The Proofreader’s Wife

– Short story  .

It is many years since she developed a dislike for printed papers.  Papers disgusted her more than the cockroaches that hide and run about on bathroom walls.  Some times she would tear papers to pieces until she overcame the rage they created in her.  Not even once do papers express their opposition.  Unlike cockroaches that flee in fear and snap their antennae, papers never attempt to escape.

But for the gentle sound which papers give out while tearing, they never express their protest.  She could not tolerate even that.  So she soaked papers in water for a long time.  As for her, it is the worst punishment given to the papers.  While cooking, if papers were put in an iron bucket with water, in the evening they would have dissolved particle by particle floating and then would have blended with water.

Where do the printed sentences go while papers dissolve in water?  Do those words, like salt, dissolve in water to become invisible?  She would stare at the bucket of water.  It would be surprising tom think sometimes.  What would be the relationship between papers ane words?  Do papers give acceptance to those sentences written on them or what?

Does any space exist between the words printed and the paper?  As thoughts began like this, she becomes furious with herself.  Why should I develop useless thoughts like this? She would think.

Her house is filled with printed papers.  Until she married Mandiramurthy at the age of seventeen and came to Chennai, she had never seen anything but school text books.  That too her village never had a Girls high school and she stopped with fifth standard.

For nearly six to seven years she worked pasting matchboxes and shelling rubber seeds.  The match factory had radio.  She liked the cinema songs broadcast in it.  In those days she very much desired to buy her own radio by subscribing to a chit.  But whenever she took money from the chit, some expense or the other came by.  Hence, during her marriage, she insisted on buying a radio and got one for herself.  But Mandiramurthy disliked listening to the radio and so it always remained switched off.

When they came to Chennai after marriage, she feared to look at Mandiramurthy.  He was then working for the Royal Press.  His bag always had a pencil and an eraser.  Sometimes she had seen him keeping a red ink pen too.

She never knew anything about proofreading.  Sometimes in the night she carefully observed how Mandiramurthy lied down on the floor resting on a pillow and in the papers circled with a pencil.  It seemed that he was talking to himself.  At times his loud laugh could be heard.  Till the wee hour he would proofread.  Then he got up, opening the back door, would pass urine and then would come inside and lie down.

When his fingers crawled on her body, thoughts about correcting mistakes unnecessarily came to her mind.  He never had big interest in sex.  He indulged in it as though it was a customary practice.  When his body sweated, he turned his face and slept, which irritated her.  Even in his sleep she had seen his fingers move and his face stiffen.

Mandiramurthy never talks with anyone.  He starts correcting mistakes at six o’ clock in the morning.  When he leaves home after correcting the papers, proofread copies and lunch box were there in his yellow bag.  His office was at the Royapettah area.  He neither had friends nor any known persons.  He never goes pout.  He had only one habit, of munching betel leaves.  He had kept a small leather bag for that.  From that bag, once in ten minutes he put two betel leaves into his mouth.

Once he took her to the press for a function.  There was a very big machine where paper had been rolled like a cylinder and from that paper cylinder paper flowed down continuously like onion peels coming one after the other.  She watched this in perplexity.  That paper cylinder would be completely printed and he should only correct the mistakes, isn’t it?  When she asked her husband about that he told not to blabber silly things.  Then he took her to the binding section to go around and watch.

Four or five women of her age were arranging papers in an order and pasting them.  “How much salary will they get?” she asked.  Mandiramurthy did not answer.  “Those things are not right for us to ask” he said.  When she went to the toilet which was at the end of the press, papers were found scattered on the floor and everyone stamped on it as they went by.

On the Southern side, she found an iron door kept opened.  As she peeped inside she saw torn and useless papers filling the whole room.  She was frightened.  Like water swelling from a water-spring do these papers swell and flow?  Where will these papers reach finally?  Even after she came out of the toilet she could not free herself from these thoughts.

She could not understand why her husband alone corrected the mistakes.  One day without the knowledge of Mandiramurthy she took and saw the papers corrected and kept by him.  Almost line by line mistakes were identified by circling or they were scored off.  When she saw the paper it seemed to her like children’s game.  At times Mandiramurthy seemed the most brilliant of all the writers.  Probably she had not understood him properly, she thought.  With fear she kept the paper in the same place and served him food.

How do Mandiramurthy’s eyes locate even the smallest mistakes?  Does he have this quality with papers or does he look into her also intrinsically?  In those early days after her marriage in the evening she used to come and sit on the doorway and watch the street.  Returning from his work, Mandiramurthy’s face would turn harsh on seeing her sitting like that.  She noticed this.  On reaching the house, he would take out those papers which were to be corrected.  Nobody knows when he had the coffee or snacks which she gave him.  Why he crippled himself up in these writings kept confusing her.

Mandiramurthy never cared even about food.  Sometimes he wore even a damp dhoti and went out.  At times with hesitation she would ask him about changing his job but he stared and asked what problem was there in this work, she could not explain him.

Not even a single day had gone without Mandiramurthy going to the press.  Even on days when she became sick he would prepare gruel, give it to her and leave for the press.  She would lie down on the mattress biting her teeth.  Why did she marry someone like this?  A person who bothers much about the change in a single letter, why does he forget to care for me?  So furious she became.

Mandiramurthy never thinks about that.  Rarely, he would say that they can go for a movie.  During these moments she would change he sari quickly and come out.  While standing outside the theatre, his eyes would scrutinize the words on the posters, and in the peanut folded papers.  He would even murmur the mistakes, which she was able to hear.

In the theatre she had never seen him laugh.  For ever his face remained frozen with endless thoughts.  After the cinema was over the next moment he would be very nervous to return home.  She could never understand why on the night after the movie he never shared the bed with her.

It is more than fifteen years since they got married.  Till now they had no children.  She got used to remain all alone in the house.  Rarely does she go out, taking a lemon in hand, to have the darshan of Lord Dakshinamurthy.  During those moments she would even forget what to pray to the Lord.  Sometimes she would stand in front of the sanctum sanctorum and gaze at the Lord.  On days when she became furious she prayed to the God that all the printed papers be wiped out from this world for ever.  Her anger grew little by little on pencils, on erasers, and the list kept lengthening.

Two years ago, during day time, she did not know what to do and started tearing papers one by one at home.  Mandiramurthy who came home in the evening saw papers scattered in the room and in harsh tone said “Thangamma . . .  If you like to tear papers go to the dust bin.  Lots can be found there.  Do not repeat this again.”  On saying so, he sat at his table and started proofreading the papers he had bought in the bag.  She cried loudly.  That sound never seemed to have been heard by him as he arranged the corrected papers separately.  That night she never slept.  She felt as if words started withering down from papers and got stuck on her hands, legs and body.

Later Mandiramurthy took her to a doctor.  She told that she was scared.  The doctor gave her sleeping pills for a week.  Even through sleep that pressed her eyes she could see him like a shadow correcting mistakes.  Unable to even cry, she would be fast asleep.

A situation arose, when for a year, in order to cure her, every week, she had to be taken to the Government hospital.  She silently walked on the streets.  Till they came to the hospital he never spoke anything.  In the outpatients section she was made to sit and he would cast an empty look at the vaagai tree.

The moment they entered the house with white, yellow coloured pills and all he would start for the press.  Some names were printed even on the tablets.  She would keenly watch whether those names were corrected ones or not.  When the tablets dissolve in the stomach these names would also dissolve within her, wouldn’t they? Such thoughts arose.  She closed her eyes and swallowed the tablets.

Papers slowly raised hatred and anger in her.  Like desiring to destroy all printed letters in this world, she started feeling frenzy.  For this she avoided talking with him.  Sometimes when he asked for water she remained looking at him as though she had never heard of that word.  He would get up, drink water, come and sit down.

During nights, she would remain sitting without sleep, and even if he noticed this he never stopped his work.  One day she stood behind him and started looking at his work.  Like a fiery animal hunting its prey he was striking, correcting and changing the words with the pencil in his hand.

She asked him furiously.  “What is there in these papers?”  Without turning back he said, “I don’t know”.  When she keenly saw the words on the paper, they looked as though they were broken, distanced, dancing all alone.  Suddenly she hugged him and started to cry.  The pencil by mistake, dropped from his hand and its point broke.  He pushed her hands away, picked up the pencil that was lying down and carefully started sharpening it.  In front of him a thousand page novel was waiting to be proofread.  Thangammal’s cry dissolved and started flowing throughout the house.

Translated from tamil. by. Chitra

எனது பிழைதிருத்துபவனின் மனைவி சிறுகதை Muse India (Issue 30, Mar-Apr 2010) இதழில் வெளியானது