It was getting dark. Far away, the sun between two hills looked like a blood red sphere; the heat was gone.
(artist: Rambabu Arle)
The shades of lavishly floating clouds resembled leaves, flowers and small hills, and the sun a crimson ball in their midst. The view was like a reflection of nature in a ruby red mirror.
Vasanti washed her hair and went on to the terrace. She let her wet hair down to dry and sat on the brink of the parapet wall. She was watching the gorgeous sunset. Each time the locks on her forehead were moved by the breeze, a whiff of fine aroma spread around from the sambrani smoke she had given to her hair earlier. From her snowy-white neck, a chain of big corals, which she had inherited from her mother, was hanging gently but heavily. In the glow of those corals, her creamy cheeks seemed to quiver shyly. The entire composition—the red saree, the corals around her neck, the red kumkum on her forehead, and the henna on her fingers, which were like jasmine buds—seemed to compete with the evening glow and was immersed in it.
Vasanti had never been that excited as that evening. What a soothing day … what a beautiful evening … It was mesmerizing. In the next moment, a stray thought came over … she was lost in it.
She left this place eight years back. She had spent all her childhood here. So many memories in this town, in this house, each step of the way … All those emotions she had experienced in her childhood—the grief, the hopes, the disappointments, happiness, pleasures, the anxiety and the tears—they all came back and beset her like shadows from a distant past. They all—the pogada flowers she had gathered, the swing she had ridden under the banyan tree, the games she had played in the stairwell in the moonlight—they all started coming back like a series of episodes. Each minute, a new incident kept jumping up in her mind.
In the wee small hours of dawn, she was riding in the bullock-cart. The jingle bells from the bull’s neck were mesmerizing; she dozed off. It was like in a dream; she could visualize each episode from the far-off past: As she was going to Kesari’s wedding on a bullock-cart, and her dotted silk skirt shivered as the breeze blew gently, Pankajam laughing; she [Vasanti] feeling hungry and sleepy, and yawning; Malathi and herself scuffling for a red rose after the cart had stopped at the gate. … so many memories …
Several changes had taken place in her life in the past eight years. Her life had attained fullness after several stops, one after another. She studied in Kalkotta and received her B.A. degree in first class. Her father was elated that she came first in the university and threw a big party. After that, her marriage was performed with the son of the district health officer. The groom’s family did not ask for dowry. Yet father spent money lavishly and performed the wedding on a grand scale. Her husband was fortunate, he landed a job in Lucknow soon after their wedding, and she moved to her in-law’s home at the same time. Within a year, they were blessed with a baby girl. Her husband was promoted to a higher position. She was not short for anything, either financially or otherwise. There was no reason to complain about. Proverbially her husband put her on a bed of flowers and worshipped her; he never opposed her in any matter. She was very fortunate to have such a blissful life. That’s what everybody thought.
Yet, trivial memories had been popping up sporadically and making her feel bogged down.
Soon after the baby was born, and a few times after that, she tried to visit her hometown but could never do so. Her husband’s transfers every six months and other domestic issues squashed her wish each time. Now, after so many years, she was able to return to her hometown.
It’s got dark. The sky was studded with stars. The moonlight shone like gold and spread to the inmost corners. The moon was laughing exultantly. Vasanti went downstairs, brought a comb, untangled her hair and put it in a loose braid. She made a wreath of jasmines bloomed afresh and the roses she had picked in the morning and tucked it in her braid.
Her mother came upstairs with the baby in her arms. She asked, “Coming down for supper?”
“What’s the hurry? Let father come …” Vasanti said.
Mother asked again, looking into the sky, “When is your husband coming?”
“Don’t know. He said he would come for the festival, if he is granted leave.”
She sat there with mother quietly for a while watching the mango sprouts in bloom. Mother fed the baby, spread a mattress on the terrace and laid her to sleep. Vasanti also lay down next to the sleeping baby and went into a reverie. … The moonlight was touching her face gently. The moon was splashing tiny smiles like a ball of gold.
She could not remember how may moonlit nights and dawns she had spent on that terrace in that manner—happily, sadly, teasingly, … in her childhood. She used to go and sit on the terrace whenever she was bored. From there, she could see the innumerable small hills and mounds around and a huge meadow stretched in front of her house. Past the meadow, there were tall coconut trees and two small mountains in the rear, which seemed to be coming from two directions and meeting there. Every morning, at the stroke of six, the sun in blood red color would peek from behind those mountains. Again, in the evening the moon would greet from the same spot in between the coconut trees. Everyday she felt mesmerized by those scenes in her younger days.
The baby moved in her sleep, and nudged against the chain in Vasanti’s neck, pressing the corals against Vasanti’s body. A sad feeling weighed her heart down. … Abbha! …. How long had she been carrying these corals! Each time the chain moved, something in her heart pricked … some incomprehensible pain … some anguish.
On the meadow in front of their house, there was only one hut, where Lakshumanna, the old man lived with his old woman and his grandchild, Sita. Sita had lost her mother long time ago. Lakshumanna used to run a grocery store, and manage with the little income he had been getting from it. …
Vasanti looked for that hut as soon as she got out of the cart. There was not even a sign of the hut. The meadow was filled with several colorful new buildings raised to the sky. She could not see even the far-off mountains. She came to her senses.
Poor Lakshumanna thatha was a nice man. He was very kind to Vasanti. He called her bullemma garu, little girl, and treated her like princess. He was very nice to her. Sita and she used to play in the green pastures in front of the hut all day. Vasanti was about seven or eight-years old at the time, about the same age as Sita. Early in the morning Vasanti would get up, take a bath, have the hair braided, wore a silk frock and go to play. Sita would come out of the hut with unkempt hair and wearing a torn skirt. Both played any number of games in the grass there: start out with gujjanagullu, gudugudu kuncham, and continue with dolls’ wedding, and finish it with kaalla gajje. Sometimes she would not remember even to go home to eat. Mother would come out the door and call out for her and bring her into the house.
Vasanti played so much in the dirt that her frock would get dirty and torn. Mother would yell at her each day and tell her that she should not play with beggar girls in the dirt, and drag her into their house. Mother yelled at her numerous times yet she [Vasanti] always found a way to run out to play with Sita. Mother got tired of it and let go.
Whenever the business was slow, Lakshumanna thatha would come and sit with them and tell them stories. Vasanti also called him thatha since Sita was calling him thatha. Thatha favored her more than Sita. She used to pick up tin strips and brass pieces and give them to thatha, telling him that they were silver and gold pieces. Thatha would take those worthless pieces zealously and put them in a tin box as if they were real silver and gold. In return, he would give them, Sita and herself, peppermints, chocolate and paan. That turned into a daily game. Each day, she gave him some worthless piece, got chocolate in return and munched it, feeling that she had accomplished something big. … On one occasion, she told her mother too about this game.
“What? Are you giving away all the gold nuggets I’ve been saving in the silver box?” mother asked.
Vasanti was nervous. “Oh, no, not them … Only the pieces I found on the floor,” she said hastily, and her face turning white.
Mother did not believe her. “I told you so many times not to go to that hovel, you don’t listen,” she said, vexed.
One day, a coral vendor came to the door. Mother haggled for over an hour and picked three varieties of corals—small, medium and big size—and bought them. They were bright red-colored and beautiful. Mother took the corals and the gold nuggets she had been saving to Sankarayya, the goldsmith. She got him make coral chains. On the same day the chains were brought home, Vasanti picked the one with the biggest corals and wore in her neck. Mother was displeased.
She said, “Cchi. They are so big they don’t look good on you. Look, this chain with cute little corals, I got it made just for you. Wear this one.”
Vasanti did not listen. She fussed over it for a while and said, “I don’t want them. I like only this one.”
Mother tried to persuade the best she could. …but no use … Vasanti would not listen. She wore that wretched coral chain and went to play. It was so heavy, her neck started hurting. It went up into the air each time she jumped, yet she did not care. She got carried away by the excitement of wearing a new chain and got absorbed in the games. She even forgot about the chain in all that hullabaloo.
After it got dark, she returned home. Mother helped her take a hot water bath and served food in the silver plate. That is when she noticed the missing chain. “Oh, no, where are the corals?” she asked anxiously.
Vasanti cringed and felt her neck, her face turned white. The chain was gone. She forgot about the chain entirely while playing games. She did not know when or how it got lost.
Mother was angry and miserable. She snarled, “I told you so many times and you turned a deaf year. Here you are now, lost it in a minute, cchi.”
After that, mother and father together asked her numerous questions. That torrent of query did not slow down even the next day. God only knows how many people asked her the same questions over and again. She was tired. All that questioning made her angry, and vexed, and made her cry.
“Where all the places you had been to since morning?”
“Where did you play?”
“With whom did you play?”
“When was the last time you had checked the coral chain?”
They went on asking like that all day. She answered all their questions, some answers she knew and others she just guessed. “I played in the hallway. I played with Savitri upstairs. I was checking the chain now and then.” But, for some reason, she did not tell them that she had been playing with Sita for a long time in front of thatha’s store. She was afraid that mother would be displeased, and she might accuse Sita and thatha.
That night mother and father searched and searched the entire house again and again but could not find the coral chain. Vasanti went to bed, frightened and depressed and crying. In the morning, once again, they all searched every nook and corner. Everybody in the neighborhood heard about the loss of the corals. And they all came to express their sympathies. There was no end to the people saying soothing words and giving suggestions: Did you search all the places? What a loss, costs twenty-five rupees at least to buy again. Maybe somebody pilfered it. Do you suspect anybody? … There were so many questions and so many comments. Poor mother, she answered them all patiently and analytically. In fact, she was happy, even seemed to enjoy reiterating the answers in great detail. She felt as if she found the item.
By eight o’clock, babayi, who was living in the same neighborhood, came to our house. At once, he started out on his share of questioning. He asked mother, “When did you put the chain in her neck? And when did you see it again?” Mother gave suitable answers.
Babayi asked suddenly, “She goes to the old man’s hut to play every day. Didn’t she go yesterday?”
Mother was dumbfounded; why did not such an obvious thought occur to her? She felt bad for being so stupid. She called Vasanti, who was hiding in a corner and asked, “Did you not go to play with Sita yesterday?”
Vasanti said furtively, “I went in the morning.”
Babayi concluded at once, “Say so. Probably, you lost it while playing in front of the hut. That old man must have taken it.”
Mother supported it. “Yes, he must have taken it. In fact, he has been bothering our little girl to bring silver and gold from our house everyday.”
Vasanti was flabbergasted. “That’s a lie. Thatha never asked me to bring anything. I was giving them on my own—the pieces I found here and there in the house, and thatha took them only to please me.” Vasanti wanted to shout these words and let mother know but, amidst all that clamor, she could not open her mouth.
Babayi went and brought thatha to our house. Arbitration started. Babayi screamed all kinds of bad words and showered a volley of insults every which way. “Little one was playing in front of your hut all morning. Who could have taken it if not you?” he said.
Thatha stood there pallid for a long time, as if he did not hear the words, did not understand them. He could not comprehend what all those people were talking about. He was crushed, humiliated and in pain. He spoke pitiably a few times, “I do not know madam. I have not seen the corals in the little one’s neck at all.” And he said, “I am fond of bullemma garu more than my Sita. How could I touch any piece of jewelry on her?”
But nobody was willing to listen to his appeals.
Mother said, “Okay, you just return the chain like a nice boy. Why subject yourself to public humiliation?”
“But I did not take it madam. I don’t have it,” thatha said softly but clearly, and stood there as if he did not know what else he could do.
Babayi said, “Look, Lakshumanna, just return the piece politely and beg for our forgiveness. Otherwise, we will have to report to the police. And you know what happens when it falls into the hands of the police.”
Thatha was frightened at the mention of police. He shook like a leaf. Not a word came out of his mouth.
Just in time, police Narasayya was passing by. He saw the commotion and came in. “What? What happened?” he asked babayi, waving his baton.
“Nothing,” said babayi and narrated the entire incident as if he was telling a story.
Police Narasayya said, taunting thatha, “Why give us trouble? Make up your mind quickly … or you will be walking to the police station.” He gawked as he hit the ground with his baton.
Thatha was stricken with grief and stood there as if he lost his mind. Despair shrouded him and reflected in his eyes. It was burning him. Sita clung to his legs and cried loudly. Vasanti also felt it and wept.
Thatha stopped for a second not knowing what to do. And then, he walked toward his store as if he was sleepwalking. He opened the cashbox, and pulled out an old ten-rupee note, which was crumpled into a ball. He gave it babayi and said, “babu, I did not see the corals. But take this and leave me alone. I am poor … I am old. I cannot see clearly. What will you gain by badgering me, babu?” Tears sprang to his eyes as he spoke.
The people conferred for a while and decided that it’s better to take the money since they could not recover the corals.
Mother said, “The corals were worth twenty-five rupees. You offer ten rupees? Make it twenty. We will let you go since we’ve known you for so long.”
“Yes, that is right,” babayi said.
Thatha said, trembling, “That’s all I have. I cannot give you any more even if you kill me.” The empty cashbox slipped and fell on the ground with a bang.
Babayi was about to say something. Until now, father was sitting a little away, as if it was no concern of his; he was scared of mother’s loudmouth. He said, “Let him go, why pester the poor old man?”
With that, babayi kept quiet. So also mother.
Thatha held Sita’s hand and went away, walking slowly.
Police Narasayya ran his fingers through his hair as if he’d done something great, and held out his hand, and said, “Sir, whatever pleases you.” He got two rupees and left the scene. Rest of the crowd dispersed too.
Vasanti sat there in the hallway. Tears rolled down from her eyes without break. She knew that thatha did not take the corals … he would never take anything. But she could not tell that to anybody. She sat there watching thatha suffer and did nothing.
She wanted to run to thatha, hold his hand and tell him, “I know, thatha, you did not take my corals. Do not misunderstand me.” She went to the door. Mother came from behind, grabbed her shoulder and pulled her back into the house.
After that, mother never let her go near thatha’s store again.
One day Polamma was sweeping the floors in the upstairs room and found the coral chain. It popped out from under the chest of drawers. Vasanti jumped for joy.
Polamma screamed, “Amma garu, the corals are here.”
Amma came running to upstairs and was surprised to see the red corals lying on the floor. She picked up the corals in her hand. She said happily and with a little embarrassment, “We had searched the entire house but never occurred to us to look under this chest.”
Polamma said, sounding philosophical, “It is all in that old man’s karma,” and went away waving the broom.
Vasanti said exuberantly, “Amma, shall I go and tell thatha that the coral were found.”
Mother held the corals close to her chest and sneered, “Cchi, how can we do that? What would the people say? Don’t they think that we’ve had the corals all this time and harassed the old man for nothing? What a shame, what a disgrace.”
Vasanti could not understand her mother’s logic. Thatha was humiliated, blamed for something he did not do, and there was no shame, no humiliation for him? But admitting that the corals had been found and that they had been wrong was shameful and inappropriate for mother!
She hoped that mother would call thatha and return his ten rupees as soon as the corals were found. But that did not happen. Additionally, whatever mother could have told Polamma, the fact that the corals were found never came to light. The relentless pain in her [Vasanti’s] heart remained forever. That her family had committed an abominable crime against the old man, and taken the ten-rupees, his sweat money, from him, remained a huge weight in her heart forever.
Thatha did not recuperate from this horrible incident for a very long time. He was devastated by the humiliation inflicted on him day by day. His business went down and finally was closed. Sita grew up and started working. Three of them were managing somehow with the measly earnings of Sita.
Vasanti used to stand on the terrace and watch Sita and thatha. She saw them watching her pitiably, kindly, and sadly. Then she felt ashamed, wiped her tears and went back into the house. Finally, she left that town. On that day, also thatha came out of his hut, and watched her go away in the cart, affectionately, and with tearful eyes. Poor thatha, he was hurt so badly but never forgot her.
Vasanti could never figure out what kind of blessings he had bestowed on her when he shed those tears but his ingenuous love enveloped her like a shadow and protected her.
Vasanti had never forgotten thatha despite the time elapsed and the numerous changed which had occurred in her life. Each time the corals in her neck moved, she was reminded of thatha. She longed on several occasions to pay off the debt she felt owed to him. But she was scared of her mother. She could do nothing about it.
The winds were blowing and the branches of the banyan tree were wavering. Mother shouted from downstairs room, “Come on to eat. Father is home.”
Vasanti covered baby with a sheet, got up and went into the kitchen. While eating, she asked her mother, “Old thatha and Sita—they used to live in the hut across from us. Where are they?”
Mother said with a grimace, “Who knows. Some four years back there was devastation and the old couple passed away, I guess. After that, some distant relative came and took Sita with him. I don’t know where she is now.”
Hum, thought Vasanti. It was heartrending for her but mother was saying it as if it meant nothing.
Vasanti could not relish the food. She quickly gobbled two bites and went back to the terrace. Mother was calling from behind, “What is that? You have not eaten.”
On the terrace, the baby was sleeping innocently, happily, and without a care in the world. She was holding the rubber doll tight to her chest. Tears filled Vasanti’s eyes. She sat on the cot, leaned forward and touched the curls on baby’s forehead gently. The corals from her neck dangled and touched baby’s lips. On that night in the moonlight, a distant star fell from the sky.
As she watched the baby’s eyes, sleep came over her. The corals rumbled heavily in her heart.
Translated by Nidadavolu Malathi and published on thulika.net,July 2007.
(The Telugu original, pagadaalu, was published in the mid-forties.)