Story 17: The Barber and the Milkmaid

Today she sat on her grave as I had first seen her, as a nubile nineteen year old.

I did not like her like this; I preferred to see her sagging and shrivelled like I am. That young couple – Seeta the milkmaid and Gopal the barber, who made eyes at each other every morning for months in the long summer of 1972 – now belonged to another world, another life. When you’re young, your heart races at the sight of a woman’s flesh. But as your hair whitens and your body bends, withering folds appear in the mind, one at a time, until you realize one day that a clutch of giggling girls have walked right past you and you haven’t even noticed.

I entered the graveyard after slipping Daanayya his five-rupee coin, watching Seeta, with her legs crossed. From under her pink half-sari I could catch a glimpse of the pea-sized black mole on her inner thigh. The Gopal of 1972 had had sleepless nights of the sight of this mark. The Gopal of today wanted some grey in her hair, and a few more warts on that spotless, dusky face.

‘You know I don’t like roses,’ she said, when I bent down to leave the flower in my hand at her feet.

‘They were out of jasmines.’ I took my seat on the other corner. ‘You seem to have grown younger since yesterday.’

‘Yes, about thirty years younger.’ Her voice had changed too. Husky and loud, like that of a girl of fourteen. None of yesterday’s quivering. And clear, too. Today I could understand every word, and see every white tooth when she smiled.

‘You’re in a good mood.’

‘Did you have your idli?’

‘I did. Did you have your glass of milk and omelette?’

‘I did, though I don’t have to anymore.’

She turned her head away from me, so I could catch a look at the bundle of jasmines in her hair. Perhaps because they caught the light of the rising sun, they seemed to be tinged with yellow, though each flower was in full bloom. I leaned closer to her out of long habit, but they did not smell like they used to. They did not smell at all.

The jasmines she had worn on our wedding night had been all white. Her mother had arranged for the family cot to be brought out into the veranda, under the full moon. We had lied down together, with my arm pillowing her head, looking up at the stars. I was too nervous to pull her to me and give her a kiss, not least because I could still hear the giggles from behind the shut windows of the house. Later, she told me that she was shy to look into my eyes, too.

But I remember the jasmines. Not all of them were in full bloom; here and there was a bud, a few frayed petals, but how divinely they smelled!

‘They don’t smell, do they?’ she said, and I blinked, and that faraway night transformed into a warm morning. I shook my head. ‘You look just like you did on the first day you spoke with me.’

I shook my head again, this time with a smile. I knew she was lying. ‘Rashi and Arun are coming home tomorrow,’ I said, to change the subject.

We had been talking about the kids for a few days now, so I was not surprised by the change in her face. Her eyes became clearer, and her bottom lip disappeared under her teeth. ‘I hate them’ she said. ‘You know I do.’

I looked up at the gate. Daanayya was walking up and down, tapping the ground with the metal end of his leather staff. He had pestered Inspector Ramana Reddy for years for a police stick. Looks like his wish had been granted. Every few seconds he looked up in their direction, as if to make sure that I would not run away. I waved at him. He raised his stick at me, a frown on his face. Perhaps five rupees was not enough. From tomorrow I should give him ten.

Cemeteries tended to be silent, especially when you made statements of a confessional nature. The wind stilled, and the air weighed down on us. So I raised my voice a little, to make sure that she could hear. I’d said this to her before, but some truths deserved to be repeated, every single day.

I said, ‘I hate them too.’

* * *

I returned after lunch. I’d stopped by at Polayya’s shop on the way and emptied a packet of toddy into my mouth. It did not simmer on the tongue just as well as the stuff from the city did, but it was good enough to cool the stomach. By the time I reached Seeta’s grave, my step was a bit unsteady. I kicked the edge of the stone where they wrote her name and almost stumbled into her lap.

She laughed.

She laughed like she used to before Arun and Rashi had come, with her head thrown back, hands clapped to her chest. It had always been her fear that the pallu of her sari would fall off when she laughed in that manner, and that people would stare at her cleavage.

I used to tell her that she wasn’t well endowed enough for that to happen – and she really wasn’t – but she would hit me on my scalp with a knuckle and that would be that.

Seeta’s belly protruded now, I noticed.

‘The kids are kicking,’ she said.

‘It is you who wanted them.’

‘Yes.’ Her hand went to her stomach, caressed it. ‘If I had known what they would make of us, I would never have had them. I would have hit myself with a rolling stone until they died inside me.’

Seeta became more sensible after her death. All during their lives I had told her how the kids were draining us – of money, of love, of life – but she would not listen. She would say that a man’s responsibility was towards his family, that he should get his children into school, and then into college, and watch them become ‘big people’, one of the big people in the city that she said she hated.

‘Why don’t you have jasmines in your hair anymore?’ I asked, looking at her bare, thinning locks.

‘I have to give the babies their milk.’

‘Why don’t you wear the white sari that you wore on the night of our wedding?’

‘The kids have to be fed, they have to be put to sleep.’

‘Will you come after the kids have gone to bed?’

‘Yes, Gopal. I promise.’

‘You always say you’re too tired.’

‘Not tonight. I promise.’

The sun beat down, and I sweated from my neck, my temples, my back. Sweat was in my hair, and it was between my fingers. Seeta just sat there, caressing her stomach. Outside the gate, Daanayya walked up and down with his police stick, stealing furtive glances every few seconds. A cow had come and dropped a fresh pile of dung on the grave next to Seeta’s. It belonged to Lingamchaari, who used to teach science at the school when the kids were young.

The smell of dung reminded me of Lingamchaari’s words: your boy will one day grow up to be a great engineer, Gopalayya. And Rashi, you just had to tell her something once and she remembers it. Gifted, your children are. Gifted!

‘We must send our children to college,’ Seeta had said that night.

‘I was thinking he could help me out at the shop.’

‘Do you want to make him a barber?’

‘What’s wrong with being a barber?’

‘I don’t want my son cutting other people’s hair when he could be in an office, working on a computer. And I don’t want my daughter to milk a cow.’

I took out a roll of sweet paan from my pocket and put it on the stone, next to Seeta. She took one look at it, then shook her head. It was on the night of that very conversation, when I had gone to Polayya’s shop afterward to get some nourishment inside me, that I noticed the jasmines sticking out of Ranganayaki’s hair.

‘You smell,’ said Seeta, looking up at him with a wooden face. Her brinjal-like complexion turned a little darker on sunny days. ‘There is toddy in your breath.’

‘I stopped by Polayya’s shack on the way here,’ I said. ‘Just a little after lunch.’

‘Did you stop by for a packet on the way home this morning too?’

‘I did. Yes.’

‘The kids make you drink, don’t they?’

I nodded. ‘They make you work so hard that you don’t bring me flowers any more. They make you earn so much that you must keep the shop open for fourteen hours, and after that – after that, a man does have to get his rest, doesn’t he?’

‘Yes,’ I said. I had not looked at another woman until Arjun was five. Seeta knew that. I had not stopped bringing her the flowers until she stopped wearing them. She knew that too. I had not raised my arm on her once until she began to think that they had to grow up and become these – these ‘big people’.

‘At least you don’t smell of jasmines,’ she said, and looked away at Daanayya.

Before the kids came, I emptied one packet a day. After, I had to have one every three hours or my fingers would tremble. And trembling fingers were bad for a barber looking to make a lot of money to get his children educated in the city.

‘If we didn’t have them,’ she said, ‘we would have loved each other like we did on that first night.’

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Yes.’

‘Why didn’t I kill them in my womb, Gopal? Why was I too foolish to see what was so plain to you?’

The year of 1977, I went to Dhavalaeshwaram to start a second barber’s shop there, so that we could buy two Jersey cows. Seeta fed them with bales of green grass, and milked them for two hours every morning. She woke up at four and went to bed at eleven, after the kids. I stayed for six nights of the week in Dhavaleshwaram and came back to Palem on Sunday.

Even on the one night I was in the village, Seeta did not wear jasmines in her hair. ‘I am too tired,’ she would say.

I got up to my feet and felt the dry afternoon wind blast my face. ‘I will come in the evening,’ I said.

* * *

Five more rupees went into Daanayya’s pocket at sundown, and I staggered toward Seeta’s grave. She was there, waiting, in the white sari and black blouse of our wedding night, but her hair had fallen off. What little remained of it was white as sugar, and when she smiled at me I saw that her teeth had fallen off.

She also had a black circle around her left eye. Her right cheek was bruised.

‘How much money will you spend on this poison?’

‘I will spend all that I want. It is my money.’

‘It is the money you earned for your children.’

‘It is my money.’

‘And how much money will you spend on that prostitute?’

‘What did you call her?’

‘A prostitute. That’s what she is. Ask anyone in the village.’

‘That prostitute gives me more love than you have in years.’

Seeta patted the grave and wiped it clean of dust with her hand. The light of day was receding. Outside the gate, washerwomen stopped on their way back home from the riverbank. They stood talking to Daanayya, and they all looked at us out of the corners of their eyes.

‘The kids made you go to Rangi, didn’t they?’

Her voice seemed sincere enough, but I did not reply. I thought back to the day I had first slapped Seeta across the face. There were many after that, and they disappeared in the haze of my memory, but that first night stands clear – her burst lip, my bruised hand, her weeping, the shadows of the children huddling together behind the cloth partition in the same room. Arun whispering to Rashi. Holding her close.

I’d felt an itch in my hands that night, a tickle similar to what I felt now when I didn’t drink for a few hours, and I went at Seeta again, grabbing her hair, bending her over, raining blows on her back, wherever I could see her skin exposed in the dim yellow light of the night lamp. The more I hit her, the quieter the hut grew, and the more she bit on her lip to stifle her weeping. Mustn’t wake up the kids.

Even with me smacking the shit out of her she thought only of the kids.

The kids. The kids. The kids.

‘Yes,’ I said at last, to the cool night air of the graveyard. ‘Do you not remember how much we were in love, Seeta?’

‘I do.’

‘The whole village said that we were made for each other.’

‘We were.’

‘And we did love each other, didn’t we, for those first two years?’

‘We did.’

‘Remember the movie we went to in Dhavaleshwaram, and how scared you were when we were returning on the bicycle?’

‘I do.’

‘But it all went away, didn’t it?’

‘It did.’ Now Seeta was an old crone. Her voice croaked. Now she was weeping, not for the kids but for us. She did not bite on her lip, did not smother her sad moans.

‘Then what happened to us, Seeta? Why did we start hating each other?’

‘Because of the kids.’

‘I told you this would happen.’

She was nodding amid tears.

‘I told you this would happen on that night you said you wanted a baby. I told you that they will snatch our lives from us.’

‘You did.’

‘And all your life you did not believe me,’ I said. ‘You said that they were our kids, that their lives are ours.’

She shook her head, and her voice quavered. ‘So foolish.’

‘You had to die to realize that you were wrong.’

I felt woozy in my head, and it seemed that the ground would open up into a well, and I could jump into it. I would hold Seeta’s hand and we would go back to that first night on the cot under the full moon, and we would promise each other that we would never, ever have children in our lives.

‘And they both came together!’ she said. ‘It was too much.’

‘And look what they did for us in return,’ I said. ‘Left us with no money. Did they take us with them to the land of the big people? Did they show us even once where they work in the city? Do they come home except for festivals?’

Seeta did not say anything, just shook her head at each question.

‘Is this why we gave them our lives and our love? So that they can look back at us and spit in our faces? Is this why I became an alcoholic? Found more love in the house of a slut than in the arms of my own wife? Is this why your hands –’ I reached for her hands, but she flinched and moved away – ‘is this why you allowed your hands to become like this?’

‘I thought they were our pride. I thought they were our joy.’

‘What use is pride and joy when it kills our love?’

I had asked Seeta this question ten days ago, on the day she died, but she had stayed firm, till the end. She had said that the children’s lives were ours, and their success was ours too. You will see it one day, she had said.

The kids did not arrive in time to see her die. They came the night after, as the last fires on Seeta’s pyre were dying down. They came and stood, an arm’s distance from each other, on the bank of the Godavari, looking down at the sand, hands clasped in front.

‘In death,’ she said, ‘I have seen light.’

Daanayya rattled his stick on the metal gate and called out to them. ‘It has been long enough, Gopalayya! Come, now, it’s time to go home.’

‘You must avenge us,’ she said.

I looked at her. ‘Do you agree now?’

‘I do. They have hacked our lives to pieces. Let them know that they have.’

‘I will tell them that it is your will.’

‘Tell them that my body thirsts for revenge. Use that knife that I used to use to make chicken for you. It is big, and it is sharp, too. One swipe of it on each of their necks and they will drop without a squeak.’

My fingers began to twitch. My hands began to shake. A film of sweat collected on my palms. Seeta’s eyes became bloodshot. She seemed to grow younger in front of my eyes now. Her skin became smooth again, the spots on her fingers disappeared, her lips became pinker, lifeblood filled the sallow cheeks, and in no time at all she smouldered with the same nubile passion that I had seen in her twinkling gaze that first day we met.

‘Kill them both,’ she said, ‘and come back here for me, my love. I will be waiting for you.’

* * *

I woke up at 4:30 A.M., before the rooster, and downed a packet of Polayya’s best arrack. The hands stopped shivering. I went to the kitchen, and dismounted the knife from the wall. I tested the blade. It did not seem to be sharp enough. From the corner shelf I picked up the rusted sharpening stone, and holding it between my feet as I sat down, proceeded to polish the knife on it, along the length, up and down.

Saidulu, Subbarao’s milkman, knocked on the door at 5:00. While he filled the vessel with milk, he said that the bus from Hyderabad had stopped by the paan shop. I nodded and went back to the kitchen. I tore open another packet of arrack and emptied it in two gulps. It never hurt to be extra careful. I had tried to cut the neck of a chicken once when sober. It just could not be done.

I waited, knife in hand.

At 5:30, I heard Arun’s voice at the door. ‘Nanna,’ he called out, ‘are you up?’

‘Yes!’ I said, getting up to my feet. ‘Coming.’