By Kalipatnam Rama Rao.
The dispute, which has been brewing for the past three years, became intense in the past three days, and now, came to a head, finally. The thought that this mania must end is on everybody’s mind; it is floating in the air. Nowadays nobody understands if I say it’s time to steer the chattels to the herd. I mean, the time is ten a.m. The name of the village is Sundarapalem. It’s located six miles away from, and on the right side of the grand trunk road, which runs from Madras to Calcutta, past Visakhapatnam; it is not too far from Vizianagaram and five miles away from the sea. To put it another way, it is fifteen miles from Srikakulam along the path a crow flies. The village is surrounded by moorlands on the east, south, southwest, and towards the sea. The lowlands extended on all other sides. During the rainy season, at noon, the view of the palm trees is just breathtaking. It’s a small village situated amidst a cluster of coconut and other small trees. At the far end of the village, the palm trees, mongrove shrubs, and the moorlands in colorful red, green, black, white and gray, define the boundary line. Further down, there are green paddy fields and a few lakes, full of glimmering waters with bright and radiant sun rays. But then, not many people notice this beautiful scenery; not even those who visit the village each year. Well, maybe a few on rare occasions.
The entire village is comprised of 400 houses, with a small temple at its center. In course of time, a few more houses are built around the high school, which is a later development. The newly built houses provided space for shops and hotels. All other houses are intended for the use of growing population in recent times.
Sundarapalem, being at the center of several villages in the region, looks like a propitious, married woman amidst a bunch of widows. Its blessings include the six-mile long roadway, connecting the village to the grand trunk road; and,
a seven-mile long electrical wiring, which is a tiny part of the massive network that has taken over the entire country. Additionally, there are several other buildings. They are: a post office on the Golla street; another on Telikala street for the use of government workers at village level; hospital and maternity center on the school road; the cooperative society built their storage sheds on a site between the village and the mala colony; library was located on the village administrator’s street; and the office of the electricity department on the village accountant’s street.
In general, ten o’clock in the morning means leisure time for the villagers, the start of it anyways. That’s the time the people in the surrounding villages finish eating their early morning meals, find a comfortable, breezy spot and lie down. Some people gather on the porches and start chatting while others invite passersby to play games.
In Sundarapalem, however, it is different; very rarely one lies down. They have different avocations; their routine is different. Some people would settle down on the teak benches in front of paan shops or on the broken chairs in hotels. A few others gather on the front porches of office buildings, the library or the temple. Some of them get into discussions about the electric wiring or the difference between the AC and DC; some talk about the repairs of water pipes while a few others discuss the village politics, either their own or the others’; there are others who take an imaginary tour of America and Russia via the capitol of Andhra Pradesh. Then there’re others who could speak on any subject—movies, radio, literature, public meetings, exhibitions, science and progress; there’re also a few people who would be willing to listen to these chatterers and comment on. Their numbers are growing each day. Then, of course, there are people who’d believe that the old is gold, and keep digging the past but their number is small.
Not that all people enjoy that kind of leisure though. There is a class of people who’d be sweating away their hours endlessly. We see them walking down the narrow lanes with bales of hay on their heads, almost as tall as themselves; carrying clay pots or baskets, or, plows on their shoulders, and steering bulls ahead of them; dark, little kids carrying big or small bottles tied to greasy ropes, and hollering ha, ha, ho, ho, while the bulls are running wildly; some making food for the animals in their courtyards, or, drying pepper or black gram in the open area; a few others steering chattels to the herd; some women lamenting for a relative or husband who died the day before or six months ago; a few women carrying bundles of clothes on their heads and a pot of rice broth in their arms; street vendors shouting ‘spinach’ or some other green; some unloading stacks of wood from their shoulders and picking up bags of grain while wiping the sweat off their foreheads. They all would be gasping for breath and scrambling under the scorching sun with water pots on their heads; or, pounding rice for that night’s meal. They are the farmers’ families who are toiling incessantly.
The panchayati is scheduled for ten-thirty but the people, who had nothing else to do started walking toward the mandapam at ten. Some of them are teachers and lower rank employees who came from the other villages in the area. They’d been hearing about the dispute for some time and they got curious about the outcome, and also, because it is Sunday and they have nothing else to do. They never had met Appalramudu, the defendant, personally, but are aware of the complete details regarding the dispute.
Appalramudu is a Harijan member of the village panchayat. He’s not only the chief of the mala community but also elderly. Most of them hold him in high esteem. They’d say that he’s the only person in his community, who’s honest and committed to leading a respectable life. Some villagers like him since he is kind to the poor in resolving the disputes.
Appalramudu owed two thousand rupees to a saukar, Gopanna. The amount, including interest, added up to almost two thousand and five hundred rupees. That does not mean that the villagers thought less of Gopanna. He has been
very gentle and patient all along. He’s a gentleman who had seen better days but now is flat broke. The rumor is Appalramudu and Gopanna used to be very close, like two tumma trunks, entwined. Some of the villagers, who knew them well, are sad that their poverty dragged the two friends to the court today.
Actually, this dispute should have brought to the panchayati three years back. Instead, the panchayat president, Sriramulu Naidu said it could be settled through mediation. He and two other elders agreed to act as mediators. They
examined the books thoroughly. Sriramulu Naidu did not find any error in the books; however, he pointed out that the rate of interest was unfair. The other mediators said it was consistent with the going rate in the area. Sriramulu Naidu insisted on computing the interest according to the rate fixed by the state government. The others could not argue with him anymore and so went along with the amount the president specified.
Gopanna also accepted the president’s decision, not minding his loss. But then, Appalramudu had no cash on hand, not even the amount specified by the mediators. All he had was a strip of land, two-acres and thirty cents. Considering the going rate of land at the time, he would have to sell the entire strip to pay off the debt.
Appalramudu said, “Babu, Gopanna babu, please, listen to me, if not for my sake, think of my forefathers. Don’t turn us, me and my children, into day laborers. My family has been doing farming for several generations. My grandkids are growing up and soon they’ll also get into the same. Therefore, you need not worry about your money. If not my sons and me, my grandkids would pay off your debt, for sure. I admit it’s long overdue. Just give us three more years.”
The mediators wondered how he could have the money even then, at the end of three years. Sriramulu Naidu insisted on giving Appalramudu the time he had asked for. That’s what happened three years back.
Now, three months prior to the end of the said three-year term, Gopanna started trying to get the mediators to act in his behalf. They kept playing him with empty words—‘we’ll see’, ‘tomorrow, for sure’, ‘after I returned from my trip’, ‘morning’, ‘evening’ and so on. Gopanna was patient until a week before the note ran out. Gopanna was told once again that Sriramulu Naidu is out of town.
Sriramulu Naidu went to Visakhapatnam. His uncle, mother’s oldest brother, was admitted into the hospital 15 days back. Nobody knows the honest truth for sure; the other two mediators sent word for Sriramulu Naidu several times and each time they have the same answer, ‘I’m coming’, but he was nowhere to be found.
Then Gopanna went to another village chief, Lakshum Naidu, and begged him, “Lakshum Naidu, please, don’t get me wrong. I’m not blaming Sriramulu Naidu. He is no other than Dharmaraju, a man of principles. But what I don’t
understand is his actions. On one hand, he insists that nobody should leave the village and go elsewhere seeking justice; and then, he skips town when it is time for him to hand in justice.
“Think about it. You tell me, aren’t there other family members to take care of his uncle? Can’t he really spare one half day to be here and settle this dispute?” He quoted what Appalramudu’s party seemed to be spreading around and added, “Physically, I’m not tough. Financially, I was in a good position way back then but now that’s all gone. I thought I could rely on the power of justice. That’s also looking bleak now. You tell me, what am I supposed to do? If I bypass the local tradition and go to the city court, the entire village will spit on my face. If I sit here, waiting for you people to come around for me, it doesn’t look like that’s ever going to happen.”
In the past 15 years, ever since Sriramulu Naidu has taken charge, nobody ever criticized the local leaders. Now, with this dispute, people started whispering behind their backs, and, even to their faces at times.
Circumstances being such, Lakshum Naidu had no choice but to act. All the leaders, except Sriramulu Naidu, gathered at the mandapam. They discussed Gopanna’s case for two days, dawn to dusk, but could not arrive at a decision that is agreeable to all the parties. It was not a matter of conflicting opinions. Nobody has a clear view of the entire situation to start with.
The debate was not going anywhere. All that time, Appalramudu kept quiet, whatever his reasons are. He would not speak a single word, however much others tried to get a word out of his mouth. Not even his sons, except the fourth one, Sitaramudu, were willing to open their mouths. And his second son, Bodigadu, kept agreeing with everybody. A couple of his relatives would say a word or two occasionally. They kept answering only in single syllables and that too only after they were asked ten times. The two parties kept going round and round in circles.
“Do you owe him or not?”
“You all are saying I owe him; so I owe him.”
“So, will you pay it back or not?”
“What do I have to give?”
“What about the strip of land you have?”
“What about our livelihood?”
“Why didn’t you think of that, at the time of borrowing the money?”
“We were young and stupid in those days.”
“Well, now you’re smart, you might as well pay him back.”
“How? You find a way yourselves and show us how to pay him back.”
The mediators felt exhausted but remained calm.
“You’re right. We understand you’re worried about your future and your family’s future. But at a time, when things do not look good and karma prevails, there’s nothing one can do. You know, the emperor Harischandra ; he became a guard at a graveyard under people like you, why do you think he did so? Simply to pay back his debt, right? Here is our suggestion. Let’s say you are embarrassed to work as a day laborer. But you can still put your children to work. Let them work as farm hands for some of the saukars. We’ll make sure that you’re the first to know anytime we needed a hand, either to dig a hole or run an errand. We’ll go to other villages only after talking to you. Think about it carefully – the reason we’re telling you all this. If you earn our goodwill here in our village, you’ll never be wanting for food. Trust me, nobody can act like a jerk and have a good life.”
The karanam and other leaders tried their level best to convince Appalramudu and his group. One of them said, “Look, boys, if you lose our goodwill here, living gets that much harder for you. The mediators have laid it out for you very clearly and graciously. It would be in your best interest to listen to them. On the other hand, if you sulk and ignore them, things do have a way of taking their own course, that’s for sure. Let this go smoothly while it is still under control. Here is an easy way out.
“Potinaidu is tilling five-acres of wasteland by the lake. There are five more acres of wasteland, which he says his but he’s bluffing. He filed a petition for registration, that was rejected—that’s a different story. Let it be. You take that land and start tilling. We’ll get it registered in your name. Potinaidu is working alone and struggling. But, you and your family together can produce gold, no doubt.”
Appalramudu’s sons did not savor this advice. One of them, Bodigadu, said, “Your advice is going to ruin us and shut up our kids too. The way you put it, it seems we both, Potinaidu and us, are in for a disaster. It’s bad luck for us if he’s hurt, and the same goes for him too. Or else, We, Potinaidu and us, grab each other’s hair, start bickering, and come running to you, once again, begging for justice.”
Sitaramudu said, “Babu, let’s forget for a second whether that wasteland is going to yield gold or silver. We’ve got nothing to invest in it, in the first place. This means we’ll have to take out a loan once again. By the time we harvested the crops, the loan is going to grow so big, and with interest, it is sure to wipe out the entire income from the land. We sweat and toil and the lender will enjoy the yield. So, sir, here’s what I’d say. Let Gopanna babu take the wasteland. We’ll work for him until the loan is paid off.”
The village leaders have understood that settling this dispute is beyond their powers. Probably, this would not have taken this long if it were settled 15 years back. The current president, Sriramulu Naidu, came to power and changed everything. He made a habit of suggesting peaceful means for everything. He often says, “When you cannot convince others and are angry with yourself, don’t say you’re frustrated with them and take it out on them; that’s not the way to handle things. We can deal with others’ shortcomings but not our own.”
The meeting has been postponed and the group dispersed. Lakshum Naidu could not hold himself anymore. On the way, he stopped and shouted furiously, “This is all Sriramulu Naidu’s fault. He’s good at bluffing his way out, and so, he suggests we all do the same. But for him, where on earth these mala idiots could have gotten the nerve to talk to us like that?”
The other members were walking by his side and ahead of him. They turned around and looked into his face. Suryam, a local saukar, put his arm on Lakshum Naidu’s shoulder, walked a few yards and then withdrew his arm. The gesture did not mean don’t be hasty; it only meant that that was not the right place to express opinions. All this happened the day before. That afternoon, Suryam went to Visakhapatnam.
By ten-thirty, the entire mandapam was filled with people. The mandapam was built at the center of the village, a little to the north, and across from the temple. It is built in a way that god’s statue would be visible, when all the doors are opened. The entire area is wide open but for the wall on the north side.
The village leaders sat down at the center of the mandapam. The gathering settled down wherever they could find a spot either to sit or stand. They were everywhere – on the mandapam steps or in its shade, in front, close by, far off, or, in the shades of nearby houses, in tea stalls, paan shops, every nook and corner. They all are waiting for the meeting to start. They’ve heard that Sriramulu Naidu, accompanied by Suryam has returned earlier that morning. That’s the reason the crowd gathered in record numbers, for the first time in its history.
Sriramulu Naidu did not miss his appointment, not even by one minute. Some people in the crowd stood up and folded their hands, namaskaram. Those who were smoking cigars hid them behind their backs. Sriramulu Naidu received their greetings with a smile and walked briskly on to center stage before the other leaders noticed his arrival.
The people, who have heard of him by name only and had never seen him, could assume that he is of a big stature. In reality he is six feet tall and skinny like a cane; he wears a shirt with stiff collar and white as jasmine flower; his hair is bushy and wavy. He has always a pleasant and unruffled smile on his lips.
Sriramulu Naidu said namaskaram to the other leaders on the platform, addressing each by name, and sat down in the space specified for him. He looked around while listening to the people next to him and responding briefly as and when necessary. All the elders who’re expected to be there are also present. Lakshum Naidu and Suryam sat on either side of him. Rest of the members sat next to the three leaders. The eldest son of Raghavaiah garu, who was the village head before Sriramulu Naidu, the munsif and the karanam came to power, is also present. Among others are Mahesam, who’s just started making his presence felt, Papayya and Musalayya, who has joined hands with the village elders long ago. Additionally, important persons from each street, each caste, class and vocations are also invited per custom and they all are present today.
Sriramulu Naidu’s eyes wandered around and landed on Appalramudu. Appalramudu sat in front of the mandapam, a little away from where he used to sit normally. He is little over 70-years old. His age is showing its effect only on his
hair but not on his body though. His body’s gotten tough after grappling with dirt for so long. It is wrinkled slightly yet is shining under the bright sun. He wore a dhoti and a rag on his shoulder. His sons and grandsons, ranging from twenty to fifty-years in age, gathered around him; other friends and relatives scattered all over the area in small groups.
Sitaramudu sat behind them at the far end. On one side, his older brother’s eldest son, Chinnappadu is sitting and his second brother, Bodigadu, on the other side. Women folks are with them, holding their babies; there are also some little kids amidst the crowd. It is a hot day. The hot sunrays are shining on their dark bodies and making them look like statues of village goddesses that are installed in the open fields, and being worshipped regularly. Gopanna sat down on the mandapam by himself; he has no supporters by his side. He has four sons but they are not present here today. They’re scattered all over the country in search of livelihood. Gopanna is living alone with his widowed daughter and her five children.
Sriramulu Naidu, with the consent of the members present, raised his voice and said, “You all have to be quiet for a second. I have to explain a couple of things before we start the meeting.”
It is not always easy to see, at his meetings, where he is going with his opening statement. He looked down for a few seconds as if he’s not sure of himself, and then looked up and said, with a smile, “Maybe I’m embarrassing myself and embarrassing you too. It’s also possible that either I misunderstood or the person who had given me the message got it wrong. Whatever it is, from what I heard, there are some rumors floating around in regard to why I could not attend this meeting earlier. Let’s forget for a moment whether the rumors were well founded or not. Here I am today, and I’m sincerely apologizing to you all for the same.”
Sriramulu Naidu folded his hands in all humility. He spoke those words with a smile. Yet the crowd cringed at their hearts. Hiding their reaction, several of them protested vehemently, ‘cha, cha, don’t say that,’ ‘maybe some idiot said it,’ ‘no sir, don’t you ever pay attention to such things,’ and so on. Sriramulu Naidu ignored their protests and continued, “To speak the truth, there’s a reason for it. That’s a personal matter, meaning exclusively my business. It’s not appropriate for me to discuss it at this meeting.” He is not the kind of person who’d use public platform to promote private matters. He said, “Every person has a private life, in addition to his duty to the society. Sometimes two tasks, arising from the two types of responsibilities, may occur at the same time and clash. It’s not easy to set priorities
under such circumstances. I know our ancestors have laid down some rules in regard to the priorities in a situation like this. When Lord Rama was asked whom would he choose—between his duty to the public and his consort Sitadevi – he replied right away, without scrambling for words. He chose the duty. But then, I am not Lord Rama; I am out and out human. Therefore, you’ll have to forgive me.”
The gathering is well aware of his family matters. His family history is an open book. There is not a single person in the entire village who does not know about it. He was born in a very ordinary family. His uncles, on his mother’s side, were better off than his own. His eldest uncle, the one who’s sick now, married off his two-year old daughter to Sriramulu Naidu when he was 8-years old. After that, his uncle became even richer. He took his nephew-cum-son-in-law, who’s barely finished elementary education, to the city. Sriramulu Naidu finished high school and went to college. While studying law, he dropped out of school in the name of service to the country. That could break the ties between the two families, the villagers feared. But the bond between the women folks was stronger and kept them intact.
Nevertheless, there is still some bad blood between the two families even today. His uncle wanted Sriramulu Naidu to become a member of the legislative assembly, if not a member of the parliament. But Sriramulu Naidu said, “I don’t want any position. I feel blessed thousand-fold for the littlest service I could render to my village.” With this newly developed clash of wills, the families, once again, fell apart for a while. Only recently they started coming together. Then his uncle fell sick. That’s the long and short of it, his reason for making his uncle’s health his priority. If the villagers failed to see this, it is their fault.
All of a sudden, they all realized that they had misunderstood his actions and regretted rushing to conclusions.
Sriramulu Naidu noticed that the crowd has softened and continued, “Also, there is one more thing that’s come to my notice and that also needs to be addressed. I am sorry to see that this community’s activities should come to a standstill simply because, one member, I, couldn’t make it. You may act like the entire matter hinged on the presence or absence of Sriramulu Naidu, and probably the rest of the world appreciates it too, but I am hurt. In the past ten to fifteen years, there is not a single thing that is handled by me alone. Yet, you are not able to carry on your responsibilities without me, it seems. I’m not sure whom should I blame for this. Probably it’s my fault. The fact is this is crushing my heart.” Signs of his anguish were evident on his face.
In matters of leadership, Sriramulu Naidu aimed high ever since he was a child. In this regard, he has imbibed the Mahatma’s teachings. During his high school days, Sriramulu Naidu wrote an article, “birthplace and birth mother,” and received a gold medal for that. For the first time in his life, a sunbeam brightened his heart. After he went to college, he converted that sunbeam into a torch. It was the year 1947. The Law College magazine featured his article, “India: The year of 1960.” Readers showered praise on him and soon forgot about it. Sriramulu Naidu, on the other hand, continued to be a man of action. He returned to his village because of that article. His other classmates went into raptures about patriotism like Sriramulu Naidu, but, unlike him, they’ve got their law degrees and occupied prestigious positions in the legislative assembly and parliament. Sriramulu Naidu continued to explain to the crowd what the Mahatma had said about leadership, and added, “This dispute did not start today. Yet, it has acquired a special meaning today. The very fact that so many people have gathered here today proves it. The news about this dispute has reached to other villages as never before. That means we need to be more careful, a lot more than ever before, in regard to carrying out justice. Not that we were not careful in the past. I’m saying we must not allow room for criticism.
“Secondly, look at the little children around you,” he said, pointing to the kids, and added, “They came here out of curiosity; they want to know how we’re going to settle this dispute. Don’t you ever think that they cannot understand what’s happening here. They’re our future judges. What we decide today will set an example for their future reference. Therefore, you should keep that also in mind.” Then he added one more thing which might be the last but not of the least importance. That is, “We all made a vow twelve years ago, at the time of opening this revered mandapam, and in front of this very sacred temple. Since then, this mandapam is our home of justice. As long as we have this mandapam, we must not go to another place for justice. We took a vow that ‘If, ever the day came when one could not find justice here and went elsewhere seeking justice, we will destroy this mandapam with these very hands that built it.’ Bear that in mind, firmly. Today Sundarapalem is walking with her head high in the region; that’s because of our unity. In recent times, several political leaders and the chief minister came to visit us; that is because of your high ideals and integrity in word and deed. We never resorted to sycophancy, shallow display, and crooked means; we did not care to enter competitions; not that we could not have gotten things like “Ideal Panchayati Award”; we just did not care for such things. Ideals must show in action. There are plenty of reasons for receiving or not receiving awards. Now, I am reminding you of our reputation and requesting you to proceed with this panchayati in accordance with principles.”
Sriramulu Naidu finished his speech. Anytime he has finished a speech, there always follows a long sigh of relief from the crowd. The people, who stayed still, like carved statues, up until then, would start moving as if they’d just come to life. That’s what happened now too. The crowd loosened up and started chatting. It’s true that the area villagers have been discussing this dispute for some time. In fact, this dispute has gotten plenty of support from them; also, they are the ones who had started the unfounded rumors about Sriramulu Naidu. Some of them pointed out the facts—that Appalramudu is a panchayat member, and also, a good friend of Sriramulu Naidu. For all these reasons, they were not sure that Gopanna stood a chance of getting justice.
Lakshum Naidu did not study law but is an offspring of Naidu clan, and as such, aware of traditional values. His forefathers had been handing down justice for years. The crowd is sure that this dispute is going to cause a rift between the two -Sriramulu Naidu and Lakshum Naidu.
The other villagers have been jealous of Sundarapalem for a long time. Some of them believed that devils hang around here, and for that reason, Government officials feared to go alone to this corner village. They claimed that the Sundarapalem people were capable committing murders and getting away with it because their sense of unity was such. Now, the same village became a favorite child of the government officials. Now they are coming back again and again by car, day and night. They’d consider this village first for any development program, grant funds, and then only they would think of other villages.
All the area villagers continued to think on those lines but never considered the humungous effort, the yajnam , which went into it and still is continuing, for that matter.
Fifteen years back—when Sriramulu Naidu arrived there—this village was inactive and lifeless, like all other villages in the region. There were only two small grocery stores for the entire village. At night, they had only oil lamps to light up. People struggled under the pressure of poverty. They all were crushed in that corner village, flung far away from civilization, somehow managing, wearing murky rags and living in houses that were crumbling.
Sriramulu Naidu entered the scene under such dire circumstances. He was barely 25-years old at the time. There was unity among them but so also disarray. They came together in times of tragedy but not when it came to attaining their personal goals. They lived by the principle, ‘each man for himself.’ In those days, there was not a single man who would not look at Sriramulu Naidu’s actions, hear his words and laugh behind his back or even to his face sometimes.
Then the day came. The villagers were dumbstruck when they heard that Sriramulu Naidu managed to get a donation of 20,000 rupees from Suryam for building high school. Suryam was known to be tightfisted in those days. He hoarded a stash in silos yet would squirm to spend even a paisa. For him, it was like staking his life. And Sriramulu Naidu convinced him, god knows how, but he had succeeded! It was after that incident people were convinced that Sriramulu Naidu was bestowed with a special gift.
After that, they all started listening to him. Sriramulu Naidu said that ignorance was the root cause of all evils and for that reason they should build a high school first. People could not follow his logic but took his advice anyways. A high school was built. Then he went to the government and told them that, since they had a high school in the village, the village needed a road. Thus, building one success over another, he’s gotten several development programs put in place. No surprise that, today, Sundarapalem is the envy of all villages in the area. In addition to a few offices, now the village has three cooperatives and four clothes stores. Also, some half dozen tailors are getting business year round.
After Sriramulu Naidu sat down, Gopanna stood up and started narrating his side of the story. He said, “My business was crushed to the ground. Not just mine, almost everybody’s business had been ruined but mine was hurt the worst.” He stopped for a few seconds, and continued as if he was speaking, of necessity, “I know if I tear my gut, they fall on my feet. But that is the truth. My own sons – I brought into this world – cheated me. As soon as they’d understood that the business was in trouble, each one of them seized whatever they could lay hands on. With that, we lost whatever little respect we had; and we all ended up on the street. Then they pushed for the property allocation. What’s left there for allocation? Even in that, they resorted to crooked means. They claimed the loans, which were easy to collect, as theirs; and left the problematic ones to my eldest son and me. It’s the same with outstanding debts. They’d taken the debts that were easy to evade; and, where easy to write off the interest. Then they told us, my eldest son and me, that we should take responsibility for the tough ones—the debts that screamed ‘shell out or kill yourself’. Yet, we two remained true to our word. Thanks to your kindness and support, we worked hard for about five or six years, and paid off the loans we owed and collected the amounts due to us, despite several hardships. After that, my son said, ‘father, I cannot live here anymore. I’ll go away to the west.’ I told him to go; it is not the same, you know—selling lumber in the same place where you’re used to sell flowers.
“Babu, the reason I’m telling you all this is: When I’d cleared my debts, I paid each and every rupee; I did not write off a single copper paisa. Now it is my turn to be paid; you said the rate of interest was unfair. I’ve accepted that, I told myself, whatever meant to be. And then you’ve proposed extending the loan term. I agreed to that too. Now that term has ended. You state the amount as you please, and I will accept it. Whatever the god’s will may be, let it be. I’ll take it as my luck, take the money and leave.”
He finished and was about to sit down. Before sitting down, something else occurred to him. He said, “One more thing. You’ve mentioned something else earlier. You said we’d demolish this mandapam on the day when somebody
stepped outside, because justice failed him here. Well, I am assuring you that that is not going to happen on my account. I must admit, I did entertain such a thought until yesterday, actually up until you’ve mentioned it a half hour ago; I was thinking of going to the court, if it came to that. But after listening to what you’ve said, I dropped the idea at once. If we—my daughter, grandkids and I—were to die of starvation, so be it; but I will not blame you, won’t say you’ve cheated us of fairness. I sincerely hope that this mandapam outlives us and continues to hand down justice to others, if not for my grandchildren and I, for years to come.” And then he took his seat.
The entire gathering was shaken by the last part of his speech. Probably this is one example of how God tests our stamina. Some of them, who did not know about his patience and good nature, were taken by surprise; they wondered if that was the reason so many people love him dearly.
After a while, the members, one by one, turned to Appalramudu and stared at him. He sat there with his head down; he did not speak a single word. The crowd looked around and then turned to Sriramulu Naidu. He understood their thought and called out Appalramudu, “Emayyaa, Appalramudu, what’d you say?”
Appalramudu is past seventy yet everybody addresses him as ‘orey’. Only Sriramulu Naidu addresses him as ‘emayyaa!’
Appalramudu still did not speak. Asirinaidu, an 80-years old man, whose land is located next to that of Appalramudu, waited for a few seconds, and said, shaking his head, “Appalramudu; you do have to say whatever you can say in your own behalf.” Appalramudu still did not open his mouth.
They all kept quiet for a few more minutes. A man, standing in the front yard, said, “Look, how long are you all going to make us stand here like this? You’ll have to say something. Either you say yes, you owe him, or no, you don’t. It’s not fair that you lie low sluggishly like a snake that snacked on dirt. If you can pay him off, say so. Or else, tell them you can’t. Or, just tell him that you’ll not pay and that they can do whatever they please. But, sitting there tight-lipped is not going to do any good. In fact, it’s disrespectful to the judges who’re waiting to settle the dispute, and us who came here to watch it.” His tone was both sympathetic and caustic.
Still, neither Appalramudu nor his sons spoke. Then, Annamayya, a brother-in-law of Lakshum Naidu and a distant relative of Sriramulu Naidu, got up and came forward, clucking his tongue, cha chha and wavering his towel, which was sitting on his shoulder. He spoke as if he was flogging them all. He has a habit of using all his body parts as he speaks; it looks as if all his fervor is oozing out of his eyeballs, eardrums and nostrils.
Annammayya said ostentatiously, “My grandfather used to say a proverb about seeking justice from a man without brains by a man without options. That’s what it’s all looking like now. This dispute is going on for over three days yet not one son of a mala bitch spoke a word. And here all you, the leaders, are begging them, calling them courteously amma, babu; but not one of you would give it to them straight, tell them, ‘you, scoundrels, whatever’s gotten into you? What’re you thinking? Is this your dad’s money or grandpa’s? Do you think you could dodge the debt and hide in a hole somewhere? Pay up or we’ll kick you.’ And then there is the other party. They wouldn’t turn to the old man, Gopanna, and tell him that they cannot pay. On top of all this, the leaders are telling us ‘don’t go to the court; this is the court for us’”.
Annamayya went on ranting, hysterically, as if floodgates were opened. Then, one of Appalramudu’s relatives stood up and said, “Babu, Annamayya babu! Please, don’t be angry. Yes, you are a Naidu man yet it is unbecoming of you to be so touchy. The other leaders are not any less educated. You may not know it but they all knew what would happen if that document were taken to the court. That’s why they’ve take this course of action. Don’t be hasty.” He stated it clearly.
With that, the bickering has gotten worse. Somebody asked him ‘what do you mean by this course of action?’ The first person asked what did Annamayya mean when he said ‘we’ll kick you’? Somebody else said, ‘had he gone to the court, the court would have made him pay through the nose.’ A few others retorted in your dreams.
“Yes, we’ve gotten our freedom but that does not mean we can go wild,” said somebody.
“No way. Let them slit our throats,” the man standing behind commented.
The commotion is getting worse by the minute. The dispute is neither about one being a male or a female nor a question of high caste or out-caste. It is a dispute only between a lender and a borrower. Emotions started flying high in several ways using Appalramudu and Gopanna as scapegoats.
Normally Sriramulu Naidu will not tolerate chaos. On occasion, however, the situation could get out of hand, of necessity. In such circumstances, he lets the parties holler for a while and then brings them under control.
On the day in question, Appalramudu did the same. He waited until the people calmed down and then stood up and spoke. He said, “Babu, here is my understanding of your opinion, from the squabble that’s been going on for the past
two days. You seem to be saying, let’s not worry about justice; three years back, Appalramudu stood in front of three respectable men and had agreed to pay the amount; it doesn’t matter why he had agreed—whether it was because he was scared or because he could not go against their word. He has agreed and so he must pay, no matter what, whether by selling his land or selling himself.’ That’s how it’s sounding like to me.
“The only thing the assembly now could see is Gopanna babu’s hardships. He has four children but they are not here; as for Appalramudu, all his sons are with him. They are sturdy as baby elephants. They may not have land but they can use their muscle and make a living. They may go without a drink of water for a day and still live. That’s what the assembly is thinking. In other words, you all are bent on convincing us to sell the little piece of land we have and pay off Gopanna babu’s debt.
“Babu, if that’s what you call fair, hand me down the same sentence. I’ll accept it.” He finished and sat down. In view of all that has happened, many of them did not understand his logic. Lakshum Naidu was the first to admit it. He said, “Are you saying the debt is legitimate; but it’s wrong on our part to ask you to pay back?”
Appalramudu did not answer the question at first. After asked again, he replied, of necessity, “Babu, we are not educated. We would not know whether it was a loan or not; since when it was turned into a loan, and on what basis, the amount was calculated. You’re the leaders and then there is Sriramulu babu. You will have to think about it and tell us,” he said calmly.
Some of them, who have been watching Appalramudu and his ways for the past three days, were taken by surprise. Sriramulu Naidu had some suspicion about his ways and now it has become clear to him. He mulled over for a few minutes and then stood up as if he’d come to a decision. “Appalramudu, I’m ready to give my ruling.” His countenance showed no signs of tension. He spoke calmly, “As of today, you no longer owed to Gopanna garu, not a single paisa. You can go home now. Don’t worry about it.” Then he turned to Gopanna and said, “Gopanna garu, come to me the day after tomorrow. I’ll clear your debt.”
Then he turned to the others and said, “Let’s go.”
The crowd could not understand this ruling. Before they could make any sense of it, Appalramudu stood up. “Babu, Sriramulu babu, I don’t understand this. What did I say so bad to upset you? First, show me what’s wrong in what I’ve said and then leave,” he said firmly.
“I’m not leaving because I’m upset. I settled this dispute in the same manner, you would have, if you were to decide. When it came out of my mouth, to you, it sounded like my frustration. That means you’ve realized the impropriety of it.”
It took some time for Appalramudu to understand these words. Even then, he did not understand them completely. He could read Sriramulu Naidu’s perception in his eyes and looks, though. It gave him a peek into the depths of Sriramulu Naidu’s heart; he wondered if he had misread them.
“All right. I admit I was wrong. You give us whatever ruling you think is fair,” Appalramudu said.
“Not necessary. If you’d understood that this is not right, you must also know what is right. You tell us what is right and we’ll act accordingly.”
Appalramudu understood where Sriramulu Naidu is going with this logic; he is not surprised this time. For the first time, he’s getting annoyed with Sriramulu Naidu. He looked straight into his face and said, “babayya, you’re impudent,
I must say.”
Sriramulu Naidu could not understand this. “Why?”
“You know why. Your blow does not show the spot where it hits. Whatever you do, you handle it on the sly, like water under a mat,” Appalramudu said, watching the changes in Sriramulu Naidu’s face.
Sriramulu Naidu never thought that Appalramudu could use such harsh language while talking to him.
“Handling like water under the mat—you or me?” he retorted, without showing streaks of red in his eyes.
“Yourself,” Appalramudu replied curtly, “Babayya, you’re the chief; you came here saying you’ll hand us justice. You must tell us what that just is. It’s not fair to ask the party, who has come here asking for justice, to decide what’s just. That’s like telling me to poke my eye with my own finger.”
Sriramulu Naidu hoped to make Appalramudu spell out what’s fair; he had no intention of getting a lecture on his own responsibilities from him. Therefore, he responded suitably, “Then, you must also know why I had to suggest that. You are hurt so badly; you can’t even see fairness at this point no matter what I had suggested. That’s why I had to give my ruling in that fashion.”
Appalramudu did not agree. “You’re coming back to the same point again. A chief who came to settle the dispute must not worry whether his ruling would be acceptable or not; and, if not, how to convince the parties. He must be focused only on the extent of fairness in his own ruling. When a dispute is settled in that manner, there’s no room for argument anymore. Even if the argument had continued, only the parties would have to take the blame but not the
chief.” Lakshum Naidu jumped in quickly and asked, “Is that your final word? Would you say so for all the three times?”
That question ticked off Appalramudu. He raised his voice rather unnecessarily and said, “Yes, yes, yes, for all the three times! Babu, Lakshum Naidu, it seems, you’re happy that you’ve seized this bastard in your fist at last. But, remember that I’ve never tried to evade the debt in the first place. I respected his word then and am respecting it now. Make him [Sriramulu Naidu] say that this debt is fair. I’m willing to pay off the entire amount, not a single paisa less; I’ll not ask him to forgive, not even a paisa. The day I failed to do so, you can say I was born out of wedlock.”
“That’s debt, debt, debt.” Even before Appalramudu finished his sentence, Sriramulu Naidu raised his voice and shouted. Then he lowered it, struggling to hide his embarrassment for breaking into an outburst; and continued. It was not clear whether he was talking to himself or addressing the meeting. He collected himself, and said slowly, “I fail to see how their party, or anybody for that matter, can say it’s not a debt, and how they could expect me to say it’s not a debt.” He continued, while reconciling, in his language and countenance, his two personalities—the one that Appalramudu had known him as in the past, and the second, as he presented himself to Appalramudu last night. Sriramulu Naidu continued, “Things like debts, mistakes and sins are wrong irrespective of who says what; they are not going to change because somebody decided they are not wrong. Possibly, you can go to the court, argue and win the case. But, you’re mistaken if you think that you can evade your debt in that manner. You will held accountable in the next, if not in this lifetime.” Then, he went back to his seat, showing his annoyance all over his face. Other members also returned to their seats.
The entire assembly fell silent for a second; it was so quiet, they would’ve heard it, if an ant made a sound. After a while, Sriramulu Naidu, leaned forward and said to Appalramudu, who’s looking the other way, “I am thinking, that, probably, under the present circumstances, you are in no position…”
Appalramudu turned around briskly and cut in, “Babu, Sriramulu babu, don’t work yourself up anymore. I know what you’re going to say and why you’re going to say so. You’ve given your ruling and it is done; you stay on that. I’ll keep my word. I am not asking for your reasons for that ruling.” Then he, looking baffled and red in face, turned to Musalayya, and said, “Babu, Musalayya babu, make an offer for my two-acres and thirty cents land; whatever pleases you is fine. Let me have it.” He held out and cupped both his hands.
Musalayya has been waiting for this moment for the past three days, with the deposit amount tucked in his dhoti folds at the waist. He looked into Appalramudu’s face and lowered his head. Appalramudu noticed that and said,
“Babayya, don’t be afraid of losing your money; there is no need to fear as long as I live and not even after I am gone.”
That should have put Musalayya’s fears at rest. But it didn’t look like it did.
Appalramudu spoke again, “You’re hesitating, tell me why. Maybe you think I hate it and am selling it half-heartedly. That’s not true at all. I’m happy to sell it; and so, you make an offer that makes you happy.”
With that clarification, Musalayya felt that all the hurdles have been removed. Then Appalramudu turned to the karanam and asked him to draft the document. While the karanam was drafting the document, the crowd, who sat like wooden statues, started moving and mumbling. Some of them moved their benumbed legs, moved to a safer spot and began discussing the outcome.
Somebody from the crowd commented, “The president got him an extension on the loan term. But how can he say there is no debt at all, even if he were Dharmaraju?” He spoke softly but the man next to him heard, and replied, “Let’s say he could forgive the debt. What about Gopanna? It’s not like he’s rolling in riches?”
“Are you saying the debt can be written off, if he were rolling in riches?”
“No, nobody’s saying that. Probably, you’d be happy if they take away all his land, house, and all his possessions and turn him into a beggar. Tell me this, when the rich saukars lost your businesses, did their lenders write off their loans?”
Arguments on both sides flared up.
Juggadu is standing behind Appalramudu. He has a pair of bulls and a cart; he makes his living by renting his cart. He had land in the past but not anymore. Juggadu said, “Appalramudu has a big family, 25 to 30 people. True, ours is
working class. Yet, for some reason, if we don’t find work for a month or so, the entire family, old women and children and all, would be writhing for want of food. I know it only too well; how that feels like. Lord Narayana’s blessings, I’d
“That’s the way it is,” an old washer-man said in a husky voice, “We can unravel a man-made knot but not the one made by Narayana. Look at Gopanna—where he had started and where is he now. And what a mess Appalramudu’s gotten into, now! The dispute is only between those two; but look at all the crowd that has gathered here today.”
A few others commented on the integrity of the mala community, the special treatment they’ve been receiving from the government, and the deteriorating fear of god among people in general.
The karanam finished drafting the document and looked at Sriramulu Naidu. He sat squatting and with his head down. Karanam was about to open his mouth to say something, noticed that Suryam was watching him and shut up. He called Appalramudu to come closer and read the document aloud; and got him say that he had heard it and it was in order. Karanam pushed the document and the inkpad in front of him and showed him the places where Appalramudu needed to put his thumbprint.
Appalramudu took it in his hand, and turned to Sriramulu Naidu. He said, “Babu, Sriramulu babu, don’t feel bad about this. What I said was wrong but it was not intentional. I got carried away and it came out wrong. Don’t take it personally. You’re educated. I thought you knew everything. It did not occur to me that you could not have known the truth. If you’d known, you would not have spoken the way you did, with conviction. I would not have spoken rashly the way I did. What’d you know! We were born and raised on this very soil. We lived all our lives only here. Yet we could not see it either. Actually, I could understand it clearly only last night.
“Babayya, I’ll tell you the entire story first and then put my thumbprint on this paper. I’ll tell you the whole story—the truth and the lie that comprised this dispute; why I called it an unfair debt; when did this Appalramudu start
entertaining the evil thought—dodging his debt; and, how the whole thing has happened. After explaining it to you, I will put my thumb-print on this paper. Please, bear with me until then.”
Then he turned to the crowd and started slowly, “Babayyalaara! You all are saying that we (the mala and madiga communities and the laborers) are out to grab everybody else’s money; and that we don’t care about justice and injustice. You’re also saying that that is the reason we’re accursed and starving. Earlier somebody said that we could unravel a man-made knot but not the one made by Lord Narayana. Hear me out, babayyalaaraa, and you decide whether this knot is made by man or god.”
Appalramudu moved a little farther back so the people at the far end could also hear him. Then he continued, “This story has started about fifty-years back. Most of you who are here today were not even born at the time. In some cases, even your mothers were not born. There, Asirinaidu, who’s sitting next to that pillar, is the only person who’s alive at the time. He’s older than I and so, he would know whether I’m telling the truth or not. He’s my witness.
“Babayyalaaraa, my father left to me and my brother six-acres of land each, a total of 12-acres—five-acres of low land and seven-acres of moorland. We have five older sisters. We two brothers lived under the same roof for about five or six years. After that, we split up, like everybody else. At that time, we received about two kilograms of silver, a few grams of gold and a small home each.
“Babu, none of you knows how this village was like in those days and what the life was like at the time. As far as I knew, everybody had a small strip of land; and all the kapu families plowed land and made their living. The golla families took care of the goats and sheep; the golla families were doing a little farming too. We, the mala community, owned mostly moorlands, and some low lands. Very few of us, who had no land of their own, were working as farm hands. And a few other small farmers earned their living by either farming or as day laborers.
“Babayyalaaraa, I must admit, except for Jaggarayudu garu – that’s Suryam babu’s father – and a few partners of his, no weaver had enough to live on in those days. After the foreign cloth was introduced here, their looms and spinning wheels were stowed away on the attics. They had to scramble for food.
“It was at that time, Gangayya garu, a wanderer, went south and brought in the tobacco business. Venkatanarayana, an uncle of Suryam babu, joined hands with him. The business picked up soon enough and made big. After that, other crops also were imported. Peanut farming was already there in our area. But people in general were afraid of planting peanuts or tobacco. Farming Gongura leaf started only recently. Up until then, all these farmers were planting only paddy, maize, and other food grains. We all had enough to eat. We did not have as much variety of clothing as today but had enough rags to wear. Even the rich did not wear this many varieties of clothing in those days. If they had little money, they used it to buy gold, had it made into jewelry and hung them around their women folks’ necks. They all freely gave for charity, in the name of god or devil, whatever, but they did it. Only a few of them were stingy and used to stow away the gold and silver in boxes. Babayyalaaraa, in those days, if you’d seen a woman, whether a naidu woman or a farmer’s, you would know, each one of them looked like the goddess, Lakshmidevi; they had so much gold around their necks they could barely turn their heads.
“Even poor wives wore two to three pounds of silver around their necks, on their arms, wrists and ankles; all kinds of jewelry – andelu, kadiyaalu, sandalu, murugulu, pocheelu, dandakadiyaalu – you name it, they had it. Nowadays you
don’t see that jewelry anywhere. Some of you don’t even know the names of those pieces. What has happened to all that?
“Trade crops came in. Have they come, walking on their two feet? No, people brought them. Babayyalaaraa, now the Agriculture department folks are coming and lecturing to us. In the past, business people did the same, convinced us, the farmers, of the value of the trade crops. At first, the poor were apprehensive but the rich farmers decided to try them. Until then, we never heard of the rupee currency. Maybe, a few had some rupees but, in general, mostly the saukars had them and used them to pay the taxes. Most of the time, the transactions were carried out by bartering grocery items. After the rupees started floating around, all transactions became only in terms of rupees. “Babayya, most of us could not understand that kind of accounting. Don’t we see a kind of mix-up in regard to the naya paisa nowadays? It was the same in those days and much bigger. That’s why those of us who were scared did not go near currency at all. Even during bartering grains, high level cheating took place. Babayya, it’s like this—when we sold, the rate was five measures per rupee; and when we bought, it was only three. Even the size of the measuring cup differed; when we bought, it was small; and when we sold, it was big. Sometimes, we would question the propriety of all this. ‘Hey, to hell with this transaction. What kind of business is this? How can this be fair?’ we would ask and the saukar would say, ‘that is business!’ Thus, after the trade farming took over, in addition to the crooked ways of measuring, we farmers had no other choice but fall into the web of rupees. Half of the weavers in the village became rich. Rest of them worked for the rich weavers and managed barely by selling small items on the side.
“At the time, this village, very much like today, was at the center of 10 to 15 villages in the area. It did not show it though. The trade items were being supplied by our saukars to other villages like Mangalapuram, Thangudubilli, Enkannapeta, and Agguroram.
“Babayyalaaraa, the normal practice was: the saukar would show up at the harvest time. He’d say, ‘orey, Appalramudu, orey Asiri, the going rate for peanuts is this, and we’d say yes sir. He’d tell us we would have to take so much cut since the yield was still raw. We’d say yes sir again. Then he’d decide on the measures and we’d accept with our mouths shut tight. He’d determine the amount we were going to receive. We’d take the money only if we needed it; or else, we’d tell him keep it with him. Thus we, the farmers, provided investment for the saukars; and the saukars paid interest to us. Usually, the saukars would add the interest to the principal and conduct business. Thus the saukars had made considerable amount of money. The farmers benefited too, in some ways. For that reason, the farmers went after those trade crops.
“In course of time, the prices went up and down like a see-saw. When we planted peanuts and got excellent yield, their price fell; and that year, the price of peppers went up. The year the yield of peppers was good, their price did not go up but the price of tobacco shot up. We wanted to know how to figure out the prices of which one went up and which one went down, but never could. And then, Babayya, there’s one more thing that I could never figure out, not then and not now. Let’s stop talking about the way things were in my time. You know how things were in your time, right? You know, a bag of rice cost seven rupees and a yard of cloth cost two and a half annas . How do you explain this jump from seven rupees to ten times seven? Who is jacking up these prices, and why? Or, are they growing up on their own, like trees? This is beyond me, but, Babayya, it’s during this kind of struggle, the saukars on the lower rung went up and those at the top tumbled down. In about ten years, the jewelry that had adorned the women in Naidu families shifted to the wives of the saukar families. The saukars traveled even farther, for the purpose of business, from Kovvur on one end to Berhampur on the other,.”
After this detailed narration, Appalramudu stopped to catch breath and looked around. The people were staring at him, intent on hearing him out. He resumed with renewed vigor, “Babayyalaaraa, now I’ll tell you my story. Please, listen. I’ve always been a hard-worker, even from childhood; I never goofed around; never wasted a minute. If I were asked to walk one hundred miles for one rupee, I would. The year my son Sitaramudu was born, I planted peanuts, instead of maize, on the strip by the lake, that too only on one side. That year all the things fell in place perfectly.
“One day, I was on the field, pulling out weeds, and Gopanna babu was passing by. He stopped and stood on the ridge. I did not see him until he called me. He said, “Orey, Appalramudu, you’ve got a good yield, it seems.”
“It’s all your mother’s and father’s blessings, babu,” I replied.
“To whom are you going to sell the produce?” he asked. “Let’s see the yield first. I’ll sell it to whoever came and asked for it,” I said. At the time, he barely grew a moustache.
“Orey, Appalramudu, everybody likes to help the haves. The real help is helping the have-nots,” he said.
In those days, Gopanna babu used to carry a bale of tobacco on his shoulder and go to village fairs—Agguroram, Pudi, and Madaka, for doing business. Sometimes he would even go to the villages on the seashore. He moved back and forth like a violin bow. He was getting ready to get into the business of moorland crops.
“Babayya! that was the beginning of our friendship. I was the first among the farmers with whom he did business. Now I am the last. I am not going to tell you how many farmers—my neighbors, relatives and others—came and went, nor how that has happened. The truth is we both, Gopanna babu and I, together did well for about five or six years. Between the two of us, who helped whom was hard to decide; maybe, we both prospered, thanks to the lord above, I don’t know. I don’t even know what happened after that. He kept going up and I starting slipping down. “At first, my six-acres of land increased to nine acres. And then, all the six-acres were gone, bit by bit—one acre, a half-acre, and then a quarter at a time. Our gold and silver were washed out. Babayya, it was not just I but several families in our neighborhood—some Golla families and a few of Kapu families—also got caught up in this treacherous current. Of course, you could ask me, ‘if it were a treacherous current, how come it did not pull down all the farmers? How come only a few farmers were sucked up and others were washed to the shore?’ The Kapu families were farming wetlands. They had only few strips on the highland and they had no contracts with the saukars. In our case, it was exactly the opposite. Babayya, the truth is every one of the farmers knew how borrowing from the saukars worked. And, knowingly, every one of them walked straight into their net.
“Please, don’t get me wrong, I’m not blaming the saukars. Like Sriramulu babu said earlier, maybe it was a mistake committed unwittingly. It was a mistake, nonetheless. It had drowned the entire village. At first the farmers went down
and then the saukars.
“Twenty-five years ago, people were moving around 20 to 60 thousand rupees and it was handled by 10 to 15 saukars, not counting small time businessmen. What happened to all that money now? After the taxes came into play, the tobacco business was hurt badly. To a large extent, the southern goddesses have chewed them up alive. Big time businessmen, those who understood the system better, set up industries at a crossroad or next to a railway station and ruined the local saukars, who were doing business in peppers and peanuts. But then, have they survived? No, other industries, bigger than themselves, came from elsewhere and swallowed them up. I don’t know for sure but probably there are even bigger industries lying somewhere, which are being conceived, growing up even as we speak, and waiting round the corner, waiting to ruin these businesses.
“Babayyalaaraa, our ancestors used to say that business is no different from gambling. True, but how did it come into existence in the first place? Why do people gamble? They are going down themselves and taking us down, along with them. The Creator is hurting the big fellow; is that a good enough reason for the big fellow to hurt the little fellow? If it is not a pleasure for the big fellow, why is he feeding us to those bigger forces? Who has created this tangle, man or god? You tell me.”
Appalramudu stopped. He took a few minutes to collect himself and started again, “This is how it was when you, Sriramulu babu, set foot in this village 15 years back. I don’t know whether you remembered it or not. One day, at a late hour, I was feeding the animals. You came to our colony, and asked me, ‘Who’s Appalramudu?’ I said, ‘I am, babayya.’ You said, ‘You come with me, I want to talk to you,’ and took me to the shores of Sinthammathalli Lake. You asked me something and I answered. You said something and I listened. Babayya, it may sound a lie to you but to me that’s the god’s honest truth. I could not sleep all that night, not a wink. I thought that, after a very long time, a Dharmaraju came to our village; he could show us the poor a way out of the darkness that surrounded us. I thought, maybe you’d keep your word and accomplish everything as you had promised, maybe not. But, I hoped that we could clear our debts at the least, we could get some work, and we all could live happily ever after. I prayed to one thousand gods that night for making it happen.
“Babayya, at first, you’d gotten a high school built. You said ‘people can’t be smart unless they’re educated; you and your children must get education.’ My first thought was, ‘what’s the point of education for the growling stomachs?’ Then I saw you in action, trusted your word and we all offered to put in our labor. We believed that, if not now, sometime in future, our children would get education at the least. Some of us got paid work, too.
“Then you said we needed a road. While laying the road, several poor people had broth for two years, and they all were grateful to you. Then followed the cooperatives, the storage sheds, and the wells. Once again, lot of people, because of those projects, could make a living; they carried stones and gravel and fed their families. Then things changed. You could not bring any more new jobs. Our lives became sluggish again, we got stuck in the same place, like floor mats. Babayya, you’ve been watching it too. People here knew us long before you’ve ever come to know us. We are not drunks, womanizers, nor gamblers. Today my grandkids wear undershirts, but I’d never known such a thing in my life. All I wanted was broth to eat, cooked maize, and if possible, a sip of buttermilk; or else, tamarind water; sometimes a slice of onion served as a side dish. Sometimes we had only dried rice chips or fried peppers to snack on. For such tiny morsels, we, the entire family, traded our bodies. In your home, one or two would go out and bring the bread. And only you would know how you live and what you eat.
“On the other hand, in our families, we all, including new mothers and 70-years old grandmothers, go to work; and work round the clock, round the year. No complaining about the sun, rain, or cold; nor illnesses. When there is no work on the farm, still our women do not sit at home. They go out to collect sticks, hay, and cow dung. Our kids go around with baskets, follow buffaloes for the muck, yet to be dropped, and even get into brawls over that gold.
“Babayya, we all beat ourselves up like this yet we don’t have enough to fill our stomachs. Our land is fast disappearing and all we’re left with are the debts. People who started out with nothing are becoming landowners within a year, and saving 25,000 to 30,000 rupees within a decade. Babayya, you tell me, who’s ripping off whom, who is rising to the top, and who’s ending up in the dump, without a morsel to eat, and why?” Appalramudu stopped. He did not ask the question, expecting a response. Even if he did, what’s there to say in response?
Despite the blistering, midday sun, the crowd sat steadfastly and listened to Appalramudu’s disheartening outburst; they seemed to have forgotten even their hunger. He changed the pace and continued slowly, “Last night, at my home, we got into a little wrangling. My son, Sitaramudu, was ready to cut me up into pieces. You know his ways. In our day, people used to go to Rangoon and earn big money. He wanted to go to the city and earn money. He went there, carried bags for a couple of years; and then, pulled a rickshaw the following year. After his wife eloped with some idiot, he returned home with his only son.
“We bickered for a while and then I told them, ‘there is no telling what happened in our dealings in the past 30 to 35 years—whether we ate up the saukar’s money or he swallowed ours, in the name of loans and interest but today the loan is a fact today. And we must pay it back. The village chiefs are insisting on our repaying the debt. Even after Sriramulu Naidu returned tomorrow, they all will insist on paying it but not let go of it. There’s no point of you being stubborn about it. You’d better agree to the sale of our land.’
“But, my sons repeated the same song they’d been singing all along. I told them that all the saukars in the village are willing to help us out to make a living; besides, we’ll have Sriramulu Naidu’s support as well. Can’t we manage
“Babayya, don’t be angry with me. As soon as I mentioned your name, they all jumped out of their skins—each one of them had something to say. They said all the projects you’d undertaken for the good of the village were meant, in reality, to bring us down. You’ve got the roads laid; we carried the gravel on our backs. We laid the dirt with our own hands and leveled it. Now, jeeps, cars, buses and trucks are running on the same road, which ruined our business; we could not run the carts for rent any more. Now, all those vehicles are moving sand, gravel, and also being used for travel by people for a lot less. In the past, 25 to 30 members were living on the income from running one cart. Now that’s gone.
“You’ve brought electricity, and the pumping sets to draw water from wells along with the electricity. The electrical units threw dust in the mouths of the laborers who were drawing water manually. Suryam babu started a rice mill. The result? Not only our women who used to pound rice at the homes of the wealthy lost their work, now the same women are taking our grain to the mill instead of pounding it themselves.
“My sons kept pointing out to all these problems. I was quiet; I did not know what to say. Then, the village watchman, Errayya, told them that there was some truth in their argument but that was not the complete truth.
“Errayya said, ‘here’s how I understand our predicament: Sriramulu babu went to the city and got his education. He thought that, if he brought in whatever he’d seen there and put it here, our village also would turn into a city and we all would live like the city people. But, he never saw that the lives of some folks would be burnt down to ashes and from those ashes a few others would obtain their sustenance. Had he known that, he would not have done it, that’s what I believe.’ “Even then, my sons didn’t stop shooting their mouths off. Then I told them, ‘it’s not fair to scream as you please; we must give serious thought to what’s fair and what’s not.’ Suryam babu donated 20,000 rupees and on that day he did it only out of the goodness of his heart. That’s why the god blessed him and helped him to open the rice mill. He has prospered but that’s not his fault. It’s the same with Lakshum Naidu too; he gave his land to build a high school on it and the lot prices in the area went up. The loss on the land donated resulted in a profit after the remaining land was sold as house plots. He did not force people to buy the plots, right?’ “In that manner, babu, I tried to talk sense into them. But it was no use. One idiot of a child said, ‘grandpa, we too have given them; we put in our labor. What did we get for reward?’ I asked him, ‘didn’t you get work at the time?’ He snapped, ‘Yeah, we got work—the kind of work that resulted in us losing our chance to get work ever again. That’s what your god has given us in return for our labor.’ I said, ‘the entire world is showering praise on Sriramulu Naidu. So many people think of him as a good man. How could the same man be bad for us? Something is wrong somewhere.’ Then, another of my grandkids said, ‘you idiot, there’s a different reason for people to praise Sriramulu babu. Many people came here from other towns looking for work in all these places—the Centers, hotels, paan shops, offices, and high schools. Some of them came to study at school. As far as they are concerned, Sriramulu babu is the one who’s gotten these things set up here. These offices and shops are here; it doesn’t matter whether they are for them or for us, but it has happened. The children of those saukars who went bankrupt in the past are gaining ground again. That being the case, is it a surprise that they all pour praise on him?’ “Before I could reply to him, the first one who spoke earlier, asked me, ‘yes, grandpa, what did they do to receive such blessings?’ I was upset and told them, ‘orey, Sriramulu babu is not responsible for your fate. He did whatever he thought was best. Because of that, some profited and others lost. What can he do?’ “Then followed a huge squabble. At the end, one grandkid said, ‘if we had a couple more two-faced, stupid fellows like you, there’s no saying what else could have happened.’ “Babayyalaaraa, I’m carrying the weight of 70-years on my back. You all know the life I’ve lived until now. See the kind of things my children are saying about me? A relative of Errayya came to see me, saw my pain, and said to my children, “Kids, there’s no point in blaming him. You children cannot see where the roots of injustice lay; he did not see it either. The crux of the problem lies elsewhere, not here. The storm came from outside and drowned us all. Look at it from the saukar’s perspective. The entire produce must go straight to their storage sheds; the laborer is standing in their way. In the past, the saukars lashed out the laborers and got the work done. Now that’s not possible. To eliminate the laborers, they needed the machines. To bring in the machines, they needed the road and the electricity. That’s not all. They also needed educated laborers. For that reason, they wanted the school. That’s how we’ve gotten this electricity, the road and the high school. It was our stupidity to think that all these things were put in place for our benefit. You are all going bonkers because the machines came to draw water from the wells. Soon, there will be machines for plowing, seeding, weeding, and reaping too. Wait and watch the circus.’ “Babayya, even I was surprised to see how anybody’s goodwill could turn so sour. Nevertheless, I cannot disagree with them either, especially after watching what has happened, is happening and might happen in course of time. Whom did you intend to benefit, and who’s benefiting from your actions? I could ignore my little kids easily. I’m not going to blame Suryam babu and Lakshum babu either. They did not enter the field, carrying evil thoughts in their hearts. The yajnam you have started led the generous people on to evil ways. We jumped into action, knowingly or unknowingly, and we all are sinking in the same swamp.”
Appalramudu stopped for a while and then continued. “Babayya, I tried to explain all this to my kids and they all, including Bodigadu, accepted it. Only Sitaramudu would not budge from his position. He said, as his final word, ‘Ayya, I heard every word you’ve said. You, Sriramulu Naidu, other leaders behind him, and the rest of the crowd following the leaders—all of you are good people, and, probably, meant well, although your actions brought only negative results. I am sure you are also telling me, for my own good, to sell this little strip of land and go to work as day laborer. I will not sell the land, I cannot accept it. I am not denying the debt we owed the saukar. I’ll pay it back, as and when I can. I’ll work for him as long as l lived, if necessary. But, I am not going to sell the land to settle the account, it is not going to happen while I’m alive. “Then my eldest son said, ‘Hey, you’re talking as if the land is entirely yours.’ That ticked off Sitaramudu even more. He hit the roof and screamed, ‘You want to talk about family now, whatever happened to you when they told us to hand over the land to the saukar, you bastard.’ Others around him stopped him; and then, he added, ‘ayya, I am not going to say this again. Don’t blame me later that I did not tell you. If you sell the land, I will chop you into pieces and then I’ll kill myself. That is the real truth.’ “Others may or may not have understood his pain but I did. I told him, ‘Nayanaa, why do you think parents raise children? It’s with the hope that someday the child would perform the final rite. For me, there is no greater blessing than dying in your hands. But, before that, there’s something else that needs to be done. Tomorrow Sriramulu babu will be here. In all possibility, he would not sidestep the path of dharma. For some odd reason, he could come to the same decision as other members and tell us to sell the land and pay back Gopanna babu. When that happens, no matter what, I will certainly sell the land and settle the debt. After I paid off my debt, you go ahead and pay off yours.’”
Appalramudu finished speaking and stopped. The pain, which filled his voice, while speaking the last lines, reverberated in the hearts of several people there. For a few minutes, he looked as if he lost his senses. The paper in his hand wavered as the wind blew and brought him back to the present. To him, the people looked exhausted. Their faces lost color and zest. He lifted his eyes and looked at Sriramulu Naidu. He is sitting squatted and with his head bent, propped up by his right hand. He is looking lost in deep thought.
Appalramudu hoped for a second, just for one second only. And then he noticed Suryam’s eyes, which were piercing through his, Musalayya’s eyes, which were glued on to his hand, and karanam’s eyes that were hopping back and forth between his hand and the inkpad. He understood, right away, that his hope was baseless.
He heaved a long sigh, moved forward, and put his thumbprint on the document. He got up and turned around. Gopanna, who was holding his breath, was content, felt relief and looked around. After that, Appalramudu called out for his sons and grandsons, one by one, and told them to put their thumbprints on the paper. The process was almost over; there was a flood of sympathy in the crowd for Appalramudu. What’s the point of that flow, though? Sewer flow is better compared to that!
At the end, Appalramudu told Sitaramudu to get up. Sitaramudu got up. His eyes are red like burning charcoal. He’s tall and dark; he wore his hair in a knot on the top of his head. He went up and stared at the document. Suddenly, something took over him, nobody could tell what, though. He twirled around briskly, walked past the people, pushing away those who were in his way, and dashed forth. He ran away.
“Orey, Sitaramudu, hey, come back, don’t run,” Appalramudu shouted from behind. Sitaramudu did not hear him. He left rushing like a dart. After he turned the corner, there is a commotion in the crowd. They all started saying things
like, ‘what happened, what happened,’ ‘why,’ ‘Sitaramudu,’ ‘just now,’ and so on. The old woman, Appalramudu’s wife, started crying. ‘Olammo, what am I supposed to do now,’ she continued whining in a low, shivering voice.
“Stop crying. Nothing to worry,” Appalramudu yelled at her. He struggled for a while and then said, “I’ll go and get him.” His eldest son stopped him, moved forward, wavered his towel vigorously and threw it on his shoulder. His wife came
up to him, elbowing the crowd around her, and tried to stop him but couldn’t. She clutched his arm and followed him.
While the entire family was in a flurry, a few others from the Naidu families went and returned with sturdy clubs. Some mala folks saw that and tried to reason with them, “babu, do not rush into things we all will regret later.”
It took all that time for Sriramulu Naidu to understand the commotion around him. His face, which has been beaming, turned dark. That is obvious even to a blind eye.
“Don’t you be hasty; I am asking each one of you, calm down,” he said, coming forward and in a hoarse voice, “Listen to me, don’t act rashly.” He is shivering like a leaf and the people are terrified as they watched him shiver head to foot. Lakshum Naidu’s stamina however offered them some reassurance.
Somebody looked toward mala colony and said, “There, he’s coming.”
“What’s that in his hand?”
“Nothing. He’s carrying a bag on his shoulder.”
Lakshum Naidu returned to his seat. Others came forward and kept staring in that direction. Sitaramudu approached the crowd, ranting, “Ayya, Appalramudu, I’ve told you that the day you’ve put your thumbprint on that document also will be the day our father-son tie is broken. Now it’s over. Last night, I tried to explain to you,
over and again, but you did not listen. Why didn’t you? Because you thought, ‘I’m his father and he’s my son. How could he cross my word and still be my son; he won’t.’ That’s what you thought. Sons must not cross father’s command. That’s true. I have a son too. He won’t cross my word. Here. Check it out for yourself.”
So saying, Sitaramudu came forward, dropped the gunny bag on the ground, opened it and shook it upside down. At Appalramudu’s feet, fell with a thud, a head and a small body. The head, doused in blood, rolled over in the dirt; and, the tender, dark, naked body fell down, looking as if clung to the ground with his two little hands. The crowd looked at the two revolting pieces, flabbergasted, panicked, and lost their minds. Then they broke lose, scattered in all directions, screaming frantically, oyammo, ori nayano, ori babo, horrible, atrocious. They all moved away quickly to a safer place before they totally lost their minds and then stopped. The people at the far end moved forward, asking what’s all that about.
Appalramudu stood there motionless, as if turned into stone. The burning looks of Sitaramudu should have pierced him through like darts, and his words should have hit him like thunderbolts; but they did not touch him; there is no sign of his heart or body being hit at all.
Sitaramudu went on, “I tried my best but could not tear the veil that covered your eyes. I said gently. And then, I said I’d kill you. I said I’d kill myself. Still you did not listen to me. Why? That’s because you were so taken by your thirst for public approval. You wanted them to say that Appalramudu is a good man, he will not break his promise; and that he is a gentleman to the core. For you, it didn’t not matter what happened to your children. Why do you have to be so stuck on appearances? You would not want to sidestep dharma? What’s that dharma? Who can tell what is dharma?
“Ayya, I tried so hard; but neither you nor any of these people could see what you are doing to your own children. You did it in a way nobody could see it; and I did the same, but in a way that everybody could see it. See for yourself.” So saying, Sitaramudu pointed to his son on the ground. Appalramudu leaned forward; his head stayed steady without flinching. “You told us to spend the rest of our lives as slaves. That’s fine when you did not know the you can see it. But, now, you know it and still are insisting on the same. I don’t like it. I had high hopes for my child. He will not live the life of a slave. He must not be a day laborer. That’s why I ran home. I asked him, ‘son, do you want to live as a slave or would you rather die. If you die today, tomorrow is another day. Come here, I’ll kill you.’ He came running to me. I butchered him in one blow. I threw away the knife and came back here, on the double. You’re a father and so am I. You tell me now who’s a better father.”
Sitaramudu stopped talking but could not watch Appalramudu who squatted next to his grandson; he turned his eyes toward the crowd. The crowd noticed his looks and fled in frenzy.
Their fears turned his stomach. He smiled vaguely and said, “babayyalaaraa, don’t be afraid of me. If I were capable of hurting you all, I would not have killed my own child.” He tried to stop them but could not. They fled. The only people who remained there are the ones who brought the clubs earlier. He said to them, “Babayyalaara, don’t you also act rashly. I’m prepared for death by hanging. Death is no big deal for me. If you beat me, you’ll get the same sentence – death by hanging. Do I have to take the blame for your kids’ misfortune too?”
Then he turned toward the mandapam. His eyes looked for Sriramulu Naidu and landed on him. He looked straight and said, “Babu, Sriramulu babu, I hated you the worst. When did I start? It started long time ago. Know why? You are really stupid. You believe in your heart that the entire world will listen to you, must listen to you. Do you know who’s really in command of you and your empire? There, those two chiefs—the karanam and the munsif. As long as you keep doing their work, which they cannot do themselves, you’re in charge. After that, they go their way and you go yours. You don’t see it now, though.”
Then he turned to the munsif, and said, laughing a stupid laugh, “Babu, munsif babu, you’ve got a job to do, after a very long time. I remember what you’ve said on the day Sriramulu babu opened this mandapam. Now you tell me, what are you going to do—file a complaint against me or drop the murder charge?”
Sitaramudu stopped talking and squatted on the floor in front of that mandapam of justice. How long people chant the rules of dharma? Only so long as the others continue to listen to you …
And then …
Translated by Nidadavolu Malathi, 2005.
(Note: This is one of the most highly discussed stories in the academic and literary circles in recent history of Telugu literature. In response to my query, the author said: “The narrator’s perception was, in a system where the laborers cannot enjoy the product of their labor their own labor turns into slow poison. Additionally, when the labor class extends its cooperation to the management, and that is suicidal.” The story was originally written in March-April of 1964 and published in Yuva monthly, 1966, Deepavali special issue. Author’s permission is acknowledged. Editor.)
(Originally published on thulika.net, March 2005, and later included in the anthology From My Front Porch, published by Sahitya Akademi, 2009.