Short story: Wearing Red by Hema Nair
He slowly drifted into wakefulness with the smell of wood fire burning and its muted crackling. Then the touch of her hand on his ankles, and her husky voice calling, “Kunje?”1. Smiling, he turned over and reached out for her, eyes half open. She smelled fresh and her skin felt cool. The fine droplets of water from her hair fell on his face and shoulders, bringing him awake, his body fully aroused.
A few minutes later, he climbed over her body, off the creaking woven bed, and walked out into the still dark, early dawn. Drawing water from the well, he cleansed himself and his sacred thread while chanting his prayers. Back in his little kitchen, he helped himself to the black coffee still in a pot on the fire, drank it hot and steaming and looked over at Bhadra and smiled.
‘It’s good and strong,’ he told her. ‘Drink some before you leave.’
‘I will, Thirumeni’ she replied.
Of pure body. That was the literal meaning of the word. She addressed him knowingly, because after his ritual bath, he was now a priest. Unsullied and deserving of the right to go into the sanctum to worship the Goddess.
Now, she could no longer touch him.
She stood in the doorway watching him leave, while Easwaran Kunju, the tall lanky Namboothiri made his way to the little temple, about a furlong away through the winding path in the woods. The eastern sky had just taken on a light pink hue as he opened the heavy bronze lock more by feel than sight as he had done almost every day for the past five years. Those chapters in the story of his life lived as a priest in this small hamlet on the foothills of the Western Ghats.
It was a Friday and likely to be busy, bringing in the villagers who believed it to be auspicious for their Goddess, and a good day to pray to her. Today was also the annaprasanam, the first rice feeding ceremony of the village officer’s granddaughter. Easwaran cleaned out the fireplace, lit up the hearth and into a bronze vessel, measured out the raw rice to be cooked for the payasam2. While it cooked, he made his way to the sanctum sanctorum and parted open the heavy wooden door. As his eyes rested on the Goddess he felt his soul lighten up and all the burden of his insignificant life seep away, leaving serenity in its wake. This was his favourite time of the day – just he and his Devi, in a wordless commune. He cleared out yesterday’s wilted offerings, bathed her carved figure, draped her in her rich red satin and lit the lamps, all the while chanting verses in a song as ageless as time. Soon the business of the temple would start, bringing in the others, but for now, he was alone in her presence. Enveloped in light from the oil lamps and her benevolence, he looked upon the shiny ebony contours of her stone form with reverence. This was his time to offer her his worship and his adoration; his penance and his devotion.
The first one to arrive was Maraathi Thankamma, the only other staff at the temple. Although employed by the temple committee, hers was a hereditary position. Thankamma, and others of her family, were Maraars, whose job it was to keep the temple clean – sweeping and scrubbing twice a day. So also were most of the other chores that went into the running of the temple – like fetching flowers and fashioning them into garlands for the deities. Fortunately for Thankamma, the neighbourhood homes had generous Tulasi bushes and Hibiscus, laden with scarlet flowers that the Goddess favoured, and these, she gathered on her way to the temple. She set the basket of flowers inside the forecourt of the temple and straightened her stiff back. A bird-like woman of uncertain years, she had a weathered face marked by penury and a bright smile that shone with the acceptance of it all. Thankamma and Easwaran shared a fondness that was inevitable given the time they spent together in the midst of conversations and silences. She kept him abreast of the happenings in the countryside, which he found useful since he did not venture out much into the village square. Easwaran brought out the greasy bronze lamps and placed them on the verandah for her to scrub. Thankamma looked up at him and asked, ‘Did Bhadra make you something to eat?’
‘No, I told her not to. I will eat only after the naivedyam.’3
‘Why do you bother with it anyway?’ she continued, not even pausing to listen to him. ‘It’s only some rice and chilli paste in a banana leaf. I told you I can make you some nice hot rice and sambhar right here.’
Easwaran turned away, silent, smiling to himself – he did not want to be pulled into another argument as routine as the temple rituals. For the next five hours or so, he was kept busy with a steady stream of devotees. Pujas, special prayers and flower offerings, dedication of lamps lit with ghee and the distribution of prasadam. The village officer brought his family for the annaprasanam, and this special ritual brought in a substantial income for Easwaran Kunju. He contemplated the money and wondered if it would get him a pair of ear studs to put into the empty holes on Bhadra’s shapely ear lobes. Around noon time, after the rituals and Devi’s lunch pooja were done, the temple closed its doors till evening.
Easwaran made his way home, wishing he had taken up on Thankamma’s offer of rice and sambhar. He was starting to feel hungry, the naivedyam payasam long gone in the day’s work and it would take him at least an hour to get his hearth fired and lunch cooked. As he neared home, he smelt wood smoke and felt a quick lift of joy. She had come and was probably making his lunch! On impatient feet, he walked into the kitchen. There she was squatting on the floor near the hearth, stirring the pot. The fragrance of the spices tickled his nose and his mouth watered. She must have sensed him standing there, for she turned back and smiled at him. Dark eyes, even teeth bright as pearls, and the shiny black hair tucked into a bun.
‘Why don’t you wash your hands and face? Lunch is nearly ready,’ she said, turning back to her stirring. Easwaran couldn’t keep his lips from stretching into a smile. The sight of her, such a surprise, was exhilarating to his senses.
‘How is it that you could come here now? Didn’t you get any work today?’
‘ll tell you, first come sit down and let me serve your meal,’ she said.
While Easwaran sat cross-legged on the floor and ate his hot meal, Bhadra stood near the kitchen doorway and spoke about her day. She and the other women had started their work, weeding in one of the rubber plantations, when the local trade union leaders called for a strike and made them all come out of the fields and return home. Bhadra had no idea what the strike was for, but since Muthu was one of the leaders, she could hardly stand there and argue. Easwaran stilled when Bhadra mentioned Muthu, although there was absolutely no inflection in her voice as she mentioned his name.
Bhadra was Muthu’s wife. They were landless labourers, who had for generations eked out a living from the land, mostly in servility to the upper caste land-owners. Muthu had been going out to work in the fields with his brothers from the time he was a kid, so schooling was out of the question. But he was a resourceful lad and taught himself to read and write as a youth, then left behind his home and little village for a few years, working in the docks in Chennai. Life in a big city expanded his horizons and gave him an awareness of the world outside his ancient village. It added maturity to his years and taught him some lessons about life and living. Having come back a decade ago to convalesce from an accident, he had decided to stay on. He took young Bhadra for a wife and settled down to contented domesticity. Then, drawing inspiration from the periodicals and newspapers in the village library, he became a Marxist and ventured into activism. Given his inherent sense of justice and his tendency to take a lead to get things done, this was an inevitable path for him in a village that was riddled with deep socio-economic faults and crippling ignorance. The youngsters in the village, most of them disadvantaged, looked up to him – wise and eloquent as he was, and soon he gathered a band of followers. He was a hard working man who tried to walk the talk with his socialist ideals. With his affable manner and helping nature, he made friends easily and was always willing to help find solutions to problems that were vexing to others.
When the old Namboothiri at the temple passed on without leaving an heir, the temple committee could not find a replacement for him. This exalted job of being a go between for the men and gods did not provide a living wage these days. After an extensive search, they found Easwaran, from a faraway village and turned to Muthu for help with settling in the new priest to his life here.
Muthu, in the focused way that was his, arranged an abandoned house near the temple for the young Namboothiri, cleared up the overgrowth around, scavenged some furniture, and arranged for his wife to do some occasional house work for the newcomer. That was five years ago. Initially he would check in to see if Easwaran had settled in his new job and home. Since Easwaran was a stranger to these parts, and reticent by nature, he kept a lonely consul within his small world of the temple and home. But Muthu would draw him out of his ascetic existence, and they drifted closer into an unlikely friendship. Although from widely disparate backgrounds, fondness for books, Kathakali songs and home distilled spirits brought them close. Easwaran recommended books for Muthu to read and they spent many an evening drinking hooch and arguing about the ways of the world before coming to an agreement in a haze of inebriation and the dark of the night. The soft-spoken devout Namboothiri and the flamboyant communist – the villagers often speculated about this odd pair.
One evening, as he sat at home alone, reading a book, he heard a voice from his yard. ‘Easwaran Kunje!’ Muthu called out in a stage whisper. Easwaran gladly put down his heavy text and came out smiling. ‘Isn’t it a bit early for you, Muthu? Have you even gone home yet?’
Muthu stood in the yard, visibly excited. Flashing a wide smile, he pointed to the waist tuck of his lungi and said softly, ‘I’ve got you the best flowers of this season. My nephew just came from Idukki with a packet and I thought of you. This is a treasure that will have no sheen unless shared with a friend.’
Easwaran was pleased, and his wide smile showed it. He hadn’t smoked a good joint for ages, and the very thought of sharing one with his friend gave him a high. They picked their way through the dense undergrowth to the clump of boulders to the west of the property. There they lit up and watched the sun set in a salmon pink cloud of well being that filled their hearts as much as the sky. The bond they forged thus was a rare one – fluid as water, thicker than blood. With a curious duplicity that men are sometimes capable of, Easwaran put Muthu and Bhadra into discrete compartments of his life, and did not dwell on it.
Bhadra’s entry into his life was not of his seeking but had taken on an uncharted path with the inevitability of night following day.
Within a few months, the care with which Bhadra looked after him and his meagre home and belongings changed Easwaran’s regard for her from gratitude to affection and then to dependence. Before long, the blood that flowed in him was spiked with a heady desire by her presence. A first tentative touch, and soon, he went careening down a slope with no desire to correct his footing.
For Bhadra, who had a loving and uncomplicated life with Muthu, Easwaran, with his fair skin and august demeanour was a hitherto unattainable dream. Overwhelmed by his affection and desire for her, she gave herself to him unreservedly. In the simplicity of her thoughts, this didn’t feel like a betrayal. Her love for her two men was different, occupying two different worlds in orbits that would never collide.
And thus, they slipped into a routine of sorts. Some days, in the hours before dawn, she came to his home and let herself in. Before the sun came up and dispelled the darkness, they made love, spoke to each other softly – endearments, inquiry, chores that needed to be done. Each word, each touch infused with tenderness, like they knew how ephemeral it all was. Like most clandestine lovers, they believed theirs was a secret held fast by the four walls of this modest home, of no consequence to the world outside. And thus the days and nights played out uneventfully as happens in remote villages far removed from the trappings of sophistication.
The most basic nature of love is that it is never static – it keeps changing; like wayward wind, it constantly changes its course, pace and strength. Then all at once it can disappear completely, like on a hot muggy evening, leaving in its wake an oppressive heat – a suffocating vacuum – when not even a leaf would stir.
One day, Bhadra was drawn to the temple, not to pray to the Goddess, but to catch a glimpse of Easwaran. She took special care to dress that day. An off white two-piece sari with a red border draped on her shapely form, kohl in her eyes and a red bindi on her forehead. As she stood in front of the sanctum with folded hands, her hungry eyes sought not the Devi within but her lover, who was engrossed in his rituals. Perhaps this act of hers, her utter lack of veneration, was what brought down on her head what was to follow.
Easwaran was completely unaware of her presence. He was immersed in his worship and his rites of adorning the Devi, cleansing her stone body with milk and water, anointing it with honey and draping her in shiny red. As his hands moved over her stone figure, Bhadra, watching, felt something drop fast in the pit of her chest. A feeling of desolation swept over her – so intense that drawing a breath into that emptiness felt like a physical pain. Her vision blurred a little, and she stood, feet frozen, palms held together in front of her, watching him as he gently dabbed the sandalwood paste on his Goddess, drew her eyes and eyebrows in kohl, fashioned her lips with red kumkum paste and adorned her in flowers. He then moved on to light the lamps and incense. His soft voice, full of adoration as he sang, made Bhadra snap out of her reverie.
As she was leaving, Thankamma called out to her, ‘What is it Bhadra, why the hurry? Left something on the fire to burn? Stay and take the prasadam.’
Bhadra sped away, not turning her face, waving and calling out a lame excuse.
For the next several days, Easwaran was left to fend for himself, for Bhadra didn’t come. Initially hesitant, he finally brought himself to ask Muthu about her. Muthu seemed puzzled too, but then he said it was probably because she was unwell, she had not been going out to work either.
In her little shack that she shared with Muthu, Bhadra sat still on the threshold staring into the distance. She was a simple woman who saw beauty in everyday things, appreciated the artistry of nature and believed in the mythical lore that were woven into the tapestry of her rural landscape. Her life was one of bare necessities with neither ambition nor a great hope for the future. On that day, watching Easwaran shower love of indefinable depth on his Goddess, her sense of worth seemed to have scattered away like so many dry leaves in the wind. Insane thought, she knew, but what do you do when madness holds you in its convoluted grip.
She looked up at the sound of the motor bike idling at the head of the path that led to her shack. Ganesh, the estate owner’s son, was sitting astride his bike, smiling at her.
‘How come you are at home at this time of the day, Bhadra? Coming to the river with me? It’ll be much cooler there.’
Bhadra had long been aware of Ganesh’s searing look, his familiar ways and seductive talk, but since she was not interested either in Ganesh or in his money, she had always managed to steer clear. Today it tempted her, the thought that Ganesh’s attention could fill some of the dark emptiness that she held inside.
She smiled at him and called out, ‘Yes. I will meet you at the old rubber shed near the screw pine grove in a bit.’
Ganesh stood still, surprise writ large on his face.
‘What happened?’ asked Bhadra in a voice suffused with laughter and a taunt. ‘Don’t you want me to come?’
‘No, no!’ Ganesh hastened to assure her. ‘I’ll go there and wait for you.’
He rode away with a half smile and jaunty air.
Bhadra touched up her kohl and her bindi and looked at her reflection in the tiny mirror hanging on the wall. A sombre face and dead eyes looked back at her. Baring her teeth in a smile, she turned away and walked off towards their rendezvous.
It was late afternoon on a summer day, the countryside was somnolent and the sun made sharp patterns among the leaves on the ground. Thankamma picked her way carefully through the brambles on her way to the temple. She preferred to take this route when she went for her evening chores. The asphalt road would be baking hot at this time with scant shade, and this way through the rubber plantation, although slow going, was cooler and less exhausting for the old woman. As she rounded the bend in the stream, still hidden by the clump of screw pine barring her way, she heard muted voices. She stopped and squinted towards the old abandoned shed next to the stream. She saw Bhadra and Ganesh running into the shed, holding hands. They seemed to have crossed the stream by wading through it. Thankamma shook her head and walked on towards the temple, taking a detour so as not to cross the shed. She was not particularly concerned or surprised by the sight. These things were known to happen in the little village that had little to offer its youngsters in the form of entertainment.
In the temple, sitting on the verandah of the forecourt, was Easwaran.
Thankamma was surprised. ‘Why so early, Kunje?’ she asked.
‘It was really hot and muggy at home. I couldn’t even take a nap. Here, at least there is a slight breeze.’ He answered, wiping his neck on his small cotton towel.
‘Yes,’ she agreed. ‘This place was chosen well for the temple. Its height on this hill catches the breeze and the early morning sunshine from the East.’
Thankamma started on her chores, sweeping the courtyard. Bent over at her waist, she added the rhythmic sweep of her broom to the singsong of her voice. The drone of her voice was almost hypnotic on Easwaran’s senses as he stared sightlessly at the horizon and looked inwards to his thoughts. As usual over the past few days, his mind drifted to Bhadra, wondering why she had stopped coming to him, wishing he could see her again. Into his wishful musings, came the sound of her name. Thus brought back to the present, he heard only the latter part of the sentence that Thankamma was still speaking. ‘……all this is usual business for women like her, but I had thought she was happy with Muthu. Just goes to show, how little you know somebody – even those we think we know well.’
Easwaran, now fully alert, asked, ‘Why do you think she is not happy with Muthu? What did she do?’
‘If she was, then why is she cavorting around with that no-good guy? His father was a good and charitable man, but I am sorry to say, he has not passed on any of his goodness to his son, only his money….’
Easwaran, now impatient, interrupted her rambling, interjecting forcefully, ‘Which guy?’
‘Ganeshan!’ Thankamma said to him, as though stating the obvious.
Straightening up, she adjusted the twigs in her broom and continued sweeping. Easwaran felt warm and cold at the same time. His mind was in a confused turmoil – relief that Thankamma did not suspect him and disquiet at the mention of another man.
‘Why do you say that?’ he asked. ‘She’s a very good woman. I have known her for five years now.’
‘Oh, yes. Good!’ Thankamma spit out and scattered a cloud of dust with a vicious stroke of her broom. ‘Then I suppose she is playing cards with him inside that abandoned rubber shed.’ So saying, she continued down the yard leaving a dust cloud in her wake.
From then on, Easwaran’s actions were not thought through. It was like he was being led down a path by a persistent fate into which he was incapable of inserting his own will. ‘Ugh, this dust!’ He muttered, blinking and rubbing his eyes raw. Then he ran his palms over his face, got up and walked into the temple, all the way into the sanctum, to his Devi.
Bhadra looked at the silvery dust motes swirling in a ray of light that filtered into the rubber shed from a crack in the roof tile. The insides of the shed were soot black from years of curing rubber sheets. Now though, because of the shortage of manpower, the estate owner sold latex directly to the factory, leaving this shed and the sheet factory unused. Ganesh lay with his head on her belly, idly running his fingers around her navel. Having coveted her for so long, he was insatiable. Bhadra had tried a few times in the past half hour to leave, but he wouldn’t let her go. In the aftermath of her quest for fulfilment, Bhadra felt strangely bereft. Her thoughts drifted to Easwaran and her mind conjured images of him – his words, his moods, his touch. And so, when she saw him standing silhouetted inside the door of the shed, she smiled.
Easwaran’s thoughts were a tumultuous sequence of disjointed images as he walked towards the shed near the stream. When he saw Ganesh and Bhadra lying entwined, he raged red. That is when Bhadra, looking at him, smiled a dreamy smile.
Was that love he saw in her eyes?
Was it the smile that was his undoing?
Behind the two figures lying on a pile of old jute sacks were the shelves on the wall with the left over odds and ends of a rubber shed. Easwaran’s eyes darted from Bhadra’s face to the shelves where lay the rubber tapping knife with its V shaped edge and two sharp tips. The next second was a slow moving freeze frame in his memory for the rest of his life – he striding into the shed, Ganesh jumping up and grabbing his clothes before running out, Bhadra sitting bolt upright with an arm covering her bosom, his own hand arching in the semi darkness with light glinting on the tip of the tapping knife before burying into Bhadra’s neck, and then the blood, everywhere.
A red river, a red fountain, a sea of red drowning him.
When the people reached the shed, they found Easwaran sitting cross-legged outside the door, leaning against the wall with his eyes closed. Some even thought he was asleep. It was a good two hours before the police came to take him away, that is how slowly things happened in this sleepy village.
A few days later, Easwaran had a visitor in the police lock up.
Muthu, stood in front of him, loss etched in every line of his face and in his bearing.
‘How are you, Kunje?’ He enquired quietly.
Seeing his friend, Easwaran broke down, his body shaking with the spasm of his silent sobs. Muthu stood looking at Easwaran’s crown bowed in front of him and resting on the cell bars. They stood there for a while, both silent. Then Easwaran looked up, his eyes trying to read something in Muthu’s face. Muthu stayed mute, passive.
Finally, Easwaran spoke softly, ‘I couldn’t bear the thought of sharing her with anyone else. I think I went mad for those few moments. How else could I hurt her that way – I love her so deeply.’
Muthu shook his head slightly as he spoke. ‘No Kunje, you didn’t love her. If you did, you would have known that we did not own her love. She was always generous in giving it, and I knew better than to put bounds on it. It was more than I could contain, and way more than you deserved. Your cupidity has cost us both the most precious love of our lives.’
Muthu reached out and put his palm on the broken man’s hand resting on the bars.
‘I am leaving this village and going back to Chennai. There is nothing for me here. Every turn in the road, every rainfall will remind me of her.’ Muthu closed his eyes for a moment then turned and left. Easwaran stared after the departing figure; his head drooped under the weight of his realization. All of his austerity and prayers had not made him worthy of the love that they had bestowed on him. He could have walked away; instead, he had snuffed out one life and laid waste these others.
Easwaran walked back and sat on the floor cross-legged, leaning against the wall, and closed his eyes. Images of his Devi and of Bhadra morphed, changed like a kaleidoscope in his mind’s eye.
- Kunju – A colloquial term used for the Namboothiris of Kerala; Kunje – when used as a form of address.
- Payasam – A gruel of rice and dark jaggery offered first to the deity and then the devotees; a sweet dish.
- Naivedyam – Ritual offering of breakfast to the deity which is then distributed among devotees like communion
Hema Nair has always been interested in literature. An avid reader through childhood and youth, her desire to study literature was thwarted by a predetermined career in Medicine and better prospects. She is a cardiac anesthesiologist and juggles her day job of taking children through heart surgery with ungodly hours spent writing prose and poetry.
She has been published in The Hindu, and online magazines like Confluence, Madras Courier, and The Good Men Project. Her writing so far has been mostly essays, art review, book review and poetry. This is her first foray into fiction.