Telugu: Gurajada Appa Rao
[Admiring and adoring beauty sounds glorious; but when it comes to stealing glances at some young, beautiful, less-educated, traditionally brought up woman solely and wholly dependent on her husband, it is beyond his comprehension to the kind of challenges he would be subjecting her. More so, when the husband is old and guilty of marrying a very young woman, almost half of his age. The onlooker could hide behind the excuse that it was only a Platonic love. Or, feeling enlightened, the husband might grant her social freedom. Gurajada explores the hypocrisy of the two and how both could still threaten her harmony of life.]
Those were the days when I was a post-graduate student of Botany. I was staying on the first floor of a house on the Mylapore Road. Another ten to twelve students from our area shared the room with me.
On the third day of my joining them, Rama Rao secretly called me aside and asked,
“Did you see Matilda?”
“No,” I said.
“Then look there. Be discreet and casual in your manner,” he warned.
I looked at her.
“Enough! Get back,” he called out.
Without turning my head glued to her direction, I said, “How could I help it? What else is the purpose of God blessing me with vision? The most fascinating and captivating thing in the creation of the supreme being is — a charming woman. So long as you don’t entertain unseemly thoughts, what’s wrong in just watching her?”
“Oh! I have seen people in thousands like you reeling off morals. Since you have come here lately, I thought you should know about her. Never turn your eye in that direction,” he warned.
He rushed towards me, held me by my arm, and almost dragged me from that place.
“What kind of woman is she? Good or bad?” I enquired.
“How does it matter to us whether she is good or bad? To throw an accusing finger towards somebody, are we in any better position? Let me warn you, if you dare to look at Matilda again, that marks the end of our friendship,” he gave an ultimatum straight away.
Rama Rao was my bosom friend. I could somehow restrain my urge for some days and refrained from going towards the corner from where I could watch Matilda’s backyard.
A graceful, turmeric-smeared body assuming its darker hues after taking bath, an extravagant and cascading hair flowing over her shoulders like the plume of a peacock, the glow in her eyes perceptible whenever she looked around while drawing water from the well, and the enchanting beaty of her face… was so strongly imprinted on my mind that I could not forget it however much I tried.
For one week I could hold myself with herculean effort. After that, under the pretext of reading, I started sauntering whenever Rama Rao was not in the room, holding a book in one hand and looking towards her backyard.
For all my eagerness to see her, only twice did she appear in the backyard and disappeared as quickly as lightning.
While going to the college, I walked leisurely in front of her house, slowing down deliberately and eagerly looking in the direction of her house. Like a painting encased in a framework, Matilda occasionally appeared at the window.
I gathered information about Matilda directly and indirectly, from friends and others:
Our people had a nickname for Matilda’s husband- Old Tiger. He was not that old. He was in his late fifties. He was short and fair. He had wide eyes, a bushy moustache, and a pock-marked face. He had been staying in the adjacent bungalow for the last two years. Nobody knew where he hailed from or what his occupation was. A long room spread across the length of the house from foreyard to backyard. There were three almirahs filled with books. He was always seen reading or writing something. He maintained a flower garden in the foreyard and backyard in excellent condition. Every evening, he combed and caressed the roots, and Matilda watered the plants. As per the English practices, it was a physical exercise for both. Indeed, it was. For, I never saw them getting out of the house for any reason. Never saw any guests visiting their house. The Old Tiger had kept Matilda under his strict control. He insisted sheshould not step out onto the verandah overlooking the street. But she occasionally appeared there. There was a touch of gloom on her face. Any wonder? Her husband harassed her. He had an older sister. She always picked up silly quarrels with Matilda. The only other soul living in that house was an old brahmin cook.
Everybody referred to Matilda’s husband as Old Tiger and nobody knew his original name. He also instructed the postman not to show his mail to anybody. There were rumors circulating that the Postmaster and the Old Tiger were friends.
Perhaps, it was to maintain the secrecy.
One morning, after taking a shower bath, I dressed up in spotless white clothes, left my hair hanging over my shoulders loose, and put on a fashionable hat. As usual, I was walking slowly in front of Matilda’s house. As I came to her doorstep, I stopped in front of it, and started looking at her. May be half-a-minute had passed.
The old Tiger came out of his cave and pounced on me.
“Boy, come into the house,” he roared.
I was scared that he would manhandle me and for a fleeting second, I wanted to take to heels. Doing that would not only show me as an offender, But I would also be involving, though unwittingly, Matilda for no fault of her… I reasoned. Risking whatever might happen to me, I wanted to rescue her from any blame. So, I followed him.
He took me into his library. Dropping into his chair and with enraged looks he asked me in English,
“Are you looking at my wife?”
“I was looking at your library through the window and trying to gauge what kind of people you are,” I said.
“Didn’t you look at my wife?”
“How could I escape looking at her when she was standing there?” I replied.
He called her out in a thundering voice.
Matilda did not turn up.
“You whore! Are you coming here or not?” he roared again.
Trebling with fear, she appeared before him and stood there with downcast eyes.
Addressing me again, he said in English,
“You, useless fool! Look at her! Look at that slut as long as you wish. Why do you stare at me instead of her? Why, am I looking better than her?”
I did not reply. Not happy with the turn of events, I was about to recede from the place. He noticed it and said, “Wait!”
The fire that raged in his eyes a few moments ago, had subsided.
“Youngman!” He addressed me in a softer tone now.
“Did you ever learn to speak the truth? From either your parents or your teachers?” he asked.
“Without ever having to learn, honesty was an inborn trait with me,” I said.
“Then, let me see how honest you are. Tell me, Do you find my wife beautiful or not?”
“I think she is beautiful.”
“While passing by this house, do you look for her in the direction of my house?”
“Since I am compelled to give you an honest reply, I must admit that. But I also swear upon God, that I never entertained any immoral thoughts about her!”
“Forget about that. You feel happy whenever you can see her. Yes, or no? Tell me if it is true.”
“Then take this slut away with you. I am donating her to you. You can take her! I will be rid of this plague!”
Without a word, I walked out of the house.
I could not walk upright anymore. I did not look at the houses. I did not look at people. Cursing myself for the disgrace, I went straight to the college.
I had decided to vacate the room and never visit that place again in my life.
Her head lowered, the endless stream of tears in anguish, and her trebling bosom as she desperately tried to suppress her deep pulsing sighs in her gullet… was strongly imprinted on my mind. I vouch that you would never find in the works of any great poet to date. She was the epitome of peerless grace and profound pity!
By the time I returned to the precincts of my house from college, the old brahmin cook from the house of the Old Tiger passed by me, slipped a note into my hands, and disappeared as hurriedly as he appeared. I suspected that must have something to do with the episode earlier. I went into my room, bolted it from inside and started reading.
What was written?
In a neat handwriting it was written: “Won’t you and your friends allow me to lead a peaceful family life? Did I harm you in any way? I can breathe easy if you lead your lives without bothering me. Else, I must reconcile to my fate.”
– What to do? By relocating to a different place, I thought, I could get rid of my problem. But after going through her appeal, how could I leave this place? Should I not shield her from the possible mishap my friends? Could I ensure that?
– If I could not protect her, of what use is my life? Of my manhood? In the tragic story of this noblest woman, have I become another cause of her sufferance? If I could relieve this elegant woman of her grief and win her appreciation, I could get a feeling of fulfilment to my life. Is the graceful handwriting hers? How fortunate I am! What command would I not execute once she commended? Had I been the monarch of three worlds, and she just asked me for them, would I not crown her?
– But what is the way out now? I am short of practical knowledge. I am afraid that I might do more harm than good. Rama Rao is pragmatic. A man of character and skill. I must suffer if he censures me for not listening to him. I prostrate before him to help me in this endeavor.
After a thorough introspection, I narrated the entire story to Rama Rao. I made my intention clear to him. I also requested him not to discourage me.
Rama Rao said, “If I am confident of dissuading you, I would have done it. I Know you won’t relent. Did you stop looking at her when I forbade you?”
“But if I don’t place the facts and my intention before you, I would be a delinquent and doing harm to our friendship.”
“Our elders gave the edict that other people should not interfere in domestic quarrels. They are incomprehensible for them and irresolvable. Mediators interfering to set things right, more often, damage them irreparably. Firstly, we should remember that, though we called her husband an Old Tiger, he was only a roaring tiger and never a harming tiger. Did we ever hear the Old Tiger beating Matilda? Never. She was never in want of food or clothing. Secondly, she is assured of living a happy life so long as she conducts herself the way he wants. And the thirdly, I notice that you are strongly attracted towards Matilda. That is unbecoming of you. You may argue that that it is purely Platonic and so long as you don’t entertain evil thoughts, there is no harm. An evil thought doesn’t come from without; it always lurks within us waiting for an opportunity. We ignore its presence and make deliberate attempts to bring it out. There must be a trigger, source, or an excuse for the evil thought. A lonely man in a forest cannot entertain evil thoughts about women. The moot point is, whether that person could conduct himself in a dignified manner with that beautiful woman when such opportunity presents itself. And the man who prevents such chance to arise, is wise.”
“You and your friend Rama Rao did me a great favor. From your behavior and words, I understood my wife is a worthy woman. From that day, I loosened all reins. My wife is a sensible woman. She did not appropriate the freedom granted. I asked her to go wherever she liked. Permitted to see whomever she wanted to meet. But she never wanted to go anywhere. Never wanted to see anybody. “What have I to do with the world? You are everything for me,” she said. And behaved like that.
“You are responsible for liberating her. And also responsible for liberating me. Did you study higher mathematics? No? Forget about it.”
He pressed the calling bell.
Matilda entered in at stopped at the threshold like a mechanical toy.
“Serve us coffee.”
She arranged coffee in two cups on the table.
“Have another cup for yourself.”
She looked at her husband in such a way that the looks purported, “Is it proper on your part to ask me to do such things?”
“Don’t worry. You can help yourself with a cup. He is our friend,” he said. But she did not get her cup. She remained standing beside him.
“Go! Take your seat,” he insisted. She did not take her seat. I was happy for the harmony between the couple. And I even patted myself for contributing to it in some way.
As we were sipping coffee, he went on narrating … that he was educating his wife, that he felt he was reading the Ramayana and the Mahabharata always, that she asked me to take her to some place and he entertained her. Later he enquired about my studies. I understood he was a scholar.
Before I took leave he said to his wife,
“You can go now,” he dismissed her.