Dr Jayanti Naik is a Konkani writer and folklore researcher. She became the first person to earn a doctorate from the Goa University Department of Konkani. A Sahitya Akademi award winner, her writing career spans three decades. Her work has been acknowledged by Dr Manohar Rai Sardesai, as 'a roar of revolt against the mighty and the rich in favour of the poor, the weak and the oppressed'. In 2009, Naik was a recipient of the Yashadamini Puraskar state award for women.
Ramaa has been excerpted from The Salt of the Earth, a collection of eleven short stories translated into English by Augusto Pinto, associate professor, Dempe college, Goa; published by Goa,1556. Reproduced here by permission. To read a review of the book click here.
It was already 8 o’clock but I still lay in bed.
It was a Sunday and a holiday, so I didn’t have the usual worry about getting to college on time and I could loll about in bed for as long as I wished. Since I came here, I have neither made contact with relatives nor made any friends. I have no desire to get close to anyone or have a confidante with whom to share my deepest feelings. I make sure I’m fine, I make sure my work is good and that’s it. This is the role, I’ve chosen to play since I’ve come here. I don’t ask any favours from anyone nor do I give anything to anyone. I don’t talk to anyone unless work demands it. Work I do – but I do that only because it’s a means of earning money in order to satisfy my body’s needs.
The body! The site from where a human being’s feelings and emotions and thought emanate! The home of the mind! But. . . But then, where is my mind? Angrily, stormily it abandoned me two years ago.
If you think about it, two years isn’t that long a period. If you shut your eyelids and open them again, you’ll find that two years have passed by. But these two years have brought about cataclysmic changes in my life. My cheerful countenance has become expressionless. The full-bloom of my youth has been abruptly cut short. The fragrance my body exuded has vanished and it now reeks of sweat, and the sparkle in my eyes has gone. Hardly thirty, and the hair on my head has turned grey. My voice remains mum at debates, discussions, speeches and seminars where once I revelled. I speak only when my profession demands it and that too only if I can’t avoid it.
When Ramaa told me about her decision, my tongue grew heavy, my lips lost their smile, my eyes grew misty...
Who was Ramaa?
My mind posed this question frequently enough. Was Ramaa my lover? Girlfriend? Sister? Mother? Who? When trying to figure out the nature of our relationship, I was always confused. I was obsessed with Ramaa - still am. But, back then, I couldn’t call her my lover because apart from my emotional affinity towards her, the physical attraction that the word suggests, just wasn’t ever there. Not that we didn’t have the opportunity - we’d go together for sammelans and gatherings, fieldtrips and seminars, and for days and nights at a stretch, we’d move about together and travel together. Her beautiful body in its full flush of youth would brush against my own young body. a hundred times a day, but that never was a turn-on for me. The thought of marrying her never crossed my mind.
Was Ramaa my friend?
Sometimes, I think this banality best described our relationship but then I would baulk, for our intimacy was unfathomably deeper than the mere affection of friends. Our relationship wasn’t merely of compatibility or congeniality; I felt our souls were fused. We were like identical twins - hurt for one would result in pain for the other, while happiness would bring about a smile on the other’s face. Which is why I sometimes thought we were brother and sister. Indeed, I was protective of her the way a brother is of his sister and she would look after me the way a sister might look after her brother. She’d make sure that I had eaten my food and that whatever I needed and wanted was provided to me. Even if she fell behind in her work she would see to it, that I was ready with mine. But by blood she was my cousin, my mamibhayn, my maama’s – meaning my maternal uncle’s daughter - so I couldn’t categorically say that we were siblings.
At times, she made me feel like she was my mother. In my infancy, my mother died before I really got to know what a mother meant and my father remarried. That’s when my maternal uncle took me to his house and that’s where I was brought up. But his wife – my maami – never showed me the affection of a mother. That love was showered upon me by Ramaa! She would act like a mother and she strove to see that I was brought up well.
This was why when my uncle took me to my ancestral house on my mother’s death anniversary, after the rites and rituals were done with, and I stood before a photograph of my mother with her hands joined in prayer, the face in the photo – of a woman wearing a nine-yard sari, with the pallu over her shoulder, with a tilak the size of a rupee coin on her forehead, with a nose-ring on her nose, and a tiara of flowers on her little head – was that of Ramaa! One day I told my uncle, “Maama, whenever I look at my mother’s photograph, I picture Ramaa in it.”
“Shi... Shi... God forbid! Never say such things, my child! When a person is dead one shouldn’t associate a living person with her. She’s your mother! If your maami came to know she would fly off the handle... But it isn’t surprising – for after all Ramaa is your mother’s brother’s daughter.”
My uncle in his own way, backed what I said, but honestly there was no truth in this assertion: there was absolutely no similarity between Ramaa and my mother. I saw Ramaa in my mother’s photograph not because of any physical resemblance but because of the way Ramaa
had mothered me. The the same way, mothers fuss about their children’s food and drink, the way they worry when they are hurt or sick, these were the things Ramaa would fuss about while looking after me.
Ramaa was just two years older than me and while she was exuberant and vivacious, while I tended to be moody. Growing up, I was on the shorter side. I was ten years old when I came to stay at my maama’s house and she was twelve. But to look at, she appeared to be fifteen and her figure had already filled out. Next to her, I looked like a little child and to begin with, she used to treat me like one. But gradually, I became her confidante in all her joys and sorrows.
We both grew up in the same house and like me she too had no brothers or sisters – and I didn’t even have my own father or mother. That’s why we were so close.
For the first few years when my aunt was spiteful towards me, it was Ramaa who made up for her lack of affection. Once on account of me she had a big fight with her mother.
“Aai, if you keep behaving nastily towards Ashok I’m going to tell Baba to get me admitted to the hostel. Then you can stay alone in this house,” she told her. At that time, she was in the twelfth standard while I was in the tenth. Maami was shaken by that and knowing that her daughter would not hesitate carrying out her threat, she stopped making acerbic remarks from then on.
As loving and virtuous as Ramaa was, she could be extremely obstinate. I got a glimpse of this obdurateness on several occasions, when everyone else had to bend faced with her unyielding nature. Even Sir.
Because of Ramaa, he had to give up a vow that he had kept for many years. Ramaa told him point blank: “If you don’t agree to what I’m asking you then I’m going to commit suicide. Then you can sit and meditate about morality and codes of conduct and societal values all day long!”
She told me of her decision to marry Sir before anyone else. Even Sir came to know about it later. I had finished my supper and had just gone to sleep and was lolling about on the bed. It must have been about 10 o’clock in the night although I hadn’t actually looked at the clock. I had been awake since early morning as I had to finish writing some material. My eyes had begun to droop. So I stopped watching the T.V. in the sitting room and had gone to bed. Just then Ramaa came into my bedroom and sat on my bed. She ran her fingers through my hair. I immediately knew that she wanted to tell me something important and confidential because it was at such times that she’d do this.
“What’s up, Ramaa? What do you want to tell me?” My voice was tinged with all the fondness that I had for her.
For a while she was silent, then looking me straight in the eye she spoke.
“Ashok, I want to get married and that’s why I want you to promise me something.”
My heart throbbed and a shiver shot through my body on hearing this.
“Right now he urgently needs my help and companionship, Ashok....”
“What are you saying Ramaa? Who needs your help?”
I was utterly confused.
“He’s taken up a huge project of compiling a dictionary and if he’s going to complete it, it’s absolutely necessary for him to remain in good health. Somebody has to make sure that he gets regular care and he gets his meals on time. His research has increased to the extent that he needs a stable companion and that too a woman, The sensitivity that a woman has no man can have. Without a woman’s hand, the spark of life that a home needs, will not be lit. And this spark is what Sir’s creative processes badly needs. . . I have no fear about taking care of him and I don’t need the stamp of marriage for this. Aai, Baba... society... I am not bothered about anybody’s objections. But the problem is, I know that he won’t agree to it, without getting married. So....”
What Ramaa told me slowly began to sink in, and in my heart an unfathomable abyss began to form. The smile from my lips vanished and in its place came shock and confusion.
“Ashok, I haven’t yet told Sir about my decision. That... that job, you will have to do.”
“Ramaa, why are you torturing me like this?” my heart screamed in protest but no words came out of my mouth.
“I don’t need to spell out what you mean to me, Ashok. My life and yours have been entwined with one another. No project of mine is ever completed without your help, and you know that. . .”
“I know that people will talk about the age difference between Sir and me. Aai and Baba will definitely raise objections. But don’t worry about all that. His age is not a consideration as far as I’m concerned. Whether his body is old or not doesn’t bother me – I’m not doing this for the sex. My love for him is platonic and so will be our marriage. I want to make a small sacrifice of my life by throwing it into the bonfire that he has lit and in doing so ensure that his endeavours are successful.”
I had no option but to obey Ramaa’s dictates, but exactly how I was supposed to approach Sir was something I had no idea how to tackle. And my mind was beginning to rise up in revolt.
‘Do something and make Ramaa change her mind... Ramaa is yours; and she should be yours alone! Don’t allow her to become somebody else’s!’
The relationship between Sir and me was filial. I could virtually be called his god-son. When I was in my final year of B.A, I got to know him because of my project, and gradually the bond between us deepened to the extent that one day he announced that I was his spiritual son.
Sir was the noted Konkani litterateur and lexicographer V. S. Raikar. He was the author of twelve novels, two short story collections and one book of poems. From literature, he turned his attention to lexicography. After producing a three-volume dictionary of philosophy, he began work on a dictionary of sociology in Konkani. He had an encyclopaedic mind and although he was a student of sociology he had made a deep study of philosophy. His manner of speaking was entertaining and yet profound. He had dedicated his life to literature and research, and carried on his work, remaining aloof from all worldly allurements.
There were rumours that he had been jilted in love when young. Others said that since his father had died when he was young, he had had to shoulder the responsibility of taking care of the home and his siblings, and so he never had the time to get married. There were still others who hinted darkly at some predicament which ailed him, and rendered him impotent.
No matter what people said, Sir never opened up about his private life, at least I had never heard him mention anything. My B.A. project was about his life and works. He told me all about his home and village, his childhood and so on, but in this one area he did not say anything. We became very close, and I visited his house frequently but even so I never heard anything about his personal life from him.
Ramaa too was a student of Konkani. While I was doing my B.A she was studying for her M.A. After she graduated, she began teaching at a government college. It was through me that she was introduced to Sir and when she came to know about Sir’s work she too became enchanted with him.
Call it Sir’s inspiration or call it his guidance, at university I too began to write, and I chose to express myself through Sir’s favourite genre – the short story. In a couple of years, I too became a well known and established short story writer. Sir got hold of a publisher and saw to it that two collections of my stories were published.
Although Ramaa didn’t write, she had a great passion for literature. She read all my writing before anybody else did. She had also read all of Sir’s books and devoured the books on literature and philosophy in his house. Although she didn’t have the breadth of knowledge that Sir had, she certainly knew how to research and would use these skills to take notes, prepare press copies of his books, keep records and references – and help him in his work.
Ramaa and I accompanied Sir to many seminars and symposia and field trips. Sir was often invited as the chief guest or as an expert in the field. For most of these functions, Ramaa and I would go too. There I would learn new things and come across new ideas which at times Sir didn’t make mention at home. Ramaa too listened to Sir’s discourses but quite apart from that, she made sure that his food, his clothes, his books, and his documents were all in place. And whenever he had to go to some far off place or halt for the night somewhere, she would pack his bags for him. All Sir had to do was go and sit in the car.
I was under the impression that the care Ramaa bestowed on Sir came from her nurturing instinct. For that reason I praised her on many occasions, but even in my dreams I hadn’t suspected that she would ever take such a rash decision, so I was totally unzipped.
Maama had been bringing many marriage proposals for Ramaa but she wouldn’t even consider them. She kept dilly-dallying and now she was nearing thirty years of age.
Although I was mentally shattered, I didn’t show it and went about doing what I could to put everything in place for Ramaa. I suffered a lot of stress.
When I brought up the matter with Sir, he became agitated and suddenly turned into the avatar of Rishi Jamadagni, that highly-strung sage of mythological fame. By the time, I managed to get him under control, make him understand and accept the situation, I was half dead.
Perhaps because of Ramaa’s threat or because he realised that he needed companionship in his old age, Sir finally agreed to marry her. The marriage was performed following all the proper rites and rituals which was Sir’s condition. It was his opinion that without following religious tradition, the marriage would not be sanctified.
I had to make all the arrangements for the wedding. Maama and Maami, and the rest of the family boycotted the wedding. There was no question of anybody from Sir’s side. In the temple, besides the bride and the groom, I was the only one present, as a sympathetic bhat performed the ceremony.
After the wedding it became impossible for me to live in Goa. Maama and Maami held me responsible for all that had happened. My Maama who was never one to utter a nasty word against me had a terrible fight with me on the day of the wedding. Some local newspapers published articles criticising Sir. He read these and was stoic but I was extremely cut up.
There was no way I could stay at Maama’s house any longer for without Ramaa’s presence the umbilical cord that bound me to it had snapped. Also both Maama and Maami had stopped talking to me. As in the past, I would go to Sir’s house, and both Ramaa and he were even more considerate with me than before. I, however, began to feel uneasy in Sir’s house. I have no idea when and how it happened but a feeling had surreptitiously crept into my mind that told me I had forfeited all rights to Ramaa.
At that time, an advertisement appeared in the newspapers saying that the newly started Konkani Department of Mangalore’s St Anthony’s College needed a lecturer in Konkani. I decided to apply for it and fortunately I was selected for the job.
When I set out from Goa for Mangalore, Ramaa sobbed bitterly. On that day, for the first time I saw tears in Sir’s eyes.
At first, Ramaa would send me a letter every week and in that at least one page was written in Sir’s handwriting. Sir, his work, his dictionary, his research. . . all the letters had lots of news about such topics.
I used to dutifully reply to Ramaa’s letters but I wasn’t eager to, so my letters were rather perfunctory. In her early letters, she often urged me to visit Goa. Once she and Sir came to Mangalore to visit me.
In her later letters, her pleas for me to come to Goa dwindled and the regularity of the letters also reduced. Slowly the letters began to arrive just once a week, then once a fortnight, and from a fortnight it became a month. Finally for the last eight or nine months there was no letter from her at all.
In the beginning, I was a little concerned and wondered what had happened. Was Sir sick? But then I decided: I shouldn’t meddle too much in Ramaa’s affairs now! Ramaa has Sir’s companionship. You just look after yourself. You’re single and you don’t have a relationship with anyone. And the Ramaa that you think about so much, has she ever bothered to find out about your feelings? But then, did I ever try to open up to Ramaa about my feelings towards her? But what feelings? Even in my dreams the thought of marrying her had never crossed my mind! Really? Then why are you living like an ascetic monk? That day, the moment Ramaa told you about her decision to marry Sir why did that pang occur within you? Why did you become so disconcerted?
These thoughts plagued me. As usual, whenever I was alone, thoughts of Ramaa kept returning to my mind and again I’d feel restless, depressed....
Just then the doorbell rang. So although I had no intention getting up that, day I was forced to do so.
‘I wonder who’s come? I don’t know anybody around here who would wish to visit my house.’
Wrapping a lungi around my waist I went to the door. It was almost 9 o’clock. Since all the doors and windows were shut it was still not bright in my room. Pulling down the latch I opened both
sides of the door and... I was stunned – and couldn’t believe my eyes:
For a couple of minutes, I just stood there, in front of the door blocking the entrance.
“Ashok, aren’t you going to let me in?... The sun has begun to fall on her face...”
I stared uncomprehendingly for in Sir’s arms there was a little baby wrapped in cloth.
“Sir... What... What is this? . . . Whose is this? You weren’t...”
“I’ll explain everything for that’s exactly what I’ve come here to do – to explain. But before that please allow us to get inside: even though we travelled by train, I’m very tired.”
I glanced at Sir and saw that he looked exhausted. Rather than exhausted, I’d say he looked sick. I stepped aside to let him in, and he went and sat on the sofa with the infant in his arms.
“Sir... How is Ramaa...”
“I’ll tell you. This is Ramaa’s daughter.”
“What???” I shouted, “Sir... Sir... You...”
“No Ashok. It’s not what you think. I’m not at that age in any case. I’m into my sixties now. And apart from the desire, the ability to have sex isn’t there... And even when I was a youth, I didn’t have it in me. I’m sure you must have heard a lot of rumours about this...”
“Then what is the meaning of this?” I asked pointing to the baby girl in his arms.
“Ten months ago Ramaa told me that she wanted a child.”
“She said that the man she wanted to have a child with, should not only be as intelligent and scholarly as me but also be handsome and physically strong.”
I said, “But hadn’t she said that she had no expectations from you in this regard?”
“She did say that. But saying is one thing: to forever practice what one has said is another matter. For after all, we are flesh and blood people, we have feelings and emotions and hungers. Despite knowing I was impotent I still had the urge for sex. . . The fact that I hadn’t admitted it is another issue. To live respectably in society one needs to wear different burqas – one needs these pretences.
“...And I think Ramaa’s real need was something else. She asked me for a child in order to sublimate her sexual urges.
“Seeing that I was incapable of satisfying her demands she decided to go a different route but she was straightforward in telling me about it. Listening to her, I was upset, but I quickly accepted the truth. It never made my affection and admiration for Ramaa any less.
“...But possibly Ramaa herself found that this truth was difficult to accept. Hence as days went by, she felt very uneasy. She started behaving peevishly and her old stubborn ways became more pronounced. For my part, I tried to support her as much as possible. I wanted to let you know what was happening but she stopped me from doing so: Ashok mustn’t know anything about all this...
“Ramaa never told me who he was. At one time, I had suspected that she had already had her seed sown somewhere before approaching me. But no, I could detect the signs of sexual satisfaction in her person when it did happen. I have the eye of a writer: how could I miss noticing such details?”
I became agitated as I listened to Sir. Ramaa. . . But where is Ramaa then?
I saw that my question had made Sir go numb. A feeling of dismay shot through me.
“Ashok... Ramaa... Ramaa has left us. She’s gone!”
“Where??... With him?... With that man?”
“No Ashok... She is dead!”
“No...!” I screamed aloud.
“Yes, Ashok, she died soon after childbirth. She had leukaemia. The doctors hadn’t realised it earlier, but after the delivery when the bleeding wouldn’t stop they began to suspect that something was wrong. After all the tests were done, they diagnosed blood cancer. But by then it was too late and nothing could be done. She went after, suffering for three days.”
Sir’s voice began to choke.
His face began to shudder in sorrow. And my brains were benumbed.
“What did she not do for me? She ministered to my every need. Her coming brought vigour back to my life. My ascetic house became full of life... Now my will to live has disappeared and I know that it won’t be too long before my body and I part ways. It’s for that reason that I’ve come to you.”
“Now you are the only salvation for this infant. You must bring her up. There is no hope of Ramaa’s father and mother being of help for they did not even come to her funeral. Before she died she struggled with wanting to see you but when I asked her whether I should call you she said no. I realised that she didn’t have the courage to face you because of the feelings of guilt she harboured with regard to you.”
From where he was sitting on the sofa, Sir got up and stood before me.
“Ashok... This is Ramaa reborn. Hold this baby in your arms. Bring her up with the same love that you had for Ramaa! Let the soul of Ramaa feel peace!
My mind went numb; but I stepped forward and placed that tiny eight-day-old in the crook of my arm.