Srimathi - Udyogini

(Wife - working woman)

Abburi Chaya Devi

Sunday was the busiest. By the time I was done with my Chores it was nearing eleven. I looked for the patch of the sun that was forever eluding my house and, just as I found a corner in which to settle down with the paper, the bell rang. Damn! Must be the paper carrier with the bill, or the man from the shop next door to collect the empty bottles. Reluctantly, a little irritated, I forced myself to open the door.

It was a new face. A young girl - in he twenties. A folder in one hand and a leather bag in the other. Must be one of those girls who come to sell soap or sanitary napkins. My face automatically registered boredom as my words came out. "what do you want?"

She smiled. "I want you." Pretty to look at, too. "You know Mr.R.Rao. His wife told me about you .I hope you can spare me a little time."

Raghava Rao was a good friend of ours. Still! Have I a choice? I thought, as I opened the door, and asked her to come in.

We seated ourselves in the corner, sharing the sun.

"My name is Sujatha. I am at the university - doing research." As she spoke, her eyes sparkled like stars. Young enough not to be married, I thought.

"Oh, in which area?"

"Sociology."

"And your subject?"

"You are my subject," she said triumphantly. "I understand you are a working wife. I have a few questions to ask. I hope you don't mind giving me the answers."

"So. . .?" Vexation crept into my tone again.

"I am sorry. I know I may be wasting your time. But I need these answers for the research I' am doing. Only women like you can help me."

She must have read my doubts and the irritation in my eyes, for the next minute she opened her bag, took out a file and gave me a piece of paper to took at. It was a letter of introduction from her department confirming all she had been telling me. I thawed a little.

"Gathering responses from working wives like you is an important part of my study. You know, it is not so common in our country for women to work, and it is useful to know women are fulfilling their dual responsibilities of being a wife and a working woman, what their problems are, and how they face them." She stopped to catch her breath.

"Fine. It is a good subject you have chosen, Sujatha. I am very happy that you are doing this kind of work," I said, mainly to dispel my earlier displeasure and to give her some confidence to continue. She didn't seem to need any, though.

"Madam, I'd like to ask you a few questions and I hope you will answer them frankly. Of course I won't use your name or embarrass you in any way," Sujatha said.

I was just about to say, "Ready," when I heard my husband call me from the inner room. "Please wait, I won't be long," I told Sujatha and went.

My husband was still lolling in bed. "Who is that?" he asked. "I thought I heard voices."

I told him.

"Oh, come on," he said in a bored tone."Don't waste your time on her. Make some excuse and come back."

"Sujatha is very sweet. Besides, she is well recommended. The Raghava Raos have sent her. I want to talk to her. Better still, why don't you join us?"

"Hello no!" he said. "You won't catch me ruining my Sunday confessing to some unknown female."

"All right. You think I don't have that much sense. Don't worry. I won't say anything to compromise our family secrets."

"Oh, all right. But come back soon," he grumbled and turned over, pulling up the sheets.

I Smiled to myself, closed the door, took a couple of Fantas from the fridge, gave one to Sujatha, and settled back in to my chair. By this time Sujatha was ready with her pen and pad and began her assault.

"How long have you been married?" she asked.

"We have completed four five - year plans," I replied.

"Twenty years! How old were you when you married?"

"Never ask a women's age. But I'll tell you. I was twenty when I was married."

"And he?"

"Let me say he was ten years older."

"Was it an arranged marriage, or...?"

"Neither," I taunted.

"You mean?"

"Some people who knew both of us brought us together. We both agreed and our parents had no objection .We had a traditional wedding."

"How many children do you have?"

"We don't have any."

Sujatha wrote something on her pad and looked up at me questioningly.

"Does anyone else stay here with you?"

"No. Just the two of us."

"How long have you been working?"

"About fifteen years, I'd say."

"Did you work before you got married?"

"No."

"Does your husband like your working?"

"...."

"You mean he doesn't like it."

"Oh no. In fact he's the one who made me take the job.... But..."

"He doesn't like it any more.... Is that it?"

"I'm not sure. But sometimes I have this feeling that he doesn't like my working."

"Tell me why you took the job in the first place and why you are still doing it."

"In the beginning it was because I was bored at home with nothing to do. And now I am kind of used to it."

Sujatha smiled, making notes all the while.

"Is that the main reason? To help time pass?"

"I guess so."

"You're sure you didn't take the job because there wasn't enough money?"

"Well, there is never enough money. I can assure you it was not for the money."

"But the money is useful for the extra expenses, you'd say?"

"I didn't think so when I took the job. But neither can I say that the money has not come in handy."

"Was it to get out of the home -to avoid your mother -in -law or anyone else?"

"No, no. Luckily, I don't have such problems."

"It was to make some new friends -spend some time outside the home with others, I take it."

"May be! I got married just after I left college. Five years at home doing nothing was more than I could bear."

"Didn't you want to make use of what you studied at college?"

"Perhaps that was one more reason."

"Didn't you have any ambitions? To achieve recognition? To become somebody?"

"Thanks heavens, no it was mainly to spend some time usefully, not to make a name. But years of working have no doubt given me some stature, a few contacts."

"I take it you are happy with your job."

"Most of the time, yes -but, then, every so often I get a little dissatisfied with things."

"You mean at home, or outside?"

"Both. Sometimes when I am hard -pressed at the office, relatives descend on the house. If I spend some extra time at the office, they don't like it at home. And, you know, women aren't such climbers in their jobs as men are. So sometimes dissatisfaction creeps in."

"Are you satisfied with your husband's job?"

"As far as I am concerned, I am satisfied."

"I take it his parents are alive."

"Yes."

"Do you like your father-in-law?"

"What kind of question is that?"

Sujatha smiled softly.

"It is hard for people to understand the woman's side in many cases. But you didn't answer my question. Do you like your father-in-law?"

"Even if I do, can I say that openly?"

"OK. I'll write here 'Yes' to that. Now, about your mother -in-law. You like her?"

"Oh yes. I like her even more than I like my mother."

"You are very fortunate."

I agreed.

"Well, what about the others? His brothers, sisters? Do any of the other women in the family work?"

"Two of his sisters started working after marriage. Once had been working three years when she got married, but then she gave up her job. His elder brother's wife is also working. Another brother is yet to be married." As I said this a thought came in to my mind. Sujatha looked away as if she had read my thoughts.

"Perhaps part of your happiness has to do with having no children.

Or...."

"When we married, my husband's brothers and sisters were quite young. We never had the feeling of being without children. The house was always full of children. Anyway it is all in the mind, I suppose. Happiness or otherwise. Nothing to do with one's wants or hopes."

"Yes. But what shall I write here? That you are happy...."

"What do you think, looking at me? Write what you feel."

"OK. Let me change the subject," she said. "Tell me, when you have some free time, do you feel like staying at home, or going out, or both? Or does each of you feel differently?"

"It's a difficult question. But let me see. This is one thing about which we argue. He likes to window -shop. I like to shop. You know - buy things we need. I don't see the sense in tiring my legs and my eyes walking past shops. And then, on holidays I feel like going to a movie or a play or a concert. He wants to eat to his heart's content and lie in bed with a book. After he tires of that, he takes aimless strolls.If I suggest inviting friends or relatives over, he starts arguing and, finally, we end up going no place and wind up on different sides of the bed, each with a book_"

"Is there anything else you do together?" Sujatha broke in.

"No. I don't think there is anything we do together. No, Wait. We write. I dabble in stories. He writes poetry."

"Do you discuss your problems with your husband?"

"Many times. Sometimes he listens. Sometimes he gets in to a rage, and I suffer in silence and tell him about it long after the crisis is over. Oh yes, we do discuss our problems with each other.... As long as I don't hurt him, As long as our arguments don't create misunderstandings between ourselves."

"And does your husband tell you his problems - does he open his heart to you?"

"Yes, he tells me everything about our family affairs, our relatives and so on. But he is silent about his work and his problems there."

"What I mean is, does he confide in you? Are you quite satisfied?"

"Oh yes... If anything, he loves me too well and not too wisely. He worries about me all the time. If I have to go out alone, he worries. I am old enough and can take care of myself, but he won't agree. I often ask him to leave me to myself and do you know what he says?"

"What?" Sujatha asked eagerly.

"Well, he laughs! How can I leave you?"

"Well, I suppose you are quite happy and satisfied," Sujatha wrote. Before I could speak, she asked, "And he? Is he satisfied with your love?"

"You should ask him that," I said.

"But I want you to tell me," Sujatha insisted.

Goodness, this girl is something, I thought. How can I tell her everything- everything in my mind- even if it is for her research?

"Oh yes," I said simply, hoping she'd stop.

"Do you and he have any differences of opinion, you know, on important matters?"

"You might as well ask me whether we eat everyday," I said.

Sujatha laughed and started noting things down again.

"I want some more details - if you don't mind."

Oh God, I thought, what have we been doing so far? Aloud, I said,

"All right. Shoot." May be this will give me an idea for a story.

"Do you have different views on what you should spend on the house?"

"Oh yes," I said enthusiastically. "I want to buy curtains. He prefers old coins. 'Why waste money on curtains? The ones we have are OK.' He will say."

"What about luxuries?"

"He has none. He can't stand shopping. I've already told you that. And he hates picnics, parties, card games, and the like."

"May be he prefers religious functions?"

"No way," I said. "He hates all such ceremonies. The year I was married I wanted to perform the Sravanapuja, and you know what he said? 'You are an educated girl. Don't indulge in such meaningless things.' I like to arrange my collection of dolls for the Sankranti festival. When I was young my parents stopped me because it would interfere with my studies. And now my husband tells me that it is childish. I wanted to have the neighborhood ladies over for Varalakshmipuja and he put on such a face. 'Imagine all those women in this small house,' he said. And that was that. You name it. He has an answer for all my desires."

Sujatha seemed disturbed.

"I am sorry. Am I boring you with our petty squabbles?"

"Oh no," she said, embarrassed.

"And what about friends? Do you agree there?"

"Yes," I said.

Sujatha looked at me eagerly. "Please tell me more. I don't understand," she said.

"I mix with his friends from the office and their wives. But he keeps his distance from mine."

"Why?"

"Perhaps he doesn't want to feel that he is just someone's husband."

"And that hurts you, no doubt."

"Definitely, yes."

"I suppose that means he doesn't accept you as equal to him."

"Of course. What man will accept a woman as his equal?"

"And you agree?"

"No, no. I say we are equal. And he says, 'Look I'm older than you, taller than you. How can we be equal? You have a frog's mind.' And I ....."

"OK. Do you at least agree on the chores you do at home?"

"Of course not" I shook my head.

"I don't deny that he helps me in the house, more than most husbands I know. When he helps me in the kitchen, he leaves cigarette butts in the sink, dumps refuse all over the place. Costs me more work ultimately, so I let him go. I'd rather he did his own work."

Sujatha abruptly changed the subject. "What are your views as a dutiful daughter -in- law?"

"Well, we are both happy with my mother-in-law. But when it comes to his...."

"You mean?"

"Yes...He has this feeling that after marriage I should have broken away from my people. He doesn't say it in so many words, but I know he wants me to keep away from my people. I don't think men will ever change in relation to this, do you?"

Sujatha stopped a yawn-not too obviously. But her fingers were busy taking the notes. And then, "What are your views, I mean both your views, on showing your feelings - your affection towards each other?"

"Well, if he doesn't like the food I prepare for him, I think he doesn't love me. And if I don't like the sari he has brought for me, he gets the same feeling about my love for him."

"No, what I mean is the more physical part of love."

"Oh that," I laughed. "You want me to tell you the truth?"

Sujatha blushed and turned her face away. Before I could answer, I heard his voice calling me from the bedroom. I jumped out of my chair.

"Wait. I'll be back in a minute."

I entered our room. "Oh, you have awakened, finally, dearest," I said sarcastically.

"As if I had been sleeping! One day a week, one day I get when I can lie down and relax. And there you go yackety-yacking, clucking like a couple of birds. God! Is she still here?" he said with irritation.

"Look. Why don't you come and sit with her for a while? I'll make some coffee for you."

"Never mind. I'd prefer you to finish with her. Then we can have our coffee here in peace."

"You know, there's something nice about that girl. I feel that she would be good for your younger brother Srinivas. Shall I broach the subject?"

"God! You are out of your mind. You hardly know her," he said, and settled back in bed.

I returned to the veranda, where Sujatha was fidgeting. As soon as she saw me, she shot out, "Doesn't your husband call you by name?"

"No," I said, "he feels that calling me by name is rather formal. Like between friends."

"But he could call you by some pet name."

"You mean like a cat or a dog? What's in a name, any way?" I said shyly.

"Yes, of course." Sujatha referred to her notes for the next question.

"Oh yes, I was asking about your love for each other. You have no differences of Opinion, I'm sure."

"No," I said briefly, to cut her short.

"Let me ask, when you disagree on something, one of you has to give in-or do both of you stubbornly hold on to your views?"

"It could go either way. Depends on the situation."

She wouldn't give in. "What happens most of the time?"

"What can a woman do except give in," I said resignedly.

"Oh!" said Sujatha. "Here, I've listed a few qualities of husbands.

All you have to do is check off the once that correctly describe him."

She gave me a list with a series of items.

  1. Argumentative

Right. Of course, I am no less.

  1. Narrow-minded

Right. He'll eat only what he likes. If I make something I like, he won't even touch it.

  1. Fault-finding

Right. He sits at the dining table like a Supreme Court judge dishing out verdicts.

  1. Frowns all the time

Right. But his anger never lasts more than a few minutes.

  1. Spoils the children

Doesn't arise. Thank God!

  1. Secretive

Not very.

  1. Jealous

Right. If I wear the sari my father bought me, he can't bear it.

  1. Chatterbox

Only with his friends. He has nothing to talk to me about.

  1. Has a roving eye for other women

Which man hasn't?

  1. Lazy

Right.

  1. Forgets his promises

Right. He tells me at night that we'll go to Kashmir this summer, and forgets it the next morning.

  1. Selfish

Right. Sits in the bathroom for hours with the morning news paper.

  1. Smokes like a chimney

Right. He feels that his manliness will suffer if he doesn't.

  1. Suspicious

Right. Just now when I told him about Sujatha, he was suspicious of her.

  1. Irresponsible

Right. Couldn't care less even if the tap were leaking away to glory. Won't even help me carry the shopping bags.

  1. Doesn't care about children

Right. As if he even cares about me.

  1. Not interested in anything but his job

Right. That's what he says about me, as a matter of fact.

  1. Impatient

If I am ten minutes late coming home, he gets all excited. If I don't answer the doorbell at the first ring, he gets excited.

  1. Doesn't believe in tidiness or order

Right. You must see our room. Papers and books all over the place. Cigarette ashes and butts. If I try to clean up, he gets upset because I have "disturbed his books." If I say that the place is like a pigsty, he says that's how intellectuals live. Can't stand my making the beds. If I say, "How'll it look if somebody sees this mess?" he'll say, "Why the hell Should others come into our room?" And so on... Endless, really.

  1. Gambles

I don't think he knows how many cards there are in a pack.

  1. Doesn't worry about the home

Not if he has his friends with him.

  1. Doesn't like to go out with me in the evenings

Hates shopping. Likes walking.

  1. Comes home late for meals

Especially when I'm feeling hungry.

  1. Doesn't like me to work

Won't say it aloud though.

  1. Miserly

No. Rather the opposite.

  1. Won't open his mind.

What's the use?

  1. Can't stand my talking about the neighbors

Gossip, that's all women are capable of, he says.

  1. No ambition

Not even for me.

  1. Uncivilized boor.

Ever since coming back from America, he slurps his food up and belches aloud. It is a sign of satisfaction, he says.

  1. Isn't particularly bothered about the state of his home

No

  1. Doesn't treat me as his equal

Right. How can he? I'm two inches shorter.

"Seems to me you're fed up," Sujatha said. "Quite an exhaustive list."

"I've never been cross-examined so thoroughly before," I confessed.

Her next question stopped me short.

"Have you ever thought of separating?"

"Yes. I have often thought of it. But never seriously."

"How many times have you two quarreled this year?"

"I haven't counted, but quite a few times."

"But why haven't you taken the step to separate? After all, there seems to be enough reason."

"Why don't you get married, Sujatha?" I said seriously. "You won't understand this strange chemistry that keeps a man and woman together in spite of all their misunderstandings and incompatibility. Besides, there is room only for two persons in a marriage. Others should keep out." I didn't mean it as a hint to her, but my words came out in a rush. "You need a sense of humor to make it go."

"Do I take it that you love your husband, or the opposite?"

"Well, a little bit of love, a little bit of respect, I think," I said, mostly to myself.

"And what does he feel for you?"

"Love and authority."

"Is there a difference between the first year of your marriage and now?"

"Of course. Then it was just infatuation. Now it is love born out of understanding and togetherness."

"One last question. If you were to marry again, would you marry him, or someone else, or not at all?"

"Of course I'd marry him. Only him," I said fiercely.

"And what would he say to that?"

"No, I won't marry you again," that's what he would say. Of course, he is a man, you know."

Relief at last, as I saw Sujatha sorting her papers, closing her shop.

"I can't tell you how grateful I am to you for giving me so much of your time and patiently answering my questions. I'm sure it'll help my research a lot."

"That's all right, Sujatha. Actually, all these lurking thoughts and feelings - you and your questions have brought them out of me. Really, it is I who must thank you. I see myself more clearly now. There's something else I want to ask you."

"Yes," Sujatha leaned forward expectantly.

"Never mind," I said. "You'll know of it by and by. I must go now. I think I hear him calling me."

Translated by Srinivas Rayaprolu

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