While studying English Literature at University we were introduced to the Greek terms of Hubris and Hamartia. Hubris stands for extreme pride/arrogance in a principal character. Hamartia is a fatal flaw that leads to a character’s downfall. (These explanations are over simplified for the purposes of this blog).
The reason I bring this up is because I came across Hamartia in a book I read recently, and it got me wondering whether I had ever used either of these character traits in one of my stories. Yes, indeed I had. Not with the express purpose of highlighting them, and nor is my story’s scale quite as epic or grand as a Greek tragedy. But it is interesting to note how both Hubris and Hamartia can co exist in a commonplace setting.
One could argue that nearly all of us have some sort of fatal flaw, or suffer from a Hubristic sense of self importance. Our petty tragedies however, remain our own. Literature’s tragedies, on the other hand, become universal.
The sweat trickles down between the valley of her pubescent breasts like a little tributary feeling its pull towards a larger ocean. My eyes follow its progress greedily, till I feel her gaze upon me and hastily avert mine.
“Saras, get me a cool drink! I am about to die here.”
My wife dutifully fetches me the drink, while I covertly watch her fourteen year old sister through half lidded eyes.
There is little respite from the heat on a May afternoon, and lying on the verandah on my rocking chair, I fan myself vigorously. The perspiration pools under my armpits, and a rancid odour rises up to meet my nostrils. The flies buzz in a soporific rhythm, lulled into a dull acquiescence. I swat the occasional mosquito away, pretending to doze, all the while scrutinising her.
She is not beautiful. She is dark and thin. Her lower lip protrudes giving her sulky visage an ill tempered hue. Yet, there is something so tempting, so very attractive about her. She is like a mango on the threshold of ripeness. Waiting to be plucked off the tree.Waiting for someone to bite into it, letting its sweet and sour juices run unfettered over the chin.
It has been a while since I felt this way. My wife arouses no ardour in me anymore. She is always busy around the child, fussing and spoiling and cajoling ad nauseam. I am so very bored of her, and of this tedium of married life. There has been no excitement in my life for a while now. I rise early, bathe, eat a breakfast of rasam and rice, and head to the shop. I work hard, and profitably. I return home to tea and pakora, and a dinner of dosai and sambhar. She chatters to me incessantly about her day that is filled with inconsequential tasks. She gossips about the neighbourhood women. I half listen, and then turn in as quickly as I can.
Sometimes we make love. If I can be bothered, and if she isn’t feigning a headache. It is a quick fumble and a half hearted attempt at intimacy. Occasionally I get a glimpse of the loneliness in my soul, and hastily avert my gaze.
He is always watching me. Creepy old man. I have never liked him. Not when Appa introduced him to the family. Not when Amma approved of him as a potential suitor for her darling daughter. And definitely not when Akka, beautiful, intelligent, can-do-no-wrong Akka, decided that this would be the man who would keep her in comfort for the rest of her life. I barely attended the wedding then, truculently hiding up a tree, lured down only by the promise of hot gulab jamans.
It’s been five years since the grand wedding. She often comes to visit. More to show off her heavy kanjeevaram sarees, and gold bangles that he buys her with monotonous regularity. They sit and chat in the front room, Amma and her, bonding over their love of all things shiny and new. I lurk in the background, as I always have.
Now, they have left me in her care. Amma and Appa off to Rameswaram on pilgrimage for a month. And here I am sweltering in the month of May in this capacious cavern of a house with no trees to climb, nor books to read.
There is the child though. He is so beautiful. Every time I look at him, my heart melts a little. He still has his baby curls, and a dimple on his left cheek. He smiles and holds up his arms to me, and is happiest when I carry him around on my hip, which is often. Akka has coolly designated me the child minder. Perhaps she can sense my love for him. She doesn’t trust too many people with his care. I can spend hours with him playing peek-a-boo and listening to his delighted giggles. He sleeps with me in the afternoons, clutching at my blouse with one hand, sucking his thumb with the other. I run my fingers through his hair, smoothening the unruly curls, breathing in his warm baby smell.
Then I feel the eyes on me and shudder.
I cannot abide the girl. Sullen and ungrateful brat that she is. Never a smile on her face. It’s almost as though she belongs to another family. Amma and Appa are so gracious. Such lovely, genteel people. I have always been compared to Appa’s mother, a renowned beauty of her time. I have Amma’s grace and fluidity.
Why, my Bharatanatyam had been so faultless that my teacher was absolutely devastated that I did not take it up professionally. I had so many options ahead of me. Yet, I had known all along, that all I wanted in life was to be a homemaker. To take care of my husband and children. To have a house that was the envy of all my peers. I have all this, and more.
The girl, however, is a thorn in my side. Who can believe she is from the same gene pool? She has neither beauty, nor grace. Not even good manners to hide her shortcomings. I have seen so many of my friends do a double take when I introduce her as my sister. So often I’ve joked that we picked her up from an orphanage.
It’s only been a week of having her under the roof, and already I feel irritated. My husband barely speaks to her, and when he does she responds in mono syllables. Ungrateful wretch! Can she not at least be polite to the man who’s feeding and housing her?
The only consolation is that my baby likes her. He follows her around like a little lamb. It gives me some respite. Motherhood can be so challenging. Much as I love him, I need some ‘me’ time.
“Pushpa, come and get him, no? He needs his milk.” She comes and scoops him up in her arms, and he giggles delightedly. I watch, slightly vexed by the scene.
Vaikaasi Visaakam is but a few weeks away. I have so much to prepare. My friends and I will visit all the temples to pray for the celestial union of our Lord Murugan and Valli. New sarees to buy. Perhaps a gold chain too? Ah! But this heat! The fans offer no succour. I barely move out of the periphery of the breeze and my blouse is soaked through. Perhaps I will join my husband on the verandah. After all, a sunday afternoon in the companionship of one’s beloved spouse is surely the recipe for a good marriage.
An odour of raw onions assails my nostrils before his rough, callused hand closes over my mouth.
“Shhhh!!!”, he whispers urgently, while I struggle vainly, trying to gasp for breath. He is too heavy for me and his body pins me to the bed.
“Nothing to be scared of dear”, he coaxes, “Just a bit of loving….”
I try to bite upon his hand but he laughs and then wallops me with his other hand. I am stunned into immobility, and in no time he has pushed my legs apart, and is assaulting me in my private region. I whimper in pain, and his hand comes down on my mouth again. I shut my eyes to the depraved pleasure on his face.
It seems to carry on for an eternity. Then when he grunts and collapses on me, I know it is finally over. The child sleeps innocently unaware by my side, while the father lies spent atop me.
Suddenly he wakes up to his surroundings, and is off me like a bolt of lightening.
“Don’t say a word”, he cautions. ” This….this is between us, alright? No one need know. No one will believe you anyway. So keep quiet, and all will be well…”
He waits for my nod before he creeps out of the room as quietly as he came in.
Waves of nausea wash upon me. I turn on my side and am sick almost immediately. The baby awakes and starts to cry. I cry alongside.
I feel scared and ashamed. She is only a child, and what I have done is tantamount to rape. I could be arrested for this. I could lose everything. How stupid could I be? Is it the heat that addled my senses?
Only, seeing her lying there, her skirt ridden up to her waist, abandoned to sleep, I could not resist myself. I replay it scene for scene in my mind, and cannot help but feel a delicious shiver of forbidden pleasure.
What if I am found out? Will she tell? I could deny everything. They would believe me, would they not? I wipe the sweat off my brow and think. I have to warn her…threaten her if I must.
I hear the wailing coming from her room and hurry before anyone else hears.
She is cleaning up her mess. The baby is sitting up on the bed crying. He senses my eyes upon him, and is momentarily quiet, before breaking into a fresh wail. She looks up slowly at me. There is a vacant blankness in her eyes, and in that instant I know I am safe.
I do believe the girl has developed a crush on my husband. She is always watching him. I have noticed how she shivers as he passes her. Oh! For goodness’ sake!! Does she really think he’ll pay her the slightest bit of attention, ugly mangy thing that she is?
And all that moping around. As though the sky was about to cave in. I have tried asking her if she’s missing Amma but she doesn’t answer. Just stares into space, pretending as though I don’t exist. I am really quite fed up with her. Another few weeks and I will be rid of her. Cannot wait.
Dearest husband though has been so very generous again. In fact, more than generous. The gold chain he has bought me must at least be 5 tolahs. I cannot wait to display it on pooja day. The wretched tailor is late making the blouse again. He says I have put on weight. What rubbish! He is merely trying to save the extra cloth for his collection. As though I do not know his thieving ways.
I try to cuddle the baby who pushes me away. He lisps the girls name. I cannot believe it! Is she trying to supplant me in my child’s affections too? I hug him to me forcibly, ignoring his yelp of discomfort. He smells of curdled milk. I call out to the girl to give him a bath. She might as well make herself useful.
I feel as though I am in the depths of a nightmare from which I cannot awaken. I feel so far removed from the minutiae of life. I carry on because I must. I have no recourse.
Akka is delegating extra work to me, and it is a relief. I keep my hands busy and my mind emptied. I stay as far away from him as I can. His very presence terrifies me. But I watch him closely. I wedge the chair under the door handle every day and every night. He will not catch me unaware again. I sleep little and eat even less. I feel myself shrinking. I am trying to disappear, till I become so tiny. Like a little dot that no one will ever find.
The child knows I am not right. He follows me around even more. He tries to make me smile now, playing peek-a-boo with his little pudgy hands. He clings to me and tries to infuse my body with his baby warmth. I cannot respond.
She has not said a word, and finally, I am able to relax. At first my nerves were on razor’s edge. All at once the things I had taken for granted: my home, my family, the good name of my ancestors lay at the mercy of the girl’s tongue. I could not believe how I had let a moment’s ill judgement jeopardise all that was valuable and secure.
Slowly, however, I have allowed myself to breathe. I watch her surreptitiously though. She is like a puppet going through the motions, and a part of me feels sorry for her. The one time my gaze locked into hers, it was like peering into an abyss.
The strands of temptation start to coil around me unbidden. I cannot erase the memory of that snatched afternoon, and yearn for more. My arousal grows as I watch her do the chores, bathe the child, and comb my wife’s hair. Mundane tasks that have no eroticism to them per se, except for what her frail body imbues them with.
My mind starts to plan a dozen scenarios. I convince myself that she really wants me. Why else has she not spoken out?
I have tried the handle on her door a few times, but the little minx is keeping it shut somehow. How and where to corner her? I scratch myself languorously,wondering.
My saree weighs a ton, and I find it difficult navigating through the masses of devotees in it. The sun is burning a hole in my back, and the jasmine flowers in my hair are limp and have lost their perfume along the way. My friends and I are being jostled along in the crowd and suddenly the oppressive heat, the myriad odours and the lack of air make me feel quite faint. I stumble and lose my footing in the throng. A few hands help me up. I feel one snaking around my neck, but before I can cry out, the chain is yanked forcibly off me. I scream. A few people look. Someone laughs, and everything goes black.
When I come to, I feel a glass of water at my lips.
My friends mill around me looking worried. I am sitting in a cool corner of the temple. I can hear the chants emanating from the main hall. I grope around my neck to startled exclamations from the insipid women around me. Of course it’s not there. The thief saw his chance and took it. I lean my head back against the cold stone wall. Lata goes into hysterics.
“Aiyyo Murugan!! What is the world coming to if a woman is not safe even in a place of worship? Such a beautiful chain that was! Oh Saras, what are you going to do?”
I collect myself, even as they calm her down. I need to go home. They want to accompany me, but I balk at that. I have to face the music alone. The thought of it makes me go quite pale, but I reassure them and hurry out.
The front door is shut, and I let myself in quietly. All I want to do is lay on my bed and sleep my worries away. I splash some water on my face, and then examine myself in the mirror. My face looks serene and composed as always, not revealing the turmoil inside. I hear what sounds like a laugh from the backyard and ignore it at first. Then curiosity overcomes me, and I head in its direction.
I wonder if my face is quite as composed as they both look up from their coupling to see me standing there. He looks shocked…and she, the little viper….looks at me blankly. The baby is watching them curiously. I shoot them both a savage look and turn on my heel in such anger that I nearly trip myself up again. A wild hot rage pulsates through me, and I turn around and spit out,
” You….you little bitch! I want you out of my house now. NOW!!!”, I scream and run inside, tears streaming down my face. He follows in pursuit.
“Akka!”, I cry. I want to explain. I need to tell her the truth, but I fall silent as I remember the contempt in her eyes. I start to shiver.
The sun beats down mercilessly upon the small patch of grass and the few plants that surround it. My pitiful attempts to beautify the sorry patch remain just that. The shovel and the spade lay propped on the side, and the flower pot lies broken in the struggle that I had soon lost. The weeds are peering out from behind the uneven rocks that determine the border of the garden.
I listen but hear nothing. Nothing but for the occasional crow that ventures out in the afternoon. I start tidying the pot by setting it upright and scooping the mud back into it. My hands search for things to do while my ears reverberate with the finality of her words. I attack the weeds with a vicious ferocity. Yank. Pull. Set aside. Yank. Pull. Set aside.
The child waddles up to me. He tries to pluck at my skirt. I shoo him off. He retreats. He returns a moment later with his ball.
” Atthai! Atthai…”, he lisps.
He wants me to play. I shake my head and carry on weeding. He starts to cry, pulling and pulling at my skirt.
I feel something warm and sticky on my hands, and notice belatedly that it is blood. The child lies motionless on his side, the ball still grasped loosely in one hand, a red pool spreading thickly under his head. I look up at the sky. A lone crow swoops down low, and then flies away.
I watch it leave till it is a mere speck in the sky.
This story was a runner-up in The Cazart Short story competition.