A Disobedient Girl

  • 06 Jul - 12 Jul, 2024
  • Mag The Weekly
  • Fiction

“Amma wanted me to name her Ruby, like her grandmother, but I prefer Madhavi. It means a sweet, intoxicating drink.”

“It’s a better name,” Latha said, “Madhavi. It sounds like a song. It suits our baby, too. She seems so good tempered.”

“Gehan wanted Madhuvahini, which means ‘carrying sweetness,’ like a river, but I don’t believe in big fat names for small babies.”

“Madhavi is better,” Latha said again, trying not to notice how uncomfortable the baby looked in Thara’s arms, and then blurting out, “Here, hold her like this.”

“She spat on me! Could you take her?” And there was the new baby in her arms.

And before long Madhavi, the new baba to Latha, was thrust so repeatedly into her arms that all Thara had to do was hold her daughter to nurse her. And sometimes take her from Latha to pass her to Gehan when he came home from work. By the time Madhayanthi arrived, barely two years later, full even as an infant with the promise of her name, with her pouting mouth and long-lashed eyes all stretched and doelike, Madhavi had already become a kitchen child who toddled behind Latha, mispronouncing her name, calling her “Thatha!” “Thatha!” “Thatha!”

Of course, Gehan assumed she had learned how to call for her father and didn’t seem to notice, scoffed Thara, that the two syllables were far too short to be mistaken for “Thaththa.” It didn’t matter to Latha either way, because Madhavi needed her so much of the time that it was quite clear to which member of the family she was referring.

Soon she was gifted, by Gehan no less, with a newly procured houseboy, to help her out. Which, at first, wasn’t any help at all since, all of five years old because Gehan’s mother had said it was better to start them young and with a type of retardation that was unexplained to her, the boy knew nothing and she had to spend time teaching him simple cookery while all of them ate bought food, which brought its own share of ridicule from the usual quarter, Mrs. Perera, Gehan’s mother. Nonetheless, Latha liked the new boy, who came from the estates, they told her, just like the other one. The only difference was that he was Tamil, wiry, dark brown, and moist eyed, a baby himself, except by comparison with the plumped, pampered ones in pink and cream frills whom he, too, had to tend.

The only sore spot had come over the handling of the nappies. They had to be washed by hand, and Latha had to do it. She wouldn’t have minded it, really, except that she got tired of the armies of visitors who all inquired, and who were all assured, that the baby wore cloth diapers and that they were hand washed.

“By hand, yes, Badra Aunty” or Srimathi Nenda or some other version of aunt “only by hand.”

To which Badra Aunty or Srimathi Nenda or whatever other garden variety of woman between the age of forty and sixty-five who was visiting at the time would intone: “Because these days there are disposable things available and those are very bad, vereeeey bad for the baby. You must never bring them into the house.”

“My god,” Thara would say, “I’m not like those mothers who put their babies in disposable things.” Which would have been all right, but she always added, every single time, “I boil the nappies afterward and then even add nappy disinfectant and boil again and then, after they are dried in the full sun, I won’t put them on the baby unless I have ironed them!”

And the older women would beam, their congratulations and approval breaking over the liar before them in great waves while Latha stewed and fumed in the background and fought the urge to storm in and set the record straight. Which perhaps accounted for the reason why, when Thara scoffed at her mother’s attempts to stick with tradition and proven practice and tie the long gauze towels around her belly to tighten her uterus and restore her former shape, Latha supported Thara and unpinned the wraps herself.

“Silly old wives’ tales. If these things work, then why does she have a belly?”

Thara complained.

“Hmmm,” Latha said, the pins stuck in her mouth, saving her from actually having to utter lies herself.

“Don’t you think? You have a flat belly, and you had a baby, after all,” she said, after the pins were gone.

“That’s the thing,” Latha said, agreeing, about the flat belly and the baby, and comforting herself with those two truths, burying the memory of the nuns and the taut wraps that had helped her to regain her shape in those hills.

Once the houseboy was more or less trained to do the bare minimum and sometimes a little more with frequent supervision, Latha returned to the far more entertaining task of pushing Madhavi up and down the driveway of their house in her pretty covered pram that had come from England and once belonged to Thara’s grandmother. After a year of that, she started taking Madhavi for walks to the end of the road, and a few months later to the Independence Square Park, but only after Madhavi had eaten her fruit and been freshly dressed for the evening, and only after she herself had taken a body wash under the headless shower spout in the servants’ bathroom and put on a clean dress and a matching pair of sandals from the many she now bought with her own money whenever she pleased.

And that was what she was doing when she met Ajith.

“Latha?” She heard the voice beside her and froze. Madhavi too turned her head to stare at the man seated on the stone bench. What had it been now? Five years? Six?

“Latha! It is you!”

She didn’t say anything at first. Time didn’t seem to have touched him. There he stood, broad-chested straight and sure of himself. Still in one of his shirts with the man on a horse embroidered in white over his pocket, still with his clean feet settling easily into fine leather sandals. Still nothing like Gehan.

He didn’t look that different from the last time she had seen him, at the back gate of the Vithanages’ house, underneath the mango tree that hardly produced any fruit anymore but stood there anyway, providing its helpful shade. She had gone there to tell him about the pregnancy, now that the whole story was out. She had moved her shoulders out, first one side, then the other, to show him the half-moon-shaped scratches along her upper arms. For a moment she had even slipped back into her teledrama role as the wronged woman, the one who would be avenged by a man, any man, because all men loved her, even other women’s men.

“Mrs. Vithanage,” she had said,

“What for?” he had asked, his palm stroking her right arm and shifting almost instantly from the gentleness of concern to the pressure of desire.

“Because they found out I am pregnant.”

He had laughed. And although, afterward, he had said he would help her, find a friend, ask somebody, borrow money, a whole list of things, she had known he would not. It was just a story he could tell his friends, about the girl he had made pregnant when he was still waiting for the results of his university entrance exams. Some girl whose name he would probably not even tell them, pretending that he was protecting her honor that way. He had stayed only long enough for all the usual things, and then left for good without a backward glance, leaving her to stand by herself with the realization that no, she was not in a teledrama, she was no heroine, and all her blunders were her own to sort out, nobody would fight for her.

“This is not my baby,” she said at last. “This is Gehan’s… Thara’s baby.”

He crossed his arms in front of his chest, and something inside him seemed to slump. He started to say something, then stopped and stood there nodding at her, gazing at Madhavi.

“I heard that they got married,” he said finally, “a year or so ago, right?”

“Three years ago,” Latha said. “They’re expecting another baby any day now,” Madhavi began to hurl herself forward in the pram, making it jerk back and forth. Latha bent down to her. “We’ll go soon, baba, stop doing that, you’ll fall out.”

He shifted his weight from foot to foot, as if trying to find something to say that would make her listen for a little longer. “I was abroad,” he blurted. “My parents sent me to America to go to university there,” he said. “To Michigan,” he added, after a pause, “a place called Michigan.”

“Michigan,” she repeated and nodded.

“It’s a cold part of America.”

A car pulled up not far from where they were standing, and two young girls got out. Ajith glanced over at them, and Latha seized the distraction to try to get away.

“I have to take the baby back home now,” she said, trying to seem regretful.

“Have things been well for you, Latha?” he said, turning back to her and staring at her face with eyes that, precisely because he was so clearly not looking at her body, were doing just that. Latha nodded again. She could have been polite, asked the same question of him, but she had no interest in him, his body, his story, or making him feel good about any of it. He hadn’t even asked about the child she had borne. It was as it had always been; she was a means to an end, no more, no less. The thought must have shown on her face because he sounded awkward when he began speaking again. Good.

“I used to come here to run when I was home for holidays, Latha, but this is the first time I’ve visited since I came back for good. I am back for good now. I’m at the Central Bank… my father got me a job there.”

“That’s good, isn’t it? I’m happy to hear that.” She didn’t even try to make it sound like she meant it. Looking at him objectively, she thought how well he suited Thara. The two of them, something they called decency dripping off their shoulders like magic capes, the weight of their upper-class families almost a visible backdrop to their movements no matter what they did. How right Thara had been to choose another like herself, and how unlucky to have misjudged his character. In the end, coming from the “right family” had been his undoing. No, on second thought, they were not the same, Thara and Ajith, Latha thought. Thara had fought off her parents and turned down all the proposals, one after another, gone to Ajith’s house to plead with him, and finally chosen the one who had been closest to Ajith, marrying not Gehan but his association with the one she had loved since she was eleven years old. Was it love? Perhaps, or not. Perhaps it was just habit, or want. Ajith was the one she had chosen, the one she had wanted, and maybe Thara, who had been told so relentlessly that the most important choice, her husband, would not be hers to make, had wanted to force her parents to learn otherwise. But Ajith had listened to his parents, let them send him to this cold place he talked about, and come back to his good job carrying nothing but guilt. Latha turned the pram around to go back the way she had come. She didn’t want to be reminded of the past. Didn’t she live with it every day?

“Latha, wait. Tell me, are you keeping well? Do you need any help or anything?” he asked.

“I work for the Pereras now.

I’m not at the Vithanages’,”

she said.

“How is Gehan?”

She shrugged. “He’s the same, I suppose.”

“And how is…. How is Thara, Latha? He touched the top of her shoulder. “Can you tell me?”

She glanced down at his hand and waited until he dropped it. “Different,” she said and felt oddly pleased to be able to leave him standing there, staring after her, wondering what she meant. The real para balla, she thought to herself. He’s the one who deserved to be called that, not Gehan.

She didn’t decide to tell Thara until the day of Madhayanthi’s first birthday party, a whole year later. That was on the eighth of September, and the last of the monsoon rains were threatening the skies even as the birthday cake was cut, but they held off until the last furious guests, the two sets of grandparents, had left. And the only reason she did it was because that was the day Gehan and Thara had their ugliest fight.

It began because, at the party, Mrs. Vithanage made a disparaging remark about the fact that they never seemed to see their daughter and son-in-law at the big house anymore.

“It’s as if you live in the outstations! I mean after all, we are just around the corner from you, and surely you could visit more often.” Mrs. Vithanage was laid out in the reclining armchair at the end of the side veranda, one of two such chairs Thara had been given by the old couple when she got married. Latha liked those chairs. They were smooth to the touch from the years that separated them from their former life as magnificent teak trees on the family estate, which Latha had visited with Thara when they were girls, playing in the dark green paddy fields, eating raw mangoes and raw wood apple with vinegar and chilli and salt until the kahata made them hoarse, all the while studiously avoiding eye contact with any of the laborers,

the coconut pluckers and paddy farmers, with their bare upper bodies and servile manners that Mrs. Vithanage had pointed out to them,
as a warning.