Yellow Is the Colour of Longing* | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, November 24, 2007 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, November 24, 2007

Short Story

Yellow Is the Colour of Longing*


She had jaundice. Really. So everything looked yellow to her. The streaks of grey in his hair, his intelligent eyes, his well-clipped, clean nails, everything. And he--he had a new strain of viral fever. So her curly hair, pale cheeks and the tiny black bindi on her forehead was all grey to him. Sitting in that room in the lodge in Gandhi Nagar, she actually thought that he was a yellow man; he thought she was a grey woman. Poor things. Nothing more than a woman and a man, at that moment. She was thirty-five, plus or minus. He, forty-five, plus or minus. She, a divorcee and the mother of two. He, married, the father of two.
Admitted or not, it was sexual interest, commonly found among women and men, that led them into that room in that middling-sort of lodge in that suburb of Kottayam. They had infected each other at the Kottayam Medical College. Who is not affected by lust in hospitals? The longings that are liberated from the many thousand bodies of the dead, are they not flitting about in the air there? Like the way the mouldy growth breaks out, its pleasure bristling upon loaves of stale bread, just the way white mushroom-penises sprout, erect, on fallen leaves during the rains, desires burgeon at each faint favourable moment. These were people not loved enough. And sick, besides. Stricken with many different sorts of aborted desire, the body would turn red-hot and then be dispersed into the air as vapour. If only someone intimate with the wizardry of love would utter a magic spell to draw that vapour back inside, making it solid flesh and bones once again -- who cannot help wishing for that? One wouldn't bother about tobacco stains on those lips, or bad breath, that moment. That's all there is to human beings.
The Communicable Diseases Ward where they met was the twenty-fourth ward of the medical college hospital. It had glass doors, unlike the other wards, with the number twenty-four on them, painted inside a red-coloured circle. And again, unlike the other wards, the outpatient section was attached to it. Linked red plastic chairs lay beneath the black-lettered signboard which read "Dr Sujith Kumar." That this ward is right next to the gate is what's most convenient. Even the mortuary is just next door, if the need arose. No wonder we are all made into patients with infectious diseases at the slightest pretext.
She was the first to arrive that day. Rain fell outside, light and frail. He had run in from the rain. Shaking off drops of water from his shirt-sleeves and lightly greying hair, he sat in the plastic chair opposite hers. He lifted his head and, before anything else, looked directly into her eyes. The way it happens when one falls in love, even though one is setting one's eyes on the other for the first time. Both of them thought of the other: I've seen him somewhere before; I've met her sometime before. Sitting opposite each other, their glances met, greeted each other and parted several times, for no particular reason. Once his glance tripped in her eyes, apologised, got up and left. Another time, her glance stumbled in his, but his eyelashes held her before she fell. In between, when another patient bickered with an attendant, he joked and shared a laugh with a neighbour. For some reason he held out to her a slice of that laughter. Then sometime later, when the woman sitting next to her looked at the OP card and said something, she had to laugh for politeness' sake. That moment she repaid the loan of laughter, the exact amount, he'd given earlier. In between she remembered someone else. At the conclusion of the memory, letting go the usual sigh, she raised her eyes, to see him sitting in the chair beside her. He too was in deep thought. She did muse about what his mind might be on. Was he thinking of illness? Of death? Or about his children and wife who'd be orphaned if he died? Suddenly she remembered that in the morning's hurry to send the kids off to school, she had forgotten her tea. It was that very moment that he turned his head and spoke to her the first time: "Care for a cup of tea?"
She started. Her reply was slow to come. Just that she reddened a bit.
"Our numbers won't be called so soon..." he continued.
She felt somewhat embarrassed. Was the desire for tea so sharply etched on her face? The thought made her redden further. Well, whatever that was, she looked at a man with approval after a very long time and gave him a pleased smile.
"Let's go."
As they walked along the wet footpath, though it wasn't particularly relevant at that moment, she noticed that this was the first time she was walking with a man after the break-up with her husband. Was he worthy of such high honour, she wondered. He was a tall man. His footsteps were firm. But it seemed to her that he was a dispirited man, in his heart of hearts. Women's dissatisfactions show up below their eyes. Men's appear in their stride. She had dark circles beneath her eyes. The intermittent illness which always came back after all the different sorts of treatment disheartened her. She had enough of swallowing medicines and getting blood and urine reports. Today, as she was draping her sari, getting ready for the trip to the hospital, she had even decided that if this doctor too failed to diagnose the illness, she would give up treatment altogether. It was then that her older son came into the room looking for his inhaler. Seeing his little chest struggle for breath, she reversed her decision. Who else would massage his bony back as he gasped for breath, sleepless, through the night, if she wasn't alive? She was all they had. She alone was there to mediate when the kids fought, she alone stayed to attend the PTA meetings at their school, she alone was left to buy them new clothes for Onam, she alone remained to remember their birthdays and get them packets of birthday-toffees to take to the school. She alone was there to make the little smiles bloom on their faces.
And then he spoke again: "Where do you live?"
"At Pandalam."
"Did you run there from the troops?"** He threw her a mischievous look.
"No, ran there to light the torches."
She replied rather gloomily, thinking all the while of he son. It was when he stared at her, startled, that she realised what she had said and to whom. Who is she? Or, what is she? A woman past thirty-five. Her middle was like a freshly-swept front yard, all marked with lines like the streaks the broom leaves behind. Her breasts had lost their self-confidence. Her backside wasn't shapely. And her hair was falling, falling, strand by strand, like casuarina leaves flying off with every breeze in winter. Which man would fancy such a woman trying to joke? In short, these days, it's terrible for women past a certain age.
They were inside the coffee house by then. He himself found a place less afflicted by the generator's awful droning. "I have seen you somewhere."
"I work at the LIC."
"Ah! Good!" He smiled.
"What do you do?”
"I'm a teacher. What's your illness?”
"Don't know..." her tone was a disheartened one.
He smiled. "Lucky lady...”
"What's your sickness?" She enquired.
"Some sort of viral fever. It's almost gone. But I have to get it checked every once in a while."
The waiter came up with two cups of tea. They drank it in silence. It was he who paid the bill. They were silent until they reached the ward. Her number was called first. She hurried in and described to the doctors some of her symptoms. This doctor too wanted blood and urine reports. She came out, and he went in. Glancing at him as if to say goodbye, she felt a certain perturbation spread to her from him. How many are the different sort of ailments in this world! Some spread through touch, some through glances. Some, through the wind and through messages, letters. Hope Dr. Sujith Kumar has remedies for all these.
The lab was crowded. As she stood at the rear end of the long queue, he hurried in, looking around as if trying to locate someone in haste. She was amused to see that peculiar demeanour. Who would not be amused to see a man who's greyed a bit, lost some hair, and with a face wrinkled with the burden of worldly cares, look around, with adolescence peeping out of his eyes? But when she realised that his adolescence was actually seeking her, her face paled and then reddened; then his eyes sought her out, and he rejoiced at finding her. Her heart filled to the brim. For most women, it's like that. When after many years, a woman is sought out by a man's eyes, and when she's sure that they were indeed seeking her and her alone, she will find her heart a-brim. That is of course one good thing about women.
Gently, he came to her. In his case too the doctor had asked for several investigations, he told her. There was a blood test to be done. The result would be ready only by two o'clock. He was planning to meet the doctor with it at the evening's OP. Otherwise he'd have to come on Wednesday. She told him that she had decided to come another day to meet the doctor. His face fell when he heard that.
"Why bother with another journey?" he asked. "Wouldn't it be better to meet the doctor today itself?"
His wrinkled face of forty-five years reddened and paled at once. He struggled not to look at her. Maybe he was scared that his eyes might stick to her body parts and then she would take him to be a lecher. That's the problem with men. They can see women only as bodies. They keep worrying how this woman would judge them in bed. In short, it's terrible for men too, after a certain age.
After the test it seemed as though the evening's OP was a long way off. And then, as if trying to crack a joke, mustering up the courage somehow, he suggested: "We could've gone for a movie if we were younger."
She smiled. A moment's silence, and then she asked bravely, "Which theatre has a show this afternoon?"
Before she finished, they saw a poster right in front, Katal Konden. Noon show. Why not see that film, he asked. She agreed. They found the theatre, bought the tickets, got in and settled in adjacent seats. The show had already begun. But they could soon follow the story. It was a Tamil film. But they could still make out the dialogues. There weren't many people in the theatre. After the intermission, he gently put his arm on her shoulder. She pretended as if she didn't know. After some time, she mildly rested her head on his shoulder. He too pretended as if he didn't know.
The movie was over by two-thirty. They had lunch at a nearby hotel. There was a lot more time to kill. Somehow then her head began to spin; she sweated profusely; and her eyes rolled back; all around her everything looked yellow. He was alarmed. Was she feverish? He checked her forehead and neck with the back of his palm. It was he who decided that the cure for this was to rest a while somewhere. She too thought it a good idea. And that's how, it so seems, they checked into a nearby lodge.
She lay on the white sheets. He sat beside her, caressing her palm. They could see themselves in the mirror just opposite. Two poor souls. People with little time left for love. People too shy to love. Who were too afraid to love. And yet, without the courage to abandon love. She could not take her eyes off his hands. Light yellow coloured hands which looked as if they had never even once touched dirt. The nails weren't smudged, like those on the hands she had seen before. They didn't have the yellowish cigarette-scar. The palms weren't rough. She looked at her own hands. They were rough, from washing dishes and clothes. The dirt-lined nails had dark borders. What were his wife's nails like? Like hers? He was then thinking of her former husband. Who had given up whom? He, her, or she, him? Wasn't he handsome? Didn't he know how to kiss and cuddle her properly? Who knows women's ways? Some don't like to be kissed. Some can never have enough of it.
He ran his fingers gently through her cheeks. She clasped his hands firmly.
"The yellow, is it gone?”
His tone faltered. "No...”
She laughed.
"And you?”
"I still have the fever, right? My eyes are red in one corner, black in the other. Still the same old grey."
He too laughed. Well, one knows too well what all may happen when a man and woman have a room to themselves and begin to laugh together. They could well laugh until they cried. Laughing is a kind of magic. When she laughed he felt she was really good-looking; and when he laughed she thought he was really good-looking. He felt like kissing her; she felt like kissing him. Needless to say more, these two patients with communicable diseases, these two who had met just that morning, they forgot their homes and their haunts, the society and its norms, and to tell the truth, mated, made love. Waking up later, he kissed her wistfully, and she took it the best she could.
When they checked out, the OP at the medical college had closed. The OP of the stars had opened above. Reaching home, she became worse.
"What's wrong, Mother? Are you feeling too sick?" Seeing her lying on the bed, terribly weak, her arm pressed on her forehead, her younger child asked, distressed.
"Nothing, son," she said halting. "Everything looks a bit yellow -- that's all."
That night she became seriously ill. The children were scared. They woke up the neighbours who got her to the hospital at once. Her illness was confirmed to be jaundice. They treated her for almost two weeks. In the daze induced by the medicines and the sick diet, she saw him again and again. How funny, she saw him all yellow, even in stupor. Yellow eyes, yellow hair, yellow ears, yellow lips...
It was nearly a week or so later. The illness cured, she was cleaning up the room, and then she saw him once more, in a scrap of newspaper lying among the plants. Below some writing that mentioned that another teacher had died of jaundice or something like that, all yellow, yellow, yellow...
*Reprinted from Arshilata: Women's Fiction from India and Bangladesh (ed. Niaz Zaman), and originally published in Malayalam as 'Mohamannjha', anthologized in the author's collection Mohamannjha (2004).
** There is a popular saying in Malayalam which expresses the plight to someone confronted with the same danger he/she was trying to escape in the very place he/she sought refuge, in which "Pandalam," which refers to a small town in south Kerala, appears. It goes thus: "Run, did I, afar from troops, away to Pandalam/But there, alas, I found the troops, all set with torches well-lit."

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