CHASTITY BELT: In this short story, a Goan shippie explores various options to ensure his better half remains faithful and finds that keeping her pregnant may be the right solution
In a tongue in cheek short story, the Sahitiya Kala Academy winning author talks of how a shippie married to a very pretty girl deals with his anxiety over his wife in her loneliness turning to her neighbours or friends
By Damodar Mouze
MICHAEL opened his suitcase. The Customs Officer rummaged through his baggage. Digging out a calculator, he tossed it into his drawer. One of the two perfume sprays followed the calculator.
Michael had splurged on a beautiful designer watch for Rosy and, during the voyage he had often dreamt of it on her delicate wrist. When the officer laid his greedy hands on the watch, Michael unable to contain his dismay, pleaded, “Sahib! Mera Bibi ke liye laya…”The officer brutally retorted, “Then why did you bring just one? Don’t you think that my wife wants one too!”
Fearing that argument against such arrogance would only mean the slapping of a heavy duty, Michael kept his mouth shut. Fortunately the dinner set was ignored. Silently praying for the stereo to get through, he saw the avaricious official grabbing the orange sari – the best of the three he had bought for Rosy. Clamping his jaws, Michael managed to keep himself in check.
Despite all this, he still had to fork out a hefty duty. Damn these Customs bastards, Michael thought in a cold fury as he walked out of the enclosure. All his shipmates who had been cleared, had flocked round the company agent who had come with their payroll. Michael walked out of the docks with his pockets bulging with his accumulated wages of the nine-month voyage.
Many of the shippies were Malayalees and they would be staying at the Seamen’s Club. Goans preferred to avoid the place because of the petty thieving and drunken brawls there.
Michael shared a cab with Peter heading towards Dhobi Talao where most Goan kudds – village clubs – were located. When the cab halted at a traffic signal, Michael’s eyes fell on a Family Planning hoarding depicting the ideal family of four – Hum Do Hamare Do. The father’s face more or less resembled Michael’s, but the mother’s face was nowhere near Rosy’s…
Rosy. It was over nine months since he’d last seen her. He suddenly recalled that the company agent had given him Rosy’s letter along with the wages. He thrust his hands into his pocket and drew it out.
Their son was all of two months old, she wrote and not baptised. They were all waiting for Michael. All? What did Rosy mean by all? Mother? Sisters? Friends and neighbours? It didn’t matter to him. It was Rosy who was waiting. The last time too when their first child was born, she had similarly waited two months to christen the girl, he reflected. Despite everybody’s disapproval of the delay, Rosy had waited for Michael a full two months. When Michael came, they had a solemn Baptism ceremony at the Church followed by a Litany and a grand party at home.
The memory of Rosy’s graceful bearing throughout that long day never failed to light up Michael’s face during the voyage. Now his face brightened again with the thought of Rosy waiting for him for the Christening of the child. Christening? A pretext! Rosy must be longing for him!
Rosy wrote that their son resembled him a lot. He recalled old Salvador’s words, “When a pregnant woman is deeply in love with her husband and thinks of him day and night, the child invariably takes after the father.”
Rosy had definitely been thinking of him at all times – pregnant or otherwise!
“What are you thinking of, man?” Peter intruded into his thoughts.
“Uh?” Michael felt like confiding in someone, but remembered that it was the same Peter who had once ridiculed him. Showering praise on Rosy’s fidelity, Michael had once said that an ideal wife should be like her – especially for a sailor. Peter had guffawed, “ Every seaman feels that his wife is a faithful angel!”
Michael had been very irritated with Peter but realising that argument would lead from one thing to another, he had kept quiet.
An angel Rosy may not be, but there was never any room to question her total loyalty to him. But then there were also wives like Carmina!
Michael’s thoughts went back to his youth. He was at a loose end after failing his SSCE. Michael’s mother wanted him to hunt for a job, while his father wanted him to appear again for the exam. He wanted to do neither. His heart tugged at a third option – he wanted to become a sailor. Not out of any love for ships or the sea – but for the fat salaries. His adolescent eyes would reverentially regard the transparent prosperity of all the village seamen -their slickly pomaded hair, the flashy gold-rimmed Ray-bans, their thick gold chains coruscating through the partly unbuttoned stylish shirts, their fingers weighed down by numerous thick gold rings, wrists brandishing new foreign watches! Towards fulfilling his ambition, Michael cultivated the friendship of Caitu. And, one day finding Caitu in a good mood, Michael had confided his ambition of joining the merchant navy. Caitu, who had a good friend at the recruiting office in Bombay, had patted him on the back and promised that by his next trip, he would have a sea job ready for Michael.
When Caitu went back to sea, Michael continued to be of service to Caitu’s family in order to remain in his good books. Carmina his wife was often requested to remind Caitu of his assurance to Michael in her letters.
He remembered the day he was returning from the village market when Carmina ran into him, “Hi Michael! Going home? C’mon, give me a lift!”
Without waiting for his reply, she’d climbed on to the cross-bar of his bicycle. Carmina had been married for two years and had put on some weight. Michael had to pedal hard.
On the way, she asked, “What are you doing today evening?”
“Nothing.” Michael, after all was idle and had plenty of time on his hands.
“There’s a bag of rice to be brought from Margao. Will you come with me to town?”
As she got down from his bike, she told her mother-in-law, “Mai, I’m taking Michael to bring rice from Margao. The shopkeepers are cheats and the coolies fleece you. Michael will be of help.
Mai agreed. “Choose good old rice Michael,” she advised. The old lady trusted Michael’s common sense.
It was not yet three when they reached Margao and the shops were still closed.
Michael, what movie is showing at Metropole?”
“You haven’t seen a movie recently?”
“No. I don’t go often.” Michael preferred the tiatr, the local Konkani theatre.
“Shall we go for a movie? We’ll go to the market later.”
During the movie, Carmina kept whispering to him, tugging his arm. A couple of times he felt acutely embarrassed when his elbow brushed against her chest.
It was late evening when they reached home.
“The rice was not good. They expect the good quality stuff next week,” Michael lied to Mai and kept their secret between themselves.
Many more movies followed and once, after her mother-in-law fell asleep, Carmina had called him over. She furtively took him in through the window. Ignoring the disparity in their ages, Michael allowed himself to be seduced by the older woman. That was his first experience of love – rather, of sex.
Michael felt a sense of disgust over such memories of Carmina intruding into his communion with Rosy.
Angrily slamming the door of the cab which had stopped beyond Metro Cinema, Michael alighted. The two crossed the road and climbed the stairs to their club. Leaving his bags to be stowed in place by Peter, he descended the steps of the building, walked past some blocks and entered the offices of “Goa Travels’ across the road.
After booking his bus ticket for the next day, he returned to the Club.
“Got your ticket?” asked Peter.
He lay down to sleep – but sleep would not come.
Peter was dressing. Michael, however was not in the mood to go out.
“Coming for a movie, Michael?’
“No. Today I want to see a Hindi picture.
It had been a long time, yes, nine long months since they’d last seen a movie.
Michael abruptly changed his mind, rose and said, “Come on, let’s go.”
They went out into the streets. The hurrying crowds, the broad streets intersecting each other, the skyscrapers, the swanky hotels and posh shopping arcades, brought back to Michael thoughts of Rosy. She hadn’t been to Bombay yet. She was eager to see the big city and Michael felt he should bring her and take her around the city and show off its many attractions to her. On two previous occasions they’d planned for her to come to see him off. But both times before he’d left for his voyage, she was in early pregnancy – not the right time for travel – so the trips had to be put off.
This time I must make a special trip to Bombay for a whole week with Rosy, he decided. The thought of spending eight whole days alone with Rosy thrilled Michael.
He remembered the first six months of their marriage – a period of ecstatic pleasure and happiness. The lost years spent avoiding marriage were made up in more than double measure in the spate of those two months.
Yes, he’d postponed marriage till he was thirty-two, afraid that he’d be saddled with a wife like Carmina.
A sailor’s wife is the subject of mockery and ridicule for the idle and the chauvinistic the world over. Michael needed no further proof for he himself had eaten the pudding!
This bitter truth made him dread marriage. The thought of going abroad and leaving behind his wife was like a nightmare.
He had of course been too raw to have harboured any such forebodings during his liaison with Carmina.
Caitu had kept his propmise and had sent Michael his papers.
Michael remembered the last night that he had spent with Carmina before embarking on his first trip. “Will you miss me Carmina?” he had asked in between their love-making.
“Why? Won’t I get someone else?” She’d responded tartly. Michael had thought that she was joking. But when he returned after his first voyage, he had understood that she’ had already found another paramour. It had dawned on him then that some people could keep love and lust in two different convenient compartments.
Memories of Rosy aroused by the courtship and love scenes of the Hindi movie at the Liberty heightened Michael’s discomfort. Rosy should have been at his side. When he took her to the cinema, he wanted no one else with them. Unbidden thoughts of Carmina came back… It was when Caitu and Carmina had taken him for a movie. Caitu had put his arm round her shoulder, tickling and petting her. Pretending to ignore them, he had tried to concentrate on the screen. But he had been highly aroused – probably even more than Caitu.
The next day, Michael boarded the Goa-bound bus. At the Panvel octroi-naka, the bus was stopped and the patently foreign suitcase of Michael was brought down for checking and promptly replaced after the mandatory hundred-rupee note changed hands.
His sleep was disturbed three times in the night – all three times he had seen Rosy in his dreams.
Early morning, as the bus left Sawantwadi, a fellow passenger started gathering his baggage.
“Getting down at Assonora?” Michael asked.
“No”, the elderly man smiled in embarrassment and explained, “I know it’s childish. Every year I come home from Bombay. Once the bus crosses Sawantwadi, I get the feeling that I’m close to home and start collecting my luggage!” Pausing, he added, “And then, I get impatient because we just don’t seem to reach!”
Michael agreed wholeheartedly because he too often felt the same way. The old man continued, “Normally we find the journey from Margao to Bicholim long and tedious, but when coming from Bombay, we cross the Maharashtra border and get the feeling that we are about to reach Margao.”
Michael nodded, but by now he had lost interest in the conversation. Anxiety to reach home had made him restive since… since when? Since the ship had dropped anchor outside Bombay harbour and had to wait for three days to get a berth and come alongside. Those three days never seemed to end. Then, the unloading, the Customs clearance, the ride to the club, the boarding of the bus, and now at last in Goa – his home a mere fingertip away.
At eight in the morning, when the bus stopped at Panjim to drop off some passengers, Michael, impatient at what seemed an undue delay, shouted at the conductor, “Why are you waiting? We are already late.”
The conductor pacified him, “Arre baba, you’re lucky. Normally we reach Panjim only at nine and sometimes even at ten.”
On reaching Margao, he grabbed the first available taxi and hurried home.
Rosy must have been nursing the child. She rushed out with the baby still on her breast when she heard Michael. A reunion after a nine-month separation! Michael embraced her tightly.
“Arre, arre! Don’t squash Baba! Look at him at least!”
The baby! He looks just like me! Remembering old Salvador’s words, Michael hugged Rosy yet again. Unmindful of Mai, he whispered in Rosy’s ear. “You were thinking of me day and night, no? That’s why he look so much like me!”
He then hugged his mother.
Michael did not go out for the next four days. He and Rosy sat together, ate together and slept together. There was so much to share…
It had been the same when they were first married. Three months after their marriage, Michael was not at all concerned with going back to the sea. Each time he received a call, he would send a medical certificate.
Even Rosy had once asked Michael, “When will you go?”
“You want me to go?”
“It’s not that. But people are talking. Even Mai keeps asking me. She even asked you the other day.
“Let them talk. Why does it bother you?” Michael had asked angrily.
“You don’t understand Michael. People are saying that you are still infatuated with your wife!”
Infatuated he certainly was – totally smitten! And why not? A beautiful face complemented her perfect figure – which was what prompted him to marry her. The thought of leaving this lovely young woman and going to sea…what if she turned into another Carmina?
At one time Michael had justified to himself Carmina’s infidelity. The blame lay with husbands who left their young wives home starved of love. How long was a woman expected to deny her body?
But now he no longer thought along those lines. He was obsessed with this problem. Rosy could not be taken on the ship with him. Keeping her back home would attract the lascivious glances of the village louts. Mai was getting older by the day. Rosy certainly was blameless but one could be overcome by temptation. He had even considered giving up his sea job but the good news had come suddenly – Rosy was pregnant.
Asking his mother to take good care of Rosy, and free of marital problems, Michael had buoyantly resumed his duties.
At that first parting, Rosy had asked him, “Michael won’t you be there when our son is born?”
Hugging her tightly, he had said, “You know that the trip is of nine months. I assure you that I won’t wait a day longer.
Rosy controlling her disappointment, had said, “But you know that I’ll wait to baptise the child. This is my second month. When you return, Baba will be two months old but I’ll wait.
She had indeed waited. Only, that first time, it was a daughter.
After that voyage, it was a re-enactment of the first episode. After their reunion, the days in the company of Rosy just flew. Weeks merged into months. Calls were answered by medical certificates. People once again began talking. Mother fretted about the ignored call letters. And once again – the good news!
“Let’s hope that it’s a boy this time.” Rosy had whispered in his ears.
“We’ll pray for a son.” Michael had whispered back.
Seven months later, when his ship was in Genoa, he had got the news. Michael had danced on hearing the news that he had a son. He had felt an intense longing to return home. He had even toyed with the idea of going back on medical grounds. But since it was only two months, and it might have blotted his career record, he had given up the idea.
And now at last he was home. Rosy, Rosy, Rosy!
The days just flew past.
Rosy, I’d better give up sea life. I think I’ll resign,” said Michael one evening.
“Are you crazy Michael? What sort of a job will you get here?” Rosy had asked bluntly.
That was true. But it was equally true that even after two children, Rosy was still as slender as a maiden and as beautiful as ever. Her body was still smooth and tender with no hint of flab anywhere. Even now she aroused him as sensually as on their wedding night. She was not like other women who aged visibly after the first pregnancy. Some became thin and haggard, while others bloated up like pumpkins. They couldn’t even attract a squint-eyed glance! No doubt it saved their husbands worries about their infidelity!
But a young woman, slim and youthful like Rosy. What could one do? There was no solution in sight.
While in bed, Rosy told Michael, “We’re lucky to have a boy and a girl. Should we put a stop?”
‘Uh! Why?” Michael was suddenly attentive.
“Two is enough. A small family is good in all respects. And more deliveries will ruin my figure…”
Michael cut her short…
The computer in his brain whirred and out popped the answer …the solution he was frantically looking for.
It didn’t matter if the figure was ruined. No lascivious eye would follow her. During pregnancy and a few months thereafter, no covetous glance follows a woman and this period is most safe to go on a voyage and return in time – to begin the safety measures all over again.
“No, Rosy.” Michael pronounced decisively, “Don’t worry about the children. That’s my responsibility.”
And two months later, he once again embarked on another ship – free of worries.
Translated from the Konkani original by Xavier Cota