A GIRL CALLED STELLA

P. Lankesh

" STELLA came, the nurse. Olive-complexioned and with clean tape- ring fingers, cheeks with a touch of fading youth and thick hair. She was Subbanna's favourite. He thought no end of her. If only she could be on duty both day and night! He thought that her body exuded a smell of motherhood. He would know as soon as she entered the room. Once he had dared to ask her. Will you come and nurse me if I were to shift to my son's place? I'll pay you for it and make sure you don't lack anything. Stella had said nothing. She had patience and could be stern too. She had given him his pills and medicine and left without answering. Even her indifference which he thought was divine had whetted his curiosity about her. Not having enough courage to ask her again, he had started talking about himself. Subbanna hailed from a village near Shimoga. Having sold his property there, he had settled down in Nellandur near Bangalore and owned two houses besides a farm.

>Stella had given her answer later. It'll cost you three hundred rupees a day. Don't take me amiss. That's the fee which our association has fixed. I can't accept anything less than that.

Fear and pain. Subbanna started coughing. He knew he was going downhill, both morally and physically.

His son and daughter-in-law visited him, as usual, promptly at eight O' clock. The son looked wasted, Subbanna's illness had taken its toll. The daughter-in-law too looked run down. They used to stay with him in the hospital before. Subbanna himself had felt bad about it and was in two minds for a while before he had sent them home.

The doctor too came in just as Suresh and Savithri arrived. After having examined the patient and talked to Stella, he told Suresh that he would like to have a word with him.

"Something private?" Suresh asked the doctor.

"Nothing like that. Your father's alright but we have to change the treatment. The drugs are expensive and there's need for surgery besides. The dialysis will cost you at least two hundred rupees a day."

"Why are you bringing up the matter of money?" asked Subbanna while Suresh sat with his head bent. The doctor explained, "It's better we are frank about such matters. There should be no misunderstanding later. What do you say, Suresh?"

Suresh sat there saying nothing. He didn't either shake his head or look at his wife who seemed to be avoiding his eyes.

The doctor obviously had decided on surgery. "It'll cost you nothing less than a lakh."

Subbanna had his eyes closed. Suresh and Savithri stayed silent and their silence had in it the explosive potentiality of lightning. Subbanna was beginning to grasp the truth. The doctor ended up saying, "Do think about it. I don't mind if you admit him into another hospital."

Suresh broke his silence. “Let's not worry about money, doctor. Do carry on with the treatment."

His voice was heavy. A nice young man, he was Subbanna's only son and worked as an English lecturer in a college. They had two children and Savithri was a smart woman with no touch of meanness in her. A graduate in Commerce knowing typing and with a Senior's, Certificate in music, she could have taken up a job, if she wanted. She hadn't, fully occupied as she was in looking after the farm and her children. There was no time to spare either for reading or listening to music.

Subbanna was aware of the turmoil in Suresh's mind even though the boy had reassured the doctor about footing the bill. He said, "Listen, boy. Let me die. What's there to live for, now that I'm eighty-five? A couple of years more shouldn't matter at this stage of my life. Why should you spend all that you have and get into a scrape?"

"It's not that, father. What's my own worth if I can't look after you when you are ill?" Savithri had placed her hand fondly on the old man's forehead, in support of her husband.

The truth was different, cruel. Subbanna was overwhelmed by his fear of death. There was no ring of conviction about his question, 'What's there to live for?' Years ago, the thought of death brought no fear into him. It was different now--thinking of death brought tears into his eyes. Another cruel truth was that his illness had reduced his own son into a small-minded man. Deep down, beneath his words, there was the question why death wouldn't come naturally to his father instead of bothering him in this manner. Suresh should be crying inside of him as much as his father did. His financial situation had become precarious. He had spent eighty thousand on nursing his father in the first year, and later a lakh. He had borrowed from every available source and his debts were weighing him down. He had already sold the farm and it might even become necessary to sell the house they now lived in along with the one that Subbanna had rented out. It wouldn't matter-he still had his lecturer's job. Who knows, the fact that he was a debtor might affect his work. The farm that Savithri doted on was gone and her spirits were low though she had managed to hide the fact from others.

One day, Suresh was late in coming for a visit. The farm had gone by then and he was once again deep in debt. He was involved in a minor accident as he rode his scooter on his way to the hospital. He wasn't hurt but something had given way inside. Subbanna, who himself was in a foul mood, took one look at his son and said, "I know what you are thinking."

Suresh kept quiet.

"And you know what I'm thinking about you."

Suresh kept his silence and that infuriated his father some more. Summoning whatever strength he had in him, Subbanna heaped abuses on his son, pounding his bed. Suresh said nothing. Subbanna started coughing blood. He desired to die at that moment of frenzied anger but was afraid. Stella arrived. Unperturbed by the spittle which trickled out with drops of blood, she cleaned him. Her brows were knit at Subbanna's behaviour. Subbanna lay back and as Suresh got up wanting to leave, his father tried to say something. Was it an attempt to make peace with his son or ask for forgiveness? Subbanna himself didn't know. He was seized by a fresh bout of cough which wouldn't stop. Stella massaged his neck and his back. As Suresh slowly walked out, he heard his father shout, "Listen, bastard, I don't want either that bitch of yours or you here! Understand?" Suresh walked away, his head bent.

Alternating fever and sleep. Deep down, Subbanna feared that it might be the state of coma which normally precedes death. He was at that stage when sleep and unconsciousness shed their difference the way good and evil or shame and self-respect did. Stella didn't have enough energy in her to explain things to him. She was in charge of the three patients in two wards and besides, she had her own personal problems. Her husband, Smith, had started drinking heavily. He was pressurising her to sell the three acres of wet land she had in Malabar and hand over the money to him. She had a feeling that he would leave her as soon as he lay his hands on the money. Their child, Nick, who spent the entire daytime in a nursery, was never far from her thoughts, leading her to ask herself whether there was any point to her life.

"Amma ..." Subbanna groaned, its tone both an outlet for his pain and a summon to Stella. He didn't mind if the girl didn't come in answer. His use of various endearing forms of address had increased as his helplessness grew. He hadn't left his bed for many days even for his excretory functions. His back was covered in bedsores and he wasn't aware that his legs had stiffened as they stretched from under the sheet that covered his body. He was either in a state of daze or coma though Stella was sure that his brain functioned normally as he was aware of his state.

Stella was there when he called out ‘Amma’. Subbanna extended his hand and she asked him what he wanted. His eyes pleaded for her hand and she touched his hand with hers. He caught hold of her young and warm fingers and hand and cried out, "Child, my child." His eyes shone as if a new life coursed through him. The increasing warmth of his touch made it clear to Stella that it wasn't a father's hand caressing his child. "Will you do something for me, please?" he asked. She had been nervous whenever he came out with such a question. It was no different this time though she asked, "What?" 'A dirty old man.' She told herself.

"Never mind," he said and let go of her hand. The fear in his eyes was that of a man being led to the gallows. His lips started moving even as she watched.

"I haven't wiped my bottom myself for three years ..." He started crying and Stella's stern heart melted. She held his hand which lay on his chest and his tear-filled eyes spoke of his gratitude. His other hand covered the back of her hand and he started muttering to himself. His words were about her, himself, the world, the gallows and death which could have been lurking just outside the room ...

"I wasn't like this once, so miserable and so dirty... Do you believe it?"

Stella made no comment. She hadn't been able to check his bedsores. Subbanna seemed to have forgotten them of late.

"1950. I should have died that year."

"Eh, Stella ..." It was Mary.

Stella's eyes asked what it was about.

"Francis is here." Mary said.

"I see." As Stella slowly got up, a shiver passed through her. Francis, who had said he would try to meet her, had actually turned up.

She was, however, reluctant to leave Subbanna's side as if she was face to face with an unexpected truth. "Stay here, I'll be back in five minutes." Stella made Mary take her place, placed her friend's hand on Subbanna's. "Just five minutes," she repeated and left.

Francis was there. Stella's legs were giving way unable to carry the body, trembling from head to foot in sheer excitement.

"Is your husband back?"

Stella didn't reply. There was dense darkness to the left of the nursing home, under the thick foliage of the poppy, on the nearside of the shrub with white flowers.

She went into his arms and he kissed her caressing her body with his hand. It was like kissing a flame-her longing was more intense than ever.

"It would be nice if you came today, I had thought," said Stella and he went on kissing her.

"Let me go. Come tomorrow." Stella wriggled out of his embrace. Francis stood there, shocked, like a swimmer suddenly caught in a whirlpool. He didn't move till she had disappeared.

" Alright?" Mary asked. There was still a mild tremor running through Stella's body and her face was flushed.

She took Mary's place and Subbanna opened his eyes wide as soon as he felt her hand. It was as if a new vitality had come into him. "Will you carry out a dying man's wish, girl?" he asked. He didn't wait for her reply before he added. "It's my will. Take it down. It's a strange one. Please write it the way I want."

Stella took out a pen and a sheet of paper. Subbanna had difficulty in turning over before he lay on his stomach. His bedsores had started troubling him.

"I, who should have died in 1950, am now certain that I shall die." He started sobbing and Stella read what she had taken down to stop him crying. "It was a grave mistake on my part to have avoided death at that time. My friend, Palakshappa died that year. He was a wrestler and I used to call him Palakshi. He was five years my senior and he would have been ninety, had he lived on. Nehru would have been a centurion, it seems, and Gandhi one hundred and twenty, had they been living ...My grandfather, one hundred and fifty. I had vowed to offer a special service to Dharmasthala's Manjunatha if he were to die. Imagine his being alive at one hundred and fifty-a bag of bones, flesh and mucus ...What could one do with such a living thing...?"

"Come to the will, will you? Otherwise I'm leaving," Stella warned him.

"Why? The priest in our place was saying ...Take down ...It seems Bishma was a thousand when he died. What problems cropped up because the fellow forgot to die and went on and on ..."

His cough brought him back to the world around.

"Palakshi was my friend, gentle like a cow, though an old wrestler. The men of the neighbouring village bothered him no end. Did I tell you that he was older than me by five years? Knowing that he would not retaliate, Goolya. Kaddipudi and Sannabasava of that village stole his crop of beans from the field. He went over to them and advised them to mend their ways. The same fellows later stole his sugar cane and then, some bundles of hay. Palakshi didn't lose his temper. Encouraged by his attitude of tolerance, Goolya and Kaddipudi connived with the Shanbogh, forged some documents, called false witnesses and laid claim to two acres of his land. Palakshi asked for a meeting of the Panchayati saying that things shouldn't happen that way. Goolya and Kaddipudi saw to it that no one turned up for the meeting. I was upset and so went with Palakshi to meet the Shanbogh. Wasn't he a smooth talker, that bastard? He wriggled out of it and Palakshi kept quiet for three days as if he had been struck dumb. He didn't miss his daily trip to the smithy, though. Later he came to me with a question: Who was the most evil of them all and how would I arrange them in order of their evil. Early one morning, he sharpened his sickle and chopped them of, one after another. First, the Shanbogh and then Goolya, Kaddipudi and Sannabasava in that order. He returned to our village and so did the police. He died on the gallows six months later with a smile on his face.

"Mustn't forget it. I wasn't in the village when the police came. Though Palakshi didn't name anyone in that affair, it's true that I had my own apprehensions and so left the village. Palakshi would have been ninety if he were alive now. I still carry in me a vivid picture of his bearing--chest thrust forward. He had killed men and then gone up the gallows. Incidents of robbery, forgery etc. declined in our village following the event. Are you taking down what I'm saying? The reason why I told you all this is ...Isn't my will like a story, girl?" What started as a small cough grew and grew and Subbanna's body shook.

"Our Abubakker Sahib used to drink. He had a proud bearing and looked like an Englishman. He was a contractor in Shimoga and had plenty of money. We were very close and used to frequent each other's house. My wife, Parvathi, didn't like him, thought he was an evil man. Parvathi was a good woman, the daughter of the Patel of Ramenally. You don't know how good-looking she was ...like Parvathi in the picture of Shiva and his consort, like the actress Bhanumathi. One day I was in Abubakker's place playing cards with him and some others. We had drinks and were talking loudly. Suddenly, a minor

quarrel erupted and Abubakker said something nasty. I was drunk and called him the son of a mean-minded beggar. When he said I had no balls, I wanted to leave the place but didn't. We carried on hurling abuses at each other. A drunken quarrel, it went on and on. ‘I’ll sleep with your wife, you wait,' he said and I shouted that I would do the same. We didn't come to blows, though. 'On Sunday, the fourth."

It was the night of the fourth. There was a knock on the door and I sat there petrified. Parvathi opened the door to let in Abubakker who straightaway grabbed her. I was on fire and wanted to hit him but he tied me to a pillar in the living room, gagged us both and switched off the light. He had been drinking that night, I was sure.

"You may not believe it, but the unthinkable had happened. He had left but the lights weren't switched on. Parvathi sobbed the whole night. She had been humiliated and felt bad about what had taken place and so didn't look at me when it was morning again. I was burning with rage the whole day, as Parvathi didn't bother to get up even once. When it was dawn again, I got up and looked for the sickle that Palakshi had used but couldn't find it. That evening I went to Budensabi's place, thrust some money into his hands and took his revolver. By the time I reached Shimoga, my anger had abated. I tried to whip up my thirst for vengeance and started walking round Abubakker's house. It was dark and there were the mosquitoes, droning away. I was furious with myself. When the rear door of the house opened, there was Abubakker turning the torch on me. He called out my name. Didn't laugh or say anything nasty. He took me by my hand and led me in. When I didn't respond to his smooth talk with either rage or laughter, he threw in the last dice. 'Forget it, pal. I'll give you one of my four farms ...'

"The farm was registered in my name within four days”.

"Parvathi didn't get up again. I don't know whether she came to know of my compromise or whether her shame was beyond all words. She died”.

"That was in 1950. Abubakker died five or six years after the event. He would have been eighty eight had he lived and would be lying on his sickbed, just as I'm doing."

Stella stopped writing and got up. It was late, past her hours of duty.

"Do you know why I told you all this? Just a minute, girl. We go on saying that it's better to live like a tiger for a day than like a mouse for a hundred years. It's a cliché. Look at my lot, having to lie in my own piss and shit ...My son has become evil but he behaves as if he's good. I too am evil but haven't got strength enough even to pretend to be good. I have often thought during the last ten years that I should have chopped off Abubakker's head and smeared Parvathi's forehead with his blood ...I wouldn't have been the hypocrite that I am now. Or, I should have protested and died like the others in 1960 when the government raided our village to collect dues and attached our properties ...This is the last sentence of my will, girl. It's not how long a man lives that makes his life. No, it certainly doesn't ..."

"Lie down quietly," Stella said and left after placing what she had taken down under the cot. The nursing home was quiet. When she came out after bidding the watchman goodnight, Francis was still there. She was feeling somewhat out of sorts and had been dreaming about how nice it would be if Francis were to be there and there he was. She ran to him and hugged him. "Let's walk till Benson Town,” he suggested. It was cool and at ten in the night Bangalore was quiet as usual. They were about to set off when they saw someone like Stella's husband coming towards them. "I think it's Smith," she said, a little nervous, and moved away from Francis. Yes, it was Smith. Stella and Francis pretended to be mere acquaintances as they approached him. Smith talked to his wife pleasantly and she introduced Francis to him as a matter of course.

"Come, let's have a drink. It's a pleasure meeting you", said Smith. Stella watched both men closely as they struck a friendship. Francis started talking about his bank and Smith gave an enthusiastic account of the garage he was about to open. Francis went on about the girl he was engaged to and addressed Stella as sister. "Sister, how's it that you haven't asked me home though you have such a wonderful husband like this? Look, it's settled. I invite myself with my fiancée to spending this year's Christmas at your place."

"Forgive me. I must go home. Nick will be waiting for me. Have a nice time together," Stella said.

"Why don't you also join us, darling? I had gone home on coming into the city. You don't have to worry, I have taken care of everything. Let's talk about your land. It'll be so easy to open the garage if we were to sell it and take a small loan from Francis's bank."

Stella's head was reeling. "I've a headache, I better go home," Stella excused herself and the two men walked away.

Stella's head was filled with Subbanna's story. Subbanna, who could have died anytime with a sense of either guilt or shame, now in living hell, a whimpering mouse because he couldn't live and die like a tiger. And her husband, who was ready for any kind of compromise or shame as long he could lay his hands on her land. And her lover, Francis, who was more complex and dangerous than even Abubakker. They were all dying, just like Subbanna after the year 1950. Dying even while living, caught in the mire of piss, shit and spittle and living in shame, scared of life and scared equally of death.

'Have a nice time,' she muttered to herself. She sat in the rickshaw, sobbing with a strange sense of being utterly alone and utterly helpless.

"To Vaialikaval," she said in answer to the driver's enquiry and sobbed on.

* * *

That night, Subbanna died. There was a crowd by the time Stella turned up at the nursing home. Suresh and Savithri were by the bedside with tears in their eyes. .

Stella couldn't look them in the eye. She went about silently helping in carting the body away.

Translated by
Ramachandra Sharma