Southeast India, 1934
Some unwelcome but not unexpected information reaches Muchami via his regular channels. He put word out, a week or ten days earlier, requesting this information, after having seen something that didn’t quite look right.
He doesn’t go out every night as he did when he was younger, but does still make his way through the woods and fields twice or three times a week in search of other men, like him, who need physical satisfactions they cannot give or receive in their marriages. It happens that he sees things on these journeys. Some things he understands immediately, some he must work to interpret.
Only a certain population is abroad at night—those who have no choice. One of those who must be out is the barber who shaves the heads of Brahmin widows, a work of shame and sorrow done in the dark hours favored by demons. Sivakami has her head shaved monthly, usually by the same barber who sheared her curls twenty years earlier, at the time of her widowmaking, and left her light headed under the moonlight. Now, occasionally, it is the barber’s second son who comes. The first son used to come, until his family decided he, meaning all of them, would be better off if he used his skill with a blade to get latex out of trees in Malayan plantations.
So it happened, one night, that Muchami was returning home and saw the barber’s second son entering the rear courtyard of a Brahmin Quarter widow who lives three houses over from Minister. Muchami didn’t think it strange until, some ten days later, he saw the same thing again. It was then that he mentioned it to some cohorts who have now confirmed for him that that the barber’s second son, Karuppan, has been coming and going from the house of the widow, Shantam, four or five nights each week. No one’s hair grows that fast.
Now Muchami must decide what best to do with this information. There is a way in which it might be his obligation to go to Vairum, who is his employer and the master of a Brahmin Quarter house, and therefore most entitled to be outraged and to do something about it. But Muchami is outraged himself and is not convinced that Vairum will have the will to do what he, Muchami, believes must be done. And if he tells Vairum and Vairum does nothing, it will be much more difficult for Muchami then to take the action he considers necessary.
He decides to call a conference. He invites Minister and Murthy, neighbors and relatives, to come to Sivakami’ s house after tiffin. He tells Vairum not to go to play tennis. He tells Sivakami only that the others will be coming, not why. He is trembling at the impropriety of it. This is the sort of thing about which he might gossip to Sivakami were it to happen several villages away. But so close to home, to the home whose honor it is Muchami’s dearest duty to uphold?
Murthy and Minister rush in within minutes of each other. Vairum is loitering suspiciously in the main hall—he feels close to both of these men but doesn’t see how anything of importance to them could interest him. They seat themselves in the hall. Muchami has been pacing from courtyard to garden, and now sees them. Sivakami takes a position behind the nearly closed double doors in the pantry between the hall and kitchen. Muchami has told the children they must stay in the courtyard or go out to play, that he will beat them if he catches them listening. It seems to have worked.
Now Muchami, standing in the door to the garden because he will not sit in their presence, doing his earnest best to enter the hall as little as possible, tells them what he knows.
Murthy begins immediately to splutter and shake, violently, like one of those automobiles—the local textile baron just got one and it’s all anyone can talk about. Minister looks circumspect and deeply troubled.
How it came about they wonder but have no idea. Maybe Karuppan forced Shantam the first time, and has been blackmailing her since. Or the young widow may have permitted it all along. She is a sullen and feisty type. She and her husband had loud, frequent fights in the years of their marriage, and she has had loud, frequent fights with her in-laws since he died. One of the villagers’ regular jokes is about the fact that this woman’s name means “peace”—what would she be like if her name meant “hot-tempered”?
Vairum looks exasperated. “What concern is this of mine?” he asks Muchami, and then looks at the others to see if they can answer. “Let her bring shame on her own head and her house.”
“No, son.” Minister cradles his forehead in his forefinger and thumb. It looks like someone gave him a gun and he can’t decide how to use it. “He is the criminal in this situation. A woman’s virtue is that of her family, and he has destroyed it, whether or not she chooses each night to open her door.”
“I-I-I can’t even, how, understand, how you c-c-can both still be sitting and t-talking!” Murthy has leapt from his chair. “Open her door? I-I-I’ll open his head, that’s what!” He is running for the door now, his hands over his ears. “Ugh! Ogh! My ears are poisoned by what I have heard today!”
He stumbles in an attempt to mount the two or three steps to his own verandah, and succumbs to an attack of asthma, whereupon a few people stop to ask what is wrong. He tells them.
That night, Shantam’s nearest neighbours’ servants are posted in the brush beyond her courtyard gate. The unlucky lover arrives. He pushes open the door, enters, closes it behind him. Each of the servants slips from his hiding place. Each goes to the door of the house he serves, and tells his employer that the barber is inside. Each goes to the next house and tells the master of that house. Moments pass and from each house emerges its master. Each master carries a big stick.
What is the barber’s second son thinking? What was he thinking before, when they embarked on this caper, if that’s what it is? He must be about seventeen, she about twice his age, plump and fair, while he is dark as rosewood. Sivakami thinks of them as she does her beading, working fast, very fast. She hears one of the servants knock on her door to inform Vairum that the moment has come for action. Muchami, who is spending the night in the courtyard, tells him Vairum will not come. Vairum has said he will have nothing to do with this nonsense, that mobs always chase phantoms, that, unlike these professional moralists in search of a night’s entertainment, he has to work in the morning. Minister also will not participate, because of possible political repercussions. There are more than enough hands anyway—more than fifteen pairs, all holding sticks, heading for the house, the third rough-hewn gate at the eastern end of the Brahmin Quarter.
Did he force her? Sivakami wonders. But why didn’t she just bar the door and not permit him to come again? Could he really have blackmailed her? She would have been defiled and disgraced, but better that than go through it night after night, no? Unless she really did choose this . . .
Sivakami can barely bring herself to think it. A barber, one of the worst classes of untouchables. A Brahmin woman choosing to be with a barber. Sivakami casts her mind back to the years of her marriage and remembers, vividly still because not a night has passed in these twenty-three years when she hasn’t thought about it, the acts of love she and her husband performed with each other. She can’t help it, her mind begins to imagine Shantam and the barber’s son in these poses, and she shudders, disgusted, but her mind keeps picturing it. She tries to keep the bile down and her mind clear by concentrating on the image she is working in beads, Lord Krishna at Surpanakha’s poisoned breast. It doesn’t work, she runs outside and vomits.
This helps a little, but she is still disturbed. She can hear the sound of shouting getting closer. She takes up her beads and begins the mantra she repeats one thousand and one times daily.
Karuppan has closed the door but not the heavy bolt. He never does. Why should he? Shantam waits for him on the wooden bench at the back of the house where she is made to sleep. She hates sleeping there, but each of the bedrooms is now taken up with one of her late husband’s brothers. Each of them is married now, so they need private rooms. She might sleep in a corner of the main hall with the children, but it’s her mother-in-law’s prerogative and she wants Shantam to sleep outside. Shantam makes up for this in small cruelties toward her nephews and nieces and even, sometimes, toward her own children.
She is sitting, waiting for him on her bench. He crosses to her on silent feet. Her white cotton sari has already slipped from her head and now he unwinds it from her shoulders and buries his face in the soft flesh between her collarbone and breast, stroking his lips and eyelids across the pillow of silky, fragrant skin. She is so unlike the women of his class, not that he has had one yet, but he can tell. They stand and walk past the cowshed into the garden, her sari beginning already to unwrap. They pull it after themselves and spread it on the garden floor. And when the enraged men burst into the courtyard and run from there into the garden, this is what they see: the widow trying to wrap herself back into the sari which has been serving as her illicit bed, and the glistening form of the barber’s second son reaching the top of the garden wall and jumping down off it.
By now, Shantam’s mother-in-law and other family members, who had not been informed about the raid, have flung open numerous internal doors. Some of the men run through the house to the front and start shouting for those doors to be unlocked, while others have already run back out and through each of the neighbors’ houses onto the Brahmin Quarter street to see which way the scoundrel is going. Every matron on the street, except Sivakami, who is praying, is witness to the flight of the naked and terrified boy, who streaks straight up the Brahmin Quarter, whistled along by the wind of the matrons’ gasps.
The men give chase. They chase him far, through bramble and brooks. He is much faster than they, but two send their servants on bicycles to cut him off. He is caught. These weak, pulpy Brahmins, worked up by the chase, beat Karuppan very badly. Muchami helps in the chase but participates only a little in the beating.
Shantam is also chastised and lightly beaten by her mother-in-law, in front of her children and all her brothers- and sisters-in-law.
These are the events of that night. After the shouting mob passes and the sound fades away, Sivakami prays for some time longer and then returns to her beading for a few hours, during which time she hears the men return and go to their homes. Muchami comes back, too, and tells her what happened. Then he lies down in the courtyard to sleep. She closes the kitchen doors, goes into the pantry, and closes those doors, too. She lies where she normally lies. She is calmer but can feel the horrible images trying to re-form in her mind’s eye. She tries to banish them again, and images of her husband—his skin sliding against hers, the smoothness of his back where she gripped it, her fingertips notching his spine— slip in with distressing ease to replace those of the barber’s son. Sivakami doesn’t permit herself to move—she lies, as every night, on her side, on the cool floor of the pantry, her neck on a wooden rest—but shifts her legs minutely against that delicious discomfort that now can never be eased. She had almost managed to forget that gnaw and tickle, had brushed it away with busyness and prayer, and now her chest feels thick with anger at Shantam for having reminded her.
Shantam has been a widow for almost ten years, almost ten years without any touch save that of her children, and even that only after sunset—and Shantam is not even permitted to sleep with them. Sivakami recalls her own first years of widowhood, when she slept curled around Vairum, the warm pressure of his milk-smelling, dream-twitching, little-boy body anchoring her to her own body, which seemed, in daylight, not to exist at all. It’s been an age now since he moved to the upstairs room, where he slept by himself, where he now sleeps with his wife.
Sivakami wraps her arms around herself, biting her lip. She knows what Shantam has endured. But it is their lot to endure. If not, why does Sivakami live as she does? What appeal is there in a topsy-turvy world and what place does a widow have, if not this one?
At first light the next morning, a bullock solemnly pulls a cart down the Brahmin Quarter from Shantam’s house (most bullocks look solemn; this one especially so). On the cart are two men and a big load of hay from which they are creating a wake, systematically depositing large handfuls behind them on the path and roadway. When this is done, a priest from the Brahmin Quarter temple drops three lumps of burning camphor at the edge of the straw carpet, which begins where Karuppan landed after vaulting Shantam’s wall. Three palms of flame grow fingers, join hands, and run up the Brahmin Quarter. Where the fire hits a pocket of damp, it pops and hisses much like the good Brahmin folk of the village waiting for the street to be purified so that they can meet to rehash the night’s events. When the veil of smoke lifts, the carpet of straw has magically changed into one of ash, with little straw bits here and there, and the Brahmin Quarter has been restored to its former purity, which the untouchable robbed by his touch.
Shantam disappears the next day, taking with her her jewels—those that should have been her daughter’s—and six saris belonging to her sisters-in-law. She is never seen in Cholapatti again. From time to time, rumors float back: Shantam seen in Thanjavur, thinner and darker, shacked up with a pearl fisherman and selling pearls on the harbour road; Shantam, cheeks and ears pierced with tridents, hair grown out long and matted and coiled atop her half-mad head, running up to pilgrims in the Palani temple and telling their fortunes whether they want them or not; Shantam, fatter and fairer, living in Benares, masquerading as a wealthy Parsee widow running a charity home for destitute or abandoned Brahmin widows. None of the rumors is ever corroborated.
Karuppan, the barber’s second son, needs surgery and is taken to the French mission hospital to have it done. But by then he has been bleeding internally for ten or twelve hours, so it’s too late, and he dies. At the beginning of the following year, the company employing Karuppan’s older brother fails. It’s a bad time for rubber, and for companies generally. He is sent home on a ship that gets caught in a typhoon and founders on some rocks. If there are survivors, he is not among them. His parents have now lost both of their sons. They will never have grandchildren. Their older son’s widow, as is not uncommon in their community, remarries. The barber goes back to shaving the heads of all his customers. Perhaps he still says, “I’m sorry,” as he did to Sivakami, before shaving a Brahmin widow’s head for the first time. Perhaps not.
Padma Viswanathan is a Canadian writer who has written several produced plays and been awarded residencies at the MacDowell Colony, the Banff Playwrights’ Colony, and the Sacatar Foundation. A graduate of the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars, she has been a finalist for the Bronwen Wallace Award and the Writers Union of Canada Short Prose Competition. Her _AGNI _piece, “The Barber Lover,” is taken from her novel-in-progress, a historical work set in southern India. (4/2006)