Triveni Journal

1927 | 11,233,916 words

Triveni is a journal dedicated to ancient Indian culture, history, philosophy, art, spirituality, music and all sorts of literature. Triveni was founded at Madras in 1927 and since that time various authors have donated their creativity in the form of articles, covering many aspects of public life....

The Good Conduct Medal

(Tr.) C. K. Nagaraja Rao (A Kannada story by C. K. Nagaraja Rao)

THE GOOD CONDUCT MEDAL
(A Story)

By C. K. NAGARAJA RAO

(Adapted by the author from the original story in Kannada)

I

The aerodrome was throbbing with life. To Raja alone loomed an emptiness on the scene as he descended from the plane scanning the faces of the waiting crowd. He was disappointed. Those whom he was expecting to see he could not at once see. No, they were not anywhere around. Suddenly he heard the familiar fascinating horn of his father’s car. It was turning into the main gate. His face lit up. It washis father’s car.

He started guessing who would be in it to welcome him home after his studies abroad: ‘Mother? Not she. She’ll be busy at home preparing nice things for him to eat. It was years since he ate nice things Sister? She too might stay , helping mother. Father? Oh, no, he will not come. Little brother Sudhakara? He will not stay . Niece Cheluvamba? Yes. This is another opportunity for her to see the planes landing or leaving. And…..beloved Nalina? Wife, and the one always uppermost in his thoughts! She will be in the car! She is late. She ought not to have been late. But she will be there!…….’

No one got out of the car! There was no one in it!...The driver opened the door.

“No one came in the car?”
“No one, sir.”

“Why? Is anything wrong with the folk at home?”

“I do not think so, sir.”

Raja felt hurt.

The baggages came. The driver asked politely, “Shall we be going, sir?”

“What do you expect? That I stay here without going home?” This was more than the driver bargained for!

Soon the car was speeding towards home. But Raja’s mind sped faster. It touched home almost at once. He was already questioning folk why they did not care to greet him at the aerodrome: his mother in the kitchen, his father in the study, the youngsters in the garden, his wife in her room.

‘Leave aside the others,’ he thought. ‘Nalina should have come to the aerodrome. I was so keen on seeing her there. Why was she not anxious to see me? When I left the country three years ago, she insisted on following me, and on being with me till I got on board the ship at Bombay! Could three years of separation have brought her early shyness? It could not be. We lived together as man and wife for three years before I sailed abroad. She was even the mother of a child. But...’

He remembered! He felt a sudden pang in his heart. Their son, at the age of two, had passed away, soon after he left India. Nalina had written pathetic letters to him. He wrote , consoling her. So long after the child’s death, his own heart still trembled with grief at the thought of it.

‘That was the cause!’ he thought. ‘With this grief between us, how could she come to greet me with smiles? And she had no other child to soften her grief!...I was actually angry with her! How thoughtless of me! I thank God that I remembered before I caused her more pain by my forgetfulness!’…..

At the sound of the horn, all the members of the household gathered in the hall: the mother, the father, the sister, the brother, the niece–and even the servants. But not Nalina! She was not there!

Actually, she saw him arrive. She had a fleeting glimpse of him from her window as the car drove in. She came as far as the door to the common hall. She stood transfixed for a while behind the dividing curtain. She took a good look at him again through it. Raja saw a shadow pause and pass. She went to the verandah by another passage. She went to keep hot water ready for his wash or bath.

Here in the common hall, his mother greeted him with fervent feeling: “God’s mercy, you have returned safe, my child!” His father observed. “I see that you kept yourself fit. I am glad.” Young Sudhakara asked him, “What have you brought for me?” His niece asked, “And what for me??” His sister, no longer a tomboy, almost a demure young lady, asked. “Did you have a smooth passage ?” He answered them all, briefly and adequately. His mind was elsewhere. His eye too was wandering. His mother took note. “Where is Nalina?” she asked, and immediately answered her question herself. “She must have gone to prepare his bath. She ought to know that she ought to be here!”

“Don’t worry, mother. I’ll go in.”

He took off his shoes and his suit, wrapped himself in a dhoti, threw a towel over his shoulder, and walked to the of the house.

There she was! Offering him a vessel with hot water in it, a cake of soap, and a look the meaning of which he could not guess. There was more fright than grief in that look. She appeared far more timid and shy than sad.

“Nalina!”

“Would you like to have your bath straightaway?”

“You are looking thin and pale and weak, Nalina! Are you not well?”

“I am all right.”

She had the same fair complexion, the same over-all charm of face and figure. But, when he last saw her, there were roses on her cheeks, sprightliness in her eyes. He missed that tinge of health, that look of cheer.

“You are not all right, Nalina!”

“But I am!”

There was a quiver in her voice. There were tears in her eyes. Was it all sorrow for the lost one? Or was it just a little joy at his home-coming?…He was not sure!

He held her hand and drew her close to him. She released herself, and withdrew to a distance. He went to her and wiped her tears with his towel.

“I know how you must be feeling, Nalina. The child belongs to our past. We belong to our future too. We live in it...He meant a lot to you!...To me too!...I have been longing to see you, Nalina! Oh, for so long!”...

His mother called him. He did not like it. He washed in a hurry, and walked towards the dining room.

‘My husband is so good to me!...He does not know!...He should not know!’  murmured Nalina to herself.

They had to wait till the end of the day to speak to each other. He could not rest in the afternoon. First, he had to open the boxes for the children. Then, his father-in-law and mother-in-law and brother-in-law came. Then came the friends of his father and mother, and the neighbours. After that, there were his own friends. One of them, a friend from, childhood, just monopolised him!...Now, every one retired for the night. Their bed-room door was bolted. There was no light n the house, except the soft light near their bed.

Nalina’s eyes were the eyes of a frightened lamb.

He said to her, “I always remembered you as one who talked wittily and incessantly. What has come over you?...Surely, there must a little joy somewhere down your heart that I am with you, that we are together again!

“Believe me, I am happy!”

She clung to him, and hid her face from him by her nearness to him. He remembered that trick of hers in moments when she did not want him to see how happy she was or how much she loved him!

“Here I am–anxious to tell you so many things, and to discuss so many things with you! And you are all in tears!...You love me, don’t you!”

“I do!...I do!...Forgive me, it’s just that I cannot think or speak tonight!”

“Let me speak then...It is not that I do not sympathise with you in your sorrow...”

“Is it not yours too?”

“Of course, it is! But I speak of it as yours, because yours is the greater. Different, too, in a way.”

“You shouldn’t have left me! The boy shouldn’t have died! And you shouldn’t have let me join the College to forget him!”

“Why, Nalina? Why?..Was it wrong that I thought you needed distraction from your grief?”

She sighed, and bit her lip. Tears flooded her eyes. He could not understand her. He could not afford to be impatient with her. He soothed her.

“Let us talk of trifles, then,” he said, seeing her gain a little composure. “I remember something suddenly. I am undecided whether to tell you or not. Shall I?”

“Do, if you like. Don’t, if you mustn’t.” Raja was happy to watch even this little symptom of liveliness in her. It was a change from her glued grief.

He said, “I wrote to you of nearly all my experiences abroad...Except a few.”

“I have all your letters. I did not miss a word ofthem.”

“What did you feel, for instance, when you read that I went out boating with my landlady’s daughter, that we lost our way on the waters, and that we spent the night, under a pale moon, on the other bank, not knowing what else to do?”

She gazed at him blankly. Not a word escaped her lips. She remembered the ghastly night in her own life! It was a night without the boat, without the moon, without the other bank! A far different setting it was! And she shivered with the memory!...Oh, why was he telling her all this? She could not tell him about herself!

“How am I to take your silence? That you entertain no suspicion about me that night?”

Nalina tried to speak. But her words seemed to die in her throat. Her mind was reeling. The images were getting mixed. It was she and another, not her husband and his landlady’s daughter, on the other bank, under the moon, with the boat tied!...In her husband’s home, they thought that she was at her father’s! In her father’s, that she was at her husband’s!

“Tell me, did you suspect me?...Did you think that I must Have behaved like all the others who go abroad?

“Why should I imagine you to be like all the others?”

“You don’t suspect me then?”

“I mean...Should not one judge oneself before one suspects or judges another?” Raja laughed.

“You are out of your mind, Nalina! How does the question arise of your judging yourself before suspecting me?”

“I mean...You cannot question another’s conduct and character merely because a man and a woman sit or talk or travel together!”

“You are right. There is a lot of narrow-mindedness in the world…..I’ll tell you another incident…..But you don’t seem at all curious to hear me!...Shall I tell you?”

“Is it not my duty to listen?...As a good Hindu wife, I mean!”

“Is that all?.…There was a time when I thought big of this nonsense about Hindu wives and their sense of dharma and their fabled virtues. Now all that leaves me cold...But, just the same, I am going to tell you how I still am and was a bit of this timid society, reared up perhaps as a coward by its social restraint...Why do you look so upset?…Hear me before you wonder what I did!...I did nothing wrong!...I did nothing very wrong!”

She was gasping for breath!...Oh, how could she tell him that she was not worried about him! That...! Oh, never mind! Why had he to talk all this tonight!...Oh, why?

“Nalina, what are you thinking of?”

“Nothing...Nothing at all!...Don’t you think we in India should not be ashamed of our ‘wardness,’ should not be carried away by false ideas of equality and freedom between men and women?”

“Let us argue about it another time...I will tell you another little incident...It was a girl at my University. She had a bad name. I was avoiding her. I was afraid of her. She tried many times to improve her acquaintance with me. I never let her. One day I was crossing the road. I heard some one call my name. I turned , and found that it was she. I did not like it. I wanted to ignore her and walk on. But...Nalina!...What’s the matter with you?”

Nalina remembered just such an incident, and just such a voice across the street. It was the voice of a man! A man she had to respect, but couldn’t! Who had gone on vexing her, just as this girl had gone on vexing her husband!

She was shivering! She rose and took the blanket to cover self,

“Why are you like this, Nalina?…Shall I stop?...You don’t want to listen to such things as this?”

“Please go on. It’s nothing at all!...It’s just...that I am feeling cold!”

“Cold? Now, let me see...Yes. She came near me, and told me that she had to buy something urgently, that she didn’t find her purse on her, that I was the only person around there who knew her, and she asked me whether she could borrow a little money of me. I placed a couple of notes in her hand. ‘Excuse me, but this won’t suffice,’ she said. I again gave her all the small change I could spare. She thanked me. I walked on. I entered a tea shop. I found that she followed me in. ‘This is where I make my purchases. Funny isn’t it?’ she said. She made her purchases. She came to my table, with a ‘Do you mind?’ She was babbling all the while. After we had tea, I told her I would be in a moment, and I rushed out. I nearly ran. I took to the lanes and the by-lanes, to avoid her. After a while, looking , whom should I find but her, just a little way behind me? ‘That wasn’t fair,’ she said. ‘You walk too fast for a companion!’ Her next sentences took me completely by surprise. She stopped in front of a gate, opened the latch, and asked, ‘What made you come all the way to the very house I live in? This is where I live. I’ll return your money. Please step in.’ She took out the key, opened the door, walked in, and looked at me. There were people about. I did not want a discussion to take place there between her, inside, and me, standing outside. I felt shy, and I walked in. It was broad daylight, and...”

Nalina was listening with rapt attention. Yes, she too was shy! She too had walked in! Only, it was not broad daylight, in her case. She walked in, under the cover of night, led by a hand she did not know to disobey!...Oh, why did she do it?...Why?..Why?...

Nalina, your mind is elsewhere!...I am wearying you?...There is not much more to tell...That girl prepared tea for me again. When later I got up to go, she pulled me down to the sofa, she rested close to me, and she held my hand, telling me what a fine chap I was, how much she admired me, talking matters of love to me. She wouldn’t let me get up or sit apart. I told her that I didn’t care for her that way. ‘But I care for you that way,’ was her reply...I begged of her to leave me alone...She wouldn’t listen...She actually kissed me...I protested in many ways...I told her that I had a wife whom I loved dearly. ‘She is far away, and you are my prisoner now,’ she said, ‘and you are bound to do my bidding!...It you don’t, I’ll open the door, and scream, and they’ll all rush in; and I’ll tell them that you were trying to force me!’...I was scared!...I shook like a leaf, from head to foot!...And...What’s happening to you, Nalina?…I did nothing wrong, believe me!...Honestly, I didn’t!...I am about to tell you that Please don’t weep!...Nalina, please!...”

She could not be consoled. She could not be consoled, because she was re-living those ghastly moments of her own again!...He, the other one, had asked her. “Then, why did you Come in at all?” Nothing she could say convinced him. She was at his mercy that night / That night shetoo shivered from head to foot. But, then, she had done something wrong!...She haddone something sinful! She could not forgive herself! How could another forgive her?

“Listen to me, Nalina!...Do You know what I did then?…When she put her arms round my neck. I pretended to hugher. I then begged of her to letme show her something. She releasedme...I took out my purse, and showed her that Sweet littlephoto of you: the one in whichyou were with the littleone. I told her how the little one had passed away, and how you could not be consoled. I also told her how pure and angelic you were...”

“Me pure and angelic?”

“Yes, Nalina…And I told her how dearly I loved You....She kept looking at you and the boy. That worked a Change in her. ‘May I keep this picture?’ she asked. I told her she could... And then she let me go!...And so, Nalina, that was how, in the end, it was you who saved me!”

She saved him?Yes, he says so!... She saved him!...But herself she could not save!Her own self she could not save!

Nalina clung to her husband, and wept far into the night……

II

When he got up very late the next morning, Nalina was not to be found. Later, he learnt that she was not even in the house. It was a day of feasting when sisters meet brothers in the homes of their birth. Nalina did not like to disturb her husband, and took her mother-in- law’s permission, and left for her father’s house. He was told that Nalina would be returning only in the evening.

After his morning coffee, he sat up to arrange his things. He opened his boxes one by one. There was the chest of drawers to put his clothes in. Nalina told him there was place in it for them. It contained Nalina’s clothes, and embroidery, and odds and ends. In a corner of it were the letters he wrote, neatly bundled. Next to that bundle was an album containing only the snapshots and photos and pictures which he sent her from abroad...He felt very pleased.

In one of the drawers he found a small velvet box containing a bright gold medal. On it were inscribed, on one side, the words. “Awarded to Shrimati Nalina”, and, on theother side, the Words, “Women’s College, Good Conduct Medal” and theYear.

She had never written to him that she was awarded this medal! When he asked his mother about it during lunch, his mother was surprised to hear that Nalina had not written to her husband about it. His mother said, “I specially asked her to write to you about it. And I distinctly remember that she later told me that she had written to you.”

“But, mother, she didn’t!”

“I’ll ask her when she comes this evening.”...

It was a small thing, but he kept brooding over it that afternoon: ‘Why did she not write to me about this medal? And why had she to tell my mother a lie?’

‘Perhaps she wanted to spring it as a surprise on me,’ he thought, later.

He finished arranging his clothes. The boxes he brought were still far from empty. The room was all in a confusion. He left Nalina’s things all about the room. But he was tired. He was missing Nalina. He lay down on his bed. He was thinking of last night. He was thinking how emaciated and thin and lifeless she was now! He was picturing her as she once was: her beauty, her vivacity, her captivating smiles. In the three sweet years of their early married life she had adjusted herself to him completely, and there was perfect harmony between them. He never spoke harshly to her. He had never thought harshly of her, She had a gentle voice, and a gentler disposition.

Now, she was almost a stranger. He had to begin all over again with her!

‘If only that little one had been alive!……
And she even lied to my mother,’ he thought……

He dressed to go out to meet her in her father’s place. He looked at his watch. It was just past three. It was a warm afternoon. He hesitated for a moment. In the end he decided to go, and started off. It was a good mile and a half by the road round the park. The car wasn’t there. It was only half a mile by foot, cutting across the park. He walked on. Almost at the end of it he changed his mind. ‘This is not a day for husbands to butt in,’ he thought. ‘She’ll anyhow be in an hour or two’. He turned .

On the way he met his brother-in-law, Nalina’s Brother, Jaya.

“Nalina refused to stay with us till the evening. We took a rickshaw, and I am returning after leaving her in your house,” said Jaya…..

There, Nalina had been accosted by her mother-in-law with “Why did you tell me that you had written to your husband about your Good Conduct medal when you hadn’t?..And why didn’t you write to him?”

“How did this talk about my medal come up between your son and you?”

Shooting the question, and without waiting for an answer, Nalina rushed to her room, leaving the perplexed and irritated mother-in-law in the kitchen.

Nalina found the room in utter disorder. The chest of drawers was left open. Her clothes and things were thrown helter-skelter. The medal and its case were on the bed.

She saw the medal! She hated the very sight of the medal!...The medal...and the evil night!...

She fell on the bed, sobbing...She got up after a while. She looked at herself in the mirror. She hated that face of hers. She hated herself. She ought to die! She ought to kill herself! She had no right to live!

There was her husband’s photograph, neatly framed, and always at her bedside.

She took the photograph, and pressed it to her bosom.

She held it next to her face before the mirror, and looked at her own image and at the image of her husband’s image, side by side in the mirror.

There were tears in her eyes, and on her cheeks. She saw the tears clearly in the mirror. But (could it be true?)...she found in the mirror that she was laughing too! Yes, laughing!

Suddenly she burst out laughing!

It was at that moment that she saw her husband enter the room. He stood aghast. She became quiet.

“Why are you like this Nalina?” She tried to hide the photograph. It slipped from her, and the glass broke into many bits. He saw that it was his photograph. Before he could prevent her, she bent down, and started gathering the sharp bits together with bare hands. They pierced her fingers which began to bleed profusely.

“Nalina, what are you doing?”

He moistened a handkerchief at the basin, and tore it into pieces, and tied them round her bleeding fingers, after removing the bigger fragments of glass from the flesh.

The place on which they stood looked weird with blood, and broken glass.

Blood!

She closed her eyes with the bandaged fingers from which the blood was still dripping. Her face became marked with the blood. He held her by the waist, and led her to a chair.

She was quivering, trembling–visibly. Her frightened eyes were ling to him–for what he knew not!

He took up the medal, casually, from the bed. He thought he could turn her mind to something pleasant.

“Why didn’t you write to me about this, Nalina?”

“Why should I have written to you about it?”

“Because it would have made me happy!”

“The medal makes you happy?...Ha! Ha! How foolish you are!”

“Why do you say that, Nalina?”

“Give it to me! It is my medal. It was awarded to me at college because... because I...am...a...nice...good...girl!...Isaid, give it to me!”

She was shouting at him!

“Be quiet, Nalina!...And you told my mother a lie that you wrote to me about it!”

“Why shouldn’t I tell your mother a lie?”

“You are acting funny!”

“Do you want then to know the truth?...No, I won’t tell you!...You think you can make me tell you?...No, you can’t!”

“What’s happening to you, Nalina?..You’re going mad!”

“You’re mad, not I!...I know the truth! You don’t!

“What’s the truth, Nalina?”

“You think that the medal was given to me for...good conduct! Ha ha! you think so! ...No, it wasn’t!...Didn’t you hear ?”

“Hear what, Nalina?”

“He said I sing divinely!...I sang on the College Day!...! did!...He said I am as beautiful as Venus!...My nose is as straight and as lovely as Cupid’s arrow!...Honey drips from my lips!...Did you notice the rhyme?...”

“Who said all this, Nalina?”

“That I won’t tell you! That I won’t!...But it is true that I am beautiful!...Look at me in the mirror!...You are ugly, but I am beautiful!...Can’t you see?”

“Nalina, something has happened to you!...You are going mad, Nalina!...You have gone mad!”

She jumped at him, and caught him by the throat. He screamed. There was demoniacal strength in that grip of hers!

“You’ll never call me mad again!...Tell me! You’ll never call me that? It’s you who are mad!...You are a fool!...A big fool!”

The servant rushed in. And then his mother came. With great difficulty, the three of them held Nalina and tied her to the cot. She was screaming and weeping all the time...

III

After a week’s observation of Nalina in the Mental Hospital, the doctor was not very clear about her malady, or whether he could cure her.

“I know she couldn’t have had an abortion recently, but my assistant, the lady doctor, is of the opinion that there was some trouble with her like that. Your wife talks all the time about a big function at college. She keeps singing the song which she says she sang at that function. She gets up after singing, and bends and says ‘Namaste’ with joined hands. She calls her principal and her principal’s husband by name, and says, ‘Please don’t give me the medal! Please take it !’ She talks of, ‘the pudding on Naga Panchami day.’ She trembles and sobs and weeps whenever we refer to the College Day celebrations or tothe Good Conduct medal or to any case of child birth or abortion. She keeps scribbling on loose bits of paper. She tears them again into tiny little bits. When we ask her what she is writing, she answers, ‘Letters to my husband, of course!’ I asked the nurse attending on her to steal these bits of writing, if she could, before they are torn...No, you cannot see her yet. It is not good for her...Here comes the nurse. And with a paper, too, in her hand. Now, let us see what it is!”

The doctor glanced at what Nalina scribbled, and then gave it to Raja to read.

“I can’t make out what it is that troubles the poor child!...After many years, youreturn from Europe, and this happens to you at once!”

The poor husband was reading his mad wife’s jottings:

“My beloved husband...Who is whose beloved? I have no husband...I lost my beloved long ago...Raja will marry again...The butterfly dies after laying eggs...Doesn’t it? Why did I not die?….Rats are baited and trapped and then left to the cats...Spider’s web….Spiders have long legs...Dogs have crooked tails...Foxes are cunning...Demons are burly….Colleges have demons...Oh, big fat demon...Oh, head of the college...I am ruined...I am lost...The medal is gold...The medal is mine...My child is dead...My child is gold...My medal remains...Fat wives marry thieves...The banyan tree has roots and branches...Why did he die?..Why do I live?...I am cooking the pudding...The pudding must set...It has become a mess...The horror of it...Oh, my dear husband...The horror of it...”

Raja gave the sheet of paper to the doctor.

“Does it make any meaning to you?” asked the doctor. “Does it fit in with anything she told you?”

“No, it doesn’t...It doesn’t say anything...But, can’t I see her once today, doctor?...I haven’t seen her since I brought her to you!”

“I wouldn’t advise it. Not just now. Let us know a little more about the cause of her madness...However, I am afraid we may never know! In most of these cases we never know!...The principal and her husband came to see her. I thought it was all right, and permitted them. She was silent when they were there, but after they left she was very excited...You must wait before you can see her.”

“But, meanwhile, you’ll take good care of her, of course?”

“That goes without saying. Please be sure!”

“Thank you!”

Raja got up, and walked out of the hospital, slowly. He was thinking, almost murmuring to himself, looking , ‘Oh Nalina, that this...this...should have happened to you!...Nalina!...Nalina!’

He then buttoned his coat against the sharp evening breeze, and walked on.

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