A Postulant Demimonde Existence
by Lakshmi Raj Sharma
I often see her on my morning walk. She carries a bundle of scrappy things on her head. Her muddy sari, tied much higher than it should be, makes it look on its way to becoming a long skirt. Her hair is normally as short as it can get, probably shaven off every other month; when it can escape the tonsure for longer it is like a clutter of grayish worms wriggling out of a salt-and-pepper skull cap. From the way people shun her she obviously has a demimonde existence. Yet she is generally postulant, wanting to get into the good books of people on the streets, her efforts yielding almost no results. In the end, with no one responding to her seriously, it seems as though she talks to herself. When no one notices you, you end up talking to yourself; you take yourself a little seriously because that is all you can do. You imagine you are important, a wife, a judge, a business magnet, a queen, . . . . When no one hears you, you hear yourself talking. You smile on your own comments and express concern on your own predicament. You run after people your mind conceives worthy, you rebuke those your mind considers rude. In such circumstances the world considers you less than sane. Mad.
I buy biscuits and feed stray dogs on my daily walk. She often sits and watches these road shows of this inter-species exchange of feelings. She is hungry, perhaps more than anyone else on the road, but she sits overcome, away from the tea stall where the biscuits are sold. Being human, she is shy to come to me and ask for biscuits and I am wary to offer them to her lest she think I equate her with the dogs.
That morning was different. She seemed unusually charged. She had got into a fit of expressiveness. She wanted to say something to me at any cost if her mind continued to cooperate. The moment she saw me appear, with my train of dogs, at the tea and biscuit shop, she stood up like the narrator of an Indian folk-theatre performance, half in the spirit of a dancer. Her movements were also similar, somewhat like the movements in the chorus of an ancient Greek tragedy. I was gripped by her actions possibly like the audiences in the performances of such primal and basic actions must have been in those times. She told me something that was not easy to understand. It was mostly just sound flowing out of a mouth; a new form of expression, in which speech had to be dropped, and in which tone and the variation of pitch were the primary ingredients. She seemed to have done away with the need for vocabulary. Actions, of course, were speaking louder than words in her mode of communication.
At first I felt a little self-conscious. There was the fear of becoming the centre of attraction, so close to a woman on an otherwise conservative street, with the dogs almost begging for my attention. The shopkeeper, in his customary manner, handed me the biggish biscuits which I began to distribute among the dogs without even looking at them properly. My attention was all on what the woman was going to do to me in the next moment, with the lookers-on waiting to laugh and clap at the performance. My apprehensions were writ large on my face and I knew that from the way people were responding to my actions. It was strange that a man of fifty was worried about receiving some kind of injury from a woman of the same age. But I had an image, a reputation, to take care of which she probably had not. She had passed that stage after taking to her journey through insanity.
The next moment the volume of her voice increased and with it the shrillness of its pitch. She was saying something of grave importance to me. Why to me, alone? There were others present who had as many ears as I did. But she saw in me someone who had not been ignoring her these past days. She did have the sense to realize that I was noticing her daily even though I had always shied away from addressing her formally. If I had cared to humour the dogs so regularly, I was surely not like the sane people in her daily existence. If I had not given clear evidence of listening to her she might have held my hand to draw my attention. I began to read into what she was trying to say. This is what I read:
‘Listen to me, o you rare specimen of humanity! Please listen to what I have to say. In that bungalow, across the road, where you see those beautiful Bottle Palms was I once married. I had a godlike husband. I entered the house like any bride does, with hope and dreams of the highest kind. But what happened after that merely belied the hopes and the dreams that I had so cherished. I suffered shocks at every step. I was used by people; employed in acts I wouldn’t dream of speaking about. Even the thought of what I suffered makes me shiver now. There was none that came to my rescue; none even got disturbed by my troubles. I was always at the explaining end; never heard, though. I was slapped, kicked, caned, dragged, pushed and even raped, though never murdered, I must admit. I lost my baby in one such assault; it bled out of my system. I was pushed out of the house finally when another woman was to be brought in my place. There she lives, now, instead of me.
I have slipped into a different plane of existence now. People I approach, to tell my woes, don’t hear me – as though my voice never reaches their ears; they merely look puzzled at my behavior, for a few moments and then become indifferent. They look the other side, as though I were one of these dogs or cows that roam the streets unmindfully, only showing interest in things that whet the appetite. Like them I have been made to appear a creature of mere appetite.’
As I leave her to her plight and proceed homeward, I carry guilt with me. She had after all come with hope to me. She trusted me perhaps, more than she did any other on the street, just as the dogs have been doing. The dogs I can help, but what can I do for her? I cannot take her home with me. People will see all the wrong designs in my actions. I cannot dream of putting her in the rehabilitation homes that the government has erected for such dropouts. I have read of the conditions of the residents in such homes. I cannot even plead for mercy killing for her, as I do not subscribe to euthanasia. Perhaps what I can do is to write about this experience, with my limited art, to make people conscious. Though, again, what I fear is that my readers will imagine that I tend to romanticize and exaggerate; they will be critical of the exaggeration that informs my writing. Don’t they complain of the exaggeration in Charles Dickens’ style even now, two hundred years after that great master was born?
Lakshmi Raj Sharma is a professor of English at the University of Allahabad. He lives in Allahabad with his professor wife, Bandana, and etymologist son, Dhruv. His first collection of stories, Marriages are Made in India, has now been published as an e-book by Publerati, USA. His first novel, The Tailor’s Needle, first published in the UK, is now being published by Penguin Books India, later in 2012. His article, “Charles Dickens and Me” is to be published this autumn by the Oxford journal, English.