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Lounge Fiction Special: ‘Unni Nair and Sumathi’ by Manu Bhattathiri

A middle-aged couple learns to listen to each other

Unni Nair and Sumathi were widely regarded as the most successful couple in Karuthupuzha(Illustration by Priya Kuriyan)

By Manu Bhattathiri

LAST PUBLISHED 08.01.2024  |  08:00 AM IST

They were sitting on their porch breathing the milk in the evening air. Unni Nair looked up at the moon and said: “The cows are yielding well. I think that feed Rameshan suggested is good."

“Hmm," said his wife Sumathi. Her tired eyes followed his gaze to the moon.

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“It’s a little costlier, but like he said I’m giving it only on alternate days."

“Yes."

The cool from the heavens met the warm vapours from the ground at this hour and, along with the temple music, the atmosphere was almost intoxicating. Karuthupuzha, like most south Kerala small towns in winter, got ready for bed early. The days were still a little warm and the nights cool. By evening the earth’s steam arose making the stars sizzle, so they looked like they would drip off the sky one by one. Sumathi yawned.

“The Milk Society has reviewed milk rates and the moon will also pay well for the milk now."

“Hmm," said Sumathi.

That part about the moon isn’t a printing error. Unni Nair had invented this little game in his conversations with his wife, knowing she wasn’t listening. He would slip in a nonsensical word and make her go “Hmm" in agreement. The inward chuckle this gave him was about the only pleasure of her companionship these days. The trick was to pick a word that was already sitting inside her head. He saw her looking at the moon. So if he had said “spider" or “tax returns", Sumathi might have been knocked out of her reverie, but with “moon" he could play perfectly. After almost four decades together, Unni Nair had come up with this sport of making her nod at the stupidest thing to supply him his staple of mirth.

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He knew that if he didn’t speak anymore, they would sit in silence until dinner. It wasn’t that Sumathi was stupid or hard of hearing. She simply did not listen to him much. Oh, she was active outside, he knew that! She was headmistress at the local Government Secondary School, and she carried out her duties perfectly. He milked the cows early in the morning, handed over the cans to the man from the Society and then spent the day walking to the market to chat, listening to old film songs or taking small, frequent naps. Meanwhile, Sumathi handled politics in the staff room, lectured teachers who kept wanting to go on leave, dealt with the most impish of children, satisfied perpetually demanding parents, attended board meetings, fought for grants, and, after all that, came home and cooked for the two of them, washed clothes and cleaned up the house! It wasn’t that Unni Nair was oblivious to the weight of her day. He tried his best to get them a servant, but Sumathi said: “This is the side-effect of having a Communist government. The poor can fill their tummies with free ration, so they never want to work." The fact was that his wife the headmistress was so exacting she went around while the maid swept, pointing out dust under the cots and behind the almirahs) that not one servant girl chose to work in that house. And if Unni Nair himself tried to help out in the kitchen, Sumathi grunted: “After you leave the kitchen it is double the work for me. I don’t know where you’ve misplaced the salt jar, I don’t know what to do with the sugar spoon you’ve put in the pepper bottle, and I need to clean the coconut oil you spilled by the stove. It’s easier if you just sat at the table to eat.

No, it wasn’t that she disregarded him, he knew that—it was just that she was tired. Tired all the time, like a storm is tired just before it is set to stop blowing. Their lives ran at vastly different paces now, after he had retired from his own government job while she had a few more years left, and his voice itself was a blind spot to her. She was voluble when she was saying what she wanted to, but he found it quite difficult to get her involved in a thought that had occurred to him. Trying to get into her mind was like trying to board an already moving train, stumbling before each door that went by faster than the last, until you realised the train wasn’t going to slow down for you.

“The clouds are coming for the milk and our cows are doing great," he tricked her one last time, but he felt sad instead of clever.

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Unni Nair and Sumathi were widely regarded as the most successful couple in Karuthupuzha. Decades ago, when they married, many people said that she was fair and beautiful while he was dark, which was balanced out nicely by the fact that he had a government job. “The boy isn’t good-looking but he works at the block office," they said. Then people winced at his revolutionary move when he allowed Sumathi to join as a junior mathematics teacher at the local school. “Now she will get ahead of him," everyone said. But Sumathi always walked a step behind her husband when they were outside, to indicate that just because she worked it didn’t mean she wasn’t a good wife. Both of them had government salaries, rested in the delicious surety of government pensions, and were unperturbed that their two children were girls. Continuing on his radical streak Unni Nair brought up his daughters boldly, teaching them to cycle, making them sing film songs at festival gatherings, and eventually sending the smarter of them outside town for college. Jealous folks said the couple would regret their ways, but the well-wishing ones said everyone must follow their example. Both the girls were now married to decent, well-employed men, and for several years Unni Nair and Sumathi rested in the sad satisfaction of a life whose mission had been completed rather early.

A lump of self-pity rose in Unni Nair’s throat. He gulped and then sighed, but of course, the bats hanging upside down on nearby branches might have noticed these better than the wife at his side. He wondered why she found him so uninteresting now. It wasn’t like they had grown apart. On the contrary they had grown too close to each other. In this world, only she knew that he loved turkey berries in his sambar but avoided them because they reminded him of his mother and made him moody. Only she knew that she had to keep his new banians among her clothes, or he would indiscriminately use them and get them stained with plantain sap while his older banians stayed unused. Only she could cut his abnormally thick toenails before they grew inwards, because his own hands shook. They were too close to each other and that, he thought, might be the trouble. One doesn’t see one’s own nose, right? She knew almost what he would say next, which made her not even listen. There could be no spice between couples who had grown as close as siblings.

Added to that, Unni Nair knew what kind of man he had become in early old age. He had turned into a sensualist of a different kind. He did not seek new experiences. He sought the same experiences over and over again, like a child taking a toffee out of his mouth and putting it back in the wrapper to savour it later. Thoroughness of experience mattered more to him than variety. Once or twice a month when they went to Town Military Hotel for a lunch-out, he ate the same two porottas and chicken gravy. Returning, he bought the same antacid. On Sunday afternoons he played the same songs, as though trying to suck them dry before his life was over. He watched the same Gandhi film every 2 October and cried. When his first daughter visited with her seven-year-old, he even told the child the same story from the Mahabharat again, until she started to beg for a different one.

I don’t need to look far to see why I’m boring to Sumathi, he thought sadly. I am boring.

Perhaps what they missed in their years together, while they secured their future better and better, was to maintain the mystery and freshness each held for the other. He ought perhaps to have surprised her with gifts once in a while, or said something outrageous, or indulged in something really offbeat so that she was left wondering. Why, if he had a scandal to his name, if he had made a pass at a woman at a bus stop or stolen office money, or gotten drunk at a family function, he might have been more interesting to her now!

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Suddenly Unni Nair realised that Sumathi was saying something. He turned to her as she continued: “…is what Malathi is trying. I can see that."

“What? What is Malathi trying? I missed that." Malathi was another senior teacher in Sumathi’s school.

“Unni Nair…..Absent teacher!" laughed Sumathi. It was a joke between them. He used to say “Sumathi….Absent teacher!" after the manner of a student being absent during roll call in class. The joke meant that his wife wasn’t mentally present on the occasion. She had turned it on him this time. “I was saying Malathi is trying to be the next headmistress. Once I’m retired. She is buttering the toast of every member of the board."

Her husband visibly brightened in spite of the falling darkness around. “How much more for your retirement?"

“Hardly two years."

He felt so happy, he could cry. “Good," he told her, marvelling at the strength of his own feeling. “We are well set for money. We’re done with our duties towards our children. It’s time. You can get out of that rotten school and its politics. Retire and we shall bathe our Gayathri and Prema together." These were their two cows and he was sure Sumathi did not remember their names. But once she retired she would be in the same boat as he, and then she wouldn’t ignore him so. Her life would be as boring as his, and not so many voices would crowd into her head to drown his. In two more years he might be hotly arguing with her on the strategy of their milk business on such an evening as this.

But when he turned to look at her face, Unni Nair was stunned. Her eyes glittered wetly in the light of the moon. Her wrinkles were like shadowy valleys down her cheeks. She appeared suddenly shrivelled, like a pickled mango. He realised that retirement was her biggest nightmare. What a puzzle life was! The same thing that made him jump in joy made her old and sad. In a moment, Unni Nair was all ears, as though he just wished to listen to the universe. The temple music had stopped, but the crickets threw a cacophony now. Frogs croaked in their hope for a drizzle. Something jumped into their little pond behind the house.

His thoughts were muddled. He realised guiltily that all their lives together he had never taken any interest in her work as a teacher. Being a teacher was her quality, not her job, and he had never stopped to properly appreciate it. As she had risen steadily from junior teacher to head of the department to headmistress, he hadn’t even visited the school. Why couldn’t he have gone to pick her up proudly on his Lambretta more often? He had listened rather indifferently to the feedback of parents at times in the market, telling him that his wife was a “strict" teacher, or that their wards actually understood mathematics now. One man had told Unni Nair gratefully that his son wished to be an engineer now, thanks to Sumathi teacher. But though he had conveyed all this to Sumathi, he only spoke routinely and without pride. Not surprisingly, she had hardly ever visited the Block Office where he rose to a top position before retiring.

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He couldn’t figure out now if they had grown apart or come together over a lifetime that felt like an elaborate errand. All he knew now, looking at her tired face, was that he did not wish for her to be in the same boat as he.

He said something silly, like “Everyone has to retire", or something, which neither of them heard.

It was nightfall and a Brahminy kite cried out “aaaAAAAAAAaaaa!" over the sound of the crickets. These kites have a singsong voice that is shrill yet pleading. The Brahminy kite is the vehicle of Lord Vishnu, and people of Karuthupuzha said that when it cried out thus it was calling out to the Lord: “krissssshNAAAAAAAAAAH!"

Unni Nair turned to tell this to Sumathi, thinking it would cheer her up. But suddenly he checked himself. For once he realised just what would interest her instead.

“What subject does Malathi teacher teach?" he asked.

“English," Sumathi said. And he was right. All of a sudden, she turned to him: “Not that she’s a bad teacher. All the parents like her, as well as all the board members. It’s just the way she keeps counting my days to retirement loudly…"

“But what does the board think? I’ve known headmistresses to get extended tenures."

“It’s possible," Sumathi said. Moonlight played on her eyelids. “It just depends on how desperate they are, and how good they think I am."

“You’re good. No, you’re very good." He spoke quietly, each word a caress. “And they know it. The whole town knows that it will not be so easy to replace you."

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“But there is the economics, you know," she went on talking to him! “They actually need to increase my pay pretty well if they wish to extend my tenure. In comparison it works out cheaper to give Malathi a small raise when they promote her to headmistress. More than quality of teaching it is always the money for the board members. You remember how they cut corners by not appointing another social studies’ teacher when Kunjunni maash quit? They just got Ravikrishnan maash to stretch and cover, when his subject is actually geography."

This is what I should have done years ago, Unni Nair thought. I should just have talked to her about her work. Then she would have talked to me about mine. But anyway, I can do this now. I can talk about what she is busy with. About what concerns her, matters to her, makes her think. And one day this same Sumathi will remember the names of our cows.

“…and they know that crickets can teach better," Sumathi was saying but her husband missed it. She chuckled and beat him on the shoulder: “You are not listening! I just said crickets are better teachers than cows. Hee hee! I like to play silly games, too."

He looked sheepishly at her.

“Come on, let’s go in and have dinner. You look tired, you old man." Sumathi stood up and as they walked indoors she said: “I’ve made your favourite kanji with fish fry and Malathi."

Manu Bhattathiri is the author of several works of fiction, including The Oracle Of Karuthupuzha and The Greatest Enemy Of Rain.