When Parvathi stepped into my life, we were both sixteen. Her fair chubby face, large bright eyes, and long thick hair intoxicated me. I was fed up with other girls whispering about men in voices tremulous with yearning. Often, it used to surprise me that I felt none of the attraction towards the opposite sex, natural among girls of my age.

On the other hand, I had to struggle to bring under control the bubbling excitement at my secret urge to touch Parvathi’s cheeks with my forefinger, press my lips to her eyes, or to caress her shiny hair. The surging flame in Parvathi’s eyes disturbed me. A gloomy voice within me kept murmuring that many an eyyampatta would be consigned to that flame.

That summer vacation, while I was awaiting my exam results, the news that Parvathi’s marriage was fixed came as a terrible shock. It was unbearable even to think of witnessing the moment when Ramanathan would enter Parvathi’s life in the presence of the overflowing nirapara and the lighted nilavilakku.

Despite her insistence, I refused to attend the wedding. On the seventh day after the wedding, wrapped in a crimson silk sari and her hair in two plaits on her bosom, Parvathi came looking for me like a flame of fire, with Ramanathan in tow. When they came in, I was lying face down on the bed, trying in vain to impart some colour to the emptiness that had taken hold of me. Though I received them with as much feigned warmth as possible, I was often lost in the emptiness that shrouded me.

When I had to join a college rather far away for my degree course, my relationship with Parvathi remained suspended on the flimsy threads of letters exchanged occasionally. Parvathi used to complain that all my letters carried a shadow of desolation, perhaps mirroring my anxiety that any moment the relationship might break up. Once, when a letter – disfigured by overwriting, corrections and tears – from Parvathi came in search of me, I rushed home in panic. Realising that her tear- swollen face and tremulous mouth were stirring a strange yearning within me, I was scared to even look at her.

However, she was absorbed in the unravelling of a tragic tale.

When the husband of Ramanathan’s distant cousin agreed to teach her driving, Parvathi had felt elated that a long-cherished dream of hers was coming true. Ramanathan too had no objection against the balding, middle-aged Unniyettan who was generally regarded as a decent fellow by their relatives.

Initially, Ramanathan used to keep them company. Eventually, perhaps beginning to get bored, he started sending Parvathi alone with Unniyettan, and lost himself in the office files in the evenings. Apparently, Parvathi was shocked out of her wits when one day, as she was driving, hands clutching the steering wheel, Unniyettan suddenly kissed her on one of her slender arms, on which a faint blue down lay swooning.

Though shaken, I refused to accept what she said. I could hardly make sense of why I too, unaccountably, felt slightly relieved that my anxiety about her was not baseless after all. I lost the thread of Parvathi’s story and did not realise when the car managed to reach some side street.

When darkness flew low on its spread wings in the isolation of the hill slope, they had passed through a narrow road suffused with a pristine light and stepped into some freshly minted world. When I realised that there was not even a shadow of remorse in Parvathi’s voice, my body quivered like a bunch of flowers, even as I tried to suppress a sob.

It was then that she embarked on a comparative analysis of Ramanathan and Unniyettan. Parvathi said that Ramanathan’s fingers were always cold. She confessed that Ramanathan always sought his satisfaction without waking her, while she slept dead to the world.

Because I knew nothing about men, I promptly believed everything she said. In the middle of it all, I got a chance to ask her what was troubling her. It seemed that Ramanathan had found out about her double game, and was forcing her to keep a distance from Unniyettan.

But the passionate letters of deep yearning that she had sent to Unniyettan’s workplace had begun to haunt her. It was when she confessed about the looming threat that the letters might be used against her, and that the possibility was driving her to contemplate suicide, that I embraced her for the first time. I tried to say something, but my throat constricted and I lapsed into silence.

Shaking free of my embrace, she quickly beseeched me to help her retrieve her letters at the earliest. Perhaps it was the softness of her body and its scent invading my senses that made me agree.

That is how I went to meet Unniyettan. As soon as I entered his office, a set of eyes swirled around me. They were clouded over with the smoke of suspicion. Mustering all the courage I could, I knocked on his cabin door. When permission to enter boomed from the other side, I walked in.

The first thing I noticed was his eyes. I was taken aback to see a blaze in them – the same flame I had seen in Parvathi’s eyes. I warned myself that he should be dealt with carefully. Nevertheless, the story he told me was entirely different. According to him, it was Parvathi who had lured him into a spider’s web of temptation, even as she was learning to drive. Not knowing what the truth was, I was vexed. Whatever it was, I insisted that the letters be returned.

Without replying, he gazed deep into my eyes, and rather unreasonably, I grew disoriented. When he began to size me up from head to toe, his curiosity made me feel discomfited that I was a mere woman. Mortified by the trace of tears that had suddenly sprung into my voice, I mulishly insisted on retrieving the letters.

Pressing his little finger into the dimple on my chin, and with an intriguing smile, he promised to hand over the letters if I would go with him to his quarters where they were kept safely. I smelled danger somewhere. Saying that I was hard-pressed for time at the moment and assuring him that I would certainly come another day to retrieve the letters, I walked out on legs that had turned wobbly.

I said nothing to Parvathi about my failed attempt. To forget all that, I tried to throw myself into my studies. However much I tried, a bewilderment that I could not let go of robbed me of my sleep. So, it was like a godsend when my father’s summons arrived, ordering me to return home immediately. Not even in my dreams had I guessed that it was to meet a prospective suitor. However, when I saw the slim, fair-skinned young man with eyes full of kindness and chiselled red lips, I felt that I might be able to share my concerns with him.

On the first and subsequent nights of my marriage, I realised that Parvathi had taken me for a royal ride. By then, I had become sure that no man could fulfil his desire without leaving a scratch on a woman’s sleep. That is how the first black speck appeared in my mind.

Because of the demands of marital life, followed by the languor of pregnancy and the responsibilities that motherhood entailed, life hardly gave me a chance to find out what was happening to Parvathi. Still, before long, I paid her a visit. More beautiful than ever, she astonished me.

Having forgotten all that had happened earlier, she was keen to tell me a new tale. I was disappointed that she did not even bother to ask me about my baby. I was only a listener. I reminded myself that all these years I had been nothing more than a mere willing ear. That she had never tried to know anything about me was a realisation that lodged itself like a thorn inside me.

But Parvathi was absorbed in the throes of rendering her latest tale.

A distant cousin – a young man, barely over twenty – had apparently become a daily visitor at her house, his visits coinciding with the time when she would return after dropping off her daughter at school. Eventually, the young man became generous, singing hymns to her beauty. Once, he even embraced her from behind and kissed her.

When Parvathi continued telling the story with a self-congratulatory smile on her lips, my mind suddenly detached itself. Muttering some excuse, I stood up slowly. Perhaps seeing my pallor, she reached for me, as if she had freshly woken from a dream. But by then, I had stepped outside.

And from my heart, Parvathi was stepping out forever.

Baby Doll

Excerpted with permission from Baby Doll: Short Stories, Gracy, Translated from the Malayalam by Fathima EV, Harper Perennial.