Woman by the Wayside

Akber Ayub 

© Copyright 2018 by Akber Ayub 

Photo of a sunrise.

A few years ago, I was traversing interior Kerala, Southern India, gathering material for a coffee-table travel book. I was in Thirunelly, a green hilly outpost in Wayanad, Kerala, known for its ancient temples and fabulous trekking trails. On a cool Sunday morning, dawn was just breaking over the hills when I stepped out of my hotel room. The air was filled with the trills and cries of dulcet birds. And gnarled old trees whispered under a steady cool breeze. While I tramped over a long-winding track, a pariah dog from the slumbering village tagged along and kept pace.

Coming out of a bend in the rutted track I nearly bumped into the woman by the wayside. Her eyes bored into mine; holding my gaze until I looked away. I blinked, even as my mind registered her doleful eyes. Intrigued, I broke my stride, regarding her warily. Her eyes promptly welled with tears and a thin streak rolled down her cheeks. That stopped me in my tracks, and I turned towards her, even if ambivalently. Her face was a tapestry of torment; her eyes, pools of grief. Clearly, her mind was in a welter and she was desperate to connect with someone. So I listened as she began to talk. Of medium height, dusky and running to fat, she was clad in her native mundu and blouse. Jet-black hair gathered roughly in a tight bun at the back of her head…and the dim, tawny complexion flushed with a torrent of emotions. Mottled strands of hair streamed across her face in a sudden gust as she stood rooted, relating her pathos.

The dog sat on its haunches looking up hopefully, while the village slept in the soporific air.

A victim of domestic violence, she lived with her husband and son in the hut across from the road. As I listened, her words began tugging at my heart. I didn’t need another prompt. I accompanied her to her little shack. Tiled roof, mud walls and an earthy odour greeted me as I stepped under the awning.

Swarthy and middle-aged Vijayan, greying at the temples but with the fitness of a toiling villager, and lean and lanky Chandran, all of 18 years and bored to bones from idleness completed the family. The men in the house listened as I talked. It turned out they were victims themselves – of a harsh, uncaring world. Words struggled to convey the intensity of long silenced sorrows. It mattered little that I was a rank stranger. I was human, just as much as they were. Vijayan, quick on his feet and possessed of a nervous energy, was the sole breadwinner. Owning no land, he was the janitor in the only hotel in the village where I had checked in the night before. Young Chandran finished schooling at a government school the previous year and did odd jobs in the fields during harvest times. He was idle for the rest of the year – spent brooding mostly and staring at a bleak future. Tremulous tears pooled in Chandran’s eyes as unspoken angst racked his face.

I’ve always had faith in the resourcefulness of the human mind; even one ravaged by circumstances and misfortunes. A surge of warmth radiated from my heart – and reached out to Vijayan and his family. So I prodded, and little by little, they began to open their hearts. Young Chandran carried old emotional scars. His vacuous eyes told me that he had suffered grave deprivations early in life. He probably was a loner while growing up – no rapport with his father and mother. And with good reason, he clamped shut at the mention of his early days. Eventually though, that triggered a slew of reactions: anger and aggression at his parents, resentment, and hurt – a deep suffering that had a poignant quality. Vijayan, on the other hand, sat dourly on the floor – just as he plodded through life, stoic and resolute.

Tact, understanding, and support led to a gradual unearthing of the pathos of their lives – the marginalized existence, the emotional deprivation, the all too frequent outbursts, the poignant moments, the longings, and the heartbreaks. I took the long journey with them into their aching lives until a gradual, seeming catharsis paved the way for what I thought was the beginning of a tentative healing. As if prodded by an unseen force, I urged them to climb over their dark days and consider the possibilities, options, and promises in their lives – my Malayalam, unused for ages, straining to cope. I intuited that perhaps their sufferings have been preparing them in some way for creating their dark realities in life to learn and grow from what they created. Their dark creations so far have brought them pain and suffering. Perhaps it is time now for them to create a different manifestation, a new reality and by doing that, be rewarded. Pain too has its value. Perhaps it’s time now for their lives to find a balance and joyous days to follow restless nights.

I don’t remember how long I remained part of the charged air under that roof, but when I finally walked out of the shack, I felt drained. Yet, I had the palpable feeling of a transformation of sorts having taken place…of despair into hope and callousness into caring. Bitter barren hearts were brushed for once with finer human sentiments. There was so much raw emotion in that room. But now emerged trust and faith. Preparing to leave, I felt the urge to hand over something more tangible. I dug into my pockets and came up with a hundred rupee note stuck providentially somewhere. Saramma, for that was her name, refused to accept it, but I pressed it into her palm anyway.

As I returned to the village track the pariah dog sprang to its feet and trotted across wagging its tail. I’d found a new friend.

Resuming my walk, now back to the hotel, I looked over my shoulder. Saramma and family were at their doorstep contemplating my receding form. I waved and they waved a farewell. Chandran had his arm around his mother’s shoulder. I felt happy for Saramma. That view soaked into my psyche and seemed to accentuate my being. I also felt oddly restored...perhaps a spurt in my mental energies. Sometimes we touch one another in such unexpected ways and come away the richer for it.

Few days later while I was researching material for an article I was writing for Life Positive magazine, I came across these words from the renowned Sufi saint Kahlil Gibran: “You give but little when you give of your possessions. It is when you give of yourself that you truly give.”

I sat motionless for a few moments. Truly, when you give of yourself, you give to yourself. Silently another Sufi saying floated into my mind: “The more of ourselves we give, the more of ourselves we find.”

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