| by MANJU KAPUR
In this calmer state, she became aware of the fatigue of her body. She looked around her and smiled. How long it seemed since that morning! She had travelled so far. It was time to sleep.
'Phenji' Paro's young, untroubled voice could be heard.
'Coming, bebu. Virmati mentally prepared herself for another day of appearing normal as she walked quickly towards the house.
Eating breakfast was agony. Paro sat beside her on her small, flat, wooden patra, and lovingly insisted on doling out spoonfuls of fresh white butter and watching them melt into clear pools on the hot paratha. 'Everybody says how thin you have become, Phenji,' she said. With the help of almost as much mango pickle as butter, Virmati managed to eat one paratha, chewing slowly, concentrating on getting each mouthful successfully down. Her lassi she made very watery, with two green chillies sliced into it.
'Green chillies?' exclaimed Paro. 'In lassi?'
Virmati was aware of Kasturi's eyes turned momentarily towards her, in an appraising glance.
'I learnt this in the hostel,' explained Virmati. 'A Madrassi girl there showed us how to drink it with green chillies, ginger, and fried mustard seeds. Very tasty. I'll make it for everybody, sometime.'
Paro smiled, and Kasturi turned back to her parathas. Virmati decided she could not stay long. She could not endure more attention, more meals, more hiding.
It was evening, and Virmati was wandering confusedly outside in the garden. Desperately, she thought of how she felt last night. But that upsurge of confidence only tantalized her with its memory. In its place was a hollow helplessness she tried to fight. She needed help quickly. What about the dai who used to come for her mother? An old Muslim woman, she used to come every day after the children were born, to wash her mother's clothes and massage her. Her hands were gentle, practised hands. But how could she get in touch with her? It had always been her great-aunt who had managed that side of things.
But why was she thinking like this? Virmati gave herself a small shake. Maybe she could send word to Harish, get his address from Kanhiya. Harish would want to be involved. It wasn't only her's. After all, it wasn't only her's…
The next morning, Virmati set out quietly on a bicycle to meet Kanhiya. She had never been to Kanhiya's house, and knew that her unaccompanied appearance there would seem odd to his family. As she had expected, she was looked at strangely. The mother's beti, we have heard so much about you, I feel like you are the daughter of this house,' came with an edge to its tone. Then, 'Kanhiya? Oh no, he is not here. Studies all day long now, poor boy, now that the exams are near, sometimes in one friend's house, sometimes in another's. But who would know the ways of these boys better than you… with so many brothers. I will tell him.'
Later, to her husband, she commented, 'Those people don't know how to keep their daughters in order. Just think! Virmati came here to meet Kanhiya! Alone! No brother, uncle, cousin, nobody. So shameless! The poor boy must be protected from her. Are you listening?'
The husband grunted. His wife was from a village, and tended to take these things too seriously. After all, women were going alone to jails without their men folk. They could surely visit a family friend, and that too in his own house, in front of his mother. Still, he was not one to interfere.
Virmati waited anxiously for Kanhiya to return her call. Nothing happened. When she asked her brother about him in a circumspect way, Kailashnath said tersely that he had no time for idle students. Virmati was nonplussed. Next day she visited the house again, but with similar results.
That night, Virmati lingered in the angan next to her father after the children had eaten and dispersed. Her father's charpai was already spread, the movement of the white mosquito net testifying to the small breezes blowing.
'Pitaji, said Virmati.
Suraj Prakash glanced at her. Virmati noticed how dark the shadows under his eyes had grown, how puffy his face looked. Her heart contracted. In all her troubles, he had never raised his voice to her, had never directly communicated any of the humiliation her mother kept assuring her he was feeling.'
'Pitaji, in Lahore all the girls wear at least two – two bangles. I also want a pair.' Virmati said, pouting slightly, and holding out bare wrists for him to see.
'It was you who insisted to leaving behind your jewellery when you left, beti.'
'I know, Pitaji. But now that I am almost a teacher, it doesn't look nice, such bare arms.'
'Bare arms never did, but were you one to listen?'
Her father's gentle way of speaking deprived this statement of any sting. 'so you want one pair or two?' he continued.
'Just one, Pitaji.'
Virmati's Amritsar visit was soon over. She had to go back to Lahore, take her exams, do well. Indu embraced her again and again with tears in her eyes. Kasturi said, 'I hope you do well and justify all the fuss that has been made over your studies.' Kailash hugged her awkwardly. The younger ones waited impatiently for her to go, so they could run off and play. Paro insisted on coming to the station.
Back to college, the books in her attache case unread, the problem in her belly unsolved. That night, with legs trembling, mouth dry, praying fervently for no contempt, she told Swarna.
Swarna said nothing, merely looked, careful in the moment of non-surprise, to betray no shock, only the routine 'Are you sure?'
Virmati nodded miserably. She braced herself for the questions Swarna was bound to ask, questions about the father, and where was he, and why was he not… perfectly legitimate questions, questions she herself would have shot off like bullets to one in a similar situation.
'And he…?' Delicately put, but Virmati was not in a state where delicacy could spare her feelings. She turned even redder, but forced herself to look at Swarna.
'He… he doesn't know,' she stammered. 'Otherwise…'
Virmati's voice fell, as she hoped Swarna would understand how it might be if only he had been there.
'And now?' asked Swarna, looking at the shame on the face of the woman before her, whose family was to be feared, whose lover was invisible in her time of need, and who in the end had to turn to her, a room-mate of eight months.'What choice do I have, Swarna? She asked, getting up and starting to gather her books. 'Now I have to study. The exams are about to start, and God alone knows how I will manage. If I don't pass, I cannot hold my head up in Amritsar, let alone other things…'
Virmati approached her exams in a haze of sickness and worry. She had heard stories of women sometimes bleeding to death after these home-done abortions. She was frightened, but as soon as her exams were over she would go in search of a dai. For now, she had to finish what she had come to Lahore to do. Let the corpse on the funeral pyre be a qualified BT at least.
And then, 'Viru! Viru! Triumph glowed in Swarna's face.
'What?' asked Virmati, raising her head from her book with an effort.
Virmati turned away irritated. 'I have to study,' she said in a strained voice. 'Where is the time for guessing?'
Though Swarna looked surprised, Virmati added no palliative.
'Oh, ho! You're so touchy!' she exclaimed. 'And here I've got good news for you. Auntie has arranged it all! Now, what do you say?'
The news penetrated Virmati's bent head. Arranged it all. She had hardly hoped to be let off so easily. She remained still, unable to say anything.
Swarna shook her, 'Have you gone dumb? Aren't you happy. It was not easy to get Auntie to do it, but neither does she want you exposed, or in danger, which she felt certain you would be. I had to tell her about it, Viru! She wouldn't have done it otherwise. There will be two meetings with the doctor, both in her house. It seems that's the best way to do it, the most private. In the hospital it would have cost at least a hundred, but because of Auntie, here it will only be fifty.'
'When?' Virmati forced herself to ask.'
'When? Oh, soon. Soon. Better to get it over, no? But the first meeting to make sure you are … you know … though I said you are … but still the doctor needs to see. The meeting is fixed for day after.'
Virmati knew she was not expected to make any kind of response. All that was; required was gratitude, which she most abjectly felt. Her mind saw each hour sluggishly dragging along till the day after, when deliverance from this unwanted burden would come.
The next day was an exam. Mechanically Virmati answered the questions. The fans suspended on their long poles whirred overhead, but she was sweating despite that. He mouth was dry, and the cautious sips of water she took from the glass in front of her did nothing to relieve her thirst.
The invigilator brushed past Virmati's table, and stood behind her, looking at what she had written. Virmati tried to make the pen in her hand move faster, some of the knowledge she had gained during the year was bound to be relevant, and in a daze she wrote whatever she remembered. The main thing was to finish, somehow get this torture over, so that there would be no distractions from the more major, body-wrenching torture of tomorrow.
As she tossed and turned, one thought kept recurring. By this time tomorrow it will all be over, over. But suppose it was over in a very final sense? Suppose she died? She got up from her bed, and looked around. There was a dim light coming in from the weak bulb in the corridor. Her glance fell on a fruit knife lying on the table along with some apples. Absent-mindedly she picked it up and walked outside. She sat down on the parapet and looked at the empty courtyard. Everybody was sleeping peacefully, everybody except for her. She picked up the knife and slowly slashed at the soft skin on her calf. If she could brand her name there, that would mean she could survive the pain of tomorrow. But by the time she had carved out 'V' there was too much blood for her to finish.
Next morning the girls took a tonga at seven in the morning.
'I think we had better,' Virmati had said to Swarna the night before, 'I may not be well to cycle back.'
Swarna looked concerned, and on the way to Miss Datta's held Virmati's sweaty hand in her own warm, dry one. The clip clop of the horse's hooves was the only sound between them. With an effort, Virmati pushed her thoughts to beyond the event.
'I have these bangles to sell,' she said, showing Swarna her wrist.
'Is that why you came back with them!' exclaimed Swarna.
'But won't they mind?'
'I have no other money. I have to.'
'What will you tell them?'
'War effort. Something like that.' As an afterthought Virmati added, 'Even Shaku Phenji gave a bangle when they came collecting in her college.
'Here is a government college. Nobody will come collecting from the RBSL institution.'
Both girls looked at the narrow gold bangles glinting on Virmati's arms. The evening before she left, her father had got her this new pair from the shop, the latest design, he said as he gave them to her, not the old heavy stuff he supposed she was getting too modern for. They were flattish and had small flowers carved on to them, interspersed with green and red enamel leaves. Slowly Virmati took them off and pressed them into Swarna's lap.
'Keep them,' she said. 'In case – Swarna tried to resist, but Virmati grabbed her wrist and slipped them on.
They reached the house before either girl could think of anything more to say.
Virmati had not reckoned on the discomfort she would feel. Forget. Forget, forget, forget. She felt a deep emptiness inside her, which she construed as yearning for the Professor. Oh, how she longed to meet him, to throw herself on his chest, babble out her story, feel his love and sympathy, his regret that he wasn't there pouring over her in a great tidal wave that would cleanse her off all guilt and sorrow!
With these feelings, she did her practicals. They were conducted during the regular class hours of the SL School. The examiner who sat in the back row of the class, could he tell that she had just had an abortion?
Only with Swarna could she be comfortable. Swarna who knew what she was, and didn't condemn.
'What will he say?' Swarna once asked curiously.
'He? Oh, he'll be very sorry.'
'I hope they won't mind about the bangles.'
Virmati's face clouded for a moment. She regretted the bangles. She had known that her father had given her those exquisitely crafted pieces with care and love.
'I'll have to say that when everybody was giving, I also had to. Our brave British soldiers need support from the Nazi menace.'
Swarna snorted. 'It's an imperialist war,' she said.
'I do not think that will be their response,' said Virmati.
It wasn't. 'Next you will rob your father's entire shop for the war. How is it any concern of yours? Have you seen?' Shrill, angry tones echoed across the angan. The father disturbed and withdrawn. 'Tell her, Ji. She thinks she can dispose of what is given to her, when and where she likes. One can't trust her with anything.'
Virmati was stung. Silently she swore she would never take another gold article from her family as long as she lived. When Indu was married, she had been covered with jewellery. But as for her, they grudged her everything. Nothing was hers, not her body, her future, not even a pair of paltry, insignificant gold bangles.
She turned towards her father. He sat there slumped in his chair in the angan, looking tired as usual. Normally her mother, so concerned about his health, tried to keep domestic worries from him, but the loss of something gold could not be regarded as a mere household matter. This was business. The children were quiet, stilled by the shouting and the anger.
So Virmati's year at Lahore ended much as it had begun, with the displeasure of her elders gathered thick about her head. This time, though, she found it harder to accept their disapproval without question.
'She's become so independent,' she heard her mother complain to her aunt when they were sitting together preparing for the evening meal.
Virmati refused to acknowledge this. She went on picking the little nuggets of dirt from the rice, tossing it into the air without looking at the older women. Yes, she was independent. Her body had gone through knives and abortion, what could happen to her now that she could
To be continued......