Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

"Silent Woman" by Jose Varghese A Short Story

"Silent Woman"  by Jose Varghese (2011)

Short Stories of the Indian Subcontinent
A Reading Life Project
"Silent Woman" 
a short story by
Jose Varghese, PhD

"It was Sister Miriam who first told me in her hushed voice about the
hidden pleasures of reading a book, and also about the need to be silent—
“When you contain so many books inside you, your connection with
the world is on an altogether different trajectory. The mundane affairs of
life bore you as much as your bookish thoughts bore those who don’t get
any of it. That is why you should learn to be silent, and to carry on an
eternal, imaginary conversation with interesting people from those books."

I am very please to be able to publish a short story by Jose Varghese.   This brilliant story has much to tell us about the reading life.  

Official Author Bio

Jose Varghese is Assistant Professor of English Language and Literature at Sacred Heart College in Kochi, India. His PhD is in Post-Colonial Fiction (select novels of Salman Rushdie, Shashi Tharoor and Rohinton Mistry) and he is currently working on a research project on the works of Hanif Kureishi. His collection of poems 'Silver Painted Gandhi and Other Poems' was listed in Grace Cavalieri's Best Reading for Fall 2009, in Montserrat Review. His poems and stories have appeared in the journals Chandrabhaga, Kavya Bharati, Postcolonial Text, Re-Markings, Asia Writes, Poetry Chain, Dhvani, Dusun and The Four Quarters Magazine. He has participated in a Faber Writing course in London. He plans to publish a collection of short stories soon. 

Jose Varghese
"Silent Woman"

I don’t remember the kind of girl I used to be before my awakening to
silence. I am sure though that I was never the kind who thought there was
a need to express myself in some way, or to tell my side of the story to
others. The silence that came in search of me must have uprooted any
trace of such a desire. But when my twenty-nine-year-old son was recently
struggling to describe me to one of his new colleagues, I felt it was high
time I found my own way of interfering.

It is easy to defend yourself when others describe you the wrong way,
but it’s much tougher to explain what you really are, especially in the case
of a person like me. In a way, whatever my son said was true, but there
were certain things which he couldn’t talk about. I thought I had only one
choice left—to transform myself into a story and leave it to those who
were willing to accept it. And then there was this question about the length
of the story I wanted to become. I can only talk about what is left between
the words—the fragments that could fill up an imaginative mind – that
leads to something which is full of missing portions. When all that is said
makes a fragment in itself, what is not said can only add just a little more.
So, it will not be an epic by any standards.
Well, she was not well…. mentally, you know. Not that she had to
depend on us for everything….she could look after herself quite well and
do all the household chores. But…you know, she had these ‘spells’ at
times and it was never a good idea to leave her alone near water—near a
well, river, or sea…”

My son and his friend pretended soon afterwards that they had
forgotten about my disturbing presence and started talking about other
things—mainly about what they were reading and writing recently. I too
pretended not to listen to their talk about post-colonial identities and
cultural representations of nationality. I knew what they were talking
about, and I didn’t care. I had the freedom to linger on like a pampered cat
in my son’s room or the verandah when he talked with his wife, little son,
friends, or father. I had gained a level of invisibility that people usually
attributed to animals which can’t comprehend in full, or respond to,
human conversation.

I was even better than a cat, because I never made any noise or sought
attention from them. Actually I thought they were relieved as long as I
stayed indoors and did the things I was good at—cooking food for them,
cleaning, washing, and staying silent all the time unless someone asked
me something. I had the freedom to answer them in monosyllables,

meaningless nods, and also to say things which were not really intelligible,
because I was not well, you know, mentally.
I knew they would return to the topic of me sooner or later, because
of the recent incidents which made me a character fit for the role of a
protagonist in some strange story.

The first time I jumped into the well was five years ago. But I was
rescued by a man who worked in the nearby rubber plantation. It was early
morning, and he heard the loud thud and splash before I started flowing
down the cold water. He knew it was the crazy woman who ‘fell in the
well’ because he caught a glimpse of my white sari.
A few moments ago, I was looking at the water deep down which
looked dark green from above. As I dived into it, the overgrown ferns bent
their fragile leaves to brush me momentarily and left white powdery
streaks on my bare arms and face. Or I imagined so. The thud and cold
shocked me for a second. But then I was flowing down.
I heard sea waves roaring and wondered whether the well contained
the sea beneath it. And then, the voices came—no, not the meaningless
voices that come to schizophrenics. The voices that came to me were the
ones stored in my consciousness, in whatever levels or layers that your
psychotherapists will describe for you. I heard clearly the first lessons of
Carnatic music I learnt as a child, in the definite, husky voice of my
teacher in her late forties and in the shrill, shaky voice of the five-year old
me. And also the slokas from the nearby temple, that had become a part of
my early morning essence. Maybe that was one voice which came from
outside the water, not from my consciousness—I am not sure. Also, the
highly contrived musical notes from the bansuri of Hariprasad Chaurasia
which came from the dilapidated tape recorder of my son, whenever he
was feeling low (which was quite often).
And that music I couldn’t name…

The music from a movie my son watched with a friend, and I was
allowed to watch in my cat-self. A movie by the Polish director Krzysztof
Kieslowsky, about the blue colour of human mind. There were movies by
him about the White and Red of human mind too, but I liked Blue more
than them. It had a lot of music, loss, melancholy and authentic inner
voices. And water too, which I loved. There is a sad woman in it who tries
to kill the music in her. The music of losses, of a husband and a child who
died in an accident. My own losses were different, of a more abstract
nature, but I knew what she felt like. Among the many strange things she
did was an attempt to drown the music in a swimming pool. But it keeps
coming back, in full voice when she has to pop her head out of the water,
and in muffled persistence when she tries to hide her face underneath.
They re-played it a few times, talking about diegetic and non-diegetic
sounds in the movie. I didn’t get all that, but was fascinated to see it again
and again.

You may not believe it, but she used to read a lot – all kinds of books
from everywhere. She was educated in a convent school, and learnt
English when she was very young. A bright student loved beyond religious

boundaries by the nuns, as my grandmother used to remember. But when
she started falling in love with Jesus and his Virgin Mother, and started
carrying a rosary in her bag, the Brahmin community decided enough was
enough. She was just sixteen years old then, and was quickly married off
to the government clerk my father was. No one knew what was happening
in her mind because she was strangely silent most of the time.
You need to be silent to know the music that comes to you. There
should be silence around you too, but they did not let me know my music
that day. There were voices—real voices—above me, and they thought I
was drowning, and a man came down in a rope and pulled me up by my
hair from the water, to meaningless voices which did not know what they
were doing.

I felt so sad to see the shame on my son’s face, and wished I thought
of him earlier. But all sane people will agree with me that there are
moments when you fail to control yourself, when you are in a spell, when
the silence in you leads you to water.
Did I care for anything else? No. It was my son who kept waking me
up from my spells. It was not that I was a doting mother. I felt no special
pride in being a mother. I gave birth to a daughter first, who died soon
after she was born. Everyone was afraid that I would have a nervous
breakdown. But I didn’t care, and I was already the crazy woman anyway.
She just looked like a worm to me—I never saw her open her eyes. It was
good that she never heard anything, other than the roaring of the sea in
me. It was good that her thoughts died before they were born. But it was
my son who made me sad. He opened his eyes, cried faintly, and stayed in
this world. It was a tragedy. I always felt pity for him, the kind of pity out
of which love of the purest kind emerges.
His friends were all losers like him. They believed they could change
the world, like the European youngsters of the 1960s. But they were not
able to explore the freedom of the Sixties, to have the fun, as they say.
They were in the wrong time at the wrong place, with mothers who were
crazy or fighting for independence; and fathers who were drunkards or
losers like them, or dead and gone; and some had siblings who opened
their eyes and managed to cry louder than them. And all the people around
them were buying things which should not have been bought—love,
family, dignity, education, jobs.

My son and his friends had drowsy eyes. They were all the time
reading and thinking, and fighting to find a place for themselves in a
world which had lost any notion of justice—even the kind that exists in
the wilderness. No wonder they were all losers. Education, intelligence,
honesty, sincerity—all these were no more the kind of commodities that
were in demand. They were the elitist idiots who would be misfits
anywhere they went. I felt pity for all of them. And I loved them all, and
gave them the best tea and snacks I could make. And I got books in return
from all the libraries in which they were members.
When you read so much, people expect you to talk about it. But I
wanted to be silent, like Sister Miriam in the convent. It was she who used

to supply me books, some covered clandestinely in brown paper. No one
really had any idea what those books were about or where they came
from. She didn’t talk much to anyone else but me. She was studying for
her Masters in English Literature in the university in a big city where she
stayed in another convent, and came to stay in a room next to mine only in
the weekends. She had to convince the Mother in our convent that
whatever she was reading and doing during her studies did not result in the
loss of even a fragment of her faith. One day she came to my room, all in
tears: “I knew this dear, Mother Clara will not allow me to do my
dissertation on Sons and Lovers. I need to tell Father Paul about this. I will
not get good grades if I can’t do my dissertation on something I like”. I
looked at her for a moment and said: “But Sister, I feel Paul never finds it
easy to choose between Miriam and Clara”. This made her stop crying,
and we laughed together and read new books the whole night.
We had silent meditations in the convent during which no one was to
utter a word, usually for a week or so. I was very happy to be silent, but
when Sister Miriam was around, we made it a point to talk secretly. Once,
she told me how she embarrassed a handsome young priest during the
silent meditation in the hall which stood between the seminary and the
convent. It was soon after the lunch in the meditation hall, and she
followed the priest to where he went to wash his hands. She stood behind
him and murmered—
“In the beginning was the word, and what was that for, Father?”
He turned around awkwardly and found her smile peacefully at him,
as if nothing had happened.

Once we watched a few movies at home. One of my friends who was
doing a Film Studies course came with a lot of DVDs of movies made in
Israel, Latin America, Spain, Sweden, Poland, Austria, France, Germany,
Iran, Korea—you name it . We hired a TV and a DVD player. The world
came to our village, in bits and pieces. She loved to watch all those
movies—around twenty of them. We did not take any break and watched
five movies everyday, to save the rent. She would just sit cross-legged on
the floor with her eyes glued to the TV screen, and would hurry up to
make tea and food during the breaks when we changed the DVDs. We
waited for her to return before we played anything. I found her very
attentive and contented throughout, except for once. There was a movie
called Sacrifice by Tarkovsky—oh, you know about that? You may
remember a silent child in the movie, referred to as ‘Little Man’. A very
intense movie where Little Man’s intellectually inclined father sacrifices
everything that he values, including his intelligence in exchange for a
better world. And he burns down his house. Yes, exactly—it has that
legendary long shot towards the end where he is chased by people from
the asylum and taken away in an ambulance, as the house burns down in
the background. Little Man is seen afterwards speaking his first words:
“In the beginning was the word, why is that papa?”

She started laughing loudly when he said this—which was, you know,
totally out of place, awkward. She looked maniacal. This left us a lot
disturbed, not to talk about the confusion and agony caused already by the
It was Sister Miriam who first told me in her hushed voice about the
hidden pleasures of reading a book, and also about the need to be silent—
“When you contain so many books inside you, your connection with
the world is on an altogether different trajectory. The mundane affairs of
life bore you as much as your bookish thoughts bore those who don’t get
any of it. That is why you should learn to be silent, and to carry on an
eternal, imaginary conversation with interesting people from those books.
Whom do you want to speak to today, Miss Alice in Conventland? Gregor
Samsa, Lady with the Pet Dog, or Zorba the Greek?”
I told Sister Miriam that there were some in the convent who thought
she was crazy.
“They are right. I am crazy the way the Virgin Mary and Jesus were
crazy. But I don’t want to be worshipped later. Because I have committed
many sins—like reading Lolita, Lady Chatterley’s Lover and The Last
Temptation of Christ; and I even made a bright, young, innocent student
like you read them too, ruling out any possibility of a religious
And we started giggling. I told her that I loved the blue robes of Jesus
and Mary, and also the blue beads in the rosary Mother Clara gave me.
She told me blue was a colour that made many people gloomy, but it was
a beautiful colour, beautiful like gloominess itself. She said she used to
paint once, and was fond of the different shades of blue. She said she
stopped painting because she knew what she held in her mind would come
out through her painting, and everyone would be shocked. I asked her
whether it was a good idea to stop doing what one likes to do, and she told
me that it was alright; that refusing to do what one was good at was some
kind of a protest; that silence had a lot of power, and that it was the
strongest weapon in the world. I was not totally convinced then.

Her silence was annoying at times, but we got used to it. For her my
wife and son never existed. I don’t know about her feelings towards me,
but there used to be some sort of communication between me and her,
from the very beginning. I don’t know when she stopped talking to my
father—seems it could have been from the day they got married. He
carried her like an unavoidable burden, as long as the marriage was
functional and she didn’t complain about the housework.

It was only once that some really evil young men came to our house,
pretending to be my son’s friends. They came early in the evening, and I
asked them to wait for my son. He was travelling long distance for his
work. It took him two and a half hours’ bumpy ride by bus to reach back
from his work place.
They started talking ill of my son right in front of me, as if I was an
animal who had no idea about human language. It didn’t upset me that

they underestimated me so much, but the things they said did really upset
They said my son was an idiot who knew nothing about the world;
that those who think too much of the right and wrong of life will end up
being eternal losers; that they haven’t even read a fraction of books he
kept in his small book shelf (which was nothing, because he did not have
money to buy many books, and got his books from the library); that they
were smart to play the right cards—of religion, politics and bribes—while
idiots like my son were trying to educate the new generation about human
and animal values; that they were ‘in’ the system and my son will never be
anywhere near it; that they compensated for the bribes they paid for their
jobs with their wives who came with money that was enough to buy
luxury cars, build multi-storied houses, and live the life which suits it; that
they were here in this lowly fossilized house of idiots who belonged to the
once highest caste only because they had to borrow some books and
advice from him, though it was shameful for college professors to borrow
such things from a school teacher; that they had no other choice than to
register for a PhD now, or they will not get the promotion; that they will
have to find someone who will write their theses for a handsome fee; that
my son was so stupid and incapable to make some money at least this
way; that they feel glad anyway because the teachers’ pet in all classes has
made it only so far in life while they had it all…
I felt like spitting on their faces and kicking them out of the house.
But that’s what supposedly normal people do. I decided to play the
madness card. I made some really strong tea and added two mighty
spoonfuls of salt, instead of sugar, in each cup and took it to them on a
nice tray. Then I went quickly to the kitchen and came back with a big
knife and sat down on the floor next to their chairs, and asked them how
the tea was. They had started to sip it, and I could see that none of them
really liked it. But since they were the kind who were ‘in the system’, they
did not dare to speak out the truth and said that it tasted really good. I got
up and locked the front door and told them that our neighbor’s dog was
fond of the tea I made and it would come and bite them if they didn’t give
it their tea. They had to drink it as fast as possible to avoid this. I saw how
silent and scared they all looked now, as if I were the dog. I sat down on
the floor again and pretended to shape my toenails with the big knife and
looked at their direction occasionally. I smiled at them and encouraged
them to drink the tea. All the smart, rich, successful idiots sat there and
drank the tea, excused themselves before my son came, got into their a/c
cars and fled, never to come back.

No one knew when she fell into the well the second time. She was not
at home when I came back from school, and we started searching for her.
There was no sign that she went near the well, and it was impossible to
search in it since it was more than sixty feet deep and almost one third of
it filled with water. We called the fire force. They came, and asked us
whether we were sure that she was in it. How could we be sure? If you are
not sure, we can’t search, they said. They had rules, which could be bent
by a bribe. I decided to pay a bribe for the first time in my life, but when I
heard how big an amount they needed, I abandoned the idea. I didn’t have
that much money with me.

When you lead your inner life to the full and close the doors and
windows that let thoughts in and out, you are in a state of bliss. You don’t
have to spend all your life behaving like actors, trying to convince others
that what you show comes directly from inside you. You may have to live
with some tags—the crazy woman, the strangely silent creature, the one
whose screws got a bit loose after reading all that bullshit—but you are
basically free in your world. You are not as mad as those who project false
selves one after the other, and when they look into the mirror, won’t
recognize the one they see there. People don’t expect much from an insane
woman, and will be grateful for the simple things you are able to do.
Those who live with you curse their fate, but so do all who have to live
with someone.

The worst part of it is that you have limited freedom in the physical
world. You are not allowed to travel, to go near the sea, or even to the well
which is so close to your house. You have to be satisfied with the water
that flows down coldly from the taps in the kitchen, in the bathroom. And
the best part of it is that no one sees the sea that roars in you, all day.
I have always wanted to travel in a train, but could never do that. My
father used to take me in a crowded bus to and from the convent school,
once in a month or so. That was all I saw outside the village where I grew
up. Once we went for a picnic from the school. That was the first and last
time I saw the sea. There were so many girls like me there, in our school
uniforms, and the nuns kept an eye on us. They observed that I was
unusually active and unafraid of the waves. I never got enough of the sea.
All my nights after that were filled with images of the sea. It’s indeed
strange that what I saw and experienced some thirty years ago remains so
fresh in my mind even now. I feel like a writer or film director who
chooses certain characters and incidents from the big messy world and lets
them be experienced by others. It’s not that other things didn’t matter, but
these made a special impact on them.
Trains might have made an impact on me. When I read about people
travelling in trains or watch movies that feature train journeys, I am
mesmerized. I have no clear idea how one feels sitting near a window and
watching the world move backwards, but I am sure I will like that. You
can pretend to be in a world where no one really exists or open your eyes
and study the faces of others. I imagine there will be a sea of emotions
floating in a train.
For a person like me the experiences from books and real life have no
difference. In that sense, I have experienced everything in life, in all the
places of the world, in all possible times. It’s much more than anyone
could experience from indulging in what they take for real. They restrict
life to what happens between birth and death, all that falsity which
accompanies each breath.
But I never got enough of the sea, the water, the blue, the train…

There were local people who offered to search for her in the well, but
it was a risky affair, and many reminded me that I will be responsible for
it if someone else’s life was put in danger. We decided to wait. We
searched in the bus station, train station and the beach. We filed a
complaint in the police station, spent two sleepless nights. And on the
third day, her body was found floating in the well, all bloated…The police
came. They wanted to take it for post-mortem to the medical college,
which was four hours away. My father was upset. So were all our
relatives. They were concerned about the religious rituals. The police
were nice. They asked me whether I had a complaint to register, or had
any suspicion. I said no. None of the people in the village did create any
problem. They were all being nice to her, to us, at last. The fact that she
was strange saved us some of the ignominy. The police said there was no
need for a post-mortem and gave the body to us for the funeral rites. We
were lucky, you see.

My grandson looks exactly the way my son used to look when he was
a boy. Poor kid, I never accepted him. Or his mother, for that matter. It
was deliberate. I didn’t want to take more people into my world. I tried my
best to shake off my son from my script of the world, but he kept coming
back, breaking my spells. My husband deserved pity, but I was afraid to
give him that, fearing the untimely emergence of love. I left Sister Miriam
and Mother Clara in the convent, never to meet them again. Sister Miriam
gave me a goodbye kiss and asked me to remain strong. Sister Clara
looked intently at the rosary with blue beads given back to her by my
father. He told her that we had nothing against them, and were thankful for
the good education they gave me. He just had to think about his

I let in my son’s friends to my world, but they never tried to break me
from my spells. They were just nice people for whom you could make
nice tea and snacks. I could have made some very good tea for this new
friend whose eyes look so harmless. He is lost in my story, and I can hear
the sea in his deep voice. He doesn’t ask what my name was. He doesn’t
ask anything at all. Just supplies filler words to let my son get it out of his
system. Yes, the system!

I wonder why a harmless woman had to die this way. I don’t believe
she wanted to end her life. She was not suicidal. Just a bit fascinated by
water. Did she differentiate life from death? I don’t know. Either she was
mad, or much more intelligent than all of us to face the world with silence.
I just wish I tried to understand her more—this woman, my mother…

Why did someone have to save so many words in a lifetime? Perhaps
to deconstruct the means and meanings of communication. In a world
where so many voices go unnoticed, what does silence achieve in the end?
Nothing. It just adds to the meaninglessness that surrounds us.
A woman, a Brahmin woman, Savitri—wife of Krishnamurthy,
mother of Ishvar, mother in law of Lakshmi and grandmother of dreamyeyed
Vinayak the three-year-old—that’s what she was. She should have
remained the same, her existence made significant only through the pale,

underfed people to whom she was related, if her silence was a

She found me, caught me unawares and followed me till here. Her
silence had some power. Her thoughts resonate with me, with the world,
even beyond the six minutes of consciousness after she drowned her
temporal self. What else did she have to drown? I can only speak from the
clues I got from Ishvar, fill the gaps in his narration. I shouldn’t drown her
fully in clichéd identities of religion, gender or inner longings.
I would like to imagine that she would have loved to be in a train like
this. Did she ever get a chance to travel in a train? Fat chance. But now it
seems I am travelling with her. Why was she so fascinated by water? Had
she ever been to a beach? If yes, what could she have done there?
Ishvar said that she loved to make tea for his friends, and got books in
return. The name Ishvar means God. He knows a lot, but not everything.
So heavily talented, does he realize what he inherited from his mother? It
would be a disaster if he gets silenced at some stage in his life; or perhaps
it wouldn’t be.
If she was still alive, I could have offered to take her on a short trip
on a train or for an evening on the beach. No, Ishvar might not have
allowed that. He kept repeating that she was not well. I should just have
ended up giving her all my hundred and seventy two poems which have no
takers – poor voiceless creatures. She should have finished reading them
in a couple of days, the fast reader she was. What could her silence have
made of it? No one will ever know.

Postcolonial Text Vol 6 No 4 (2011)

End of Guest Post

I think this is a simply great short story and I hope to be allowed the honor of publishing more of Dr. Varghese's work soon.

Mel u


Suko said...

What a unique, thought-provoking story! Lines such as "You
can pretend to be in a world where no one really exists or open your eyes
and study the faces of others. I imagine there will be a sea of emotions floating in a train" are brilliant.

shaunag said...

What a strange and wonderful story with some interesting amusing parts to it, like the tea with the salt. Thanks for sharing.

Jose Varghese said...

Thanks a lot Suko and Shauna. I am really glad that you could connect well with the story. I wish I could write more like this!

valerie sirr said...

I like this image: 'A sea of emotions floating in train'

Jose Varghese said...

Thanks glad you liked it.

Unknown said...

very intense; i feel a lump in my throat coz i'd been journeying through life like the silent woman. Very well written Jose

Jose Varghese said...

Thanks so much Padmapriya. It's great to know that you could connect with this work.