The woman in white stood before the shrine of her favourite God, the pot-bellied, lovable figure with the elephant head. He seemed to beckon with his four arms saying “ Make haste with your offerings, dear lady. Don’t you know I have an insatiable appetite for fruits and sweets?”
This was a daily ritual, ever since she had moved into this village five years ago. On her way back from work, she took him a bunch of bananas, a chain of jasmine and a coconut, all carried in the pallav of her sari. She tugged the bell, and the priest with the half-naked torso and sacred thread across his bare chest, eagerly came forward to accept her offerings. He dotted her hairline with sandal paste, and poured some prasadam into her cupped hands. The liquid trickled through her fingers as she stared into the eyes of her comical God. She imagined that he gave her a mischievous smile and a sly wink, and took great comfort from that thought. Then she symbolically raised her cupped hands to her lips as though savoring the prasadam , winked back at the idol and left. The woman never missed this ritual. The silent communication with this cute idol gave her a measure of peace and tranquillity.
Once, when she was new to this village, she had strayed into the temple precincts, curious to see which of the Gods had been closeted in this shrine, and had instantly fallen in love with Ganesha. Her steps seemed lighter as she wedged her way out through the crowd of evening devotees. Her fair cheeks had a pink glow, and a smile hovered at the corner of her lips. Though just over forty, she looked lovely and at peace with the world. Middle age plumpness had filled out her once sylph-like figure. But it only gave her a new matronly charm.
No one had the slightest inkling from where she had come, and why she had settled down
in this sleepy village. One day, the old haunted house that had lain vacant for two decades, suddenly showed signs of activity. Workmen and painters toiled endlessly for a few days, until the neglected house was converted into a habitable home with a respectable façade. The lady who moved in was supposed to be a widow without encumbrances, but of considerable means. An old woman from the village was employed to do her household chores during the day. But at night, the lady stayed alone by herself. In true village fashion, tongues wagged, and people began to wonder about this mysterious woman who invited no confidences and kept her own counsel.
But gradually, the variety of having a lady in their midst, wore thin, and the village settled down in its rut of ordinariness. Pushpatai as she was called, found something to keep her busy during the day. On the periphery of the village was a cluster of shabby huts in different stages of dilapidation. The people who lived here were not only impoverished but marginalized by the community. They lived in an isolated ghetto, and were permitted to enter the village only to perform their menial tasks. Though many of the villagers were just as poor as this group, they ranked higher in the caste hierarchy, and lorded it over this small community.
Pushpatai, plainly clad in her widow’s weeds, took on the arduous task of bringing about social change in these people. She spent hours teaching the women about basic hygiene, nutrition and child-care. She worked tirelessly with the children, coaxing them to learn how to read and write. She encouraged pride in their traditional crafts and helped them sell their work through an organization which catered to foreign tourists. She berated the men for their vile habits of drunkenness and wife-beating. In a short time, she became their guardian, teacher, confidant and friend.
“Why does she waste good time on those people?” the villagers wondered. “Will they ever better themselves?”
“Perhaps she is expiating for past karma by mingling with the low castes.”
But many admired her humility, and her sincere efforts to better their lot. When they saw the increasing prosperity and confidence of these tribals, they were truly amazed. The very people who had been despised and exploited by the rest of them were now coming into their own.
“ The woman is a saint,” said the villagers. Besides, her unfailing daily visits to the temple, established her respectability and genuiness in their sight.
One evening, the crowd at the temple was unusually large. It was shandy day in the village, and people from neighboring villages had come to this place. A darshan of Ganesha before they left, was a must. Pushpatai was jostled and pushed forward by the crowd. Her sling bag fell off her shoulder, and as she bent to retrieve it, she was completely thrown off balance. She struggled to get up, but couldn’t move. She felt breathless for want of air and thought she was going to faint.
Suddenly strong arms lifted her off the ground. But as she looked into the eyes of her saviour, she was frozen into wide-eyed panic. Then she swooned.
“Oh my God! Is it you Sallika?” the man gasped with surprise.
The woman had slumped in his arms. The crowd was making it difficult for him to move.
“She needs fresh air. Get out of my way,” he shouted.
The people reluctantly pulled back.
“Where does she live?” he asked.
A Babel of voices answered, as they nudged him forward to her house. He laid her on the verandah, and felt her pulse. It was very feeble.
“Bring some water fast. Don’t stand there gaping,” he yelled.
The man was worried. He had no had first hand experience in dealing with such an emergency. He remembered mouth-to-mouth resuscitation from his scouting days.
The villagers thought it vulgar, and pulled him back.
“Quick. Someone get a doctor.”
“What have you done to her you scoundrel? She was as healthy as anyone of us till a few minutes ago.”
“She’s never been ill for the past five years. What did you do to her? Why were you banging her on the chest and breathing into her mouth, you dirty man?”
Pushpatai’s maid sprinkled some water on her face, and she began to stir as if from a deep sleep.
But the men had already rolled up their sleeves, and hitched up their lungis .
“We’ll teach the intruder a thing or two.”
They grabbed him by his arms and were about to hit him when the old woman said, “Look, she’s waking up. She’s alive.”
“Where am I? What happened? Why have you gathered around me?”
Pusphatai’s voice was very soft, but she was gradually gaining colour.
Then she saw him towering over the other heads. His eyes were anxious as he looked down at her. Pushpatai sat up. This time there was no fear in her eyes. Only determination.
“Sallika!” he whispered.
“Who is this man?” she asked.
The villagers turned on him again. “Go away. The lady doesn’t want to see you. You’ve done enough harm already.”
Govind knew he had to leave. These villagers could turn violent.
“What brought me to this God-forsaken village if not nemesis.”
He was in the textile business and was passing through to Kohlapur on urgent work. As he was feeling drowsy, he stopped to stretch his legs, and have a cup of tea. But there was no way-side tea shop, so he had wandered through the shandy, and come upon this temple crowded with people.
Govind walked back to his car but couldn’t bring himself to drive away. He rested his head on the steering wheel and sighed.
“Oh Sallika, my dearest. Why did I ever behave as I did? I have never stopped loving you. These five long years have been the loneliest ones I have ever spent. I’ve been searching everywhere, and now when I’ve found you, you turn me away. I saw the hatred in your eyes.”
He had always carried in his memory, the picture of a young, pretty girl who held herself like an Oriental queen. Her skin had been flawless and smooth like the softness of velvet. “My mother never lets me use soap on my face,” she had said, “ It’s always a paste of gram flour and milk with sandal essence. And my bath is perfumed with rose water……”
When he first met her, Sallika was a hostess at a five-star hotel in Bombay . She was a very popular one at that, and earned a fabulous salary, not to speak of the exorbitant tips and expensive gifts that were lavished on her by satisfied customers. She even had a car at her disposal. She had been groomed for this profession by her scheming mother. Young and impressionable, Sallika thought it was life’s greatest adventure to be in the company of society’s elite gentlemen. Besides, it gave her some respite from the greedy, domineering woman she called “mother.” However, her entire job was a dispassionate exercise, a profession like any other, springing from economic compulsions.
Govind wiped his eyes with his expensive monogrammed handkerchief.
“If it hadn’t been for my unhappy marriage, I’d never have drifted into “ Shiraz .”
His was a marriage of convenience between two textile houses. Govind and his bride were merely pawns in their parents’ hands. If she had been beautiful with one commendable virtue, the marriage might have worked. He hated the very thought of going home, and began to stop by at the hotel for a drink. That’s when he met Sallika. She was warm and friendly, but when he monopolized her every evening, the manager wasn’t pleased.
“If you’re that bent on keeping her to yourself why don’t you marry her?” he said.
There were many hassles. They belonged to two different castes and cultural backgrounds. So they went off to the Registrar’s office, and were married very quietly. The reception at home was stormy. His mother threw tantrums, his father scolded, his sisters sulked, and his wife threatened to go to the police with charges of bigamy.
“Okay,” said Govind, “If I’m not welcome here, I’ll move out with Sallika.”
Eventually, as in all clannish joint families, a compromise was arrived at. The first wife would be the bahu , and would move into the main wing of the house. An annexe would be at the disposal of Govind and Sallika. But the latter knew it was only a superficial calm. Underneath, cross currents would boil and seethe in a turbulence of hate against her.
Govind could not stop castigating himself.
“As much as I loved her, I was jealous and possessive. Each time I lay beside her, the monster within me would take possession. I conjured up pictures of her beautiful body in the arms of the men she had lain with. My love-making became increasingly savage and brutal. Sallika must have grieved at these changes. Perhaps she took consolation that she was with child, and hoped that things would get better after the baby was born. She never once complained, and always tried to be cheerful.”
As Govind’s parents knew nothing of her past, he exercised the greatest vigilance and never let her venture out of the house. When visitors came, she had to withdraw into her bedroom. It was prison life, hedged in by four walls, with nothing to sustain her but the child in her womb, and a hope that her husband would love her as before. Govind also made sure that there was no contact between Sallika and her mother. She had been paid off soon after the marriage.
Govind suddenly shook himself out of his reverie. His car had been surrounded by villagers.
“Get out, Get out,” they shouted, “And don’t dare come here again. We will not have you bothering our Thai. ”
He drove away before they went berserk.
In her room that evening, Pushpatai was a worried woman. “How on earth has he traced me? I thought I had covered my tracks so well. I’ve built a new life for myself. The people here respect me. Must I throw it all up, and start running again? No. I shall not run. He has no power over me. I am obliged to nobody.”
Pushpatai had cut herself off completely from the world she knew, taking on a new identity and a new profession. It had not been easy. From luxury to the bare essentials, it meant sacrifice in creature comforts. The only contact with the outside was a transistor radio she kept by her bedside. On a shelf stood a row of books on different subjects, and wedged between two, was a copy of the Koran in which she had secreted the photograph of her child.
Sallika’s tragedy began with the partition. Both parents were killed in the general holocaust. A middle aged woman had brought the child up as her own. She blossomed into a beauty. Both mother and daughter moved from Punjab to Bombay , and settled in a respectable Housing colony in Juhu where filmmakers and movie stars lived. The old lady had once owned a saloon of dancing girls. Now she had only Sallika.
Pushpatai gazed at the picture of her son, and sobbed for the first time in many years. Her meeting with Govind had opened up wounds. She was not invulnerable in spite of her indifferent posturing.
“My son was born at the end of our first year together. Govind thought he was the spit image of me. We were happy for a year or so. Then once again he became cold and distant. He wanted to have our son to himself. He probably thought that prolonged interaction with me would taint the child. He now had it all – an heir to his textile empire, a legal wife in the other wing simply waiting to drop into his arms! I was redundant.”
One day, he came home pretty late. After days of ignoring her very presence, he suddenly became over-solicitous. Their nightcap of milk stood side by side on a table. She couldn’t see what he was doing, but she became suspicious, when he brought her the glass of milk. This happened for three days in succession. She was terrified that he was slowly poisoning her. She had to get out of the house.
The next day, Sallika feigned illness. She complained of a heavy head and lethargy in her limbs.
“Perhaps you are pregnant again,” said her mother in law. “You must visit the family doctor. I’ll tell the driver to take you.”
Sallika got off at the clinic, and asked the driver to return after an hour. No one saw her again.
“Good riddance!” said her mother in law.
“The bitch has gone back to her old trade,” Govind thought.
Sallika had saved some money during the days of her prosperity. A women’s welfare organization helped her move to Mandargaon, a village that didn’t merit a place on any map of the State. They helped her set up house and work in a tribal colony for which she was paid a small salary that went into her bank account. Above all, they respected her need for secrecy.
Sallika reached for the framed photgraph of Ganesha which she kept on her table. She undid the back of the frame. It had held her secret for five years. There was a marriage certificate, and a picture of Govind and herself on their wedding day. Slowly, she tore them into bits. Then she looked fondly at the picture of her boy.
“You too must go my darling. You never belonged to me.”
She shredded it into pieces and let her tears wash away her past.
As Govind headed towards Kohlapur, he was only glad of one thing. Sallika would never know that her lively young son was found suffocated, with his head dunked in a bucket of water, a few days after she had run away.
“We God-damned rich with our stinking intrigues and phoney respectability!” he cursed, as he thought of the mocking and defiant eyes of his first wife, daring him to prove her guilt.
“At least Sallika is free. The woman in white has moved on, and found peace, while I still wallow in my worthlessness.”