Ascent Heavenwards by Chaganti Tulasi

On that day, an awful row broke out between Poli and her husband Appala Kondayya. She rushed to the hut in high spirits. But, as soon as she stepped in, he began to spit fire.

She thought that he too would be as much elated as she was. She couldn’t imagine that he would kick up a row in that way.

He burst out in anger, “Can’t afford even gruel. Look at her purchase! Good-for-nothing woman! Wretch!” Stamping his foot furiously, he bellowed.

“I didn’t pay cash for this purchase. How can I make cash payment? Do I have any money? Hardly a penny. I’m penniless and so are you. We simply can’t buy it in our life time. Some how or other, it just happened for our benefit. Pedda Ammagaru said that a rupee will be deducted per month. So I bought it. It can be paid off within ten months,” Poli tried to give the details.

However, Appala Kondayya didn’t stop hurling abuses. As a matter of fact, he returned to the hut in a nasty mood. He left the hut at daybreak and returned now. He went around in town till he was tired. But no work.

Damn it! Whose inauspicious face[1] have I seen? Didn’t get even a tobacco leaf. I was ready to work but none hired me.

Having failed to get any work and having failed to get at least some tobacco, he returned home late in the evening, in a famished condition. The wife went out to wash the dishes at a Brahmin household. He searched each and every clay pot and pan. Nothing. It seemed as if Poli didn’t even make the fire. He began to brood – who knows whether she would light the stove to night at least and cook something? Heaving a sigh, he squatted down listlessly on the verandah and leaned on the wooden pillar.

Poli arrived with her son astride at her waist. She was carrying on her head a bright aluminum pot cushioned on a piece of coiled cloth.

She laid down the son on the verandah and set aside the pot. Immediately Appala Kondayya picked up a quarrel.

 

On that day Parvatamma called in a hawker quite casually. She wanted to drive a hard bargain with that hawker who was bartering aluminum-ware and plastic-ware in exchange for used clothes. Her intention was to get a nice article in exchange for her own two sarees and three trousers of her husband. However, the hawker, a North-Indian woman, went on saying in a high-pitched voice and with exaggerated gestures that the clothes shown by Parvatamma were almost worthless. At long last, she agreed to give an aluminum pot but demanded one more saree. Quite reluctantly Parvatamma tossed in another saree and received the pot. She did so only because she liked the pot very much.

Yet, she was very upset when her husband came back from his office and her mother-in-law from attending a religious discourse. They both simultaneously ridiculed and scolded her saying, “Bought an aluminum pot! Shame! Disgrace! And you are thrilled as if it were a stainless steel pot and bought it!”

Therefore she tried to persuade Poli, “Those old clothes are worth at least ten rupees. I will take one rupee a month from your pay. Take the pot for ten rupees.” Parvatamma was eager to get as much money as she could.

Poli’s joy knew no bounds. In high spirits, she came home with the pot. Immediately, a high row broke out.

Of course, Poli went on answering back to Appala Kondayya. “What are you talking about? This is my will and pleasure. I bought it with my own hard-earned money. Good Heavens! Why are you wailing as though I squandered your money? Have I ever pestered you to buy a pot? Have I ever told you that I’m in need of a pot? I bought it on the spur of the moment. One must weep if money is wasted on an outsider. For our own home I bought this pot”.

Narsayya heard the noisy quarrel. He noticed the mounting rage in the tone of Poli who was in full frenzy and answering back to her husband. What is this quarrel for? The old man and woman (his parents) went away to live separately. Thus wondering, he rushed into their hut.

“What’s the matter, Appala Kondayya? What happened to Poli?” When Narsayya came in with the intention of settling their quarrel, Poli and Appala Kondayya calmed down. To have a third person raising an accusing finger at them was an insult to them. Their attitude was that he may be an elderly person, yet he has no right to poke his nose into their private life.

“Nothing”, “Oh! It’s nothing,” said each one of them. Narsayya cursed himself for being foolish enough to intervene in a quarrel between a man and his wife. So he hung his head and left.

 

After Narsayya’s departure, Poli looked at her husband intently. She realized that he was starving. Wondered whether he had taken at least tea. She understood the reason for his anger and quarreling. This anguished her greatly. She laid the child on a threadbare cloth spread on the floor. She put a pot on the wooden stove in order to heat water.

Went on brooding – what a wretched life! We are unable to have even gruel! So much suffering! None of the gods and goddesses is taking pity. Of course, at present, we are only three. Me, my husband and our child. Until the other day, the entire family used to live under one roof. The father-in-law, mother-in-law and brother-in-law and we – all of us stayed together. We were starving. Unable to bear the pangs of hunger, the old man used to wail, “ I wish I were dead. Death is better than this hellish torment.” The old woman used to say, “who knows what we did in other lives? Is it that easy to lose one’s life? Will He summon us at all?” Hunger! In addition to it, daily quarrels! Having observed this day after day, the brother-in-law moved out along with parents. God alone knows what was on his mind. He said that he would look after them. Now there are fewer members in the family. But, what is the use? My husband has no work. We go on starving.

She got the lukewarm water ready and called her husband. She cooked gruel with coarse pieces of rice brought from Parvatamma’s house and thought – the truth must be admitted. Parvatamma gives me some course grits of rice whenever I clean rice. She is kind-hearted.

Appala Kondayya calmed down. He had a wash with the tepid water. Sat down in the doorway and began to gobble the gruel from the clay pan noisily.

Poli was sitting leaning against the wooden post and nursing the child.

The circular shapes etched on the pot were glittering like silver coins.

“Tell the truth. Is this pot necessary for us?” Appala Kondayya asked his wife gently.

“I have been hankering after it for a long time. Parvatamma wanted to give away and so I took it.” Poli told her husband much more gently.

Poli loved her husband deeply. Appala Kondayya also loved her deeply. Had they been rich, their love would have come to the notice of all as an ideal love.

“I have been hoping that Parvatamma would speak to her husband about me and get a job for me. But she never raises this topic”.

“I also requested her. Daily I request her. The master says, ‘He needn’t come. I myself shall inform if any vacancy arises’. They say, “He needn’t hang around our house at the cost of his daily earnings”.

“Earnings! My foot! Today I didn’t find any work.”

“Other fellow-laborers run cycle rickshaws and make a living”.

“Couldn’t manage to get a rickshaw. Owning rickshaw is impossible. I have failed in even hiring one”.

“I heard that rickshaws are being distributed. It seems loans are being given by banks. Alas! We don’t get anything!”

“How can we? Without the patronage of some V.I.P. nothing is available. Who is going to call me on his own and give it to me? My case has to be recommended. How about requesting Parvatamma’s husband?”

“If it were possible, he would have done it by now.”

“Yes. You are right. We are destined to suffer like this. What can anybody do?”

Venkatasamy arrived and greeted Appala Kondayya.

“All the huts of our folks in the low-lying area were demolished,” he informed.

“What? The low-lying area?”

“Yes. That’s it. It seems Sendiri and her kids were awake all night by the roadside. None had a morsel of food. Today, they came over here with all their belongings.”

“Sendiri and her kids! In that case, what about my folks? My parents and brother shifted to that street!”

“I heard that the bulldozer didn’t come up to your father’s house. Your people escaped. Our locality is also under the threat of demolition. I don’t know what to do, where to go.”

“What did we do? Why do they demolish our huts?”

“They are leveling the ground. Instead of that, if they run the bulldozer over us, this misery will end. Then we needn’t die daily”.

“Well said, Venkatasamy! It’s better to die. We shall go to Heaven,” said Poli.

“What makes you think so? Heaven after death! Heaven  for folks like us!” Appala Kondayya commented.

“What are we enjoying? Tell me. Our life itself is hell.”

“I just can’t understand it. You explain. Our houses are nothing but huts sitting on the riverbank. Why do they destroy these? Why should the rich indulge in such an activity?”

“Our huts are ugly for them.”

“If so, let them build two-story buildings for us.”

“We can’t afford gruel and you want two-story buildings, dear!” said Poli.

“No, I’m not asking for a two-story building. I said so only because they consider these huts to be ugly and repulsive”.

“They say that our huts are causing them acute suffering like ulcers”.

“They are bulldozing the huts just like a doctor removes the ulcers surgically,” said Venkatasamy.

Mallu stormed in looking as if he were possessed by a spirit. He came in looking for Venkatasamy. He too came from that street in the low lying area. His adolescent blood was boiling. Whenever a rally was organized, he also joined it waving a flag like the rest. He knew by rote what the organizers of the rallies would holler.

“These are all cancerous growths. They grow repeatedly from the same spot on which operation is done. To check their recurring growth, their base should be slashed. They do not originate from the huts, but from those tall buildings. The skyscrapers! They ought to be wiped out instead of these huts. Those tall buildings are to be pulled down. Should be leveled to the ground. Then only the cancerous growths stop recurring”.

“Don’t shout unnecessarily. This isn’t a meeting. Not even a rally. You are highly keyed-up,” said Venkatasamy.

“We may get keyed-up, or we may keep numb. It makes no difference. Our lives won’t change. What sin have we committed? In which life?” said Poli.

“There’s no work. No gruel. If we lose the hut too …”

“Don’t think that we will keep quiet,” said Mallu and was about to say something more.

Venkatasamy got up saying, “The sky is overcast. Cool wind is blowing. You better sleep now. Tomorrow, early in the morning, let us go to the most influential person of this locality and tell him”. Along with him Mallu also got up.

“Venkatasamy! I forgot to tell you something. Look at this pot,” said Poli.

“Brand-new one?”

“Yes. Can you tell the price?”

“Seventeen or eighteen”.

“Then, it’s a bargain!” commented Appala Kondayya.

“You complain about lack of work and lack of gruel. If so, how could you buy an aluminum pot? Hope you haven’t stolen,” Venkatasamy enquired.

“Shut up! I am not that mean. I don’t do anything bad. We have been starving, but never stooped to stealing. I won’t ever. Parvatamma gave it to Poli. Each month she is going to cut one rupee from Poli’s salary until is settled. Gave it just for ten rupees”.

“Only ten rupees? Picked up cheap!” remarked Venkatasamy.

“That woman must be deriving some kind of benefit from this. Otherwise, Why would she give away? They tend to count each and every grain of cooked rice,” commented Mallu.

“She’s very kind,” said Poli.

“Don’t tell me that. I know how kind they are!” said Mallu, getting up to   leave.

A blast of nippy wind whizzed past.

“Look! Lashing wind! Move out! Hurry up!” Venkatasamy and Mallu left.

A high wind blew and put out the Kerosene lamp. Appala Kondayya closed the door. Pressing the two door panels hard, he bolted.

Poli lit the lamp once again and said, “It’s going to rain cats and dogs”.

“If it rains, tomorrow also no work, no income.”

“What’s the use of worrying? Whatever will be will be. Go to bed now.”

“Hope father and others are all right.”

“Go to them early in the morning, tomorrow. You better sleep now,” advised Poli.

Lying beside her son, tucking him up with the loose end of her saree, she nestled against him. Appala Kondayya covered himself with a gunny bag and curled up.

The hut was swaying due to the impact of high winds as well as torrential rain. The rain water was making its way down through gaps in the palm-leaf roof. The lamp went off quickly.

“Appala Kondayya! Wake up! Poli! Poli! Wake up! Floods! Flood water! All are awake. They are running away. Why are you sleeping like a log? Flee! Floods!” Somebody was banging at the door. Appala Kondayya was startled and woke up.

He opened the door. But, what was there to see? All the people of the entire street were fleeing. The young and the old, carrying their belongings on the head, were running in the darkness. Lashing wind. Due to darkness, it was not clearly visible. He rubbed his eyes. When he fully grasped the situation, shivers went down his spine.

“Good God! Oh my God!”

“Poli! Poli!” He called. By then, she already got up and came to the doorway. She wasn’t aware of the flood at all. She was only conscious of the high wind and heavy downpour. She lit the lamp.

“Floods! Poli! Floods! Let’s go. Come on. Quick. Fetch all our goods. Throw them outside the hut. Just look at the people! They’re legging it!” Highly frightened and agitated Appala Kondayya caught hold of whatever articles he could lay his hands on and dumped them in the street. While she was handing over the things, he was carrying them out in a flash – pots and pans, tins and cans, winnow and broomstick, a straight cot etc. They both bundled up their belongings.

“Move out! Be quick! Hurry up! Run!” said he, panting. He placed the upturned string-cot on his head. Then put all the goods along with the tin trunk on it.

“Hold the child. I’ll rush in to the hut just to verify if anything is left out”.

“Nothing else is there. Come on! Run!” he took the boy into his arms.

“Alas! The aluminum pot! Brand new pot! It is left behind!”

“To hell with it. Run! Run! Is it more important than your life? Run!” Appala Kondayya began to run fast.

He ran without turning back, oblivious of everything else. Ran helter-skelter through the wind, rain and darkness. In utter panic, stumbling and straightening up, went on and on till he was out of breath.

“Poli! Take the child,” saying so he turned around. She wasn’t there.

Shouting at the top of his voice “Poli! Poli!” He was about to turn back.

“She’ll come. But if you go back now, you can’t return,” saying so others shoved him forward.

Appala Kondayya thought that she must be somewhere among the running crowd or she might have gone even ahead of him.

Jostling, trampling, shoving, ramming, pressing one another and searching for their own kith and kin, they all surged towards the mansion situated on a very high ground and gathered there.

However, Appala Kondayya couldn’t find his wife there. He went on asking one and all like a lunatic “Have you seen Poli? Have you seen Poli?”

He has been hearing about the river’s tendency to have flash floods. But, this was his first experience of floods. Despite the talk of elders, never had he given any thought to the possibility of floods. The riverbank was full of huts – only huts. Never had the hut-dwellers run away from the river fearing it. On the other hand, they have been dreading demolition by a bulldozer and have been discussing how to face that situation. They never thought, even in their wildest dreams, that the river would hound them.

Appala Kondayya couldn’t find Poli. “She must have taken shelter in some other house,” said others.

“I thought that she would follow close behind me! She said that the aluminum pot, brand new one, was left behind. Doesn’t matter. Run, I told her. I was under the impression that she was also fleeing. Oh God! Poli rushed into the hut! Most probably, didn’t come out at all!” Appala Kondayya broke down and began to weep like a woman.

Venkatasamy, Narsayya, and Mallu were not able to console him. “Calm down. Please. We don’t know what has actually happened. Mallu will go to find out. You calm down.”

Venkatasamy’s wife took the child into her arms.

“Brother Appala Kondayya! Don’t cry. Your parents and brother came away from that low-lying area. They’re taking shelter in the house of Gupta, the merchant. Mallu will fetch them here.” She tried to console him.

He stopped crying and gazed at all the people. They were all recovering from panic. The mansion was jam-packed with people as well as their luggage. Somebody was doling out gruel. The people were standing in a queue and receiving it in clay bowls. Disheveled hair, sunken eyes, and emaciated bodies – they all had the look of a beggar entreating for alms.

“Hell! Hell!” Exclaimed Appala Kondayya.

“What? Appala Kondayya?” Venkatasamy enquired, stroking Appala Kondayya’s back.

“Venkatasamy, Hell! Hell, Venkatasamy!” said Appala Kondayya.

Narsayya said, “He’s head over heels in love with Poli. Has he gone mad?”

On hearing this, Appala Kondayya burst into peals of laughter. They looked at each other.

“I’m not at all mad. What did Poli say yesterday night? It’s better to die. After death, we go to heaven. Life itself is hell, said she. True to her words, she went to heaven. I survived. Survived to live in this hell. They say that people go to heaven holding the tail of a cow. But Poli, my Poli, went to heaven clutching at an aluminum pot! And here I am rotting in this hell. Without gruel, without work, without wages, starving and on the verge of fainting! Poli! Why didn’t you tell me? Why didn’t you tell me that you were leaving for heaven? I would have come clutching at your saree ends. But you didn’t tell me. This is hell! Hell! Hell!”

They all stood stunned and listening to his ravings…

***

Translated by U. Anuradha, and published on thulika.net, December 2001.

“SWARGAROHANA” is the title of this story in Telugu.

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[1] A popular belief that the person whose face you see first thing in the morning will affect your luck for the day.