WET SARI (Prof. Sreedevi Krishnan)

Published on 16 November, 2021
WET SARI (Prof. Sreedevi Krishnan)
Anandam was pacing up and down the  veranda of her hostel, reading and making hurried mental notes of Thomas Hobbes's Leviathan, pausing every now and then to touch her wet sari on the clothes-line. She muttered under her breath," Ish,ish, ente Guruvayurappa, it's going to rain too'. She had already started to feel the drizzle as she looked up at the skies..

Suddenly, there was thunder and lightning. The rain started to pour down mercilessly. Anandam hurriedly pulled the sari off the clothes-line and ran inside her room. She found her room mate Shirley, awake, with her usual frown.  She said, "Stop preparing for your lecture and switch off the light. You know the lectures are cancelled for tomorrow.. Don't you remember we have a field trip to the flower show? Get back to bed."

Ignoring the sarcasm in Shirley's words , Anandam switched off the light and tried  to sleep... but  sleep eluded her. She wondered if the wet sari would dry up by morning.  She couldn't go with them tomorrow, as her only other sari was not washed.  Shirley, or for that matter, no one else here, knew of her pitiable condition.

Shirley would never know how I actually feel when I see her getting dressed up and going out and socializing? How could I tell her that I own only two sarees.   She has no clue how frugal I have to be and how every penny has to be saved . This job is my family’s only hope and I cannot afford to lose it ..She has no idea that my entire family depends on this job’s earnings  to pay back the mortgage and redeem our home from the clutches of advocate Varki, the real "Leviathan". Why is this world so unfair?

Anandam's mind raced back to her situation back home in Kottayam....

Advocate Varki was a pretentious old man with  a brood of seven  children. Kutty Chettan, who was Anandam's grand -uncle' ex-chauffeur, now driving  a taxi cab, used to drive Varki and family to Velankanni Church every Friday.. It was on one of these trips, that Kutty Chettan had mentioned to Varki about Anandam's father's deteriorating health ..and  the  medical bills due chemotherapy were piling up... Thanks to Kutty Chettan, Varki had agreed readily to give them the loan against their house. But a year later, Acchan died and left the onus on Anandam, the only working member in the family, to pay back the loan. She had just started her job as lecturer inBCM college, Trivandrum, which was hours' bus ride away fro, Kottayam.  The moment Varki realized that they couldn't pay off the debt, he moved into their Kottayam house, forcing Amma and Anandam's younger sister,Jyothy to live in the outhouse within the compound.

Varki, an ardent "devotee" of Velankani Mary , and his wife Kunjamma, the main gossip monger of the locality, had no qualms in taking away all the yields from their  compound -coconuts, mangos and jackfruits- as Amma and Jyothy would look on helplessly as they themselves would go for days without proper food. How could people be so cold and heartless?

Anandam was determined to pay that man back and retrieve their house.

Her mind deliberately went back to her last visit to Kottayam. She and Amma had decided to visit an old friend of Acchan's in Ernakulam GopalaMenon . Anandam remembered that trip vividly . She remembered how  hopeful and certain she was that  'Pepper king' menon ,was going to be the answer to all their troubles. After all, how could he refuse to help? It was Acchan who had helped him with all his business finances and accounting . He was fabulously rich only because of Acchans' constant financial guidance. Anandam and Amma hired their trusted friend Kutty Chettan to take them in his taxi. They knew the taxi fare would be too much  but Kutty Chettan was more than family. He was always there, like an anchor, after Acchan had passed away. Anandam was quiet throughout the taxi ride while Amma chatted incessantly with Kutty Chettan about this and that. Anandam's pride always kept her from asking anyone for any favours, leave alone requesting to borrow a large sum of money . But she knew this was the only hope. Anandam's thoughts were preoccupied as she clutched a small Indian doll in her lap. It was her favorite possession and did not want to part with it. She had bought it a few months  ago from Moor market during her trip to Madras, but she knew she couldn't go empty handed . She also knew that Mrs Menon would proudly show off the beautiful papier mache bobble head doll with the brightly painted  bharatanatyam dance costume, in her drawing room glass showcase.

 They reached at night time  in Menon's house and were given a warm welcome. The gift was well received and the dinner was lavish but Anandam herself to ask for  the money. A sleepless night had passed and they were finishing up breakfast the following morning. Amma and kutty chettan were getting ready to take leave. Of course, Amma was counting on Anandam to do the asking. After much hesitation and thought, Anandam mustered the courage  to walk up to Menon, who was alone at the sink, washing his breakfast plate .

That dreadful moment was still etched in Anandam's memory  after all this time.....she could still hear the deafening sound of the water splashing on his steel plate ...how he continued to rinse that plate, how he did not even for a moment take his eyes of that plate as he rotated it in the sink and  how he did not miss a beat when he uttered, "Moley..I am in  no position to lend any money. Business is down. Your father should have given more thought about your future."

Crestfallen, Anandam fought back her tears.. felt a heavy lump forming in her throat . Managing to muster her dignity, she still thanked him for his hospitality and took leave from him.  She barely remembered  walking down the front door steps to Kutty chettan's taxi.
They were all quiet during the drive back. Kuttychettan was choked and when Anandam paid him the taxi fare he turned it down. He said that he had owed a lot to Anandam's grand uncle who helped him win a court case years ago.

Understanding the sheer helplessness of two grown-up girls and their mother, Kutty chettan always visited them with bread and fruits . Even though they had never discussed their financial situation with him, the  kind- hearted  Kutty chettan could guess their poverty- stricken existence . After all, he had seen them in their heydays, when Acchan was a prosperous and wealthy lawyer. Amma only wore silk sarees and Anandam and Jyothy were dressed up with Silk pavadas and gold jewels. It was kuttychettan's taxi they would take to Ettumanoor every year  during the festivals. Achchan always took good care of kutty chettan and his family and he was grateful for that.

Kutty chettan always used to come to receive her when Anandam reached Kottayam  free .Further, even when shopping or  for certain inevitable visits Kutty chettan  made  himself available,even though he knew they had no money to even afford a bus ticket. When  Kuttychettan's visit became a daily affair,  the neighbour's tongues wagged . Why should a middle - aged Catholic taxi driver take interest in a widowed Nair lady with two young pretty girls in their early twenties?? After all,  beauty and poverty  is a toxic combination.

Kuttychettan told them how Varki and his wife asked Kuttychettan, during one of their 'devotional' church trips about what Anandam was doing "exactly" in Kollam. How was she going to repay the loan? Was she really a lecturer or doing something else? What was the real nature of her job in college?
Kuttychettan stopped his car to a grinding halt and came to their defense- "Respectfully, Kunjamma, we are going to Church, you should not say such things! You too have a daughter of Anandam's age!"
To which Kunjamma scoffed and replied "Ente Maathavey...Don't talk like a saint . There's a lot of gossip  going around in the neighbourhood about  you and that family as well."  Kunjamma had her last laugh and looked at Varki triumphantly.
Anandam remembered how a visibly perturbed  Kutty chettan had come home that evening with a parcel of Kappa and meen curry , and told them what had transpired between Kunjamma and him during that trip.

Tears flowed down  Anandam's cheeks, making her pillow wet.  She heard the clock chiming three. Chanting a Sanskrit sloka, which Amma taught her for sleeping and seeking the blessings of Hanuman, she closed her eyes tightly. Slowly,slowly, Anandam slipped into a dreamless sleep..... ........

The hustle and bustle of her roommates woke Anandam up . They were already up and dressed to the nines.
Shirley looked questioningly at Anandam, "Aren't you coming? A college van will be here in an hour"  . Anandam felt the pallau of her sari at the foot of her bed. It was still very damp.
Anandam could hear a loud drum beat from the place where her heart  should have been. She didn't have anything to wear and she was too proud to ask Shirley to lend her a saree. Cleverly concealing her disappointment,  Anandam pretended to suppress a yawn, got out of bed, took her brush and toothpaste and went to the bathroom.
By the time she finished her bath, her mind was made up . She was going to tell the warden that she had a bad cold and that she wanted to stay behind.

She saw her roommates looking very glamorous. She knew Radha was shining on borrowed plumes- yes ..that mustard yellow and green chiffon sari with matching accessories, belonged to Shirley . Shirley was wearing a chocolate brown silk Sari with a pallau of golden peacocks with their feathers spread. She wore an "elakka thali' to go with the sari  walked down the stairs, imagining herself wearing Shirley's chocolate colored saree with golden peacock design and  the exquisite  'elakka thali'.  She knew in her heart that the attire would have looked much prettier on her.

Anandam took the damp saree to the ironing room in a last minute desperate attempt to dry it . Both her colleagues, Shirley and Radha tried she said in unison,  ``Are you planning to  wear this sari?-it smells terribly musty!"

She picked up the sari and hurriedly left the room, before they could see the  tears roll down her cheeks . She paused at the kitchen entrance, where there was a lot of commotion- a heap of potatoes on the table , cooks chopping onions ,cutting chicken and pot of boiling Basmati rice- the aroma succeeded in lifting Anandam spirits . The cook's son, Durga said to her,
"Chechi, we're all going to TVM to see a flower exhibition and we are taking chicken biriyani  packets." Anandam somehow couldn't share Durga's enthusiasm . She continued to walk to the warden's room at the end of the hallway to inform her that she had a throat infection and would be staying behind.

Hours passed by, the entire college was away on the trip. Anandam was ravenously hungry. She went down to the mess, hoping for some leftover biryani.  There the Ayahs were , all seated on the floor enjoying their biryani . They looked pitifully at Anandam and said, "Warden said you should be given only kanji . . there is the pot of hot milk, take a spoon of turmeric. Mix it in and drink it up. It will soothe your throat."
 Tears welled up from self pity...She was hungry but her situation had forced her to pretend that she was sick. She had desires too. Just like any other twenty-four year old, she too wanted to be dressed up in a silk sari and eating biryani with her friends on the bus trip.

She ran as fast as she could, past the empty hallways, back to her room, so that she should cry out loud and unabashedly shed tears.... tears of self pity that she could not eat the delicious biryani because of her feigned illness; tears of frustration thinking of Amma and her younger sister often starving within the four walls of their outhouse while their two storied home and the rich yields of their entire back yard was enjoyed by Advocate Varki and his family; tears of anger, thinking of the cruel Varki not allowing her mother to pluck even a mango from her own backyard; tears of humiliation that her friends commented about her damp sari with the  musty odor; tears of sadness for dearest father's struggle with cancer; tears of helplessness for  the unpaid medical bills and debts , and tears of thanks for the generous gift of good friends like Kutty chettan.

But somewhere in between those tears, her eyes were drawn to the sun, peeking from behind the clouds and Acchan's voice saying, "Your knight in shining armor, will one day, come and lift you off your feet...wait and see...wipe your tears ..I am proud of you, Anandam. You are making me shed tears of pride and tears of joy because only I know how beautiful your future is going to be and how very close you are to it.

sharila 2021-11-17 17:31:52
All too familiar Tale of a middle class girl bearing the burden of her entire family..I wonder if she did indeed find her knight in shining armour? :)
SAMGEEV 2021-11-19 19:47:59
After all, beauty and poverty make a toxic combination. Good story. Congratulations
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