R Chudamani’s Echoes of the Veena, translated into English by Prabha Sridevan is a collection of short stories that explore a variety of themes, such as the psychological landscape of a girl who had to stop going to school, of the insecurity of a mother who sucks the life out of her child, of a deserted woman who stands tall with her self-respect intact, of the loneliness of a forgotten actor of yester-years.
The following is the story ‘The Dancing Ganesha’ from the book.
‘Do you know your name?’
The little girl laughed.
‘Ayye! As if I won’t know.’
‘Then tell me.’
‘I’ve told you before.’
‘Tell me again.’
Along with her name she too stretched to her full majestic
‘No, that is not your name.’
‘Your name is not Meenalochani.’
‘Then what is my name?’
Nandu uttered the name softly, as though reciting an incantation in the same breath.
‘Your name is Suthanthira.’
The little face frowned.
‘No, my name is Meenalochani. I don’t like the other name, nor do I like you.’
The voice was filled with tears. She seemed to be shocked at the rejection of her name, as if her identity had been denied. It was too heavy a burden for a child to be riddled with the question,‘Who am I?’
Nandu stopped the child from going away by holding her hand.
‘Don’t get angry. You’re Meenalochani to everyone and to yourself. But to me you are Suthanthira. Since I like you very much, I have given you a pet name. Now you have two names – Meenalochani and Suthanthira.’
Suthanthira laughed joyously on receiving this sudden windfall.
When she saw the little girl seated casually with a regal air on a bundle of dirty clothes on the cart drawn by the old man, Nandu felt that the name ‘Suthanthira’ was inscribed on her feet. She was walking along Thana Street with the bag of vegetables in one hand and Paappa her little son in the other…She felt that the walk to the market would be an outing in the fresh air for him, and would be of help to her mother too. It was then that she saw Suthanthira, as though she were a vision. The descending rays of the sun falling on the child burnished her with a golden glow by sheer chance.
It looked like the halo that adorns a god. The child was the goddess of freedom, seated at a height untouched by this world’s sorrows.
Child, freedom…two words with the same meaning.
Four days later, the old man, followed by his granddaughter, had come home. He had delivered the laundered clothes and picked up the clothes to be washed. Nandu’s surprise dissolved in joy when she saw them. While he was sorting out the clothes inside, the girl sat outside on the front steps, singing to herself. The yellow frock shone brightly against her dark skin. Her curly hair was plaited and fastened with a violet clip on the top. There must be a loving mother or grandmother at home. Nandu went with her child and sat next to her, and extended a friendly smile.
‘What is your name, my dear?’
The little girl looked her up and down and turned her head away smartly.
‘Why don’t you reply?’
‘Do you know my name? It is Nandini.’
Nandu’s ruse worked. The girl turned her head towards Nandu and, not to be beaten in this name game, said, ‘My name is Meenalochani.’Then she raised her eyebrows. ‘Who are you? I have never seen you before.’
‘You know the Amma and Aiya of this house?’
‘I am their daughter.’
‘Chinnamma alone is their daughter.’
‘I am their older daughter. I have come from Bangalore. This is my son.’
Meenalochani lowered her eyes to look at the son.
‘What is your name?’
‘He won’t talk.’
‘Doesn’t he know how to speak? He is soooo big. Then you tell me his name.’
‘Ayye! It is obvious he’s a child. I’m asking his name.’
‘His name is Paappa too.’
How she longed for the day when he would come and she could call him Madanagopal and hear him say ‘Amma’ and come running to hug her.
Paappa sat next to her in the same position as she had placed him. She had her arm around him to keep him from falling. He had the physical growth of a two-year old but his fixed eyes were lifeless. She wiped the saliva that dribbled from his mouth with a towel.
She could hear voices from inside the house.
‘Is the new silk blouse there? The blue one with checks?’
‘It is here, Amma.’
‘Shall we be friends?’ Nandu asked the girl.
It was only after the friendship was affirmed that she shared the secret.
‘Your name is Suthanthira.’
‘These days, which washerman comes home to collect the clothes? This man is an old-timer and also lives in Purasaivaakkam…my good fortune,’ Amma said, as she came to the front room after setting the cooker on the stove.
Nandu stood looking at the small Ganesha statuette in sandstone, with a sandalwood-coloured enamel coating, which stood on the TV. She was not impressed by Ganesha’s crown or his four hands or the left foot that rested on the ground. It was the right foot that captivated her; turned sideways, with the heel raised and the toes alone touching the ground.The artist had captured Ganesha in a moment of that dance movement.The next moment that foot would rest on the ground and the left foot would be raised, with just the toes on the ground.This foot after that…thakkita tharikita… the toes not quite resting on the ground. Joy and abandon had fully permeated the movement.
‘Otherwise I would have to run to the laundry on the days that the maid does not turn up for work.’
‘Why? Can’t Appa or Kala go?’
‘Kala, indeed…She has time just for her romance. And your father – fat chance of him going to the laundry. He will shout the house down, asking me if he is a washerman. Don’t you know his attitude when it comes to housework?’
Nandu knew about not just her father’s attitude…she knew about Paappa’s father’s attitude too.
‘Muthu, I’m very tired. I will lie down for some more time. Can you heat the milk, please? I will come and make my coffee,’ she had asked him one morning after a bout of fever.
‘No chance. Housework is your duty.’
‘The house is yours too.’
‘A discourse on feminism?’
‘If I ask for human kindness, is it feminism?’
‘Are you saying I am a beast?’
This was just a sample. She had been shocked to encounter the many ugly things in her five years of married life. It was meant to be a bond tied by trust. She had dreamt that it would bring with it a lifelong friendship. Everything ended with the question, ‘Was this the man I married?’
Then those words came as the final nail.
‘Nandu, tomorrow evening I have invited a very important person and his wife for tea. He is a business acquaintance. It is an honour that he has accepted my invitation. The food must be really special. As his wife is coming, you must join us. Don’t appear before them with this wonderful thing you have given birth to. It must not show its face while they are here.’
She felt as if the crown of heartlessness had cracked and fallen on her head.
Should she live with him even after this?
This was the only thought on her mind ever since she had come to her parents’ house with her son.
Amma was horrified.
‘What is this thunderbolt?’
‘Amma, you don’t know all that happened there. I shudder to even say it.It is not a matter of a day or two,but five years. His words and his behaviour… enough!’ She gestured with finality.
‘Whatever it is,he takes care of his wife and child, doesn’t he?’
‘I can take care of my child and myself. I am a postgraduate.’
‘But a child needs the support of a father. Did you think of that? That too…this child.’
‘I don’t like the name you have given me. I like Meenalochani,’ insisted the girl.
‘Don’t say that, Suthanthira. The name I have given you is such a beautiful one. You will realize that when you grow up.’
The two of them were sitting in the veranda. Suthanthira went to see her on some days even if her grandfather had no work there, because of the friendship that had taken root. She would even put Paappa on her lap and stare at him.
‘Why is he like this? He is like a little baby, not speaking, dribbling and staring at the same spot.’
‘You know about little babies?’
‘Yes, I know. There is a little baby at home, who does not dribble all the time, looks here and there, crawls and calls me “kkaa” already.’
Maybe with his medical treatment, Paappa will also do all that one day. Did the continuation of treatment depend on the financial support afforded by Muthu’s job as the manager of a big electronics company?
A cool wind blew from somewhere and played with the leaves of the mango tree in the compound. The mango leaves got drunk with sudden joy and started jumping up and down. Raindrops pierced the sky and fell on the ground releasing a treasure of coolness.
Meenalochani set Paappa on the floor with a thud and ran down with a squeal of joy. She ran towards the tree and started dancing and spinning around. She was wearing a green dress that had been darned. As she spun around, all the green of the earth seemed to smear the green of her dress. Nandu kept looking at her with Paappa tucked between her arms.
Suthanthira danced. Only she could dance…no fetters on her feet…or the dancing Ganesha could. In the tips of her toes that lit up the ground, freedom danced with abandon.
‘Appa and Amma want me to get married next month, as soon as I’m through with my BA exams.’ After dinner when the English news was over, Kala switched off the TV and sat near her sister. ‘They are afraid Ravi and I will cross our limits,’ Kala laughed.
‘What do his folks say?’
‘Ravi’s father has agreed. I think his mother is not so happy. She wanted him to marry her brother’s daughter. But I feel she will give in to her son’s wishes.’
‘That’s a relief. So the marriage will go off without a hitch, right?’
‘That’s what, Akka…There should be no hitch, no? I am afraid his mother will call it off at the slightest excuse.’
Kala looked at her and then looked down. ‘Don’t you know it could be anything? The girl did not do namaskaram properly by touching the elders’ feet, the girl’s mother was not respectful, or…the girl’s sister is a vazhavetti3 – silly excuses like that…’
Kala tried to smile, but failed. She looked at Nandu once and fell silent.
Nandu stood up.
‘I will go check if Paappa has wet himself in his sleep, Kala. I am feeling sleepy too…Good night.’
Nandu took two steps as she headed inside.
‘I love…Ravi…very much.’
One could clearly see the shadow of the dancing statue on the wall behind in the brightness of the night lights.The toe tips danced in delight.
‘Amma, will you give me this figurine?’
‘But of course. Let the Ganesha bring you good fortune when he enters your house. Let good things happen to you.’
Amma’s voice was saturated with love and Nandu melted for a minute. Then despair enveloped her.
Every relationship is beautiful and begins with love…with the husband, with the child, with the sibling. Every bond must be a loving one, enriching one’s life. But today, they were all chains that would not allow her to be free to fly towards peace. Her husband, a chain; her child, another chain; and her sibling, yet another.
She placed the Ganesha in her shoulder bag. On the day she set off to return to her husband, she had the child hugging one shoulder, and on the other shoulder was the bag.
Her luggage was loaded on the taxi and Appa hurried her. ‘Come on, Nandu. The Brindavan Express will not wait for us. When the taxi came, the clock chimed four – a good
Appa and Amma behaved as if she were a newly married bride going to her husband. Appa had taken a day off to make sure that her husband would not fly into a rage because she had left him suddenly and come away.
‘One minute, Appa. I’ve asked her to come.There she is.’ Her curly hair flying, her feet so fleet that they did not
touch the ground, Suthanthira came running, wearing a brown frock, and stopped, panting hard.
Nandu knelt down, holding Paappa in her arms. She hugged her and kissed her on her cheek.
‘Is this necessary now?’ Nandu could hear her Amma mumble, standing on the veranda.
‘Shall I go, Suthanthira? Sorry, Meenalochani – you did not like that name, did you?’
‘I like it now.’ The little girl, who had grown fond of Nandu in these two months, was visibly moved. ‘When will you come back?’
‘I will come for my sister’s wedding.’
‘Will he talk then?’
Nandu took out a packet of Cadbury’s Gems from her bag.
‘It is only for you. This is for you too.’ She took out the sandstone Ganesha.
‘Pillayar Sami who dances.’
‘Just for me?’
‘Yes. When you grow up and get married, give it to some little girl like you. Shall I go?’ She got into the taxi with Paappa.
‘Dance, Suthanthira. Like you danced that day in the rain. Dance like that. I’ll leave as I watch you dance…’
Suthanthira, tears trembling in her eyes, began to dance… her hands swaying, her body spinning…