floor, a couple of pots of water poured over her head would set everything right.

We, the children used to be scared spectators. A desire mixed with fear lurked that whatever possessed her should not leave her. After it was all over , for us she would become, as before dull and dreary.

Nagamma had been a figure of ridicule , possessed by devils, not getting respect even from her own children. In spite of all this, she had not lost much of her strength.

”She didn’t run to her mother when she had nowhere to go. Today they make such a fuss feeling sorry for themselves. Say what you will, there was a kind of courage when there was no education. Now even that is gone…” I could hear mother speaking in a low voice. Perhaps mother didn’t know that I was in the room sitting with a book near the window. She had said the same thing another time in a slightly different vein.” Nagamma would fight within her to find water where there was none.” But this very mother had told us long long ago that Nagamma had lost her parents. Mother might have forgotten it. But if reminded, she could even say , ”In that case, is it a drawback to have the support?”

I was never afraid of mother even in those days when I would be smacked for wrong doing. Why am I scared now, even of her silence? Am I even afraid of my own silence that carries on a dialogue with her?

Babi was Nagamma’s youngest daughter. The mother had got all the five of them jobs as cooks in five different houses. All the five were married. None of them was good looking and all the gold they had on them was in the ear-studs, for which they had worked and saved. Mother hasn’t to this day givenup saying that it was possible only because Nagamma joined our household.

Babi came home, a mere eight days after her wedding. There were black beads round her neck, but no joy on her face. She left her husband in the verandha and came in. She fell at my mother’s feet,” Gowrakka, do you know what sort of a man they married me to? Is it enough to have a light skin? He has a wife. She has no children and is deranged. It seems he left her and married me. He has quite a reputation around the town…” Babi’s rough lips and short neck were trembling. But there was no weeping. ” I fought anyway . Now he says he is leaving me. Let me see how that happens…”She seemed to be in a frenzy.

” Don’t talk about him with disrespect. After all, he is your husband…”

The husband has walked right in as mother spoke. He said a few words and looked very theatrical. Babi had accused him of being profligate, and both ends of his lips seemed to have melted away in a repulsive manner. When he said he was leaving, mother asked him to have something to drink. He went on saying he would wait outside.

Nagamma trying to talk to Babi, made coffe and a spiced dish with beaten rice, according to mother’s instruction. She gave it to Babi and came out looking for her husband. He wasn’t to be found. ” Babi where is your husband? He is not here.” Babi came out instantly throwing some of the savory stuff into her mouth. “Gone? Where can he go?” She strode straight to the gate like a man and cast her eyes a long way off. ” There, there the creature goes…”

Mother reprimanded her, ” Girl, when would you learn manners? Go, run and follow him whereever he goes.”

” I can’t Gowrakka. I won’t sleep with that man ridden with diseases. ” Her voice trembled, with tears is if…but there were none in her eyes.

” With a face like yours, What Prince Charming would arrive?”

Who knows what went on in Babi’s mind when she looked at her mother throwing those words at her from inside the house? She looked back ith contempt,” Gowrakka, I know the bus he’ll catch.”

Even as she was telling so, she kept gesturing to her mother pointing out that her husband was sitting in the front seat. Regardless whether she found a seat or not, the bus disappeared.

That was when Babi had gone off and was back now.

Mother must have come in after milking the cow. Babi’s voice kept sounding clearer.

” How is the father? Does he pamper his daughter?” Mother asked.

” He thinks the world of her. And me too. Anyway, Gowrakka who will go near him now? All the two penny prostitutes have gone off. Now everything is s i say…!”

Anniah came while I sat in the verandah and listened to her words, though not really waiting to. He stood for a while watching me, sitting in the darkness. ” Nothing has happened that you should be so exercised about. What had to happen has happened. So what? Have you no brains, no education? Have you become an old woman? there’s still a lot of scope. Appaiah and i—-aren’t we still there? Get up from there,” he said, switching on the light. “who has come? I can hear the voices.”

I told him who it was. ” Nagamma ‘s daughter , Babi. I see,” he said walking in. ” What are you doing there,girl? Sitting like some devil? Come in.”

I had already come in when mother called me. ” So Anniah recognized me. Can you say who this is?

My daughter Sumangala. Getting married soon. You must come to the wedding. That’s why I came over. My husband will write.”

” Wait, wait, not so fast. Where are you now?”

” Just where i was.”

” Where is that?”

” Where I was before.”

” Where were you before?”

” Ah come on. Don’t you know? Gowrakka, doesn’t anyone know where I was before? I was in Enygunta.”

Anniah laughed aloud.

“Enygunta? Where is it?”

” You’ll know only when you come over there. Anyway, how many functions took place here after i left. I didn’t get to know anything at all. If you had told me, my husband would have send something along.”

“Really? How would I know the warmth of feeling between you, husband and wife?”

” Why do you tease her so?” said mother and I remembered the papadams and went to the kitchen.

” That’s fine Anniah. You did’nt even write to me about your wedding. I believe your wife had delivered a child…” Anniah kept on laughing loudly as she went on. The next words came out just as my heart started beating fast.

” Never mind. But it was very wrong not to have told me about kusumakka’s wedding. I didn’t know about that either. I just learned about her having left her husband only when I went to visit my big sister…” Anna wouldn’t have laughed then. I could hear him pulling the towel off the line, shake it and go off for a wash. My hands were trembling. I didn’t have the strength to hold the pincers as I roasted the papadams. This Babi hadn’t terrified me so much when she got up the steps. Earlier, Anniah would have brought tears to Bab’s eyes and told her to mind her own business. Now , he said nothing. Perhaps he might have thought that there was no point in scolding someone who was here just on a short visit.

” Is that Babi? How are you child?” said Appiah as he sat for dinner. ” I am well, ” said Babi in a soft voice. Perhaps in th whole world, her voice would be lowered and lose its investigative quality only before Appiah. ” How is your husband? No more problems?”

Babi answered the question in a serious voice. ” He is alright. Looks after the family. This is my daughter. She is getting married this Shravana.”

” I see!” said Appiah, raising his eyebrows, voice filled with admiration. It was enough to satisfy her. But I couldn’t understand what the admiration was for.

There was a touch of truimph in her voice. For that half-witted wife what her husband had left didn’t really amount to much. She believed things were true if you just told her so. Babi had gone to see her.” There’s nothing wrong with her except that she has no children. I showed her my daughter and said she was hers. The woman believed it. I told her that there was no reason for her to stay with her mother. Come with me, I said. She came. Now she stays with me doing house hold chores. I have less to do now and she too has found a home.”
Mother asked provokingly, ” Does that mean your husband and she…?”
Babi was alerted. Moving her hands about, she said. ” would I leave them to it? No way. Moreover, Gorakha, his hair has gone all white. Body and face are wrinkled.” She laughed.
The next moment she said, ” But even then, his looks are not straight. Even now he doesn’t glance at women without desire. That’s why I want to marry off my daughter soon. May be he’ll come to his senses when a grandson is born…” Was she aware where her talk would end up? What was she a mixture of? What did mother feel listening to all this ? Mother doesn’t tell me her opinions as freely as she used to. I was moving away.
Not becoming insane I hope.
” Your mother would have been happy if she were alive ,” mother said.
” I don’t know. Who would have looked after her, hand and foot? It’s just as well that she died.” I felt nauseated.
” A spirit used to possess your mother. You are a devil yourself,” said mother and just left.
I kept sitting in the armchair. She might catch hold of me, I thought. Better…to get up slowly.
” What’s this Kusum Akka? You don’t talk at all. Are you not friends with me anymore?” As she came nearer and nearer, saying that, her clothes changed. She was wearing a black coat and white turban. There was a bundle of records under her arm. She kept on coming towards me.

I wasn’t in an armchair. I was in a cage. My head started reeling. Without understanding what it was all about, I stood up holding on to the dock.
The investigation continued.
” Anyway, Why did you leave your husband? Was he a drunkard, was he unfaithful to you, or did he beat you…?”
“… …”
” Why did you look at me this way? Am I a doll? Or a devil? You used to be such fun before. Where has it all gone now?”
“Have you become so depressed just because you left your husband? What about his people…? If we are good, they are good too. What do you say?”
Sweat was dripping from my body.
” How hot it is here even though it is raining!” she said, pulling out a handkerchief from her coat pocket, wiping her face and bending over.
” Anyway, why did you run away from your husband? If so many of them disliked only you, then something must be wrong with you…How can we find out if you don’t answer at all?
“… …”
” The last Question: Did you come off yourself or did he leave you…? Or did they all get together and break you up…?”
Babi asked three Questions , turning in three directions, standing in three three different postures and in three different voices.
I looked all around once. The court was full of people. Even blinking could be heard in that silence. In the front row, looking at me without blinking , were Appaiah, Amma, Anniah and Nagamma. Sumangala, too. They were bent forward as if to suck every word of my answer.
Behind the door, the idiot wife stood shrinking saree across her mouth, body and face all wrinkled.
No, there was no one from the ‘other’ side, there was no one to listen to my answer.
I must answer, regardless. I was about to answer, all the words queuing up, about to rush forward as sentences. From the bottom of the throat to the tip of my tongue. Then…
Suddenly I felt suspicious and turned towards the seat of justice. Just an empty chair stood there. Even that was about to crumble. Eaten by termites.
The mind became a flat sea which has forgotten to roar.
All the sounds standing in readiness for the grim dance, withdrew.
A sudden darkness enveloped the whole courtroom.

( Translated from the original Kannada
by: Padma Ramchandra Sharma)

is the pen name of Janaki Srinivasan Murthy.
Kannada fiction writer and poet. Has over two dozen publications—novels, short story collections, Essays, plays and children’s book to her credit. Winner of many awards, including the Sahitya AKademy Award and Katha Award.

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