The Middle Class Complex by Mullapudi Venkataramana

 Raamakumaree mee illa undaa?

Ratnakumaaree mee illa undaa?

Peruperulatalli mee illa undaa?

Peddappa dorasaani mee iLLa unddaa?

Iis Ratnakumaree in your home?

My princess of many titles is she in your home?

The big father’s princess is she in your home?] 

Narasamma was singing as she went around peeking through the neighbors’ doors. The women in the other dwellings replied as usual, ‘No, we didn’t see her.’

illullu tirigeti pillalakodi

alladugo chuudave tellavaarenu

meluko, meluko O Sundarammaa!

melukove inka bangaarubomma. 

[There is the mother hen ambling round  with her brood

Look there the dawn

Wake up, Sundaramma! Wake up

Time to wake up, my golden doll!]

Narasamma’s music woke up Chakravarti and he started his own tune. His poetry frightens his wife, Sundaramma. She jumped out of the bed, scribbled “Sri” in her palm[1], lit up the stove and went to the neighbor’s house to borrow coffee. The neighbor-aunty just returned with sugar she borrowed from Janaki. Janaki, also known as Janakamma, is a school teacher. She works in the same school Sundaramma’s husband works. For that reason Sundaramma does not like to borrow from Janakamma. To be specific, Sundaramma borrows from nobody else except neighbor-aunty. They both share expensive desires. Therefore they are a good match, as the phrase goes, in all respects, either in fighting or befriending.[2] Sundaramma believes that she and the neighbor-aunty got stuck in this middle class complex only because of some temporary setbacks, and also, because the neighbor-aunty could not find a bigger house.

Sundaramma is entertaining a strong desire to buy a brand new Jaguar. Neighbor-aunty has similar thoughts about a mansion for the present. She would eventually have a huge house built, fully equipped with a phone, radio and a shaggy dog. She has already bought the cloth for the table cover, stitched embroidery on it and kept it ready for the table on which she was going to put the radio. She bought a beautiful collar and a chain for the cute dog she was going to have. She has mastered the code of conduct that is proper when one rides in classy cars. She has found out about those things by reading and observing others with big cars—things like waiting until the driver comes around and opens the door—things like putting one foot out elegantly while getting out of the car, letting one sandal loosely hang on her foot, making sure that there is at least a 60-degree angle between her toe and the insole of the sandal, stylishly let the sari end get stuck in the car door, and then chime a charming exclamatory note like ‘OOH’ in English and act out an impressive and astounding scare … Stunningly beautiful Sundaramma has practiced all these techniques when she went to the movies in a taxicab.

“Aunty, yesterday I saw a beautiful, beautiful black car, you won’t believe it. It was soooooo beautiful! It was so dark, just like my black Hyderabad sari,” Sundaramma said to neighbor-aunty.

“Which one? You mean the one that passes by every day at about ten thirty on our street? Is that it? … I saw it near our boss’s building. By the way, did you see the new building they bought? That is exactly the one I had in mind. Trust me, for a second it felt like they stole my plan. The only difference is the compound wall. It’s a kind of short,” neighbor-aunty said.

Chakravarti was still in bed on the other side of the matted partition and was listening to their conversation. He is fully aware that, if he lets this chatting continue, he will end up with coffee at dinner time, and dinner at bedtime. “Sundari…” he shouted crossly.

“Oh, I almost forgot. I ran out of coffee…”

“I am afraid I am short, too,” neighbor-aunty replied, starting to show signs of displeasure.

Sundaramma realized her mistake, she bit her tongue.

“Just a little, just for this morning, just one Nagpur[3] cupful measured with your Nagpur cup,” she said.

Neighbor-aunty felt like she had bought the building of her dreams. “Of course, here, as you please,” she said in a sweet tone.

As soon as Sundaramma left, Narasamma came to say hi to neighbor-aunty. “Is my little one here?” she asked gently.

“No…” said neighbor-aunty, maintaining her distance.

“Hum, strange! She loves you so much. She always talks about you, keeps chiming, aunty, aunty, wouldn’t quit for a second. She likes it here… your house is spacious, you know. She really likes it here,” Narasamma said.

“Ah, what space.. I am choking. The more I wish for a bigger house the farther it is getting it seems.”

Narasamma changed the subject, “Anyway, can I borrow some rice? That is only if you can spare, I mean.”

“Of course, if I don’t have it, how can I loan you. Frankly, we are never short for anything. No such word as ‘don’t have’ in our house…”

“It is not that, really. I went to eight homes so far in this complex. All of them said no.. I am telling you this only because you are my friend,” Sundaramma remarked.

“So be it. Sure a day will come when they’ll have to account for their lies.[4] Here. Take as much rice as you need. Why only half a pound, take a quarter more. Did you bring a container or would you rather take it in the palloo of your sari?”

“Let me have it in your Culcutta silver dish,” Narasamma said. Neighbor-aunty gave her the rice, some eggplants and a slice of squash, additionally.

Narasamma went home and opened the door. All the four children rushed out in a flurry screaming, ‘I want rice,’ ‘I want snacks,’ ‘money’ ‘clothes’ and so on. Narasamma s gave them two each as usual and told them to get lost.

In the next five minutes, all the eleven families in that complex heard Narasamma’s children’s clamor which meant the day dawned. They all woke up.

***

Here is how the complex came into existence:

Some thousands of years ago, the noise that woke up people in that terrain did not come from children but from crows and roosters. In those days, a little daughter of a sage, whose ancestral background included Kanva, Viswamitra and Vasishta[5], performed a marriage of dolls. All the other sages wanted to have a beautiful ceremony and so created a garden with flower beds and shrubs. They also built a home in the middle of the garden as a temporary residence for the bridegroom’s party and several huts on either side. Several centuries passed by, and then years and finally the twentieth century had set in.

Eventually civilization caught on and there evolved a township. The landlord who bought the huts removed the thatched roofing and replaced it with tiles and old tin sheets. In place of the old bamboo partitions, he had walls built with clay and brick. He demolished the main hut at the heart of the area and raised a house with a flat roof at first and then added a room upstairs.

In course of time, these tenements or dwellings changed hands but not the tenants. Now several families live there in the outlying one-and-a-half rooms paying ten rupees rent each. The centrally located house is divided into two portions. One gentleman and his family are renting one portion. Subbarao, his wife and the wife’s father, Maavagaru[6] occupied the second portion. The other small dwellings in the area are occupied by tenants like the charming couple, Chakravarti and Sundaramma, and Narasamma, the mother goose with her brood and also the target of Chakravarti’s unbearable poetic exuberances.

Amidst these families there is a woman named Janaki or Janakamma renting one of the dwellings. She is a 5th grade teacher, unmarried and a doll of gold for looks.

Veerraju, the landlord, lives in the upstairs room of the house in the middle of this complex. He lives alone. He possesses some of the heroic qualities of the main character in the novels of Sarat Babu.[7] Has no relatives of any significance. Any relatives he may have are living far away. Veerraju has no great magnetic personality and as such in no way could claim the tenants as his family.

Veerraju is not crazy about living amidst this crowd and hardly pays attention to the rumpus in the area. However his curiosity got the better of him as the neighbors started stopping by and telling on each other. He would sit in his room upstairs like the Captain of the sea, and watch while all the people in the apartments get into a brawl, scuffle, squeal, or shriek and what not. He, however, has a soft corner for them and that is evident from the rents they owed him.

Sometimes their defaulting gets to him, especially, when he was short for cash. He watches them go to the movies while defaulting on rent, and that gets under his skin.

On one such Sunday, Veerraju stopped Subbarao as he was on his way to a movie. “Please, pardon me, sir. Could you please adjust this month’s rent at least…”

Subbarao was surprised. “Haven’t I paid you on the first of this month? What do you mean ‘at least’? I never defaulted on rent!”

“I haven’t received the rent for the past five months,” Veerraju replied.

“You must be mistaken. I was sending the rent each month the day after I received my paycheck.”

“But I did not receive it, sir.”

Subbarao was irritated by Veerraju’s tone. He rushed in to the house which meant ‘I am going to settle this right now.’ He questioned his wife in the strongest terms, and she replied, “What’s got to him? What do you mean we are not paying rent? We are paying each month regularly.”

“All right, you tell him that,” Subbarao told her.

“Great! You are telling me to confront that gentleman and tell him that we had been paying rent regularly! Let’s wait until my father returns. He was the one who’s depositing the cash,” she said.

Subbarao’s fervor slowed down as he heard that Maavagaru was depositing it. He cooled down. Maavagaru went for a walk. He usually returns home after taking care of his princely errands.

Subbarao couldn’t think of the words he could say to Veerraju. He was down. His suspicion was increasing by the minute. He looked out the window. The tenants in the three other apartments were lined up and watching the scene like the audience at a circus performance. Only Janaki stayed in the kitchen, busy with her cooking. Subbarao swallowed his pride and went back to Veerraju. He said, “Let’s talk about this later tonight,” and went away.

***

  It was eight at night. Subbarao was reading newspaper.

“You’ve come home early today?” Maavagaru entered and asked him, zealously.

“Change first. Let’s eat,” Subbarao said.

Maavagaru pulled up his shirt to remove. He was half way in the process, his head was still in the shirt, half covered. In that specific moment, Subbarao said, “Veerraju says we defaulted on rent.”

Maavagaru did not finish removing the shirt, nor did he pull it down. He hid his face behind the shirt, and said, “What rent?”

“What do you mean what rent? The rent for my head? I am talking about house rent,” Subbarao snarled.

Maavagaru slid down his shirt and peeked through. He said, “Look, Subbarao! Tell me this. If we can’t even default on rent for this dungeon of a house, why should we stay here at all?”

“Not one, not two but five months’ rent! Five times thirty, that is one hundred and fifty! That is what you defaulted in rent,” Subbarao said.

  Maavagaru quickly pulled his shirt up and hid his head again in it. “Who told you that? I don’t think it is five months; may be three months or four months tops.”

Subbarao asked him impatiently, “Maavagaru, why are you doing this to me? Is it fair to make my life miserable like this?”

  Maavagaru did not remove his shirt. Luckily, one of Subbarao’s friends, who usually approaches him with a ‘hello’[8] walked in and said, ‘hello!’ He asked for a loan. He announced that he was planning to repay the entire amount he had borrowed on various occasions—a five, a ten, and a ten plus two that is twelve….

“What is new?” Subbarao growled, mixing a shade of sarcasm.

“I will receive a Money Order today.”

“That’s great. You could have waited until you had it in your hand and then come to pay me. Why this announcement now?”

“No reason. If you give me another eight now, I am hoping to repay the entire twenty.”

“Your idea is good, but I don’t have the money. Even if I had, I will not give you,” replied Subbarao, annoyed.

Maavagaru pulled down his shirt to its normal state and kept watching this show.

“Okay, give me just three. Let’s make it fifteen total,” the friend said, hopefully.

Subbarao smiled and said, “My dear friend, sit down. I will explain to you,” and continued solemnly, “I know of two jobs in the government. How about taking one of them?”

“Oh, no sir. I would not work for the government.”

“No? You just want to live pestering people like me?” Subbarao asked.

“Okay, tell me. Let’s see what you’ve got?”

“These jobs are independent contracts. No monthly paychecks. Your income depends on your ability.”

“Tell me about it.”

“The first one is in the Postal department. Light work. See those small post offices? You go there with a small bottle of ink and pen. People come there to write letters. Your job is to lend your ink bottle and the pen and lean forward so he can use your back for a desk. After that, your second job is to stick out your tongue like an automatic machine and let him moisten the stamp and then retract it. After that, you lend again your back for his use to affix the stamp on his envelope. You can charge one half of an anna[9] per envelope. Imagine your income per day at this rate,” Subbarao said quickly and zealously.

  The friend was speechless. Maavagaru pulled his shirt up again pretending to remove it and hid his face in his shirt. Subbarao pretended not to notice any of this, and continued, “If you don’t like this job, there is another you might want to consider. Take a kerosene lantern and run along the railway tracks one half of a mile ahead of the Calcutta train. If you notice any problem with the railway tracks, your job is to signal the train to stop. This is night shift completely.”

 “Cchup,” Maavagaru said. The friend left irately.

  “Did you say something?” Subbarao asked Maavagaru.

“You used that idiot to insult me and that is rude… Why can’t you just ask me to  move out?” Maavagaru spoke through the shirt.

“Did I ask you to come and to live with us? I am respecting you for your age, treating you like a father, and look how you are paying me back. Did I say one word to hurt you? Now you start playing with the rent money as well, you tell me how am I supposed to deal with this?”

  Subbarao’s wife called out from the kitchen, “Father, you come inside. Don’t get into an argument with him.”

“You keep quiet. I will settle this right now,” Maavagaru replied from under the cover of his shirt.

“Settle what? The shirt?” asked Subbarao.

Maavagaru was furious. He tried to act out several emotions like ‘You idiot, you are being sarcastic or what?’ The shirt gave in to his frustration and was ripped, creating two holes in the panels. His two hands emerged out of the two holes, leaving his head still in the cover.

  Veerraju heard the commotion from his room upstairs. He rushed down three steps and was stunned. There was only one doorway between Subbarao’s portion and the next door neighbors. Veerraju saw through the window the most charming scene through the window:

The next door neighbor was sitting in a chair at the center of the group. His wife was sitting next to him in another chair. Their sons, daughters and grandchildren surrounded the couple. Some of them were sitting on the floor at their feet. All of them, sitting on the other side of the door, could not see but were enjoying whatever was audible to their hearts’ content.

Veerraju saw them all lined up like for a group photo and scoffed. Janaki just returned after her tutoring session. She also noticed this scene and was disgusted. She went away to her home, feeling good that Veerraju shared her sentiment.

 While Subbarao and Maavagaru were engaged in a verbal exchange, a huge noise—as if a Canadian train engine was rolling down a steep mountain slope—was heard. They both stopped for a second. A 1928 model automobile came rolling down, making unbearable noises like DHAN, DHAN, TAK, TAK, and stopped in front of Subbarao’s home.

  “WE BOUGHT A CAR, WE BOUGHT A CAR,” Sundaramma screamed from inside the car, bursting at the seams. She lay back fashionably.

  All the tenants were so absorbed in the on-going argument, they did not pay attention to Sundaramma’s car. Even Narasamma’s children were scared a little.

  Sundaramma, disappointed, turned to the driver and said, “right, right, let’s go.” The car moved forward, turned to the right, and to another right and stopped in. “Hold on,” Sundaramma shouted as the car pulled in front of her home.

 Chakravarti was in the porch. He turned around quickly and looked up. “What is this?” he asked. Sundaramma thanked the driver, gave him a rupee and told him to go home.

“Our car! What do you think? I paid only four hundred, just four hundred,” She said.

“Are you out of your mind? You bought a car! Tell me this first. Where did you get four hundred? … Do you have any idea how much we are paying for rent?” Chakravarti said.

“Wait a second. I will tell you all about it. First I need water,” Sundaramma said.

 In the meantime, the argument between Subbarao and Maavagaru reached the peak. The audience heard the words, spoken in a high pitch, “I am giving you not only the pocket money but also letting you do the grocery shopping, aren’t I?”

 Nobody in that entire complex could believe that Subbarao could speak so harshly. Therefore they all were stunned. Maavagaru did not expect this, not in his wildest dreams. Therefore he was also flabbergasted. His lips quivered and eyes turned red. He was eager to utter several words but  none of them came out. All he could say was, “wait,” like a thunder. Then he left the house. After that, however, he wasn’t sure, what next? He looked back and saw Subbarao go into the house.

 Maavagaru deliberated for one more second and walked straight into Janakamma’s portion.

“Amma[10], you’ve heard it too, right? Here, I am holding your hands, I could fall on your feet.[11] I am old. Unfortunately I ended up in this horrible condition. Please, loan me one hundred and fifty rupees. I will pay you back by tomorrow evening, pawning my head[12] if necessary. In this complex, if there is one person willing to loan me, that is only you,” he said.

 Janaki felt sorry for him. But she does not have that much cash on hand. Besides, she wasn’t really paying attention to what happened there. She was million miles away, lost in her own thoughts. “You go to the store for a soda or something, and come back after five minutes,” she said.

  Maavagaru left. Janaki went straight upstairs. Veerraju was feeling sorry for causing so much trouble for everybody. Janaki stood in front of him and said that she needed fifty rupees, it was urgent she added. Janaki rarely talks to him. He could figure out right away the real reason behind her request now.

  “You are a very nice person,” he said, handing her five new bills.

  Janaki smiled. She has heard similar compliments frequently from other teachers, headmaster, and secretary at school. Even for a slightest complaint like headache, they all would jump in with numerous suggestions, a variety of medications from all kinds of systems like Allopathy, Ayurveda etc. They pour out sympathies on her nonstop.

  Veerraju noticed this line of thinking in her smile. “Please don’t take it as a lip service,” he added, also laughing.

“You paid compliments to my good nature, not to my lips,” she said, turning around to leave.

“Oh, that? If you want only that kind of praise, I can do it nonstop. I can write an amazing paper and have you score ten for ten on it,” he said.

“You’re funny,” Janaki said and left.

  Janaki gave the one hundred and fifty rupees to Maavagaru. He told her several times and in a choked voice that he could never repay her debt. He went home and threw the money in front of Subbarao. Subbarao took the money without a word and gave it to his wife. The wife gave it back to her father, Maavagaru.

  Maavagaru picked up the money, holding it with his finger-tips, as if it were something untouchable, and went straight to Veerraju and paid off the debt.

  The rumpus in the complex settled down. The only audible sounds were those coming from Sundaramma’s dwelling. All the other families turned off the lights, and were enjoying the argument between the husband and wife, like a light breeze. They all were ecstatic that they had the pleasure of two altercations in one day, and now joking about some specific phrases and points.

  “Are you out of your mind?” Chakravarti asked his wife.

“Why are you shouting?” Sundaramma retorted.

In the next two minutes the argument reached climax. Sundaramma’s language acquired a shade of sobbing. Chakravarti’s voice was resounding like a metal bell. Their words were flying like blazing coal.

  “Where did you get the four hundred rupees, anyways?”

“I’ve been saving for some time. I sold my chain and the silver dish and got three hundred rupees. Maavagaru noticed my desire and loaned me one hundred rupees. Don’t worry, I will repay it myself,” Sundaramma replied tensely.

  These words were heard in each of the dwellings as if the words went and knocked on their doors. Subbarao also heard them. Now he understood the real story.

  Maavagaru paid the rent, came back, lowered the kerosene lamp wick, and went to bed.

“He [Subbarao] says he will not eat today. Come father, I set the plate for you,” Subbarao’s wife said to her father, Maavagaru.

  “I don’t want it either,” he said, lying down on his bed. He kept looking at the little lamp.

“So that is the real story,” said Subbarao.

  “What story? Didn’t I throw the rent in his face?” Maavagaru said, turning toward the wall.

“I am talking about Sundaramma’s car. It’s a nice car. And you were kind enough to give her a loan. With interest, so what? You let her have one hundred rupees,” said Subbarao gently.

  Maavagaru did not respond. They were quiet for about 15 minutes. Subbarao waited until his wife fell asleep and started the conversation again, “You are an adult. Why do you act like this?”

  A few words emanated from the mouth of Maavagaru in that darkness, like the smoke from a chimney. He narrated the story slowly and unemotionally: “I was never wanting for anything as long as my wife was alive. She always served the food, no matter what– whether I brought in the dough or not. Now I am alone and had the misfortune of living under my son-in-law’s roof. All I want is a home of my own. Sometimes I am embarrassed, you know. I resent it but can’t help it. The desire is not going away. I am hankering for money simply because I want my own home. Look, I will repay your debt some how,” he said.

 Subbarao did not know that Maavagaru was worried so much. He felt sorry for him. He also resented a little that Maavagaru used the darkness as a shroud to express his wishes. He rolled over to the other side and after a minute or so.

He said, “Let’s forget the whole thing.”

***

   At dawn, Narasamma and her children woke up and dressed up. She went to neighbor-aunty’s house but did not ask for a loan. She and her children were invited to the wedding ceremony on the next street. Narasamma came to ask aunty is she would go with them. Aunty said no. She turned around pompously waving her Benares silk sari in the air.

Aunty was sweeping the floor. She looked at Sundaramma and laughed. Aunty had noticed long time ago that Narasamma has only one silk sari. She even told Sundaramma that Narasamma wears the same sari again and again for each and every occasion. She hoped that Sundaramma would understand the underlying meaning of her laugh and agree with her. But Sundaramma did not respond. She put the water on the stove to make coffee.

Aunty felt let down. She has been feeling let down since 9:00 p.m. last night. In the entire complex, they are the only two persons with expensive desires. If it comes to that, Aunty’s wish is a notch higher. But then Sundaramma beat her to it by buying the car first. From that moment it became her sole aim to exchange jokes with Sundaramma.

“Sundaramma, would you like to borrow coffee?” she asked in a soft tone.

Sundaramma needed coffee but wouldn’t want to admit it right away. She replied, “Oh, no. Not necessary. We have the car you see. We’ll go to some restaurant, have coffee, and then buy vegetables on our way home.”

Chakravarti was still grumpy about it. Her response ticked him off.

“Oh, no. Haven’t we got a car, of course? Let’s drink the gasoline for the present. Later we can cook the tires for our next meal,” he said in a whisper. Aunty ended up loaning a Nagpur cupful of coffee to Sundaramma.

***

Chakravarti, still whining, finished his coffee and went to the market. He was embarrassed to leave the complex and step outside, he was embarrassed for having the car parked in front of his one and a half rooms. As soon as he hit the road, he ran into Subbarao.

Both of them were aware that the scuffles in their heavenly abodes last night were a matter of public record. At first they were too ashamed to see in to each other’s face. Next moment both of them looked up and looked straight into each other’s face. Each one felt pity for self and sympathy for the other at the same time. They broke into a loud laugh.

Subbarao’s laugh meant, “Maavagaru in my case and the car in your case.”

Chakravarti’s laugh implied, “Car for me and Maavagaaru for you.”

“See you later”

“All right.”

***

The brains of Maavagaru worked fast, as he noticed Subbarao and Chakravarti leave their respective homes. He went to Sundaramma and demanded the fifty he loaned her earlier and also an additional hundred. Sundaramma spelled n-o. Maavagaru returned home and fell into deep thought. He was about to bite off his nails when Subbarao showed up.

“Maavagaru, I think you borrowed the money last night in a fit of anger. Let bygones be bygones. Here, take this money and pay it back,” he said, handing him the one hundred and fifty he withdrew from the bank.

Maavagaru was surprised and was about to protest but by the time he opened his mouth Subbarao had left to take bath. So he cancelled that thought and set out to finalize his original plan.

First he separated twenty-five rupees from the amount and tucked it in his lungi at the waist. He went to Janaki’s room with the remaining one hundred and twenty-five rupees. He told her that he would never, not even in his future lives, forget the help she had done last night. He gave her the 125 rupees and alerted her to make a note of the balance of 25 rupees. He expressed his gratitude one more time and also avowed that he could never repay her kindness. Yet, he would not sleep until he had settled her account, he assured her.

“No. Please don’t lose sleep over this,” Janaki spoke respectfully.

“That is not possible. I am dead set on returning the favor. Look! Go ahead and finish teaching for now. .. But take the time off for this afternoon. ..No. Don’t say no. I will explain it to you later. You must be home this afternoon, don’t forget,” he said and left in a hurry. Then, he went straight to the next street. He didn’t even care to eat. Narasamma was scurrying around in her silk sari. Nobody could tell whether she was in the bride’s party or the groom’s. Maavagaru told her to come home that afternoon. He kept repeating that she should be home by 1:00 without fail, told her to leave the children at the wedding party, and insisted on her word Narasamma gave her word.

Maavagaru returned home and ate. After Subbarao left for work, he asked his daughter to sit down and explained his plan to her. The daughter was surprised. He convinced her to go along with his plan. He told her to make snacks, picked up his upper garment[13] and went to take care of the rest of the arrangements.

Janaki came home at 1:30 as was told and was surprised to find Maavagaru dressed up like a bridegroom.

“Good, you’ve come home, and right on time. You could get rest of the day off. Good. Sit down for a few minutes. No rush,” he said, zealously.

“Rush for what?” Janaki asked.

“Right, right. Rush for what? No rush, no rush at all. Go, freshen up. Fix your hair. No? All right, no need. You are looking great just the way you are. Looking like a goddess,” he said.

Janaki was confused.

“Janakamma dear, come here,” Narasamma said, flaunting her new silk sari.

Before Janaki could respond, Subbarao’s grabbed Janakamma’s arm and dragged her into the house.

Inside the house, there were three chairs and a rug spread on the floor. Subbarao’s wife helped Janaki sit on the rug and started to chitchat.

“Did you see Sundaramma’s car?” she asked. “Are the people at school making of fun of Chakravarti?” she asked.

Janaki smiled timidly and said, “Yes. The news reached our school right away. Everybody has been asking him questions–whether it were true, whether he really had bought a car? Why didn’t he come in his car? Poor man. He is very frustrated. Those idiots. I don’t know why they don’t let others live their lives. What is it to them who bought what?”

“Yes, yes,” Said Maavagaru. In the next minute he said, “There, they’re here!”

A 35 year-old man named Ramarao and a 30 year-old woman named Lakshmikantamma arrived.

***

   Maavagaru and Ramarao met a year ago. Soon they became bosom buddies. Ramarao became the best friend and right-hand man  to Maavagaru and vice versa. For Maavagaru, Ramarao’s sister became the goddess, the center of his universe, and winning her hand his life’s mission, and so on. He coveted her to be his life-partner. That woman, Lakshmikantamma said she would agree provided he could run her clothes store profitably. If he agrees, so would she. There is however one more glitch. Ramarao also has been unmarried for some time. During that time he saw Janaki and fell in love with her, head over heels. He has been praying day and night for his marriage with her. He even fasted four to five times toward this goal.[14] Maavagaru said that was no big deal. Ramarao said, “Well, if you fix that, your marriage is confirmed. Both of us can live happily ever after.”

Accordingly, on the afternoon in question, Ramarao and his sister, Lakshmikantamma arrived there to set a date for the engagement. Janaki was not aware of this story.

When she saw the strangers, she said “You have company,” was ready to leave. The entire group assured her unanimously that she should stay.

Subbarao’s wife served snacks and coffee. They all started eating snacks and talking small talk. Janaki did neither eat nor talk. Narasamma noticed that. “Come Janaki, eat something. No need to be shy,” she said coaxingly.  For the moment, she was playing the role of an adult aunt for Janaki. She was following the instructions Maavagaru had given her earlier and treating Janaki like her own “little girl.” In the confusion, her hand shook and the coffee spilled on her blue silk sari.

“Ooooh, oooh,” Narasamma bemoaned.

Rest of company, startled, turned around and looked at her.

“Ohh, no. What can I do now? It’s mishap. Let’s wash it right away. Then it won’t smudge,” she said, watching Subbara’s wife, apprehensively.

“Don’t worry. We can take care of it later,” said Subbarao’s wife, sounding casual.

“Well, whatever you say. I’ve said it. What have I got to lose. It is your sari that’s ruined,” said Narasamma.

The rest of the party burst into a big laugh. She was perplexed.

Maavagaru cleared his throat and opened the subject, the real reason for the meeting.

“Ramarao, what do you think? Do you like her? I am telling you, she is a gold cluster. You can search all the three worlds but won’t find a gentler woman,” he said.

“That is the truth. She is gleaming like Mahalakshmi [goddess of wealth],” said Lakshmikantamma. Janaki looked at them, totally lost.

Maavagaru said, “Janakamma, he is like a younger brother to me. The best qualified man. You don’t have to worry about annoyances like mother-in-law and other children. He has a sister but she will get married soon enough and leave for her in-law’s home.”

Ramarao laughed a silly laugh and said, “True, no time wasted. We’ve already the bridegroom, it is as good as done.”

Maavagaru was embarrassed. He lowered his head, smiling shyly.

“Wait, what is the matter? Where are you going?” Narasamma said. The group turned and looked up.

Janaki stood up. “What is all this nonsense? Is this the reason you asked me to be here? Nobody needs to arrange my marriage. It is my headache and I will take care anyway I please,” she said and rushed out of the room. She went to her room, threw herself on the bed and broke into sobs.

She cried for some time and  felt relieved, slightly. Thoughts started to surface slowly and gradually as if they were scared to come out. It felt like she has all these problems only because she has no immediate family to take care of her. Every man she comes across talks about either marrying her or arranging her marriage with someone. They have nothing else to talk about. Every man watches her in some warped way… Janaki was scared. She dozed off while the thoughts were still floating in her head.

She woke up at about five in the evening and came in to the front porch. The entire complex looked lifeless, like a graveyard. Probably the tenants in this side of the complex went for a walk. .. Suddenly she heard the rattling noise of the car.

Chakravarti sat in that old convertible Austin, a piece of junk. Sundaramma was sitting next to him ostentatiously. They were going for a ride. She wore a red sari and a black blouse—a horrible mismatch, and a bunch of flowers tucked in her hair. She also wore a pair of dark eyeglasses.

Janaki smiled kindly. She had noticed that Chakravarti was driving like a scared kid and pitied him. Then her eyes turned to the room upstairs. Up there, Veerraju stood near the window, looking sad, and smoking a cigarette. He was watching the couple in the car.

Janaki felt pity again. She wondered if Veerraju was disappointed for not being in Chakravarti’s unfortunate predicament. Suddenly she remembered the money she had borrowed from him the night before. She went in, took that money and went upstairs.

Veerraju felt a flutter for a second. And then was charmed. He took the money from Janaki mechanically.

“Aren’t you feeling well?” Janaki asked him.

“I am fine. The problem lies in my heart,” he replied, looking out the window.

Janaki was not interested in finding out what problem lay in his heart. She did not appreciate that kind of reply for a casual question. She turned to leave.

“I pulled myself out of huge plot a little while ago,” Veerraju said without looking at her.

Janaki did not leave. Nor did she ask what the plot was about.

“You see, everybody is aware that I have all these units but no person I can call my own. Therefore, they all are sworn to arrange my marriage. Earlier this afternoon, a friend of mine invited me to his home on some pretext, showed me a ghastly looking woman and asked me if I liked her. A group of men and women—twenty in all—were staring at me. I was exasperated and left,” said Veerraju.

Janaki’s heart started thumping faster. She was about to say that she was the object of another plot in that very moment but held back.

“Living alone in this world is such a hassle. Nobody minds their own business, nor let others live anyway they please. Sometimes it scares me,” he said.

Janaki’s heart leapt to her throat. He is reading her mind. She wanted to tell him that. She looked at him sharply for a split second. He was not joking. He looked at her straight into her face.

“It’s true,” she said and started to leave.

Veerraju said, “Janaki.” His tone has changed. Janaki turned around, warily.

“I didn’t tell my autobiography for fun. I respect you and trust you. I believe in you. For that reason … I am thinking… if I marry you, I can be happy myself and make you happy,” he said.

From Janaki’s perspective, Veerraju dropped a bomb out of nowhere. She couldn’t decide right away—should she jump with joy? Cry for help? Or resent his proposition? In the next moment, she was irate. At school, the headmaster, some teachers, secretary, and here, Maavagaru—they all have been pestering her on the same lines. Now Veerraju also appears to be doing the same thing.

“You too…” Janaki murmured and left hastily.

Veerraju threw himself on the chair and smoked ten cigarettes in a fit of desperation.

Janaki in general considers herself good at giving cautious replies, now is feeling bad for the first time. She wondered if she had made a mistake.

Chakravarti’s chariot finished its rounds and returned to the complex. The few people who fell asleep were woken up by the noise. They all heard the loud laughs from Chakravarti’s home very clearly.

As for Chakravarti, more and more he is becoming aware of the wife’s naivete. His anger is diminishing and his love for her is escalating.. That evening she visited few expensive stores, checked out the high priced saris and bought a hand kerchief for one rupee. In another store, she bought a couple of items and asked the store clerk to put them in her car.

“Which one, madam?” the store clerk asked.

Sundaramma felt embarrassed to point out her grungy vehicle standing amidst the other pristine automobiles.

“There! That grungy car! Throw them in,” she said. Then, whatever came over her, she added, “That is our driver’s. We gave our car for service.”

Chakravarti was standing next to her. He struggled not to laugh. On the way home, he teased her, “Today you said this car belonged to your driver. Probably, tomorrow you would tell them that your silk sari belonged to the maid. What about me?”

She shut him up with her palm saying, “Cchup. What kind of talk is that?”

After a few minutes, Chakravarti planned to turn right. But the God, as is his habit, intended otherwise.[15] The car, having a will of its own, recalled the proverb, murare thruteeyah panthah [God’s way is the third way], and headed for a huge tree before Chakravarti could hit the breaks, tried to knock it down but changed its mind.

Chakravarti and Sundaramma spent ten rupees and brought the car home. …

Chakravarti told Sundaramma, coaxingly, “… for that reason, beautiful Sundaramma, we can be happy only if we don’t have this car. We can buy a good car after saving some money. But, if you insist on keeping this car, we will be spending all our income on repairs and we will starve for want of food. We w ill have to lie down with our knees nudged against  our bellies[16] literally. Do you understand?”

Sundaramma was already on the brink of tears. Yes, she said.

“Let’s get rid of it for whatever it is worth. May be our landlord Veerraju will buy it,” he said.

***

That Saturday night went by for each one of them in the complex in a different way—with nightmares, sweet dreams, fears or frustrations.

And the Sunday morning dawned for each one of them in a different way–beautifully, happily, hideously, or hopelessly.

Within a few minutes, Maavagaru went into Narasamma’s dwelling. He told her not to tell others about the wedding arrangements that took place the day before. He said she could keep for good the sari she wore the previous evening, which in fact belonged to his daughter. Narasamma agreed. She shook her head in assent but the thought that she has a tremendous secret nearly choked her. She could hardly keep her feet on the ground.

Within the next half hour she heard another piece of news. Veerraju was leaving town. It seems he won’t be back for another five or six months. He told all the tenants to pay the rent to the gentleman living in the other portion, and that the gentleman would forward the money to him. Narasamma noticed that Veerraju did not go to Janaki’s home.

She rushed to Janaki’s home and said, “Girl! Veerraju is going away for good, do you know?”

Janaki was surprised. “Is that so?” she said and went about whatever she was doing.

Narasamma’s zeal fizzled away. “Look, dear, can you loan me one rupee?” she asked. Janaki got up without a word and gave her one rupee. Narasamma was even more disappointed that she could get the rupee so easily. She went to a few other homes in the neighborhood and asked them for rice on loan. They all said no. “Why should I share my secret with these crooked devils,” she told herself. Finally she went to Sundaramma and asked for rice.

Sundaramma, whatever mood Sundaramma was in at the time, gave her rice right away. At once, she became Narasamma’s best friend. Narasamma insisted repeatedly that she should not tell anyone, not even the neighbor-aunty, and let out the secret about the wedding arrangements that took place the day before. The neighbor-aunty was sitting quietly behind the bamboo partition and heard the entire story. After Narasamma left, the neighbor aunty came to Sundaramma and told her the same story as if she had known it since her childhood days. She also expressed her deepest sympathy for Janaki.

“I wish Janaki would marry Veerraju,” aunty said suddenly. Immediately she bit her tongue for saying it. She had a good reason for regretting her comment. Earlier, as soon as she heard that Veerraju was leaving town, she went to him and made him promise his portion to her. She was excited that she would have at least the good fortune of renting a two-storied building, if not buy one. It is no small feat to move into a two- storied building–that would be like a slap in the face for Sundaramma who bought a car just couple of days ago. Her [aunty’s] husband never goes against her wishes. The husband is always referred to as “aunty’s husband,” pretty much the same way Maavagaru is always “Subbarao’s maavagaru.” Anyway, the current problem is, if Janaki marries Veerraju, the upstairs portion will not be available to her. Therefore, aunty closed her lips tight and left.

Sundaramma however continued to mull over aunty’s suggestion. If Janaki marries Veerraju, she could sell her car to them and it still says in front of her eyes. She might even borrow it occasionally. ..  Besides, the story of the wedding arrangements for Janaki struck a chord in her heart. She felt a surge of warmth for Janaki.

It was Sunday. Sundaramma made Chakravarti’s favorite dish that afternoon. She made coffee with utmost care and removed the creamy floats.[17] She handed him a cigarette and struck the match for him.

“Look, this is the last Sunday we will have the car. By next week it will be sold. Let’s go to the movies today,” she suggested.

Since Chakravarti was still glad that his wife was favorable to his suggestion, he agreed to go to the movies. It was five in the evening. She got into the car along with others–Narasamma who became her best friend by sharing her secret, the neighbor-aunty who entertains expensive desires, and even Janakamma by sweet-talking into going with her. Janakamma thought she might as well go somewhere in stead of staying at home and watch the heartbreaking departure of Veerraju. So she agreed to go with them.

As the car was about to leave, Maavagaru appeared. It scares him to see anybody taking Janaki somewhere. He is sure that he would succeed in convincing Janaki to accept his proposition, if not today, it will happen tomorrow. He was not willing to let go of her that easily.

“Going for  a ride?” he asked.

“No. We are going to a movie,” Chakravarti replied.

“What movie?”

Chakravarti told him the name of the movie.

“I will come with you. I wanted to see it too,” said Maavagaru. They had no choice but let him go with them.

A few minutes prior to starting the show, Sundaramma pulled Janaki to a side. “Janakamma! I am like a sister to you. Let me ask you this. Be frank with me. Are you interested in marrying Veerraju?” she asked her.

Janaki couldn’t utter a sound.

“Tell me. It’s all right. I have heard about the last night’s arrangement gala. …Listen girl, they do get crazy ideas as long as you are alone. Listen to me and marry Veerraju, that is if you like him,” she added.

“Did he tell you to ask me, too?” Janaki asked, looking down.

“What? Did he propose to you? What did you tell him? No? …Ahh, stupid thing to do! .. So, that is the reason he is leaving town. ..Be straight with me, Janaki, quick.. We are running out of time,” Sundaramma said hurriedly.

“Yes, sister,” Janaki said, dabbing her tears with her sari end.

“People will laugh if you cry here. Don’t cry. Let’s go back home right now,” she reassured Janaki, went into the movie theater and explained the situation to Chakravarti.

He stepped out and said to Janaki, “Good for you. Veerraju is a good man. You will be happy.”

Within a few minutes, they all changed their minds about the movie and got back in to the car. Since Maavagaru came only for the sake of Janaki, he had no problem leaving. For Narasamma, Sundaramma’s words are ‘vedam’[prescriptive]. How can aunty stay alone to watch the movie? Thus, they all have agreed to return home.

“Janaki is going to marry Veerraju,” Sundaramma blurted out, she couldn’t help herself.

Then followed words conveying several emotions like surprise, pleasure, anger, etc. all at the same time.

Maavagaru did not like it. Nor did aunty relish it. She was weighed down by the thought that the upstairs room will not be available to her.

All the thoughts together in that crowded car started emanating in their exhale and thereby created a strange mix of emotions. The car was moving forward in the heavy rain in a desperate attempt to catch Veerraju before he got to the train station.

Chakravarti, still new to driving, hit the breaks to make a turn but did not hit the clutch in time. As a result, the engine stalled. “Push the car,” Chakravarti said.

Who would push? There were four women and two men in the car. It was pouring outside, and the winds were gusty. Sprinkles were hitting straight in to the car.

Maavagaru said, “I am feeling weak and also running a little temperature. I can’t move a muscle.” He did not want the car to move and reach home while Veerraju was still there.

None of the others spoke. Huge, expensive cars are gliding by smoothly like swans on the wet black top roads. All the adults in Sundaramma’s car slipped into a reverie. Sweet thoughts seized them.

Maavagaru was dead set against the car’s movement. After Veerraju left, it would be easy to convince Janaki to marry Ramarao. If Janaki agrees to his plan, then he can marry Ramarao’s sister and have a home of his own. His heart screamed this must happen.

Janaki was entertaining a different scenario. Every particle, each drop of blood in her body was longing for the car to move. If she marries Veerraju, she would have a good life. With that thought her desire was escalating. At the same time, a fear that it might not happen was also growing in her mind.

Sundaramma was anxious to reach home quickly and earn the credit for making a new life for the prospective couple. Then she could sell her car to them. The vehicle would still be in front of her eyes. It’s all right if she could not buy one of her own.

Chakravarti was anxious to get rid of the car before his wife came up with another deviant idea.

If the car starts and reaches home before Veerraju left, the marriage is certain to happen. Then aunty will not get the upstairs room for renting. The couple will stay in the same place. Her desire will not be fulfilled. For that reason, aunty was begging the Almighty Lord every which way to stall the car.

Narasamma’s silk sari was getting ruined by the raindrops. She was praying the Almighty Lord to start the car and bring them home soon.

Suddenly, a lightning struck. A thought flashed in Chakravarti’s brain. He let go of the breaks. Strong winds blew with all their might.

The car, carrying the crowd, beset with strong desires, moved forward like Janata Express.

(End)

(Translator’s note: The original title, “Janata Express” is the name of a train in South India, introduced in the 1950s, specifically designed to make travel comfortable for the common man—a sort of people’s car. The author depicts the day-to-day lives of middle class families and unmarried individuals, with all their dreams, aspirations, eccentricities, as well as their community spirit.

The term ‘complex’ in translation may be interpreted as middle class complexes [mentalities] or as an apartment complex for the middle class. The story addresses both the aspects.

Telugu original entitled “Janatha Express” was published in the 1950s and later was included in an anthology entitled, “Janata Express: Mullapudi Venkataramana kathalu,” published by Navodaya Publications, Vijayawada, 1959. Reprint 1967.)

Translated by Nidadavolu Malathi and published on thulika.net, March 2005. Also, included in the anthology, Short Stories from Andhra Pradesh, by Nidadavolu Malathi. Mumbai: Jaico Publishing House. 2007)



[1]  A common practice among Hindus, invoking God first as one wakes up.

[2] Telugu phrase:  kayyanikainaa neyyaanikainaa …

[3] A sarcastic observation how little things like the name of a place could evoke favorable atmosphere in conversations.

[4] A common proverb in Telugu is evari paapam vaaLLade! Literally paapam means sin.

[5] The sages are from Hindu mythology. The story noted here is probably author’s creation.

[6] Literally maavagaru is a relational term for father-in-law. In the story, the real name of the father-in-law is not given. So, I used the term as a proper name.

[7] Sarat Babu, nick name for Saratchandra Chatterjee, a famous Bengali fiction writer, whose novels were translated extensively in to Telugu and are very popular.

[8] “Hello,” and “Hello, o faivunda?” [Do you have five rupees], meaning a request for small loan, are used by the author repetitively to evoke humor. The author has written hilarious stories about people who borrow small amounts and usually don’t bother to repay.

[9] Anna was coin [currency] in pre-Independent India, equaled to one sixteenth of a rupee.

[10] Literally, means mother. Figuratively, similar to ‘my dear child.’

[11] The actual sentence in Telugu “ivi chetulu kaavu, kaaLLanuko,” literally means I am holding your hands and take it as my falling on your feet, which is the most desperate way of begging.

[12] Telugu phrase, tala taakaTTu peTTi, considered the last desperate measure.

[13] In the south India, men usually throw a plain garment, like a towel, on their shoulder.

[14] Praying and/or ritualistic meditation and fasting are part of Hindu tradition to have their desires fulfilled.

[15] Telugu proverb:  thanokaTi taliste, daivamokaTi thaluchunu, meaning your thoughts may not always be in agreement with divine providence.

[16] Popular Telugu phrase describing the way hungry people lie down.

[17] In India, milk is boiled before adding to coffee. Sometimes, the milk forms a layer of cream which ruins coffee taste.