By KS Maniam
All I had wanted to do after my retirement was sit in the patio – I had, with foresight, called in a contractor and built it some years before the event- and catch the sunrise and, towards the end of the day, watch the sun go down. The morning sunlight would warm my body and the mild chill of the dusk would remind me of my final destination. I was surprised, therefore, to notice the impatience with which I waited for my daughter-in-law, Sumathi, to appear. The second mug of coffee she brought me, having replaced my wife in this duty, I had to admit, tasted even better than the one I made myself. The flutter and sweep of her sari – she had discarded the skirt and blouse after she had been staying with us for a few weeks – as she came up with the coffee, roused in me a warmth different from the sun’s.
In the years I had known her, I had never allowed her to come that near. I had been careful always to keep between us a distance that forbade intrusion. I had made that clear the first time we met. Surinderan, my son, brought her to the house late one night – I thought after they had been drinking – when his mother was almost worried out of her mind.
Sumathi wore a dress that barely covered her knees and shoulders and she flung a breathless ‘Hi!’ at us. Devi, my wife, stood nonplussed in the doorway; I turned my head away at the sight of all that flesh.
When Surinderan followed his mother to the kitchen – Devi retreated there whenever people and events became unbearable – Sumathi wandered about the living room, driven by a frenetic energy. Her limbs and face trembled with an uncontrollable restlessness. When I saw her coming towards me, her lips shaping words, I rose and went into my study, and shut the door with a sharp click.
For a while there was peace in the family. Surinderan came home everyday, even if it was only very late at night. Sometimes he stayed away but informed his mother of his whereabouts. I begrudgingly admitted to myself that the girl was of some use: she had taken Surin off my hands. I was even more grateful when they announced their marriage though neither I nor Devi had been consulted. At the wedding reception, held in the function room of a five-star hotel, I stood at the fringe of a mixed crowd, mostly friends of Sumathi and Surin. I didn’t look at her face when they came and knelt at my and Devi’s feet for their blessing. I was glad to get away when the mostly young guests slipped into lewd joking and drunken dancing.
‘No shame at all!’ Devi muttered, during the drive home. ‘As if she had won a great prize! Showing that bare neck!’
‘Modern times,’ I said.
‘She’s a mohini!’ she went on. ‘She’ll swallow him up. First taking him from us. Now this. A marriage without a thali? Siva-Siva!’
She pulled out her own thali, nestled between her breasts in her blouse, and showed it to me.
‘This has kept us together through everything. There must be fear of God, respect for the old ways.’
Then I had almost collided with Sumathi, rushing to the hospital bed where my son lay wrapped up in bandages and kept alive with oxygen, glucose drips and blood transfusions. I looked at her then, at her swollen and bruised face. My bitter anger distanced me from her. All the time I was at the bedside of my dying son, I saw her as someone contact with whom was unthinkable.
What was it then that had made me agree to her request, as she put it, to live in the space where my son had lived? Her face had done that, had wrought some subtle change in me.
The laughter and the plumpness I had seen there before and during the marriage were gone. I was reminded of Sita’s face I had seen in an illustrated Ramayana, as she was about to enter the flames that would test her purity, Rama, Lakshmana, his brother, and Rama’s court followers watching from a distance, unmoved. I had seen a similar face when I was thumbing through another book, complete with photographs, that had recorded the daily lives of the brides of Christ. Both had been filled with an intense passion, inspired by some impersonal purpose or sense of devotion.
I had seen that look more recently, when I shaved before the bathroom mirror: a mask bearing my features, stared back at me with an unassailable emptiness. She has come into the territory of the stateless, I had thought.
I wasn’t sure anymore. I wondered if my wife was right, that Sumathi was a spirit come to drain our blood. She had been peculiar that first week she came to stay with us. She remained in Surin’s room, not even coming out for meals or for our company. Sometimes we heard strange moans; at other times, chanting. One night we thought we heard her talking to Surin and he replying in his hesitant, gruff voice. Then there was only silence, a silence so deep that the house wasn’t there anymore.
When Sumathi finally came down from her isolation, she was as thin as a spectre.
‘What have you done to yourself?’ Devi said in spite of herself.
‘You’ll make us nothing,’ Devi said, her hostility returning. ‘The neighbours will think we hide the food from you.’
‘Had to be with his things,’ Sumathi said. ‘To feel him near me.’
‘We don’t want another death in this house,’ Devi said and shuffled off to the kitchen.
Sumathi sat for a while, in her dark blue, ankle-length dress – her outward concession to mourning; she hadn’t begun wearing the sari yet – clutching her arms, her head sunk to her breasts.
The next day I was sitting out in the patio, my first mug of coffee before me, waiting for the invigorating warmth of the sun, when I heard my wife come out from the kitchen and say something harshly to Sumathi. I heard Sumathi get up and follow her to the kitchen. I turned away from them to surrender myself to the sight that bewitched me.
The day was enacting its first drama: the triumph of light over darkness. The last, stubborn clouds of mist were yielding to the certain advance of brightness. The mango and rambutan trees I had planted more than a decade ago became clearly visible. My mind settled into that still incandescence I courted. When Sumathi appeared, like a ghostly figure at my side, with another mug of coffee, I barely glanced in her direction.
Throughout the morning she remained a wraith on the fringes of my vision. At lunch she bent over her plate, trying hard to keep the food down, then she rose suddenly and hurried to the bathroom. For a while, she was a series of retching sounds. Then, later in the afternoon, she was a shadow that fell across me as I dozed on the sofa. At night, as I waited for sleep to come, she was the subject of a report.
‘Roaming all over the house,’ Devi said. ‘As if she owns it. No more wandering about. Time for her to show me some respect. Time for her to know I live in this house!’
Her rambling talk only kindled the spreading greyness in my mind. The following morning Sumathi appeared at my side, wearing a sari. ‘She has let me into the kitchen,’ she said.
I stiffened, noticing, in spite of my detachment, a fragrance not that of coffee. My mind left, for a moment, its leaden hedges and brushed against recalled smells of scented soap, freshly ironed clothes and powdered bodies; the intimacy of flesh and garment. I turned my face towards the primeval beginnings of another day.
During that month – Sumathi had been granted leave by her firm – she was neither shadowy nor radiant; she was visible but not intrusive. In the mornings she moved through the house with pail and mop, cleaning the parquet, terrazzo and marble floors; in the afternoons, she stood at the ironing board, pressing out from the heat and steam neat, soft shirts, blouses, sarungs and trousers.
I tried to avoid her as I would a pail or a broom; but I couldn’t ignore the dark, sweat patches at her armpits and on her back, and the wet shine on her face.
‘You should take a rest,’ Devi said.
‘How will I know this house as Surin did?’
‘No need to wear the sari for this kind of work.’ ‘Need it to grow on me.’
Devi shook her head and went to her chores in the kitchen. ‘She’s punishing herself,’ Devi told me at night.
‘Yes,’ I said, waiting for the grey tide of unconsciousness. Instead, Sumathi’s face came between the waiting and the semi-consciousness. The face glistened with more than a passionate engagement with emptiness.
I heard her, in the room across the small, upstairs hall, crooning a song as if to a child who had wandered into her bedroom. The hesitant, sad voice seemed to come from the image in my mind. I turned on my side, trying to shake it off, but the mournful song and her face sank more deeply into me. When the crooning finally trailed off, in the small hours of the morning, I was still awake, struggling with an obscure sense of desolation.
I got up, numbed, long before the two women did, and sat in the patio with my coffee. The dawn air that usually refreshed me, left me insensible; the faint glow behind the houses and the hills only heightened the sense of dissolution I felt.
When Sumathi appeared with my second mug of coffee, I saw that she was no more the image I had seen or the voice I had heard; I saw that her face was filled with determination and a certain expectation. Her sleep-filled breath touched my cheeks as she bent to put down the mug, brushing away, momentarily, the weariness of the night.
If she had come to inhabit my life, she couldn’t have succeeded more. Throughout the morning, I kept glancing covertly at her as she tidied up the house and helped out in the kitchen. I didn’t read the newspapers with the customary concentration; after a while, I let the sheets slide to the carpet, beside the armchair, barely touched.
I kept gazing at the doorway, which I now thought led nowhere. During my university days, I couldn’t wait to pass through it to the world, outside. It was a magic portal that transfigured me; once I stepped through it, I grew in stature and importance. I entered the kingdom of the knowledgeable, the skilled and the sought-after. Once I returned through it, the reverse happened: I shrank into my diminished, domestic self, into unimportance. When I happened to come home early, I would sit in my favourite armchair, staring at the late evening light as if it were the receding shore of a burnished realm.
I felt the tugging of another world now and turned away from the doorway, unexpectedly timid. I hadn’t known shyness for more than a decade, but I had no time to dwell on the humiliation it would bring me. The dreaded hour, that between noon and lunch, was upon me. Out in the compound, the trees and plants were reduced to standing in the pools of their own shadows.
During this hour, I would watch the incandescent greyness within me shrink, crumble and dissolve. The last blob of consciousness would dry up, crack and fall into dissolution; I would float in the darkness, weightless and formless. Usually I lay down on the sofa and let my dwindling consciousness rise into the region of nothingness. My body would be gripped, in turn, by hot and cold shudders, and I would, after a while, become limp and useless. But that morning, not wanting Sumathi to see me in my helplessness, I sat holding on to the armchair, focusing my mind on a dark spot on the carpet.
A groan must have escaped me for Sumathi stood suddenly before me, a concerned look on her face. ‘Not well?’
‘Too much reading. Hot tea. That always helps.’
She brought me the tea, which I accepted wondering if my face had betrayed any of the impotence I felt, then remembered that I had only a mask for a face.
I didn’t mind her standing there, watching me take the first sips of the tea, which almost scalded my tongue. I looked at her through the film of tears the slight discomfort had brought to my eyes. I saw that the flesh that had returned to her face and body, after she had begun to eat regularly, now gave her an enchanting, pubescent softness.
Perhaps that was what Surin had seen in her, I thought. I sank back into the chair, that shadowless time of the day no longer holding so much menace.
In the afternoon, after lunch, when the women had gone upstairs, the fear returned. The years stretched before me, an endless desert dancing with mirages; but when I looked among the hazy images, I found no trace of myself.
I lay bathed in the sweat of a futile struggle, neither body nor mind, only a voice that said to itself, ‘No! No! No!’ How was I to stem the undertow of obliteration? No sliver of pain nor a twig of the past came to ground me in a reassuring reality.
Sumathi’s face, not my wife’s, came to shore me up against the degeneration of my consciousness. The breath that I had felt on my cheek, in the morning, touched me again and I felt revived.
Sumathi didn’t resent Devi’s treatment of her. She submitted with a willingness that could only have come from an inner resourcefulness and strength. Did I notice a softening in Devi towards the end of Sumathi’s leave? Devi certainly didn’t order her about anymore. She spoke more gently to her; she didn’t demand anymore, she requested. They fell into conversations that had nothing to do with Surin or Sumathi’s recalcitrant days.
Sometimes when Sumathi told her about her childhood in the estate, where her father had been a conductor, Devi’s face lit up as if she was reliving her own youthful days.
Until then she had treated Sumathi only as a helper in the kitchen. Sumathi sliced the onions and garlic, cut up the meat and vegetables and, when Devi had finished cooking, swept and mopped the kitchen floor. She also washed up after meals. Later, Devi allowed her to make tea or coffee for us. She sometimes took a break from her work and sitting at the dining table, said, ‘Make me some tea.’ Or she said, jerking her head in my direction, ‘He may want a drink.’ Devi conceded even more, after that nostalgia-filled conversation; from that day she let Sumathi have free run of the kitchen. Sumathi cooked some meals in the days remaining before she went back to work.
I tried to account for this change in Devi. She whispered less complaints about her in the bedroom. The slight shift came, I thought, from a different source. Sumathi had been, after all, the last person to be with Surin, and Devi – there was no need to dwell on her superstitious nature – wanted somehow to reach into that closeness. She had shown Surin’s spirit that she had sufficiently chastised Sumathi and now wanted to please him by being kind to her.
Devi, however, wouldn’t let Sumathi anywhere near the family shrine.
They were seated in the living room, one evening, after dinner, when Sumathi suddenly said, ‘I want to do a puja.’
‘To start my new life,’ Sumathi said. ‘I’ll clean the prayer things.’ ‘You’ve not the ways.’
‘I must learn.’
The two women spent most of the Friday morning scrubbing with coconut husk, ash and assam – Devi wouldn’t use modern materials – the tier lamps, incense and camphor holders, and trays, and then drying and polishing them. Devi punctuated the work with a sermon on present day youths’ sacrilegious ways; Sumathi listened as if she was once again a young girl.
I sat in my armchair, wearing my isolation like a prickly shawl. I thought my wife wasn’t past addressing me through Sumathi; I hadn’t prayed at the family shrine in years. I wondered at how I had got through all those thevasam ceremonies for the rest of Surin’s soul. The priest’s sweaty, half-naked body appeared before me again, and the crowd that had pressed around me and Devi. The air had been rich with incantation, incense smoke and the warm embrace of community.
The women fasted the whole of that day; they entered into the spirit of the event. They could have been sisters, I thought, struck by the harmony with which they worked towards the puja. Then I grew confused. How could the mother and the wife of my departed son be thought of as sisters?
I put the thought aside for it brought a splintering of the world I knew from a distance, the world of wife, son, daughters, daughter-in-law. The wife in the kitchen, the son dead, the daughter with the husband she had chosen to marry, the other daughter away in the States, and the daughter-in-law hugging her lately-found sense of guilt and grief.
Devi was relenting towards Sumathi, I thought. The woman who had accused her of being a mohini. The woman who had put murder on her head. They were getting into a ritual togetherness, and I was being left out.
The expectant silence that filled the house, late in the evening, struck me like the keen edge of exclusion. I watched Sumathi, dressed in a white sari, go to the back of the house where lay a small pile of coconut shells. She broke them into chips and tried to start a fire. I heard her lighting several matches and then puffing away at the sparks that wouldn’t catch.
What was it that took me through the gloom of the house, to the back and take over the making of the fire? The old skills returned to me – I had prepared the embers for the Friday pujas during my adolescence – and I filled the brazier with pieces of the curling, glowing coconut shell. For a moment I bathed in the warmth the memories brought me.
‘Thank you,’ Sumathi said and took the brazier upstairs.
As the house filled with incense smoke, I was enveloped again by the humid despair that had coloured the Friday pujas of my childhood. My mother had wept silently the whole afternoon, now and then blowing her nose; my father sat out in the long, dim verandah that linked the estate houses. My father’s darkened, dumb face woke some fury in me. Then the small brass bell my mother swung, as she closed the prayers and now openly cried, resonated with a precarious tranquility.
‘You don’t have to do this,’ I heard my wife say.
‘That’s what I came for.’
I heard the muffled thumps as Sumathi struck her forehead on the floor. In a while she brought the camphor flames and the holy ash to me; I held my palms over the flames and brought them, awkwardly, to my eyes. I made a streak across my brow with the ash, wondering at my trembling hands. Sumathi’s face was as wet as my mother’s had been.
That Monday morning, before she left for work, she brought me my second mug of coffee, and the warm breath came again through the misty dawn to touch me with a sense of my own existence.
K. S. Maniam, born 1942, is one of Malaysia’s great literary icons. Besides award-winning short stories, his works include novels (The Return, In A Far Country, and most recently, Between Lives), as well as plays (The Cord, The Sandpit: Monologue, The Sandpit: Womensis and Skin Trilogy). He is the inaugural recipient of the Raja Rao Award (New Delhi, September 2000), for his outstanding contribution to the Literature of the South Asian Diaspora.
The above story is taken from K. S. Maniam, Faced Out: Six Stories, Petaling Jaya: Maya Press, 2004.
First Published: 13.07.2005 on Kakiseni