Prakash Rao pressed the doorbell. The director opened the door himself. “Oh, you’ve arrived! Good. Good. Come in,” he said.
“She is my uncle’s daughter, Sujatha. He is Mr Chander, the stage actor I told you about.”
“Come in. Let’s get comfortable first.”
Once they had settled in the living room, Siddhartha told Prakash Rao, “All right. Tell me.”
Prakash Rao pointed to Chander and said, “I told you about this gentleman here.”
Siddhartha looked at Chander. “Um, what is he doing these days?”
“Well, he has a diploma in acting from the drama institute in Delhi. Though he has yet to act in films, he has performed in many plays. He conducts drama classes here in Madras.”
“Which one? SSP’s?”
Chander wanted to protest: “No, SSP has merely been nominated as the school’s chairperson by the government. She doesn’t own or run the school.” But nobody was interested in listening to these nuances, nor did they understand them. “Yes,” he replied succinctly.
“I see. And this lady?”
Prakash Rao said, “My uncle’s daughter. She works with Mr Chander.”
“What kind of work?”
“I work in the same drama school. As an instructor, like Mr Chander.”
“So, you also have a diploma in acting?’
Siddhartha looked intently at Sujatha for a minute. Then he asked her, “Aren’t you Miss Sujatha Ananda Rao?”
Eyes widening in surprise, Sujatha replied, “Yes.’
“You acted in the NSD production of Mrichchhakatika, didn’t you?”
“Yes . . .”
“You played Vasantasena, right?”
“My God! Did you know that I’ve been looking for you everywhere since then?”
“Looking for me?”
“Yes! That year I was in Delhi for the National Awards function. I had to return to Hyderabad the very next day, after your play at NSD. By the time I made inquiries at your institute, your batch had already left.”
“That was our last month in Delhi. The diploma course is only for a year.”
“When I asked for the girl who played the lead in Mrichchhakatika, they said they had produced this play seven or eight times with as many Vasantasenas. I got your name only after I checked with several other girls. Tell me, would you have any objection to acting in films?”
Sujatha appeared bashful. Prakash Rao said, “We came here for Mr Chander. In fact, Sujatha wasn’t even supposed to come along with us.”
“Well, it’s great that she has come! I’ve been looking everywhere for her for two years now. Miss Ananda Rao, the film I have in mind is not aimed at the box office. It is based on Sarat Chandra’s Chandranath. The moment I saw you, I knew that you would be perfect for the role of Sarayu, and I’ve been looking for you ever since.”
“Chander also performed in Mrichchhakatika. He was Charudatta.”
“Oh, of course. Of course I remember. But right now, I’m talking about Chandranath.”
“Her parents will never agree to let her act in films,” said Prakash Rao.
“Do they live here?’
“No. In their home town.”
“Where is Miss Ananda Rao staying, then? At your place?”
“No, no. She lives in a hostel for women.”
“If her parents let her live in a hostel and mix with loafers who say they want to learn acting, they won’t object to her being in films. Don’t get me wrong, Miss Ananda Rao. An opportunity like this comes only once in a lifetime. I give you my word. This film will take only three months to complete; at the most, four. Did you know, Prakash, the financier for this film is Nandalal Baliga of Jayashree Talkies? He is one of the biggest parties in India today. Once the film is done, immediate release, that’s it. Four months is all it would take. After that, Miss Ananda Rao, you’ll be free to go back to cinema or drama or a kitchen nook, wherever you’d like to go.”
Prakash Rao was embarrassed. Chander was agitated. Sujatha didn’t seem to like Siddhartha’s pitch very much, and he had sensed it.
Siddhartha said, “I don’t want you to say yes or no right now. Think it over for a couple of days. Let me put it this way. You must be quite keen to act; why else would you go to Delhi and get yourself a diploma and all that? I am giving you the chance to play the lead right away. No one else would cast a fresh, unknown girl as the heroine on a mere hunch like this. But I have faith in you. It’ll be all right if you let me know in a couple of days.”
All of them fell silent as though the discussion was over for the evening. Prakash Rao was the first to say, “Okay, I’ll come and see you tomorrow.” He stood up to leave, followed by Chander and Sujatha. Sujatha gave him a pointed look, which prompted Prakash Rao to speak again. “Our visit was only for Mr Chander,” he said.
Siddhartha said, “Let’s see. There is only one hero for this subject. Chalam is going to do Chandranath. The other roles won’t suit Mr Chander. Never mind about this film. I’ll certainly use him in my next.”
They climbed down the stairs and walked to the car. Sujatha asked, “Shall we drive to the beach first before going back home?”
Prakash didn’t reply immediately. Then he said, “All right.”
At ten o’clock in the night, they found the beach deserted with only its row of sodium lamps lit. There was a slight chill in the air. But for the occasional rumble in the distance, the sea mostly held its peace. Near the shoreline, however, the breakers rose and collapsed noisily on the wet sand, meeting oblivion again and again.
“I suggest you look up this man as often as you can,” Prakash Rao told Chander.
Chander didn’t even smile. The list of people he had to look up often was already very long.
Sujatha asked him, “What do you think?”
“Let’s see when he makes his next film,” Chander replied.
“No, I didn’t mean that. I meant his offer to me!”
“His offer to you? Why, take it up if you want to.”
“Well, what does Chander think?” asked Prakash Rao.
“Nothing,” said Sujatha. “Shall we go back?”
When the car was near the Mount Road roundabout, Prakash Rao said, “Which way?”
“Go to the Flower Bazaar Police Station,” said Sujatha.
As the car approached Flower Bazaar, Sujatha said, “Drop us here. I’ll give you a ring tomorrow.”
“I thought I’d drop you at your hostel,” said Prakash Rao.
“It’s all right, I’ll manage. If I can’t, I’ll spend the night at Chander’s place. He lives with his mother and sisters.”
Prakash left without argument. Chander was walking at a pace too brisk for a stroll. Sujatha half ran to catch up with him and suggested, “Come, let’s eat something in Buhari’s.”
“I don’t have money for Buhari’s and all,” said Chander.
“But I do. Please, let’s go.” Sujatha led the way. As she passed the restaurant’s entrance, its bright neon lights revealed that her sari had begun to tear. Most of her saris were in a similar condition. It had probably been a long time since she last bought herself new clothes. From her salary of two hundred rupees, she paid a hundred and ten as hostel charges, sent forty rupees home, bought two large boxes of Surf detergent, and with the money left over she treated Chander whenever they went to a restaurant. Occasionally, she asked him to iron her sari; he did it once or twice a month at the most.
Chander felt all right for about five minutes. Then his head began to throb.
Sujatha told the waiter, “Biscuit, samosa and tea.” Then she asked Chander, “Why are you angry with me?”
“Why are you pulling such a long face, then?”
“What can I do? Maybe some faces look like this, always.”
“I was quite hopeful.’
“Sure, it’s turned out well enough. Siddhartha has taken a great liking to you.’
“But I don’t like his offer at all.”
“Don’t say that. In just three months, you could become a big star.”
“I don’t have any great desire to become a big star.”
Just then the waiter brought tea and biscuits in a big tray, rattling the cups and saucers noisily. Chander didn’t eat anything; Sujatha couldn’t. They drank the tea half- heartedly. Sujatha left a ten-paisa tip and followed Chander out.
Excerpted with permission from the story "Free at Last", Still Bleeding from the Wound, Ashokamitran, translated from the Tamil by N Kalyan Raman, Penguin Books India.
Ashokamitran, born in 1931 in Secunderabad, is one of the most distinguished contemporary Indian writers. In a prolific career that began in 1955, he has written over 250 short stories along with two dozen novels and novellas, in addition to a steady output of columns, essays and book reviews, earning him a central place in post-Independence Tamil literature. His work has been translated into many Indian and European languages. Five major novels as well as four collections of short fiction from his oeuvre are available in English translation. His years of rich and diverse contribution to Tamil literature have brought him many honours, including the Sahitya Akademi Award (1996). Ashokamitran lives and works in Chennai.
Kalyan Raman has published seven books of Tamil fiction in translation, including four of Ashokamitran’s. His translation of contemporary Tamil poems has been published in several notable anthologies. He lives and works in Chennai.