Comfortably Numb

Sheila Kumar's Storehouse

Published on: 09/16/99 11:26 AM

Feature: Senthamarai`s Love Life


Her name was, inappropriately enough, Senthamarai. With a wiry frame the colour of polished teak and a pinched look on an unremarkable face, she was more a hill-flower than a lotus, a thamarai.

She was the maid I’d inherited along with the bungalow, when I relocated to the Nilgiri hills. Clean as a pin, quietly efficient, she came and went like a wraith and before I knew it, she’d become quite indispensable

Then one rainy morning, Senthamarai did not appear. Conditioned to cynicism where domestics were concerned, I took it for granted that she had ‘French-leaved’ the day off. She didn’t turn up the next day, or the day after that either.

Instead, Senthamarai’s husband turned up. Senthamarai had run away with a married man of 50, a stranger from a neighbouring village, some 30 years older than her. She had fled the coop, leaving her small children behind but taking all the money in the hut, and the jewellery her mother had given her at the time of marriage, seven years ago.

It seemed a pretty conclusive gesture to me but impelled by compassion, I asked if he thought she’d return. “She was a good wife,” he said.  “The matter is out of my hands. The elders in my family have filed  a police complaint.”

Within three weeks, the police had flushed the runaways out of their hiding place, a shack in the Kateri Falls area. Senthamarai’s husband paid me another visit. The police were rough-handling her, he said. Would I go meet the girl?

When I walked in, she gave me that shy smile. There wasn’t a jot of guilt, remorse, or whatever emotion a runaway wife was expected to display. Her partner in the elopement stood to one side, a hefty grizzled man with a cast in one eye.

Her 24 hours in prison had not been pleasant. Her in-laws, barring her husband, had fallen upon her and started beating her. The police had used their own methods of intimidation. Her new man’s wife had descended in a whirlwind of fury, blaming Senthamarai for enticing her husband away.

“Senthamirai,” I said, trying hard to keep my voice level, “The man is married and so are you. Your children have been crying for you. Go home.”

“No amma,” she told me.  Does your husband beat you, ill-treat you, does he drink too much, I asked. “No amma, he is a good man,” she replied without so much as a look at the man under discussion.

“Go home, then.”

“No, amma.”

It was clear we were at point non plus. Then Senthamarai’s brother-in-law spoke up. “Well,” he said philosophically, “if she won`t come, she won`t come.”

Senthamirai looked up sharply, a gleam of hope in her eyes. A gleam that died when the man continued, “We’ll send her home to her mother. I’ll take her there myself.”

When I left the police station, Senthamarai was standing still as a stone, her face devoid of emotion. Her paramour was being dragged away by his vociferously abusive wife.

It was indeed love’s labour lost for this strange, quiet woman.

This ran in THE TIMES OF INDIA of 16 Mar 1999.

FeatureFeatureslove in the hillsmatters of the heart

Sheila Kumar • September 16, 1999

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