By Shanthi K Appanna, translated from the Kannada by Srinath Perur
This story—titled “Payana” in Kannada—is from Shanthi K Appanna’s first collection of stories Manasu Abhisaarike (2016). The critic HS Raghavendra Rao writes of her stories: “Shanthi confronts the philosophical question of whether it is life itself that is monotonous to the end, or just the ways in which we perceive life. She tends to the answer that it is only when we transcend the frames imposed upon our perceptions that life reveals itself as rich and vibrant. Her stories, by being alive to the need to reconcile individual interiority with life’s multiplicities, themselves become a means to liberation.” The collection has won several awards for Kannada writing, including the Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puraskar for 2017, which Shanthi received in December. SP
Madam, sorry I cannot help you. The other occupant has come. You have to share this berth with him,” the TTE said and went away. The Tamil boy on the upper berth snorted: “Madam, looks like your prayer has gone waste…” I gave a lopsided smile; then, worried I was scowling, dissolved the smile and awaited the Bhagesh with whom I was to share the berth. The Tamil boy above and, across the aisle, Naidu and three middle-aged sardars, seemed to be awaiting him too. There was a sudden anticipation in the air, as if a ghost we had breathlessly been trying to spot was finally revealing itself. It was not as if the excitement was unearned: we had all spent some time cursing this Bhagesh. Perhaps I most of all. I would be lying if I said that I wasn’t excited and warily curious at the prospect of sharing a berth with an unknown young man. But I could not possibly admit to it, and so I had spoken out more than the others.
This had happened once before. Subramani and I were newly married, living in a house with his parents, his sister and her children. When it turned out that he and I had to share a berth to Chennai, the thought filled me with a strange thrill, a tender joy. He was at one end of the berth, I was at the other. I had covered my legs with a small shawl, and with shy smiles slowly extended a leg towards the man who was at last mine.
I didn’t know where I was losing myself in that packed house. Subramani’s job had him leave home at seven in the morning and return at a time of the night when only lorries remained on the roads. There was a room in which my mother-in-law slept alone, tossing and turning and farting. In the hall, my father-inlaw, smoking beedis, turning on the light at intervals to go to the bathroom. Sometimes he would wake up, say “Listen, someone is calling… There’s a ghost on the street behind our house”, go out in the middle of the night, tie an old slipper to the back door and circle the house while urinating. In the midst of all this madness, Subramani would return and throw himself down on the mattress like a sack of onions. I would have liked him to bathe and come to bed. Not that it would have made any difference. He and I, our father-in-law, my sister-in-law and her children on the floor, we all slept in that hall. There was nothing that could happen between us. Even if I desired a little something lying there like a lump of scorching mud, he would drift off into his own world like a raincloud out of reach.
After all of that, it was my first journey with him. I was excited. There must have been coy glances tumbling from my eyes as I stretched my foot and tried to tickle his leg. He said, “Ei, move your leg, I’m wearing light-coloured pants,” and stood up. I was crestfallen. I sat there gazing into the darkness beyond the window. He said, “You should sleep now. You have an exam tomorrow.” He went and stood at the door of the compartment for a long time. The berth was swaying like a cradle. I stuck to it with legs curled up and went to sleep. In the heat of that night a thought passed through my mind: what if I had to share a berth with another man… Anyway, over a decade had passed since then. Life, like an impassive highway, had soaked up the murmurs of the past and moved quietly on. It comes to an end one day, and until then one walks on. Who knows what surprises lie hidden at which crossroads along the way? At least, that’s what I tell myself. A full ten years. A period in which there were changes, pain, a time in which matters heated up, cooled off. The sister-in-law returned to her husband’s house, Subramani’s parents passed away and the house was empty. Our life had acquired stability, arrived at some sort of a juncture. I had learnt by practice to be happy for no reason in particular. I had not known earlier that it was possible to teach oneself to be happy.
“The seat isn’t confirmed, it’s a sideberth RAC. Leave early in any case. It might help if the TTE is someone we know. See if Sebastian is on duty,” Subramani had said on the phone. Sebastian was not on duty. It looked like I would have to share the berth with this Bhagesh after all. I had made a show of wishing loudly in front of the others that he wouldn’t come—but here he was, standing in front of me. I shrank into my seat so he could occupy his. He was tall, dressed in brown jeans and a blue t-shirt. He had sprayed himself with some sort of fragrance that combined favourably with the smell of his sweat. The shivering cold of an AC coach… oh god! I told my mind that it was to go to sleep quietly. If Naidu wanted he could have given up his berth for me, but it felt like the others there were not really concerned, only quietly curious about the situation.
Bhagesh didn’t seem curious at all—he didn’t look at me once. I pretended to be engrossed in my book while observing him from the corners of my eyes. He had a bag that looked grimy. Clearly it had been wearing itself out for him for quite a while. He sat at the other end of the berth, briskly got out a bedsheet and placed it over his legs. He drew earphones from his bag, wore them, held up his phone and sat with his eyes stuck to the screen.
The train set off. The three sardars made their beds and lay down. After a while the Tamil boy above drew the curtain to his berth.
Here, this fellow was still sitting with his phone raised. I squirmed at the thought that he might be taking photos of me without my knowledge. I slowly raised my eyes and looked at Naidu on the next seat. He must have sensed something. He put on a show of concern and said, “Cover yourself with a bedsheet, ma… We’re all here, don’t worry. I’m feeling tired now. I think I’ll go to sleep.” He brought down the berth and stretched himself on it. I bent low into my book so my face wouldn’t be visible.
“Hello madam,” Bhagesh said. “Why are you sitting so awkwardly? Make yourself comfortable.” He spoke Kannada well; he must be a native speaker, not Tamil or Telugu.
“What are you looking at on your mobile?” I asked.
It was clear that he was annoyed. But I had decided: rather than let my imagination run wild, it was best to be direct. “No, you could lower the phone and continue seeing whatever it is you’re seeing. Why hold it up to me? How can I be sure you’re not taking my photo?”
“Don’t give me ideas,” he said. “You’re a good one, you know… I hadn’t thought of it, but now I’m thinking it might come in use later.” His eyes betrayed that he was smiling under his moustache.
“What are you saying?” I asked. Even if I was angry, it had not felt unpleasant to hear him say I was a good one.
Naidu propped himself up on an elbow: “What’s going on, ma, any problem?”
“Nothing, uncle,” said Bhagesh. “I was just asking madam to be comfortable. I told her if she wanted I could move to uncle’s berth and uncle could share this berth with her.” I was taken aback by how theatrical he was being.
Naidu clearly didn’t want to be stuck with any of this. “No need for all that. I am a BP patient, don’t give me unnecessary tension. I’ll sleep now. Please turn off the corridor light if you don’t mind. It’s in my eyes,” he said and pulled the blanket over his head.
Bhagesh said with a smile, “Okay, uncle.” He turned off the light and drew the curtain between our seats and the aisle. My heart skipped a beat. I thought it was best not to show any reaction. I closed my book and leaned back.
“Madam, turn on your bed lamp. You can continue to read,” he said. He turned off the screen of his mobile, closed his eyes and leaned back as if lost to some song.
Had I been hasty in confronting him? This could have been a pleasant journey. I thought I should say something. “Going to Bangalore?”
“No, Chennai. Have to attend a job interview.”
“TCS. Let’s see how it goes…”
“Good luck. That’s in Tharamani, right?”
“Yes. Do you know how I can get there? Are there buses? Or should I take an auto?”
“Plenty of buses. It’s quite a distance, but our bus fares are low. Or you could take a pre-paid auto, you won’t have any trouble.”
“Okay.” Neither of us spoke for a while. He asked, “You are settled in Chennai?”
“Don’t know about settled, but we live there for now. Actually, I don’t think it’s possible for a person to be truly settled until they die.” It occurred to me that I was saying this only to impress him, and I shook my head.
He laughed. “That’s funny,” he said, “but you’re right.”
“What music are you listening to? Can I hear?”
“Oh sure, it’s a good song.” He pulled out the earphone plug.
Paas aayiye ki ham nahi aayenge baar baar… The song gently filled the silence. It was in a man’s voice.
“Who is singing?”
“Sanam Puri. He does old songs in a somewhat new style. I like them very much.”
“I like it too.”
He sang well. Lag jaa gale came on, one of my favourites.
The songs floated between us. Naidu, the Tamil boy and the others seemed to have fallen asleep. The dim light on the inside of the closed curtain; the sweet music; the pleasant sway of the running train. My heart that ran along with it. In front of me was a young man built like a horse. Here, a woman who had swallowed the glowing ember of desire and was burning up from within. God, see to it this desire won’t ripen into anything… I looked at him cautiously. He was leaning back, his eyes closed. He looked good sitting like that.
It was still only around half past ten. There was a long way to go before morning. It would be nice to stretch my legs. Just then: a phone call from Subramani. “Did you manage to get a berth? I tried calling Sebastian, but his phone was not reachable. Did you see him?”
“No. I’m sharing with some guy. It’s all okay for now. I’ll call tomorrow, everyone’s asleep here.”
“All right. I’ll come to the station in the morning. Make sure you are comfortable.”
Subramani’s love is hard to explain. He’s never demonstrative, but his love and affection is visible in everything he does— dusting the bed clothes before laying them out, replacing the soap in the bathroom, buying flowers for me every day on his way back from work, buying groceries and vegetables well in time so we never run out, making sure my book-shelf and dressing table are never dusty. Every morning it’s his job to wake our daughter Minni and get her ready for school. He irons her clothes, makes sure she’s done her homework, packs her lunch. To see him wiping her lunch carrier with a napkin before sending it off reminds me of my mother. Even Minni seems more fond of her father than her mother. His meticulousness, concern, calmness, the gentleness with which he spoke, these were all silent things. In a house that large, at least the clock made some sound by its ticking. Our lives went on with the same regularity but no sound at all. He had a music system installed because I liked listening to old songs.
“It’s music that keeps our house alive.” My thoughts found voice.
“You still need to be receptive. Look, that sardarji is asking me to reduce the volume.”
“He has a berth and he wants to sleep. It’s all right.”
“Okay,” he said, reduced the volume, and looked at me.
“Even if two people think something is right, there’ll always be a third who disagrees. Even when the whole world seems agreed on something, you can find a person to step up and say something contrary,” I said.
“True,” he said. “It’s not so much a question of whether something is right or wrong, maybe it’s all about how people perceive things.”
“But does that mean there’s nothing that can be held firmly as truth?”
“Truth is a strange thing. Look at us—if it’s true that we’re sitting here, isn’t it also true that it can be seen in different ways by people around us?”
“What does that mean? We have no choice, so we’re sitting here. What more is there to see?”
“Is there nothing more? Sometimes the real truth is never acknowledged. Instead, we go with something that looks like it.”
“There will be misconceptions, but truth waits quietly for its turn.” My mind swirled as I spoke.
So, what was the truth in me right now? It scared me to touch it, to look it in the eye. It was true that I was sitting there with fortitude. But that wasn’t the entire truth, was it? Wasn’t I that very moment melting and turning into a river? When I thought that maybe there was nothing to it, I would become aware of the train of my own thought and grow alarmed. What was true here? If what one felt at any instant was to be taken as true, then the truth was something that could change with time. If it was capable of changing, then how could one call it the truth? Wasn’t truth called the truth because it was absolute? Perhaps, I thought, there are no absolute truths in this world other than birth and death. I heard him snort in laughter and looked up. His eyes were closed and he seemed lost in his music. Did he laugh or not? I thought I heard him. Who knows what truth is coursing through him, I thought, and let out a laugh.
He opened his eyes and looked at me with a faint smile, as if he had been expecting me to laugh. I imagined my secret had been discovered and grew flustered. I could not bear this investigation of truth any longer and changed the subject. “I’m thinking of stretching my legs. Is that okay?” I asked.
“Of course,” he said. “But if you have to sit comfortably I too may have to stretch my legs.” He got up and began bringing down the backs of our seats. Standing next to him I tried to read his expression but couldn’t. The dim light of the bed-lamp did not reveal anything in its true colours.
“Please sit down. What are you looking at? And so seriously at that? Bloody hidden truth! Why should we try to get at it, let it remain where it wants. The most dangerous search in the world is the search for truth. It doesn’t matter how hard you look, whatever you find will be shown up as incomplete one day or the other. So best not to go after it. The present moment is all one can trust.”
Arre! I was stunned. Was this man a mind reader or what? And of all the people to come to my seat—or I to his—it had to be this wretched fellow. It felt like some hidden truth lay behind all this, like someone was orchestrating all this without our knowledge. This scared me a little but also somehow made me feel less inhibited. Whatever has to happen will happen. All we can trust is the moment, I thought. The niggling fear inside me subsided. I extended my legs, leaned back and made myself comfortable. My cramped joints eased themselves. I felt light. He too extended his legs. He must have felt a similar relief: he raised his arms and stretched lightly. I wondered if Naidu and the gang of three sardarjis were asleep on the other side of the curtain. They probably were, I thought. None of them had seen us sitting like this, but they couldn’t have resisted imagining it, and the thought made me happy. Anyway, it was the only possibility. And so what—it’s not as if sitting with legs extended has to lead to something. But was it true that there was nothing happening? My legs had reached the outside of his thighs. My legs were covered with a bedsheet, but still there was a pleasant heat. Something like heat, descending from his thigh to my big toe, passing to my toe with the ring, going through my foot, climbing up my ankle, filling my thigh, moving up to be collected, then rising higher into the body to be dissipated in stages. I remembered a story a friend had told me when we were young, thought it fit the situation perfectly and then felt amused at how incongruous the comparison was.
A man goes to work his field early in the morning and sees there an extraordinarily beautiful woman. It’s a morning after heavy rain and the mist has just cleared. The woman is an enchanting sight in a white sari the colour of the mist, her hair hanging loose. He sees her and is overcome with concern. He asks her who she is, where she is from. A misty teardrop escapes the corner of her eyes. She says she’s an orphan from Kerala, in need of shelter. Without hesitation he puts his cloak over the head of the misty beauty and takes her home. He lives alone at home, is still unmarried. He’s thrilled: what could be more fortunate than for him to find a bride of such beauty? “I interrupted your work this morning,” she says. “Go finish whatever you have to do in the fields. I’ll make some roti and wait for you.” He returns home hungry, stands outside the door and calls and calls, but she doesn’t emerge. He pushes open the door and enters the house to find her in the kitchen, cooking roti. He looks at the stove. There’s no firewood beneath the pan! Just her feet joined together, burning. He realises— she’s no ordinary woman, but the enchantress Mohini. He runs from there in a panic. That’s the story.
I finished narrating it and laughed. Bhagesh did not join in. He said, “I hope I don’t look like Bhasmasura to you?”
I was startled. It might only have been
a coincidence, but his question was very direct. Perhaps it came to him naturally after hearing about Mohini. Or had he seen through me and realised that his thigh touching my foot was making me burn like Mohini? But at least he was being straightforward. I was the one who had unnecessarily introduced Mohini into the conversation and tried to talk about my secret in a different light. Otherwise, what reason had I to tell this story about Mohini to a stranger at this time of the night? He probably suspected. I said nothing and just laughed again, a laugh that felt all the more pleasing for its doing me a favour and sounding natural at an awkward moment.
“Look, Bangalore has arrived. Shall I get something to drink? Do you want anything to eat?” he asked. The boiling within me subsided when he got up.
“I can have a coffee. Otherwise I’ll start to feel drowsy in some time. It’s cold too.” I was really beginning to shiver at this point. Perhaps because the fire in me had gone out.
He agreed, rubbing his palms, “Yes, it’s getting cold.” It’s getting cold? Did that mean he had been burning as well? His feet had been close enough to reach my waist. I drew the curtain aside and looked in the direction he had gone. Naidu was sitting up and had switched on the light. “Are you okay, ma?” he asked, a look of concern on his face. But I was sure he was only asking as a formality. “Yes, uncle. He seems to be a decent fellow. We’ve become friends now,” I said. In my attempt to be firm I wondered if I hadn’t been a little harsh to Naidu. Who knew, maybe the glimmer of concern he had just shown was genuine after all. I softened my tone: “In this situation I thought the best option was to be pleasant to him. Instead of getting all sorts of thoughts into my head and worrying, it’s better to make it a safe friendship.” It felt like I was trying to justify myself to him. Whether it was necessary for him to hear I didn’t know, but maybe it was I who needed it? Was I trying to say: it’s not what you’re thinking, I haven’t melted or burned at his touch, it’s all easy and simple, no struggle here at all, I am like the calm surface of a lake. Why did I even care what they thought? “Very good, young lady,” said the old man on the next berth. I laughed, I don’t know with how much conviction. I reassured myself that I hadn’t lied either— the tie of friendship could be stretched a great deal. I tried to laugh again, a little better this time. The Tamil boy from the berth above looked down into my eyes and smiled. I thought I saw some hope, some frustration hidden there. It didn’t have to be about me, I’m no great beauty, but still, it must have seemed romantic to him, the idea of sharing a seat with an unknown woman and becoming friends with her. And we must admit that the dark makes certain truths visible that remain invisible in the light. Otherwise why would I, who had no real reservations about Subramani, who by almost all indications had a happy family life, orderly as an Ashoka tree growing in a neat enclosure, why would I so eagerly want to reach out for this wild creeper passing by and tie it around my neck? This thing that was troubling me—was it love? If it felt as sweet as love, then could it be false? If love was an absolute, then could it be given different forms? What is true love, where is it to be found? How do different people love differently? As time goes by, does love too lose its lure and end up as mere habit? Or perhaps, like truth, love too gives different accounts of itself the more one thinks about it, slips away like a stone covered with algae the more one tries to grasp it.
“Madam, here’s your coffee.” He was an affectionate fellow after all, I thought, and in turn a fondness for him welled up within me. This made the coffee all the more pleasant.
“What brought you to Mysore?” he asked suddenly, as if to break the silence.
“My younger sister lives there. Newly married. Already, there’s some trouble between her and her husband.”
“What’s going on with them?” He again turned off the light and drew the curtain. They must have finished changing the engine. The train gave a small shake of the waist and picked up speed.
“The problem seems to be with my sister… They’re unable to get along. She’s already thinking of divorce.”
“If she’s saying this so soon after the wedding, she must have come upon some new truth.” He seemed to be smiling as he said this.
“Is this something to joke about?”
“Not like that… But everything that strikes one need not be true. Things do change with time. Ask her to give it some time.”
“She’s not the sort who listens. We spent so much on the wedding, invited the whole town. And now she wants to end it…”
“It’s not like the money will come back if she stays on while being unhappy. No point worrying about the money now. The main thing is their happiness, that’s all you must think about.”
I liked what he was saying. But then, we hadn’t thought of happiness even when the wedding was being organised. We have linked marriages and weddings with the prestige of households, and are now trapped.
“Are you married?” I asked, changing the subject.
“Not yet. I’ve just broken up with someone. Let me recover. Then, I’ll think of marriage.”
“Oh, so sad…”
“Nothing sad about it, it was a good thing to have happened. We lived-in for three years. We used to work together in Bangalore. It was all fine to begin with, but then we couldn’t get along.”
“Was it something that couldn’t be worked out at all?” My curiosity got the better of me.
“Something like that. We were fine for a year, then we became inseparable. Now, she says she can’t enjoy sex with me… Sorry if I’m being too direct.”
“This isn’t something that can’t be solved. You should have talked it over, gone to a counsellor. The medical field has advanced so much…” My mind came up with the words but did not speak them. What use was love if both didn’t want it? Sex should be a celebration, and that is impossible if the minds are not united first. “I see,” I said, keeping my tone as neutral as I could.
“Yes… What we want from life ultimately is happiness. Whatever one has or doesn’t, it’s best to remove oneself from a situation where one is unhappy.”
“I too believe so,” I said and laughed. But, do I really?
I was sitting with my legs folded. A cool friendship had developed between us. Even if I stretched my legs I doubted I would feel any thrill. All that stewing from earlier seemed like a lie. “Then?” I broke the silence. He seemed to be waiting for an opportunity. He couldn’t stop talking after that. The flow of conversation went on, though it would be hard to say that we spoke of this or that in particular. I thought I would remember the night for the rest of my life. But why was my heart opening itself so easily to this stranger? Why really do we like a person? And with no good reason?
The night went by quickly. It was five in the morning, and no sign of sleep. “My station arrives in about an hour. So it looks like no sleep for me tonight!”
“Oh, Perambur? An aunt used to live there. I visited her once… I think I’ll close my eyes for a while. Or they might deduct points in the interview for my sleepy face.” He laughed, looking adorable as he did so, and I felt a rush of warmth.
“Stretch your legs and sleep comfortably,” I said and made room. His broad chest, the hairy and somewhat rough hands resting on his chest, tousled hair and beard, taut lips, slightly curled eyebrows, and despite all that, the carefree look on his face… or perhaps it was carelessness. I liked him. Enough for a small desire to be born again. His feet touching the back of my waist brought a flame to an ember that had died out. What if I leaned forward and kissed him on the lips… I clutched the curtain and tugged it open. I shook my head. This lust was burning, intoxicating. Just two stops to Perambur. I might never see him again. And so what if I didn’t. What we felt for each other so deeply at the moment might run out one day… But who cares. I want those lips now, this moment, and there was no release without kissing them. How might he react… I had never been in such agony.
I only had one bag. I pulled it out. Everyone across the aisle was still asleep. They must be getting off at Chennai Central. Villivakkam came and went. Less than ten minutes now. I leaned over him. His lips were warm, full enough to fill my parted lips. Pressed on his chest, I felt the world had stopped.
He did not stop me. He did not seem startled either. He took me into his arms with an overpowering intensity. My mind cooperated by standing aside without thinking if what was happening was right. My body grew light, my legs flailed.
I could have asked for his number. I didn’t. I could have said we should meet again, but I didn’t say that either. He came behind me with my bag. He handed it over and pressed my hand. There was so much contained in that gesture. My eyes must have softened to say it was all reciprocated. Subramani was standing on the platform, the same old black shorts and lightyellow t-shirt, the same calm, impassive face. I turned and waved at Bhagesh. Could Subramani have failed to notice the glow in my eyes, the red in my lips? What about the young man waving from the door of the train? Why was Subramani like this? Was it right to call his an innocent love? He lives quietly as if only the moment is true.
“Could you sleep?” he asked as he picked up my bag.
“No, I’ll sleep at home. Have you turned on the geyser?”
“Everything’s ready. Have breakfast and sleep.”
I had just sat behind him on his bike when my sister called. “Did you reach? I’m furious this morning…”
“Look, don’t take matters too seriously,” I told her. “Life is to be lived as it comes. Don’t go by what you’re seeing now. The truth changes colours sometimes… You know, you don’t have as many problems as you think, and sometimes that is a problem in itself. Relax a bit, keep observing what is happening…”
“Thoo, put the phone down…” she said and cut the line.
I thought I heard a laugh. Could it be Subramani?
This short story was published by The Indian Quarterly magazine in their Jan-Mar 2018 issue.