ABOUT THE STORY Like RK Narayan’s Malgudi and Aravind Adiga’s Kittur, Manu V Bhattathiri’s Karuthupuzha is a fictional small town in South India whose realities come to us filtered through the distinctive vision of the writer.
In a previous story by Bhattathiri, published in The Caravan this January, we met Kunjumon: a sweetly resentful, vaguely hopeful man with a dull job as an accountant in a rice mill in Karuthupuzha. To make himself feel better after his wife left him, Kunjumon plans grand altruistic projects for the town’s poorest folk, but, comically, his schemes become redundant even as their details are being worked out.
Now, in ‘The Wife’s Leg,’ we turn towards Eeppachan, the razor-sharp and calculating boss, or mothalali, of the rice mill. Eeppachan is immensely prosperous, and has used his influence to claim Karuthupuzha’s most beautiful young woman for his bride. His power falls upon the entire town like sunlight, and it seems he should have no worries. But, as any married person finds out at some point, the difficulties of possession can be just as vexing as those of pursuit. Eeppachan gradually becomes convinced that his wife’s head has been turned. The provocative singing of a young artist who puts down roots in Eeppachan’s neighbourhood resounds in our ears, amplified by Eeppachan’s imagination and—who knows?—perhaps also that of his wife. Love, power and rage swirl through Karuthupuzha, watched by the narrator with a wry sympathy and a delicate pity.
The Wife’s Leg
MANU V BHATTATHIRI
EEPPACHAN MOTHALALI BLINKED UP at the stars and wondered which one of them was causing him so much trouble. And though it was getting cold up on the terrace he wouldn’t go downstairs and lie down with Amminikutty, for this was a quarrel he wanted her to remember. He would spend the night here under the stars, and if he was lucky enough to catch the flu it would only serve the better to teach her a lesson.
Unbeknown to him there really was a star up there, tiny and with a cunning twinkle, that liked to sport with him a little. It looked down now, liking what it saw. It meant no harm, but it did give the mothalali’s thinking a little quirk now and then just to spice things up.
The same little star could strain its neck a bit and shine down along the wall of his old, moss-infested home, right through its windows, through the slightly parted curtains and right down upon Eeppachan Mothalali’s much younger wife, Amminikutty. Twisting and turning in her sleep, tortured by the thought of her husband catching the flu up there, debating whether she should just give in and go up and make up with him, were some of the things the mothalali would have liked her to do. But she just slept deeply, dreaming of golden-brown fields and scarecrows that were angelic and very alive. Sighing, the star put out its lamp for her, fading into the night, leaving the much older husband with his troubles on the terrace.
Ironically, the deal Eeppachan Mothalali was proudest of having struck in his life was also the one that caused him the most heartburn. It was like this: Though he had married the most beautiful woman in Karuthupuzha, though she was of a different religion and though she was a good twenty-four years younger than him, he saw no space for any awkwardness in his marriage. Because he was the richest, most successful man in
the little town, and everyone knew it. His father-in-law, Keshavan Nair, had particularly known it when he was alive. In fact, Eeppachan Mothalali had made sure that Keshavan Nair showed more eagerness for the marriage than he himself did. He was a rich and powerful man who had fallen in love with a beautiful young girl. The two men had together made it a point to see that Amminikutty, then only fourteen, clearly saw the mothalali’s love as a blessing from heaven. Likewise, the whole of Karuthupuzha was made to see the mothalali’s disregard for his wife’s difference in age and religion as a radical step that only a powerful man could take. When the mothalali said “Love is above religion,” even the religious elders of Karuthupuzha smiled their consent. And thus the marriage was an act of fortune that befell the blessed.
Yet, Eeppachan Mothalali had never known absolute peace of mind with regard to his wife for the eighteen years of their marriage. He had trusted his wife’s fidelity absolutely, right from the beginning, so no, it wasn’t that. Amminikutty was the saintliest, purest and most pacific person the mothalali had ever known. She was never moved, in that forbidden sense, by anything or anyone. Her eyes never wandered naughtily. Her heart never lost its rhythm and her cheeks never grew rosier in any situation, in all the years she had been his wife. Yet whenever there was a younger man in their vicinity Eeppachan Mothalali felt a vague, dark pain somewhere in his being. This pain had a strange effect on him. It often drove him to emphasise to others how successful his rice mill was. It often made him tell people about the books he had once read, or a few of his acts of character and kindness. It made him want to argue about something intellectual, something transcendental. It made him overly logical, vocal, angry. Most often, the clueless and hapless Amminikutty had to bear the brunt of it all. She never understood what irked her husband, but obediently remained silent until the cloud over his head had passed.
Now, there was new fuel for the fire in the mothalali’s heart. A few months ago, a young artist by the name of Hariharan had moved in to an empty house in the neighbourhood. Hariharan apparently had some deep and forgotten roots in Karuthupuzha; he owned some ancestral property in the town, but had no living relations. He was a painter, and quite convinced that he was good, but no one in the large cities he had passed through had understood his true worth. He largely drew formless shapes, in astonishing combinations of colour, that represented the deep torments of his soul. At first a few critics had praised his work, but after finding no supporters for their views had moved on to works of more commercial consequence. Gradually Hariharan understood that the world needed to evolve further before it grasped the significance of his work, and decided that in the meantime he would hibernate in his ancestral home and use the quiet to further explore his soul.
The day Hariharan moved in, much to Eeppachan Mothalali’s consternation, Amminikutty had seemed very curious. More than curious, he thought. Ammini had wanted to go over and make the acquaintance of their new neighbour. “He might even show us some of his paintings,” she told her husband, seeming as close as he had ever seen her come to being excited. The mothalali had grandly replied that her eagerness, though well intended, might not go down well with the artist. He told her that she didn’t really know the artistic mind, which hated interferences and yearned for privacy. In due course, he assured her, if the art was great enough, it would find its way to their attention. “Great art,” he told her, as to a child, “never stays hidden.”
From then on Eeppachan Mothalali watched carefully for Amminikutty’s reactions. At first he was thankful that Hariharan kept very much to himself. No one in Karuthupuzha even saw him for the first few weeks. He kept indoors and seemed to live on very meagre supplies. But, it gradually came to seem to the mothalali, Hariharan’s secretive life only increased his wife’s curiosity. Ammini would sometimes stare out of a window in the late evenings, lost. While the star winking above knew that she was only daydreaming about birds sitting on scarecrows, it made the mothalali think that she was watching for a glimpse of the artist. Her mind would be sluggishly churning over an odd mix of thoughts—what to cook for dinner, the new crockery set she had seen in the market, and the fantastic pictures of her childhood—and her eyes saw nothing. But Eeppachan Mothalali
feverishly read into her expressions a youthful curiosity and interest. He watched the night breeze move her beautiful hair, and he went mad. Deep inside his stomach a vehement drop of acid fell on some tender flesh and created a spot of pain.
Now, as he lay on the terrace on the little bed held together by coir, the mothalali smiled in spite of himself. He thought of how it greatly perturbed him when Ammini stood as if dazed in front of Paakkaran, the tobacconist in town centre, as the man carved out thick strips of tobacco. Paakkaran was a dark, frail grasshopper of a man, in his mid forties. But the way Ammini looked at him and his fingers invariably led to the mothalali starting a fight that evening. Her frank curiosity and unhindered gaze were things he did not wish to permit.
It just wasn’t proper.
He hated that his wife had a world of her own—a younger world that seemed to greatly interest her. It just wasn’t proper at all. He was, after all, the richest man in Karuthupuzha, and who could blame him if he expected a little more tact, a little more decorum and ladylike coyness from his wife? Thinking thus the mothalali drifted into troubled sleep, hoping tomorrow would bring him peace and freedom from the burning in his chest.
THE NEXT MORNING something strange happened. Amminikutty seemed not to remember that they had had a quarrel at all. The mothalali went about his morning ablutions in embarrassed hurriedness, but when he sat down to breakfast his wife seemed as innocent and sprightly as always. He looked to see if she was pretending. Her white eyes with their clearly defined, almost newborn irises were like fresh canvases waiting to be painted upon.
The mothalali let it pass. He smiled his smile and left for the mill.
A few days later the little hot wound in his stomach thought it might as well shut up shop and go home. But that was when Artist Hariharan embarked on a new venture. He started to sing loudly in his bath. At first he just hummed as if in accompaniment to his thoughts, but then, slowly, words emerged too. They were songs from old Hindi cinema, riding across to the mothalali and his wife like poisoned darts disguised as dragonflies. The mothalali didn’t understand a word of Hindi but it was obvious that these were romantic numbers. Love is all our cinemas are about, curse them. And from the little he knew about song and music and other such matters, the man sang well, curse him.
From then on Eeppachan Mothalali strained to observe, without letting his wife know, whether she paid any heed to the artist’s songs. But struggle as he might, he couldn’t know for sure. Sometimes she hummed a little tune herself, and then he burned with jealousy. Of course she had always hummed little tunes in their years together, but now he hated them. He also hated the big radio with its yellowing ivory ornamentation and ugly metal switches and giant wooden frequency modulator. He knew she listened to songs on it in her lonely afternoons.
One evening the mothalali came home early and heard Hariharan playing it up. He was singing loud and clear now, bolder than ever before, confident in his voice. Without putting his leather bag down Eeppachan Mothalali quietly walked to the kitchen at the far end of the house. Even here Hariharan’s song carried well, and the rice mill owner thought he saw an impish smile playing on his wife’s youthful lips.
He walked up to his bedroom, set his bag down and looked out of the window. A beautiful red rose shook as it rubbed against the unseen rhythm of Hariharan’s song. Banging the window shut, the mothalali saw in the mirror that his eyes were carved up by lines of blood, like cubes of ice beginning to fragment.
WALKING ALONG THE STREAM on the western edges of the town one evening, Eeppachan Mothalali let the breeze carry him into some deep thought. Had he made a mistake by marrying the beautiful Amminikutty? Wasn’t eighteen years too long a time to have waited to consider that question, anyway? He loved her, of course, but were the differences between them just too great to be bridged? Why was he suffering thus, when he well knew that his wife was chaste in mind and as innocent as a child? It wasn’t just this artist fellow (whom he could quash like a fly). Hadn’t he always been a jealous husband? Was it that the differences in age, attitudes and religion couldn’t, after all, be overcome with money and years of living together?
He thought of Ammini’s fresh, clear face and his heart was full of love. He was her guardian, her mentor, her husband, her protector. He had successfully weaned her away from her father. He had long forgiven her for not bearing him a child. He had given her the kind of life only princesses could dream of. And yet, he realised, she wasn’t thankful. Yes, that was it! She didn’t see it at all. Try as he might she felt no gratitude. Suddenly he experienced hot flashes of anger. But then he thought that it was all because of her innocence and inexperience in the matters of the world, and he saw in his own mind a bottomless well of pity.
A little inebriated by the breeze and the thinking, he walked home feeling wiser and at peace. A sage old frog in his garden croaked, trying to tell him something important. The mothalali just walked on and, happily, before he could knock Ammini opened the door, eagerly searching his face.
“It’s nothing. I had gone for a walk,” he said, smiling and touching her cheeks.
He went into their bedroom as Amminikutty went about warming water for his bath. He looked toward the open window at Hariharan’s home. Smiling, the mothalali shut the window.
Luckily for him, the artist wasn’t singing.
SHE MADE ELABORATE PILLOWS so that he could sleep propped up, to ease his acidity. She kept fruits and snacks ready, so that he could have frequent small meals. She took his filter coffee to him piping hot, as she had done for her father before the marriage. Eeppachan Mothalali felt some respite from the pangs in his heart.
Amminikutty still stood lost at her window sometimes, and Hariharan sang every day for long hours. But now the mothalali did not let these things bring back his old worries. He still felt a little irritated when the big radio played and Ammini sat lost in front of it, but he took his mind off it by pleasurably turning over in his mind the profit figures from his business.
The little star above saw this island of peace in their lives and liked it. It joked about their story to its friends, and eventually began to get bored. So one evening, it changed things.
Now, Ammini had a habit of applying mustard oil on her limbs to keep them moisturised. On this particular evening, when Eeppachan Mothalali returned from the mill, he found his wife luxuriously applying oil to one of her legs. The problem was that she was in their bedroom, her leg propped up on the bed, and her sari clumped up at the knee. One slick, slender leg was turning, pricelessly golden, in the glow of the lamp. The window that faced the artist’s house was open, its curtains wide apart. It was totally dark outside.
“Stupid woman!” Eeppachan Mothalali shouted, dropping his leather bag and running to draw the curtains. He drew it with such force that Ammini started.
“B-but there is no one there,” she said, her voice shaky and vulnerable, her leg dropping to the floor..
“Stupid woman,” he repeated. “When it’s dark outside, you don’t see anyone. But when it’s light inside, anyone can see you!” Though he was explaining as to a child, she saw his eyes turning red in anger. He went over to the window again, opened the curtains a trifle and put just his face outside. The wind blew the hair off his balding pate and the crickets mocked him. And like that, his face out, his eyes scanning the dark for their artist neighbour and his prying eyes, Eeppachan Mothalali said something he had never said before: “Dirty woman.”
Ammini looked up sharply. She realised that he had suggested she had deliberately kept the curtains apart. As she quickly got up to set about preparing dinner, Amminikutty suddenly missed her father.
IN THE WEEK THAT FOLLOWED, the mothalali was under some stress as certain irregularities in the functioning of his mill had been brought up at the local police station. It was speculated that someone in the city had lodged a complaint about cheating, but even the most curious gossipers in Karuthupuzha dared not pry too much into incidents that could paint Eeppachan Mothalali in a bad light. The matter was hushed up, and when Sukumaran the constable came by to finish the formalities of investigation, the mothalali offered him the big radio in his home by way of a bribe.
IN THE SWEATY DARKNESS OF HIS HOME, the artist worked. It was curious, because he worked in pitch darkness. Since his pictures came straight from his soul, he didn’t need the mediation of sight to put them down on canvas. So when he set about his art, Hariharan always switched off all the lights. Most of his windows were shut permanently anyway.
He painted elaborate shapeless shapes of whichever colours fate chose, their contours often running over a little into the air beyond the edges of the canvas. He worked until he had wrung all the art out of his pain, then he cracked his knuckles and switched on the lights. He looked at his creation fondly, the way a father looks at his newborn child.
He then went to take his shower. And, as the cold water hit him, Hariharan had an idea. He would show some of his work to the simple rustics of Karuthupuzha! It would be interesting to see the reactions of these unintellectual, uncritical, unmoneyminded people here. Maybe innocence would see in his work what pedantic, prejudiced, hairsplitting idiocy couldn’t.
Slowly he began to sing, lathering the soap deep into his French beard, working his voice up to a feverish pitch.
A WEEK FROM THAT PARTICULAR BATH of Hariharan’s, Karuthupuzha’s first ever art exhibition was held in the town library building. The walls were adorned with lines of canvases, each with unexplained flashes of colour. The tables and chairs were removed to make way for the visiting
townsfolk, many of whom had suddenly turned connoisseurs.
At the far end, behind the only desk in the hall sat the shy Hariharan, self-consciously braiding his beard.
“That represents the blood and sweat and tears of the common labourer whose cry no one hears,” claimed Mustafa, the man with the big plans.
“I think this one is about god’s indifference to the suffering of man.” This from Kunjhali, the postman. He was contemplating a painting of a bright red line coming down like a shaft through shades of pale blue. “Great,” he certified, “great.”
“Do not look at them like that, you ignorant fools,” corrected George Kutty the young intellectual, who unconsciously felt he was closer to the works than anyone else. “Art needs to be experienced more than understood.”
There was a sudden stiffening in the air as Eeppachan Mothalali walked in. He came in as though he were on some other business. He looked at the paintings in the manner of one in a hurry. He moved from one to the other, along the pictures on one side, as people made way deferentially. When he reached the desk at the end he nodded absently to Hariharan, not meeting his eye.
The mothalali deftly turned to the other wall of exhibits, and stopped at one. Everyone, including Hariharan, turned their eyes to the painting he was looking at. It was a wide canvas with two streaks of different colour, one a sharp curve, the other a straighter line perpendicularly cutting across the first. The curved line was done in golden, with a little bit of black, like hair.
Invisible yet in the evening light above, the star winked at its neighbours and nudged them to watch.
A slow fire was beginning to catch in the mothalali’s heart. The acid came out of the pores in his stomach, looked about and decided not to go back in for now. Eeppachan Mothalali’s strained mind interpreted the painting before him. It seemed to him the surreptitious representation of a lady bent over her bed, applying mustard oil on a long naked leg!
Eeppachan Mothalali stopped only to throw a murderous glance at Artist Hariharan. The latter was looking straight at him, and the mothalali fancied that he saw a mischievous smile play on the artist’s dark lips.
As the people of Karuthupuzha turned back to the homegrown works of art, Eeppachan Mothalali stormed out without seeing the rest of the paintings. His eyes were cracked with lines of red again, as if lava were beginning to surface from under a tortured earth.
HE DECIDED TO WALK, asking Velu, his driver, to take the big Ambassador back home. With each stride he grew calmer. Slowly he buried his passion, and his eyes became frozen lakes again. He concentrated on his heartbeat until the thudding in his chest slowed. His breathing was now deep and strong.
He was good at bending things the way he liked, and he would deal with this too.
With decisive steps he walked up his garden as the old frog in the grass croaked urgently. He opened the door and found Amminikutty in the kitchen, her hands smeared with rice batter. Seeing him she stood, beginning to smile.
Eeppachan Mothalali walked up to her and administered a tight slap. Not lashing out, but carefully administering. The slap, though it dislodged Ammini’s tooth, was not a product of passion, but of calculation. It wouldn’t do to have a wife so unmoved. That is why he had to administer a slap. The act was similar to the way we sometimes apply a hot towel to our cheeks to ease toothache. We wince at first, but it eases the pain. It came not from anger but from power. And with it ended Ammini’s illusions of being loved, being protected, even being looked upon with friendliness. Her golden fields and angelic scarecrows vanished in a hurry and forever. A permanent look of defeat established itself on her face
Far above, the star winced at the disproportionate consequences of its doings and hid behind a dark cloud.
With terrifying calmness Eeppachan Mothalali walked into their bedroom, rolled up his mattress and walked out, stopping at the door to say, “I’ll sleep at the mill tonight.”
MUCH LATER THAT NIGHT Amminikutty got up from the kitchen floor, alone and with dry tears on her cheeks. She washed her mouth though she had long drunk her own blood dry. With the cold water, the anger struck. It was as if a vengeful, bloodthirsty spirit had come free from a tree it had been nailed to for forgotten centuries.
“Dirty woman dirty woman dirty woman,” she chanted. If Eeppachan Mothalali saw her now even he might fear her.
She walked into the bedroom as the last of her sobs died out. She drew back the curtains and let the virginal night air fan her hurt cheek. With the curtains pulled revealingly back she switched on the light, mounted her leg on the bed, and with her sari bunched up at the knee began to smear mustard oil onto the smooth canvas of her skin.