by Puranam Subrahmanya Sarma.
Srihari arrived in Howrah Station with a suitcase full of ideals. When he first arrived there, he was overwhelmed with the thought that this was his country and this wealth was his. He watched the buses as they ran in several directions in single files like ants; the pure and noble river Hugli (Ganges), radiant with the shining rays, flowed next to this big, city jam-packed with people from all the races in the world. He walked grandly and with his heart brimming with a new wave of light. Then he went around the Garden Reach offices, was crushed with disappointment, grit his teeth on realizing the worthlessness of the recommendation letters he had brought. His heart broke into tiny bits. He ate dry roasted peas, drank water out of the water pipe by the wayside, slept on the benches at the railway station, was beaten by the police, and cursed the system for all his troubles, got used to the smoky jute mills which were sucking in the people in the morning and spitting out the live bodies in the evening. He kept walking cursing the country.
The man pulled out of his suitcase things like woman, education, marriage, and high-level jobs, threw them away and happily walked into the smoked-filled chimney. There are no jute-mills chimneys in Telugu country, not even a cigarette factory. There is not a single industry that could offer subsistence in the neighborhood of Telugu country. We have bald-headed people but no clothes factories. There are plenty of Telugu men who were educated and suffered for want of suitable jobs; also, there are men who were married, got scared of family lives, and left the Telugu area only to become clerks and day workers. The road transportation is not good. There is no electricity in our villages. We have no industries. There is no attempt in our state to create any big industries to solve unemployment. All we see is only tremendous political awareness, civil disturbance, tension, killing, retraction, murdabad, jindabad and such. Or else, men walking with eyeglasses, loosely hanging pants and long shirts— either a poet, writer or politician— hard to identify. The darkness in the country is picking up people by the scruff of their necks—people who are like cats, mice and raccoons—and throwing them out.
The earth became heavier after great social reformers like Veeresalingam, Gurajada Appa Rao, Raja Rammohan Roy and Gandhi were born. The breeze is lighter. The seeds of reform were sown in the hearts of our youth and creating an atmosphere to bring about change in the country. People are changing their attitudes and changing their lifestyles.
After change took place and there was some sympathy towards social reform, the jail gates were opened. The walls are torn down. People said we could not tolerate slavery, violence and injustice. We are also changing our views about the issues of women. There was just about enough room for empathy in the hearts of young men and bring about change. As a result, some of the young men made a point of intervening and helping the destitute women; some became heroes by applying themselves totally, displaying their humanity and in an attempt to resolve the issues; some of them even experimented in several ways and ended up creating tragic stories.
Srihari started looking for a room in the big city, Calcutta. He carried his penance with austerity and finally he came to know vaguely that a room would be possibly vacated soon in Shalimar area. He literally flew to the spot. There is a custom called pagidi in Bombay and salaami in Calcutta. The landlord takes two, three or four hundred rupees, depending on the amenities and the location, before renting the flat. The normal rent would be fifty to eighty rupees per month. After the current renter moved out, the landlord lets the place to another renter only after receiving the specified amount as salaami.
Srihari understood that he needed to pay two hundred rupees as saalami, went around the building ten times, and finally entered the building on his eleventh round. The flat he was looking for was the last room on the sixth floor. Each floor has 30 rooms and the entire building consisted of 180 rooms. He heard the 180th room would be vacated soon. The higher the location, the cheaper the rent, and also it would be quieter. One can cry loudly; if one is tired of life, it is also easy to jump from there and end one’s life. Since the room has all these possibilities, Srihari agreed to 200 rupees salaami. But he has no 200 rupees in his pocket, not even 2 rupees. He pleased the doorman with a cup of tea, stuffed a paan in his mouth and managed to get a ride on the elevator to the sixth floor.
The evening was smiling lightly and the daylight was turning dim. The Hugli river at a distance was scrambling through buildings moving like a snake. People and vehicles on the streets were moving like the water in the river. If you look from the top of a building at night, you can see the charming view of deepavali festivities.
A Bengali woman sat on the floor with a cutting knife and scaling fish. Little children were crawling around her like chicken. He walked past a resounding cough probably from stifling smoke in the kitchen, footsteps dancing to the tune from an old gramophone record, jingling sounds from her anklets, and the sarees hanging from the windows, little tee-shirts flying freely around. One woman laid her baby on her stretched out legs and was lost in thought while putting the little one to sleep. A young couple, in the prime of their youth, were smiling with great contentment and walking away in a freshly washed and neatly ironed clothes. The doorman went past all these scenes, left Srihari at the 180th room and returned.
The woman who was sitting on a stool and separating the strands of her hair saw Srihari. She quickly pulled her dark red and black spotted sari palloo around her shoulders and stood up, a little confused. Cold air was forcing its way in like a wave. It was getting dark and things were vaguely visible. Srihari tried his half-baked Hindi and Bengali and tried in vain to explain that he came there to discuss the salaami issue. He asked her, “When will you vacate the room?” She pushed forward the stool for him, turned on the light switch, and said, “Please, speak in Telugu. You’ll be blessed with heavenly bliss, ” and moved to a dim spot and stood next to the parapet wall.
Srihari threw himself on the stool, almost choking. “You … you … are also a Telugu woman,” he could barely suppress his surprise and he continued, “I am very happy, very happy.” Then he summarized the surroundings with his looks and asked her, “Are you vacating this room? Can I ask about salaami?”
She, standing in the dim light, making an effort not let him see her face, replied, “Yes.”
“My name is Srihari. I come from … Working in the jute mill. I’m having a hard time to find a place to stay. I heard about this room, that it will be vacated soon, but you happen to be a Telugu person is my luck.” He continued to talk enthusiastically.
She, still standing in the dark, fixed her palloo, which slipped, from her shoulder.
“Where are you moving to from this place? Where are you from originally? When will you vacate? Is it okay if I talk to you about the salaami or there somebody else I need to address this?”
The woman turned her face away and broke into sobs. Srihari, sitting on the stool, was stunned about her outburst, was not sure if his words caused her to cry, and remained motionless looking into the room. The window was closed shut. Some dirty sarees were hanging from hooks and doors. There was book, turned upside down on the sheet shabbily spread on the cot near the door; some dishes inside the room, she was standing with her face cupped in her two hands. Srihari, unable to make sense of her sorrow, decided to leave and got up silently.
“Don’t go. Have some tea and leave,” she said, and hurried through the lighted area into the kitchen. Srihari stood there with his hands in his pant pockets and fell into a reverie.
She lit up the stove and returned to the room. “Oh, no. You are still standing. Sit down,” she said. Srihari noticed that her eyes were swollen. He did not believe that she would make tea for him and he would be able to drink it. He didn’t sit down either. It’s possible that she might start crying again half way while making tea. She might not finish making tea, might turn off the stove, stick her head between her knees and let the tears flow like rivers. He could not dismiss anything as impossible. The woman brought in two cups and brought on a stool and said, “Tea will be ready in two minutes. Please don’t stand, sit down,” and went out with two annas. The clouds were gathering thick and winds were blowing heavily. Dry and ripe leaves were flying all around. It might start raining. Srihari started thinking warily. He looked around for a half second and then walked out the room and started pacing as he was lost in his thoughts. “This woman was a lone soul. There is no sign of any male here. Therefore she is sure to express some sorrow. Certainly she seems to be in need of sympathy and help, and probably money too. She might even have a story about herself, a credible narration to recount.”
The woman returned with two cigarettes and a paan and put them on the stool in front of him. She said, “Don’t eat the paan yet. You can have it after the tea,” and went in. She brought the tea and poured into the cup. He asked her, “Are there any others adults in the house?” She replied, “I don’t have anybody to call my own. Who told you about me vacating this room?”
Srihari said casually, “I don’t know who you are. Nobody told me. I just was walking around buildings to find a room and stopped by here.”
“Here, take it,” she handed him a cup, “Is sugar enough?”
“Yes,” Srihari said.
It started raining. The woman went in, turned off the stove, and returned and stood near the door. “For the three months, I’ve been selling jewelry I wore, one after another. Now I decided to collect the 200 rupees salaami, leave Calcutta and return home,” she said.
Srihari asked without thinking, “What are you doing here?”
She said, sounding annoyed, “What do you want me to say? I am a woman. I’ve managed for three months somehow. How much longer can I struggle? I’ll return home. I have people at home but my heart breaks to think that I would be walking into that crowd again.”
Srihari was sarcastic, “So you made your entire family cry?”
It was raining outside. Srihari said, as if he was acting out a part in a play, “Look, my story is not any worse than yours. You felt like expressing your sorrow as soon as you saw me. And you told me part of your sad story. I understand. Whoever brought you here did not actually dump you in the middle of hopeless wooded setting. He tried to give you a happy life but failed. Now about me. I am a man, came for a job and went around like an old coin, had no other choice but take a job in the jute mill since there was nothing else was available to me. I had the job but still need a place, a roof over my head. That’s how we met. For you the problem is getting rid of this room and for me finding one. However, I don’t have even one paisa for salaami.”
She was upset. “Why go around for a room if you can’t pay the salaami?” she said angrily.
Srihari laughed and said, “Coexistence.”
For a few minutes neither spoke. Water drops were splattering on the window panes.
Srihari said boldly, “It seems you didn’t even try for a job in the past three months.”
“I just lay down, crying and eating by selling whatever things I have.”
“So you did realize that there is something like eating!”
“What kind of talk is that?”
Srihari lit a cigarette, took a long puff and spoke gravely, “I understood your plight. Women like you are good for nothing but to cry. Forgive me. I would rather put it rather harshly. You don’t have the the character needed for living. Why did you have to into this rut called love at all? You don’t have your own values, not the ability for self-support. You don’t have the right to stand except as a dependent of somebody, except to be married. You are no good when it comes to loving, why did you jump into this, why run away to Calcutta? I don’t think that the man who left you in this horrible jungle ran away because his love for you was used up and he got tired of you. Probably he was unable to cope up with the weight you have shifted to him, the entire weight of your life. Some idiots may have said that man and woman are like two wheels of a chariot. The truth is one of them always holds the whip, lashes out and keeps poking at the other. The second person desperately takes on the responsibility and pulls the weighty chariot of life. If this is true in your case, I think it is meaningless to feel sorry for you. Any woman who refuses to admit that she was battering the man until he is tired of her and then imagines all her actions as a mark of love and depicts the man as ungrateful.”
“Are you done with your speech? It seems your hatred of woman is still brewing. You think you have understood why I cried earlier. When I saw you and heard your voice something came to my mind and I cried. I thought of the mean mentality of people who throw a net as soon as they see a woman, sweet-talk and make her their own, get tired of her and run away. You, being wary, delivered a high-strung speech, thinking I was trying to earn your sympathy by narrating my pitiful story, turn myself into a millstone round your neck, and live on your generosity. That’s good. But then I have my fears too. You say you don’t have a single paisa. And also mentioned co-existence. You have a job in some factory, and you need a place to live. Also a woman to take care of your daily necessities. It looks like a good plan, so far. Isn’t it great that we are talking openly, although we are total strangers?”
Srihari grunted loudly. “Chi, chi. How embarrassing your mode of thinking is! You are looking down on me because I told you that I don’t have any money and I took the job at a factory for want of better opportunities. Love ruins life. The people who could not face life have no right to love. We all live our own lives. You have our motives and I have mine. You don’t have to worry about me. Tomorrow you will change your views quickly when you see your salaami in your hand. You will return to your town and join your family. You will recover to your usual self again and start throwing new nets on the world again. Your smiles, your looks, and your words …”
The woman shouted loudly, “Stop, stop it. You had better leave now. In fact, I will not vacate this room. I don’t want your salaami. I am not that kind of woman. I can find my way out. My head is numb with all the speeches you have delivered.”
Srihari sat on the stool and pulled the stove closer to him. He lit another cigarette, and said, “Bring that milk can and wash this dish for me. I can make you pour one more cup of tea, by force if necessary.” He pulled out one rupee bill from his pocket, and continued, “We both are running towards the Truth of Life. I want one pack of cigarettes, one big bun, and two paans. Get them quick. Today you said improper things about me. When you asked me to leave, I understood something right away. We yell at those people whom we also love deeply.”
The woman took the rupee and threw it down, “you must be thinking that I listened to all your stupid talk because I was a nice person. The truth it is a long time since I heard a Telugu word. I didn’t care what you talked, I just liked the fact that you talked in Telugu.”
Srihari said, “You said you liked the fact that I talked in Telugu. I am protesting it and telling in all earnestness that you retract your statement.”
She didn’t pay attention to those words. Srihari sat there pondering. It was raining outside lightly. The noises from the running buses were on the wane. The city was shimmering like a beautiful woman in a translucent saree. The tea on the stove was done. The woman returned after ten minutes, untied the bundle at the end of saree palloo and spread the things on the floor. “I brought sweets also,” she said. “How come you took so long to return,” Srihari said sarcastically.
She replied angrily, “I don’t appreciate you asking such questions. Don’t try unnecessarily to gain control over me. Here is your change.” Srihari looked at the change closely and said, “This two anna coin is outdated. You’ve been had again.” He could hardly control his laugh. She rushed to the next room, closed the doors with a bang and threw herself on the bed.
Srihari sliced the bun, toasted on the stove, and poured tea into two cups. He said turning to the door, “Banging the doors in that manner is inappropriate. If you had given me your name before you became angry, I would have the opportunity to beg you. I don’t think getting angry is the correct weapon to use on strangers.”
In the absence of response from her, Srihari ate the sweets and started chewing on a slice of bread as he spoke, “Love is spreading like a contagious disease among us. Young men and women of our country, the spinal cord of our nation, are contracting this disease ruining their precious lives, and losing their right to lead productive lives. They can’t deal with their issues. I am telling you a feasible solution for our problem. Up until now, nobody shared my life since I did not try to do so. Since you just stepped into the mud and are washing your feet, you find a job. We both can try together. If you succeed, I will follow all your orders and take care of you. Will you sign this contract?”
The woman opened the doors, stuck her head out, and said, “You are talking very enthusiastically. Probably your stomach has settled down. This rain doesn’t look like to end soon. Today I made your acquaintance rather unexpectedly. We talked with each other with open heart and freely as if we have known each other forever.”
“Don’t say open heart. Find another word for that.
The woman laughed pleasantly. She said, “After a long time, here is a person who could make me laugh again. I spent all day and night sitting on the bed and crying. You are like the one and only sunray that came straight out of the dark and spread in the room.”
“Stop right there. The building under my feet is shaking. I wouldn’t worry even if I saw an atom bomb fall on me. Your poetry is shattering the fort of my ideals. I must move now,” Srihari said and got up. She said, “Wait, I’ll also go with you.” But he kept walking towards the staircase without paying attention to her words. It took 15 minutes for him to walk down the stairs past several people on the way. He paid two annas to the doorman and had him scribble the name of the woman in the 180th flat. She joined and said, “Let’s go. What took you so long? How long do you think I can wait on the street for you?”
Srihari expressed surprise, “You? Sarada!” Word’s wouldn’t come out of his mouth. Sarada laughed and said, “I was asking you to wait but you didn’t hear me. I ate the sweets and also the tea you’ve made for me. I changed and took the elevator to get here.”
Sarada dressed up gracefully. She put on light make up—slight touch of face powder, light colored lipstick, wore a voile saree with flowers, and put up her hair in a bun, covered with a net. While they were walking toward bus stop, she held his right hand with her left hand and asked him, “How did you find out my name?” Srihari said, “Never mind that. I am blessed so far. Are you sure you wouldn’t cause any more disasters? Please tell me where are we are heading and earn the blessings of our gods. The reason I am saying this is—when you held my hand, it is like me losing half of my personality—something like getting married. The doorman who collected two annas from me and gave out your name is our witness indirectly. Here is the note on which he wrote your name.” He stuffed the note in her hand and said again, “Now tell me where we are going.”
“Shall we go to a movie?” Sarada asked with a smile.
“Today something happened between us, two total strangers. it is a miracle that has never been heard of. Do you think we can experience anything stranger than this if we go to the movies?”
“I don’t know. For me, it is the same as always. Probably you are feeling like riding on the crowds.”
“That is true. For me this is new,” Srihari laughed. Sarada, annoyed, pulled her hand out from his and turned around to go back. Srihari put his hand on her shoulder and said tenderly, “You are my guru. I don’t think I have to remind over and again that a lot younger than you. Okay?” She nodded. They took the bus and got down at the Howrah bridge. They roamed around in the bazar, bought sampangi flowers, and borrowed a piece of thread from the same flower seller. Srihari said, “Let’s go and sit under the bridge. We don’t have to worry about the rain. Wouldn’t it be nice to walk in the darkness, away from all these bright lights?” she said. Both of them reached the Howrah bridge, ducking people. The lights from the bridge are shimmering beautifully on the river. On either side, huge steamers anchored near the shores and resting. Several small boats were floating in the shallow waters, rubbing each other. Srihari made room through the crowd and helped Sarada into one small boat. Sarada held his hand for support and got into the boat carefully. The oars that belonged to the boats are arranged in a row on the shore. Occasionally, huge motor boats were tearing through the river noisily. They could see the sailors pacing on the boats leisurely.
Srihari stood alone on the boat, entertaining beautiful thoughts and was watching the sky. The clouds are hovering and spreading shadows of sadness. The rain stopped after pouring heavily and seemed to be resting. Sarada sat on the cross board in the boat with poise and got herself busy with make Sampangi garland.
Srihari was watching her keenly. Her hair was flying freely in the air. He was caught by the sweet aroma of Sampangi flowers were spreading, curving and forming into a splendid garland and falling again into saree folds. The aroma was sensuous and carried him into another world. Sarada was dipping the flowers in the water. The river Hugli was moving somberly in the shadows of the bridge. From a distance they could hear the fishermen singing Bengali folksongs while throwing the net to catch fish.
Srihari sat down on the floor of the boat, put his hand on the plank Sarada sat, pulled the beautiful pleats of her saree to his chest, laid his head in her lap and asked her, “Guru, what is your command?” Sarada giggled. The sampangi flowers spilled from her lap. She wound the garland around his head, leaned over him and asked, “Why don’t you talk?” Her full breasts, which comprehended the essence of life, gave him goose bumps. She pulled his head into her lap and fell into his arms with ecstatically.
It did not occur to Srihari in that moment that these things are not new to Sarada. Sampangi flowers were crushed. The boat shook in the water charmingly. The lights on the Hugli river were clearly highlighting the river, boats and motor boats. The rest of the night seemed to have melted away beautifully. The clouds are slowly moving away like cotton balls. The footsteps of the people walking on the bridge were being incessantly.
Srihari and Sarada turned towards home. Since the buses were in no hurry, they decided they could spend the unending distance with chatting, laughing and teasing each other.
Srihari said with a laugh, “It seems we jumped into a big disaster.”
Sarada threw her head in hesitation and asked, “What do you mean?”
“This is all new and scary for me.”
They both walked for a while without talking. Srihari said, “What should we do if we want this friendship should stay strong and forever?”
Sarada said teasingly, “Frienship? Why such big word? Call it need and that is closer to truth.”
Srihari took her shoulders in his two hands tenderly and said, “You spoke very daringly. Yes, need. We do really have some physical wants that need to be met. Normally we find some delicate sounds from the poverty of cogitation and use them in order to describe these needs and try to run away from the truth.”
Sarada was listening and walking enthusiastically. “Instead of hanging curtains around the institutions that were created to meet the physical needs, if we could identify the needs and not attribute any more value to them than necessary, then maybe we wouldn’t have some unnecessary problems,” he said.
“You are using meaningless language in words and murdering this beautiful night,” Sarada said.
Srihari replied, “We have no choice but to resort to different methods. One for telling something beautifully and charmingly; and. Another to highlight the truth that is deduced after careful analysis. Sometimes it could sound harsh,” he said.
“Why are you analyzing our problem so minutely?”
“Sarada, it is not a good idea to play with life and make fun of it. I am scared. What I also cause you …”
“You mean I could be taken? All right. What did you do with the two-anna coin earlier?”
“I gave it to the conductor in the bus.”
They both laughed pleasantly. Then Srihari said seriously, “Sarada, stop for a second. I have something to say to you.”
She folded her two arms and stood. Srihari started to say, “Let’s talk to each other frankly and harshly without fear. I was a untainted bachelor up until one hour back.
“Cha. What is this now?” Sarada burst into a big laugh.
Srihari taunted her, “Listen. I am not saying I am egotistical. On top of it, I respect your glorious past. Your guru status remains the same. Let’s get to the problem of our two lives.”
Sarada yawned and said, “But I am feeling very sleepy.” He said, “Okay, let’s go.” He took her hand; both started walking forward together cozily. The night closed down.
A decade passed after this happened or maybe longer. If you think that Srihari and Sarada spent the rest of their lives like lovebirds and they had a life like three flowers and six fruits. Srihari is the same without a blemish. If I have to tell you about Sarada—what happened to her and where she ended—here it is.
I could forget Sarada after much struggle. Her brilliant and delicate face and sharp looks keep questioning my weakness over and again. For a while I rocked her in a dream world. Then, not suddenly but gradually, we both were thrown into devastating darkness. We got together because of our physical needs. We never doubted or betrayed each other. We both needed this marital life but we could not justify our lifestyle. Our life in Calcutta turned frightening, life became a continuous struggle and we could not deal with it anymore. We became a burden to each other. In situations like these, I always feel pity, respect and sympathy for women like Sarada. I am not going to discuss her shortcomings publicly and in her absence and thus embarrass her. Hindu woman is a remarkable sadhvi, I’ll accept that. But if you ask me to applaud that Hindu women outshine the rest of the womankind, I’d say. I’m sorry. Sarada is good at chit chat and making people laugh. Unfortunately, instead of becoming the life-partner of a rich man, she became the wife of a day laborer in a jute mill and for that reason the beauty in our marital bliss, the happiness and the charm were gone soon enough. The factory was closed due to strikes. I had the job only for namesake. I was short even for daily wear. The society around shrunk so badly and I lost mind when I realized the horrendous and cruel truth that we didn’t need the marital life. It became impossible for us even to pay 40 rupees rent and we moved into the shadows of huge buildings, to sewage canals and were ready even to live next to garbage cans. We don’t have worries in our lives but we developed a hate that could never be patched. Although I never insulted for being my wife, I kept badgering my philosophy, You are a Hindu woman. If you had learned how to earn and make a living for yourself, imagine how much our country would progress. You are dumping your entire responsibility as well as that of the children on one helpless man and making him and yourself miserable in the process. Therefore, if you start earning and live on our own, your status in the society changes right away and you can face the life with great valor. I became totally imbecile since I was the only earning member and Sarada was dependent on me totally. We pawned any and everything we could label as property and lived on that money for a while. We started fasting and lost weight. We had no strength for anything except exchange resentful looks with each other. Oh, I almost forgot to tell you. As a result of our pointless relationship, we also have a baby girl. After living next garbage cans, to the sewage canals, and murky lanes, we got tired of our lives, learned that there was no point of being together anymore, and went our separate ways without any discussion.
It was the war time. The war peaked. The famine for food, the great famine of Bengal, took over the entire country. India did not obtain independence. War was going on in Burma and waiting at the entrance of India. The business in India benefited immensely. Men, who got involved in the business of love, people like me, went bankrupt. Ordinary people burnt over and over and turned into charcoal and then into ashes and disappeared. Poor people became poorer. Calcutta streets were strewn with dead people who died of hunger in hundreds and thousands. I went around the broth centers in the hope of finding Sarada and my child. Probably I am upsetting you with all this unnecessary commentary. But I saw a strange scene. On one street, people gathered near the wayside. I saw it with my own eyes. There were many military men among the people gathered there. One young woman was sitting there with her baby in her lap and a piece of cloth in front of her. She was removing her saree uncovering breast for a brief moment and moving it back again. Rupees, half rupee and quarter rupee coins were ringing as they fell on the cloth in front of her. After seeing that my head spun. Whenever I thought of Sarada, horrible and frightening thoughts started tearing me apart.
After all this is over, I am still alive. India got independence. Pakistan came into existence. Our country became self-sufficient in the production of food. So many good things have happened but I could not get back my Sarada. I have no idea how many hardships she had gone through, carrying the baby on her shoulder, if she cursed her bad luck, if she did in what words, but there was no sign of her. Sub has Chandra Bose will be speaking on the radio. If I happen to see in the newspapers about his return, I will think of Sarada and my little child and I slip into dreaming—what if, like in the folk tales, suddenly the child comes running to me, calling me naannaa, and hug me, and, what if Sarada stands in front of me, laughing and teasing what kind of talk is that .. I keep dreaming and turn around to see if that was not a dream.
In the final analysis, the country has changed. But …”
(This story probably was written in the 1950’s.)
Translated by Nidadavolu Malathi.