This was the first story that came to mind when I decided to do a post on miscellaneous authors for the letter X, authors whose names may have been forgotten but whose stories leave an impact on the mind. I read this story while in Engineering college, in a random Tamil magazine that a roommate had left in our dorm, and it stayed with me ever since. Although Tamil was my second language, I have not read much literature in Tamil as I would have liked, and I am not proud of the fact that I have just one Tamil book in my library – the collected poetry of Subramaniya Bharati, a book so dear to me that it would be one of my desert island top three books. But to come back to the story.
The story is about an old couple who have been happily married for over fifty years. He is a retired schoolteacher who spends his time reading the ancient scriptures and writing philosophical commentaries on them and she is a contented housewife. Their children having settled abroad with their own families, the old couple live peacefully in their ancestral village. The tranquility of their life is disturbed when the old man gets chest pains one morning and the doctors take tests, suspecting something serious. The distraught old lady and goes to the temple to have a blessing said for him. There she meets a friend who tells her about a vow of distributing a hundred thousand pieces of fresh turmeric. Turmeric being one of the auspicious symbols of a married woman, the donation would give her the good karma to continue applying turmeric, or in other words, would save her husband’s life. The old lady immediately makes the vow and returns home.
Note 1: This is a pretty dated story, set in times when women used turmeric on their faces as part of a cleanup routine. I have heard of this custom but haven’t seen anyone do it. Perhaps it will return as a fashion, similar to how Turmeric latte has made a comeback.
But when she tells her husband about the vow, the old man refuses gently but firmly to spend the money for it. He points out that they would have to take help from their children, which he never did on principle. He asks her to remain calm and let things take their own course.
The next day, the old lady goes to the hospital to collect the test results. She meets a young woman from the village whose husband met with an accident, and was now out of danger. She tells the old lady that she had gone for a bath in the river, forgetting to take turmeric with her, and worried if it were some kind of omen. The old lady had casually given her a small piece of turmeric which made the young woman feel as though she had received a hundred thousand pieces of it, and she had felt reassured that her husband would be saved. The old lady is struck by the phrase ‘a hundred thousand pieces of turmeric’ and goes on to collect her husband’s reports which turn out to be normal.
Note 2: Once again, this is a dated story in the way people were portrayed as schmaltzy and superstitious, attaching all sorts of meanings to random things.
When the old lady tells him about the incident, the old man merely smiles and gently tells her that her impulsive reaction to make the vow was all about her desire to hold on to her life partner of fifty years. For real peace of mind, one had to let go and detach even as one lived in the world, he tells her and turns back to his books with a smile, quoting from a Tamil saint, ‘Let go of all desires, even the desire for the Lord.’ Filled with peace, the old lady gazes affectionately at him.
It was that scene of the story which stayed with me. In one and a half pages, the writer portrayed the dimensions of the fifty-year marriage of an old couple that was serene, happy and free of clinging attachment. This couple reminded me of Philemon and Baucis in Ovid’s fable, who wisely chose dying together after a long and happy life together as their blessing from the Gods Jupiter and Mercury. It was such a pleasure to recollect this story which the portrays tranquility achieved through an attitude of simultaneous attachment and detachment that makes it so blissful to live in the world, and yet not be of it.