“The shameless bitch. Has become unruly. Who knows whose house she is
going to ruin next. Whose throat she’ll go for now,” Appalamma was reciting her monologue aloud, working on the dirty dishes vigorously.
Radha was chopping onions in the kitchen and heard the last two
words. “Who are you blessing, Appalamma?” She asked, coming out of the kitchen and dabbing her eyes.
“That bitch, Kannamma, ma’am,” she put down the dish and continued, gesturing exuberantly, “She stood on the railway tracks a little while ago, it seems, ready to throw herself under the train. The railway workers pulled her out, talking some sense into her. If I were there I would have pushed her right under the train.” Appalamma picked up the dirty dish in a huff.
“Why? Why did she want to throw herself under the train?”
“Playing games, ma’am. Crooked bitch!”
“Poor thing. Why are you so angry with her anyway?”
“What do you mean ‘why’, madam. The lecherous bitch.” Appalamma has been cursing that Kannamma non-stop for over a week now.
Apparently Kannamma moved here from somewhere. She has been going from door to door, begging for food. And then, it seems, she sets fire to the very house she is begging from – meaning she goes after the men in that house. Appalamma has been ranting this story for the past one week.
Radha heard it and kept quiet. She didn’t pay much attention to the story. Kannamma never came to her door. Radha did not understand why Appalamma was so upset with Kannamma. “Let it be. Bring the dishes quick,” she said and went in.
“In a minute ma’am. I work in four homes, ma’am. My palms are sore with pain. I’ve been telling you I can’t work for you anymore but you won’t listen. You insist on me working for you,” said Appalamma continuing her soliloquy.
That afternoon Radha fell asleep while reading a new magazine.
It was about one in the afternoon. It was sizzling hot. She vaguely heard a knock on the door. She also heard a child crying in a screechy voice. She got up hastily and opened the door. A woman was standing at the door looking like a wood figurine and with the crying child in her arms. She was jet dark, short and has small pox marks all over the body. Her hair was in a lemon size bun. A piece of cloth, about an arms length, was hardly covering her body. She has small black bag at her feet. She stood there with tearful eyes.
“Who are you? What do you want?” Radha asked, still a little sleepy, nevertheless not upset.
The woman quickly wiped her tears. She said in a husky voice, holding down her grief, “Ma’am, I am afraid the child might die. We haven’t had a meal since morning. I begged so many people. They all shouted at me, ‘go, go away’. Please let me have a small change.” She said it as if she has been practicing it and has said it to several people. Tears rolled down from her eyes.
The child in her arms wouldn’t stay still. He was wiggling like a worm. Possibly about 3 months old. She guessed it from his face but his legs and arms were looking like thin sticks. Radha felt sorry for them.
“I’ll give you money. But it’ll take time for you to buy milk and feed him. I have some milk inside. I can warm it up for you. Come in.”
The woman stood there still, surprised.
“It is alright. Go through the hallway and sit in the back porch. I will get the milk for you.”
Radha went in, lit the stove, mixed milk and water, warmed it up, added sugar, poured it into a glass and brought it back.
The child dozed off from fatigue, as if he has no strength any more even to cry.
“How can you feed him? Should I bring a small spoon?”
“No, ma’am. I have a small bottle,” she said, pulling out a colored bottle from her bag.
The mother held the child in her lap and started feeding. Radha brought out a small sitting plank and sat down, a little away from them.
The child finished the milk eagerly. Then fell asleep in his mother’s lap.
The mother spread an old piece of cloth on the floor and put him down.
“Ma’am! I need to wash my saree. He wet it. Can you give me a little water in a small pot?” she asked Radha.
“There, There is a tap in the bathroom. Go ahead and wash it clean,” Radha pointed in that direction.
That woman was wrapped in a piece of cloth that was hardly two arm lengths. That was all drenched and stuck to the body. She spread the wet part in the sun and sat there along with the cloth.
It was blistering hot. Anyone sitting in that sun would burn like charcoal.
Radha standing in the porch, asked her, “Don’t have another saree in your bag?”
“No, ma’am. I used to have two sarees. After he was born, they turned into rags. It’s okay, ma’am. It will dry soon enough.”
Radha went in and opened the box where she kept her old sarees. She found two sarees, a little worn out. She picked up the black saree with white border and came back.
She threw it at the woman who was sitting in the sun and said, “Here. Put this one on. Leave that cloth in the sun and you come here. There is some left over food. Would you like to eat?”
“As you please, ma’am!”
The woman looked attractive in the black saree with white border. Her face showed content as if she won a money bag.
Radha put some rice and dal in a leaf and gave it to her.
The woman finished it quickly. She threw away the leaf and washed her hands.
“Ma’am, if you don’t mind I will lie down here for a few minutes. After the child wakes up I’ll go away.”
“Okay. Lie down. Use that bag as a pillow. Oh, I forgot to ask. What is your name?”
“Kannamma?” Radha was surprised. She repeated in a high pitch, “You are Kannamma?”
Kannamma got up and sat upright.
“No, no. Lie down. I just asked, for no reason,” Radha said and went in. She tried to sleep but couldn’t.
She came out after ten minutes and saw that both the mother and the child were fast asleep, as if lost all senses.
Not a day passes by without Appalamma condemning this Kannamma. She called her amoral bitch. What is amoral?
Kannamma woke up at about 3 in the afternoon. Radha brought all the dirty dishes into the backyard and said, “No show of Appalamma again. Whatever could have happened this time. She is killing me. I don’t know when this pest goes away.” Radha sat down, annoyed, to pick stones from the rice.
Kannamma shook her loose hair and put it back in a bun and said, “I will wash the dishes for you, ma’am.”
Appalamma did not show up at all for the day. Kannamma finished the entire work. She washed the dishes glossy clean. Ground the idli dough silky soft. Swept the rooms clean. In the afternoon after Radha changed her clothes, Kannamma washed them and put them out to dry.
The child had milk for a second time and fell asleep.
Radha felt elated. She wished she had a maid like Kannamma. She put some hot upma in a leaf and gave it to Kannamma.
Her three children returned from school and gathered around the little child sleeping in the back porch. Radha was nearly exhausted answering all their questions.
“Mom, what is baby’s name?”
“I don’t know. Ask his mom,” Radha said.
Kannamma laughed and told the children, “Enkadu, sir. Tirupati Enkanna’s name.”
She sat there chatting with them for a half hour. Then she got up, picked up the child, and the bag and said, “I will leave now, ma’am.”
“Where to?” Radha asked involuntarily. Then checking herself, asked again, stretching the words, “I mean, where is your house? Where are you staying?”
“Nowhere, ma’am. Each day it is different, depending on whoever is kind to me.”
“Where are you originally from?”
“Not this town, ma’am. It’s a long way….”
“Where is the child’s father?”
Kannamma did not answer. She was reluctant even in the answers she has given so far.
“Are you the same person that stood on the railway tracks this morning?
What kind of an act is that, with such a tiny baby on your hands?” Radha chided her mildly.
Kannamma’s eyes filled with tears. “Those who don’t know how to live, ma’am, what else can they do but die?”
“So? You can find work in a few homes. That shouldn’t be a problem, right?”
“You are kind, ma’am, to say that. Ever since I came here everybody is chasing me like a mad dog. Every woman has only a bad word for me. I came here with the hope of finding work and make a living. Each day has become a struggle. I am worn out.”
“Alright. Where can you go now? We’ll see tomorrow. Put down the child to rest. Look! Take that pan and bring some water. I will start rice.” Radha went into the kitchen.
Kannamma put down the bag and put the child to sleep. The children gathered around the baby.
That night Radha told her husband about Kannamma. “Poor thing. She says she has no one in the world for her. Looks like a nice person. She is doing a good job of all the chores. I am tired with all these servants. Appalamma skips work at least four times a month. On top of it, she gets upset each time I ask her to do something. Think of the morning hours for instance – tiffins, coffees, and your office, children’s school… all come up rushing in on me…” Radha was talking non-stop. Her husband Satyannarayana cut short her tirade and said, “Sh. Sh. Stop. What is this long lecture about? Radha! Just tell me what are you getting at?”
“Oh, nothing. Can we keep Kannamma in our house?”
“It’s up to you. If you want a maid keep her.”
“That’s also like giving her a new lease on life. She has been going around from house to house with that tiny baby. That’s why..”
“That’s okay. What do we have got to lose? Plus you will have some help at home as well. But first explain everything to her in advance and tell her to be careful.” Satyannarayana finished his dinner and went into his room. Radha felt ecstatic.
Radha gave food to Kannamma and conveyed the news with a smile.
“Kannamma! you said you don’t have a place to stay. How about staying here in our home?”
Kannamma looked up, surprised.
How does it feel if someone says, “Kannamma! take this bag of one hundred thousand rupees?”
“What? Why don’t you say something?”
Kannamma was overwhelmed by a fit of pleasure and pain. “Ma’am, God Himself brought me here to your door. I am swearing on this food. I will behave with gratitude. I will never forget your kindness. I swear on my child.”
“Cha! Stop swearing. Hard working people will always find a way out. Don’t worry about it. I will keep milk in this pot. Would you like to have a little more rice?”
“No, ma’am. I am full.”
Radha went into the room and brought out a mat and a bed sheet, and gave them to Kannamma. She put away other things in the kitchen, reminded Kannamma about the milk for the child one more time and went to her bedroom.
Next day Appalamma came in while it was still dark and started knocking on the door. Kannamma was washing dishes and heard it. She went to open the door.
Appalamma was taken aback as if she saw a ghost.
Radha came to the door and said, “Appalamma! you’ve been saying that you don’t have time and that I should look for another maid. Well, I gave the job to Kannamma. Send your son a little later. I will settle your account.”
“What’s this, ma’am? Just because I didn’t show up for one day… you give my job to this bitch?”
“Stop yelling so early in the morning. She is working because I asked her to. Why blame her? You skip one shift per day. How can I manage with you? That is enough. Just go.”
“Okay, I’ll go. Let the bitch take my food from my mouth and eat, who knows for how long. She’ll go to hell. Her end is near. Her child will go to hell..”
Radha shut the door and went in to freshen up. Kannamma could hear all that shouting from Appalamma.
It is a week since Kannamma came.
A couple of times she found money while sweeping the rooms and returned it carefully to the owners.
Once Radha forgot her earrings in the bathroom. Kannamma brought them to Radha and said with some concern, “Ma’am, as ill-luck would have it, if these are lost, your suspicion would turn to me. Please be careful with your things.”
During that one week Radha heard Kannamma’s story also. Kannamma was married once at first. She has two sons by the first marriage. For about 5, 6 years the husband and wife were happy.
“Was your husband a good person?” Radha cut in.
“He would beat me up if he were angry. But he was a very good person.”
“Why would he get so angry? And even if he gets angry…”
“It’s okay, ma’am. After all, he has married me. He can do whatever he wants. If he were around, I wouldn’t be in this plight, ma’am!”
Kannamma’s husband died of some disease. For a couple of years Kannamma was living in her brother’s house along with her two children. She has no parents. Has only that brother and sister-in-law. The sister-in-law put her through all kinds of hardships, short of burning with a branding iron. She was not even giving her a full meal. Well, there wasn’t really enough to give either. She could at least have a kind word for Kannamma. But she wouldn’t.
One day Kannamma’s brother brought a marriage proposal. Kannamma was
not interested in remarriage. But she is better off marrying somebody. Or else this sister-in-law will make her life a living hell. But then
again the proposal her brother brought in was not at all to her
liking. In stead of marrying a 60 year old man, why not marry Appanna?
Appanna is a distant relative of Kannamma. His first wife died. No children. He has been following her and teasing her for sometime and Kannamma has been pushing him away. Still he continued to follow her.
“I will marry Appanna,” Kannamma said. Her brother hit the roof. He
swore at her. Kannamma left one night, leaving her children behind
and went straight to Appanna’s house. Appanna has parents. And they
liked Kannamma coming to them. So the parents have performed the ceremony in a temple secretly.
“That is the stupidest thing I’ve ever done, ma’am,” Kannamma said regretting her action now.
“The man may be old, may be worn out. But if I had listened to my brother, I would have had a royal life. My brother would have come to my help any time I needed. I didn’t have the sense to see it when I agreed to this secret marriage.” Her eyes filled with tears.
“Well. It feels like that now. Probably anybody else would have done the same under the circumstances. Who knows what would have happened if you had married that old man?” Radha said sounding sympathetic.
“Yes, ma’am. At the time I thought that, after my marriage with Appanna, my brother calm down and would come around eventually. I was planning to get my children back. After a month or so I suggested “let’s go and get our children”. Do you know what Appanna said? “I don’t want any children! Who will feed them? Waste of food,” he yelled at me. I cried and begged him on my knees. I said I can’t live without seeing the children and went to bed without eating.
“Okay, you can go ahead and visit them for once,” he said. One evening I went to my brother’s place. I thought I would go there and bring them back with me. As soon as I set foot in the door both the children left their food plates and came running to me, wound up around my legs and started crying loud. I couldn’t contain myself and I broke into sobs too. Then my brother came out of his room, like the Lord Yama, the god of death. He grabbed the children by their arms and dragged them
into the house. He hollered profanities and threw me out into the street. He said he would chop me up into pieces with a butcher knife if he sees me again at his door. My husband here wouldn’t agree to bring the children. There my brother wouldn’t let me take them. What can I do ma’am?”
“Let it be. They are at least happy in your brother’s home. Even if you bring them, what more could you do?”
“That’s the reason I also decided to turn into a stone and keep quiet. Somehow a year went by. Appanna used to pull a rickshaw. He started drinking heavily. I cried. I poured my heart out. But he wouldn’t listen. Eventually he even stopped coming home at nights. I decided it it is his fate and let.”
One day my mother-in-law went out of town. Appanna did not come home.
My father-in-law came and sat on my bed. I was shocked and ran out into the streets. I lied down at the door all night.
… Appanna came home while it was still dark.”
“Why didn’t you tell him?” asked Radha.
“I did ma’am. I told him ‘your father did like this’ and cried my heart out.” “That’s silly. My dad is a good man,” he said, walking away clumsily into the his room. He slept like a log until noon. After he woke up, I saw his dad giving him a five rupee bill. My father-in-law has a liquor store. He used to make good money. So he would give money to his son frequently. My father-in-law didn’t bother me for about a week. And then again I don’t know what pricked his brains, he came and sat next to me. This time even my husband and my mother-in-law were still in the house. He started whispering. I got frightened and screamed. He shut my mouth up. I started crying. My husband won’t get up and come to my help. He was drunk and lying there. And as for my mother-in-law. She knew and still kept quiet.
“Shut up you bitch! Enough of your whining,” she barked.
“Listen to me. What do you think you will gain by trusting that numbskull,” my father-in-law kept pestering me.
Radha was listening curiously.
“Why did your mother-in-law keep quiet?”
“I understood later ma’am. She goes with whoever she pleases. And her husband keeps quiet about it.”
“That is strange,” Radha expressed surprise.
Kannamma felt bad and said, “It’s not good, ma’am. You should not hear this kind of stories. Ours are devious lives.”
“No. It’s okay. Tell me. Not that everybody is alike. Each according to their own belief. Your mother-in-law and father-in-law are doing fine. Here! your life is ruined. How come your husband didn’t have the sense to see it?”
“He has no guts to stand up to his dad. He used to beat me up for some reason or other. He would come near me only when he was drunk. If he were in his senses, he would push me away. So I became an easy target for my father-in-law.”
“Kannamma! How could you put up with such a hell? Why didn’t you and your husband move out and live happily, free from all those miseries?”
“I suggested exactly that, ma’am. He wouldn’t listen. His mom would cook the food and serve readily for him the moment he walks in. Her dad would give him a half rupee or so. He has no cares, not about salt, nor about dal. And then there is the bitchy wife waiting for him in the bed. Why would he listen when he can live such a carefree life? It is my arrogance, ma’am, that I married him without checking his ways. I lost my two children, charming like Rama and Lakshmana. Don’t I have to pay for my sins, ma’am?”
“Oh, did you ever get to see your children?”
“May be once in a month or two I would see them in the market. Usually I would dodge them for fear that they miss me and start crying for me if they see me too often. They are doing fine at my brother’s house.
My life ended up on the streets only after I got pregnant with this third child. I tried to tell my husband the good news but he was obnoxious. “Pregnant. Ha! I am no part of it. Go wherever you please,” he said.
My father-in-law saw what he was hinting at and was irritated. “What are babbling about? Who married her, you or me?” he said feeling guilty I believe.
“You should know that!” the son replied testily. Words flew high and they were about to start a fight. The people around intervened and stopped them. My husband left the same night and never returned, not after a month, not ever again. My mother-in-law did not like me staying there anymore. “Why are you still here? Do you see your husband anywhere in this house?” she would harass me every day. I didn’t like staying there either. But where else could I go? I have no place to go.
One day my mother-in-law saw that my father-in-law and I were in the same room. She bolted the doors from outside, started pulling her hair and shouting, “Did you all see this? This bitch… with my husband… is there a sin worse than this .. at least you people should teach her a lesson”.
All the people looked at me as if I were a worm. “What is wrong with you? You will lose your sight!” they said. Each one of them chewed me up. “You can’t live in my house. Go wherever you please,” said my mother-in-law. She pulled me out by my hair and threw me on to the streets along with my clothes.
I collapsed right there. All those gathered went away.
“Why didn’t go to your brother again?”
“I did. Where else can I go? I thought it’s okay even if he kills me. He stopped me at the door.”
“Wow! Can anybody be that cruel? Shouldn’t a human being have some kindness at heart?”
“Sounds like a lie to you. That’s the truth for me. You won’t see anyone more malicious than my brother. I would rather he let me in and then strangle me.”
“After that where did you go?”
A kind woman named Gangamma took me in. Gangamma has no children, ma’am. It seems she had a couple of miscarriages sometime back. And then she gained weight. Doctors told her that she could not have children anymore. So she took me in. At first she took me in out of kindness. Later she wanted to adopt my child, irrespective of whether it is a boy or girl. She asked me also. “Why not? Take the child. After all what do I have to raise a child with,” I said.
From then on both the husband and wife were taking good care of me. She would give the food first to me and then to others. Always bring something or other from the store for me. Never allow me to do anything, not so much as move a broom. She took care of me as if I were her child. I used to call her husband, ‘brother’. He also used to call me ‘sister’. I thought God was gracious to me.”
Kannamma kept narrating the story. Radha fell into her own thoughts – trying to guess what happened next before Kannamma told the story. She is saying somebody took care of her. Then why is she wandering on the streets like this? Where did this child come from?
“Didn’t give the child to Gangamma?” She threw in the question suddenly.
Kannamma fell silent and looked sad. “Ma’am! What can I say? Sounds like a lie to you. That’s the truth for me. A woman who steps outside her home is like someone standing stark naked on the street. Nobody asks if that is a good bitch or bad bitch. They all prey on her like an eagle.”
“I may be pregnant, but how can I live if I sit doing nothing. So I would go out looking for work. But, ma’am, where is a safe place for a bitch like me in this world? Am I such a gorgeous woman? Am I showing off? To speak the truth, men don’t look for beauty or any such thing, ma’am. All they want is some female. Go for day labor, the bosses are after you; go for odd jobs on the farm, the landlords are after you. Not just this place or that place. Not just this man or that man. A woman without a male support must give in to somebody or other. Otherwise she can’t survive. They hunt her like a mad dog. Just listen to this. I used to call him ‘brother’, right? He would also respond to me, ‘yes, sister’. And that very man. Do you know what that husband of Gangamma did? He kept quiet until I had the delivery. The boy was born healthy. Gangamma also was very fond of him.
After a month or so, Gangamma went somewhere. She said she wouldn’t be back until after late evening. I was alone in the house. I gave a bath to the baby and I laid him down next to me. I slipped into a little nap. Suddenly I woke up and realized that.. he … was sitting next to me, stroking my hair and laughing.
I felt goose bumps all over. “What’s this, brother?” I said, frightened and moving away. He moved closer. “Don’t worry. She won’t be back!” he said. It became clear to me.
Grief overcame. “Brother, I treat you like my brother. I’ll lose my sight if I err!”
“Ssh! Why would you lose your sight? Are we born to the same mother or same father? How can we become brother and sister just for using the terms?” he said. I sat there crying.
His passion died and anger set in. “Hey, Kannamma! You are talking like goddess Sita? How am I worse than your father-in-law?” he said taunting me. I didn’t give in. He sat next to me and tried to convince me. “If you stay with me, you will be wanting in nothing. I will take care of your food and clothing. Listen to me. There is nothing wrong. Aren’t you in the prime of your life? Aren’t you eating salt and pepper. Remarriages are acceptable in our community. Who could question us?”
“Brother, I am begging you. Don’t come near me. I am taking shelter here in your home, and thinking of you two as my mother and father. Please think of me as your daughter. Think of me as your sister. I’ll fall on your feet. Look at my child…”
He shook me off rudely and walked away. I collapsed feeling wiped out.
Gangamma returned later in the evening. At first I thought I’d throw myself at her and cry. What if she asks what happened? What should I say? They both would get into a fight. That idiot raved some nonsense, whether knowingly or not. I might as well let it go. He will pay for his sins. Why should I cause problems in their life? He will realize it himself”. Thus I talked myself into keeping quiet.
“Hey Kannamma! What is the matter? You are looking sad!” Gangamma asked. “Nothing. I fell asleep,” I said. “You stupid! What is wrong with you? You are a new mother. How could you fall asleep in the middle of the day? What if you get arthritis or something?” she admonished me.
Gangamma is such a sweet soul. She would give me her share of food without thinking twice. She dotes on my child more than I myself do.
“Ma’am, such a kind person got angry with me and threw me out. What would you call it if not my ill-luck.”
This is all a new world for Radha. She used to think that the low class people sleep around without any qualms and they have no such thing as principles. But… this Kannamma?
“Why did Gangamma get angry with you?” she asked with curiosity.
“Why her? Anybody would be upset. In fact it is my fault. I should have told her even at the outset. She asked me the same question. “If you are such a good woman, why didn’t you tell me at the beginning”. I became an easy target because I kept quiet. He assumed that I wanted him and was just playing hard to get. Do you see the turns my story took, ma’am.”
“Oh, you poor, crazy bitch!” thought Radha.
“Did he say anything again?” she said aloud.
“Not just once, ma’am? He couldn’t leave me alone, not for a second. Won’t let me sit or stand. The moment Gangamma is out of sight he is there. Would pull my saree ends, or pinch my arm,… And I didn’t know what to do. I was so afraid that Gangamma might see. Sounds like a lie to you. That is the honest truth for me. Believe me, I was sitting there with my life breath in my closed fist… How long a sin stays a secret? Wouldn’t it burst like a bubble? One evening.. it was a little dark…. Earlier I dried the baby’s clothes on the fence behind the vegetable garden. I went to get them. I turned around and he was there behind me. Suddenly he took me into his arms. “Here. Buy yourself a blouse piece,” he said and stuffed a rupee coin in my fist.
“Oh, God! What has this come to!” My knees were shaking. Not one word would come out of my mouth. I stood there as if I’d gone crazy. That’s when it happened ma’am!… Right then Gangamma has seen us. At first she was shocked. Then she spit fire through her looks. She shook her head. Then she went rushing in. That idiot, her husband disappeared like a crow after spotting a pellet. I got stuck alone there. I stood there crushed.
Gangamma returned with the child and threw him in the dirt at my feet. “I don’t want your child or anything else. Let us live like this. You go and find your way out,” she said firing away her words.
“Sister,” I screamed and threw myself at her feet. “Please, believe me. I didn’t do anything wrong. I swear on God. I never agreed.”
“Chi. You bitch! If you know cheating you’d know lying too. Are you saying he embraced you without you making any move? What a spunk! Do you know anything about trust at all? I took you in when your entire family on either side turned you out. I gave you my share of food, you bitch! I put a dog on the throne, you bitch. How could you go after a man who’s calling you ‘sister, sister’? Your eyes will burst, you bitch! Leprosy will eat you up!” She went on and on swearing at me and shouting words that could melt anybody’s heart.
My baby was rolling in the dust, Gangamma was ranting, and the people started gathering around as if they were invited for a special occasion. They started inquiring, “What happened, Gangamma!”. The rupee he stuffed in my fist is still in my hand. I was afraid that if I threw it down, they might actually believe that I did something wrong.
Gangamma pulled open my fist and showed the rupee to the crowd. “See. Take a good look. Ask her how long she has been carrying this on? Teach the bitch a lesson!” she continued her tirade, hitting on my cheek with her fist.
“There was not a single person that would listen to what I have to say. They all picked on me like a flock of crows.”
“Why are you still standing there like a pole. Go. Hit the road,” said Gangamma throwing her arms into the air. I lost her trust. How can I stay there any longer anyway? The husband that one way and the wife this way…
“Sister Gangamma! Take the child. I will go away alone,” I suggested picking up my courage. She was obstinate. I cried. I screamed. Then I picked up the child, and carrying a world of darkness on my head, walked out. The rupee wiggled like a worm in my palm. I was about to throw away. Then again I tucked it into my saree folds at my waist.”
Tears rolled down from Kannamma’s eyes. Even earlier while telling the story she was sobbing in between. At times she would stop, and then she couldn’t, and so would continue her narration while crying.
Radha did not stop her from crying. She let her cry.
“Let it be, Kannamma! How long can you cry for the past? Of course hard times hit humans, not the tree trunks. Stop worrying,” she comforted her after a while.
Kannamma also felt relieved after a while. “Ma’am, it is over two months now. I have been wandering like a bird with this child in my arms. I haven’t had a full meal and not a piece of cloth long enough to cover myself fully. There is no way I could find work to feed myself and the child. A male face would scare me out of my wits. Even women are not kind to me. Every one of them were laughing in my face. There is not one person that would say a kind word. Ma’am, I don’t know when and what puja I have done, I arrived at your door. I have food and clothing. My heart is content now.”
Radha listened to Kannamma’s story but there is one thing she did not understand. Why should she suffer so much? She has had two marriages. What kind of ethical questions she has to worry about?
“Kannamma! I am confused… Why couldn’t you find some good man and move in with him? How long can you go around like this? After all, it is not wrong in your community?”
Kannamma turned pale. She was surprised that a good person like Radha would ask such a question. She was silent for a while. “You don’t know ma’am. Where is a good man in this world? All men would want all women, but for their own mother and sister, to jump into their beds. Even if I settle down with one man, do you think he would do me favors? He will keep me for a few days and then kicks me out. Then there again I am with the same old stomach and my problems. The world spits on my face. Why should I take on all that botheration? Why should I stake my body trusting these men. I have my muscles. And then there are kind women like you. If not today, may be tomorrow my honesty will be noticed. I will spend the rest of my life at your feet.”
Wow! This person was caught up in a bunch of sticky situations that could have turned anyone into an animal. Still she remained a human being, how?
Kannamma, caressing the baby in her lap, laughed. “One woman offered 600 rupees for this little one. Oh, no. I would cut up my heart but not give away my child. Who knows how this baby and I got connected. May be that is why Gangamma’s mind thought that way. I have already lost my first two sons. If I am patient for a few years and raise this kid, wouldn’t he take care of me? That day I came to your door with this baby and you invited me into your home. Wouldn’t you have turned me out if I had come alone? So, this baby is the only way out for me. Look! He is smiling!…” That is a mother’s heart rejoicing!
“You sat on railway tracks with this tiny child, saying you wanted to die. You are a piece of work!” The words came to the tip of her tongue but Radha stopped herself for fear of spilling cold water on her happiness.
“Anyway, Kannamma! You said you are scared even to look at a man. Do you think all men are like that? Would you say that even men from the high class and the educated are the same?” Radha asked curiously.
“Sorry ma’am, I was just blabbering. If everybody is like that wouldn’t the world turn upside down? I am sure somewhere out there, there are very nice people like the God Rama. Right?” she posed a rebuttal.
Radha felt satisfied. “Why somewhere out there. Right here, my husband is like Rama,” she wanted to say proudly.
In truth, Radha does not like Rama’s character. But Rama is referred to as a monogamist. That’s why Radha was comparing him to Rama.
Her husband Satyannarayana has earned the name “good man”. This “good” refers not only to his behavior but also to his character. He never crosses the line in dealing with other women. He does not cast stealthy looks at them. Nobody has seen him fooling around with other women. There is even a comment that “Satyannarayana?… He does not belong to modern times.” That is why Radha liked Kannamma’s words. The world would turn upside down if there were no good men, she said. Radha chuckled. Did the world remain upright because of the weight of Satyannarayana’s moral strength?
In spite of all her experiences Kannamma was willing to accept that there are still good men but Leela would not agree.
Leela quit school in the middle and got married. Radha went one more step further and did the same thing. They never forgot their friendship. The circumstances were favorable. It is over a year since they’ve seen each other. They talked about a lot of things. Especially about their families, husbands, and how long one kerosene tin lasts. They argued about how many sarees last per year and which variety of sarees lasts longer. They exchanged views on how their children were doing in school and how smart they were. Until then they were frank with each other and talked without any exaggerations.
“Is your husband a good person?” Leela asked suddenly.
“Where did that come from? You are asking like a stranger. You know him!” Radha said with a laugh.
“It’s not that. I was wondering if your valuable opinion has changed in the past one year.”
“Why would my valuable opinion change as long as his behavior remains the same? It happens only when the sun sets on the other side and neither is going to happen.”
“Wow! And where is the guarantee?”
“How can we manage to have families if we don’t have that trust?”
“We can manage wonderfully. Everything is fine as long as we have food and clothing.”
“Shut up. Don’t talk like an idiot. Did we marry for food and clothing?”
Radha laughed. “Hey Leela!… Because your husband… did something long time ago.. poor man… he even admitted it to you…”
“What if he keeps doing the same mistake again and again… ?”
“Why would he do that? Is he that stupid?”
“Do you think the first time he did it because of his stupidity?… Radha! I am not sure whether you are being naive or a moron, but you don’t know anything about men. They are not like us. They don’t think like us. If there is a man nurturing such moral values, it is only for want of favorable conditions, not because of his values. They do whatever they please. They don’t tell us because we can’t take it. Some one like you would suffer a heart attack.”
“What about you? Would you rejoice in it?”
“Me! I can turn my heart into stone. My mind is not so sensitive.”
Radha was not impressed. She was even annoyed a little. “Human beings form theories based on their experiences, you know? You keep insisting that I should trust your word but you don’t value my opinion. There are lot of men who love only their wives and spend their entire life with only their wives honestly.”
Leela laughed and said, “If your husband cheats on you someday and then would you still say the same thing?”
“Of course, I would. The world does not mean my home alone. Why would I assume that if good happens to me it is all good and if bad happens to me it is all bad?”
Leela was excited about the thought. “Radha! Are you upset? If you honestly say that you are that happy, wouldn’t I be happy for you? Am I that stupid? Why would I suspect everybody? I was only making a broad generalization about men. I know your husband is a noble man.”
“Stop praising my husband? … Isn’t your husband…?”
“You don’t know. I don’t suspect him but I don’t trust him either. How can you call it a virtue when a man represses his wavering heart for fear of offending the wife? To be frank, his heart should not think of another woman because of his love for his own wife. Why not? Aren’t we living like that? Are we short of opportunities? Why can’t men follow the same rules?”
“There! You are coming to the same point again. Am I not saying there are men like that?”
Leela laughed wholeheartedly. “You are a very fortunate woman!”
Thinking about her luck, Radha felt gratified and proud. There is a great comfort in being happy with an awareness of it!
* * *
It is about a month since Kannamma came into their lives. She became a part of the family. Kannamma was taking care of all the chores. Radha was doing only cooking, just twice a day. Rest of the chores – starting from washing dishes in the eaarly hours, sweeping the rooms, giving bath to children, washing clothes, preparing the dough for the next day tiffin,.. there is no end to the list…Kannamma would do everything without a fuss and without taking a break. She would not listen to even Radha’s mild protests. It is getting uncomfortable for Radha to sit idly. She has nothing else to do except reading books.
Kannamma’s son gained a little weight. He was rolling over and crawling all over the room on his tummy.
Radha has been passing on Kannamma’s stories to Satyannarayana, although not in one continuous narration, but off and on. “Poor woman… She suffered a lot. At least now she has landed in a nice place.. and she is so happy about it..”
“What do you mean ‘nice place’?”
“How do I know. I am only repeating what she has said,” Radha replied evasively.
“She is putting in her two pence’s worth and so feeling good about herself. Or else we wouldn’t have taken her in,” he said.
A couple of times the milk she kept separately for Enkadu went bad. Then Radha gave away the milk meant for Satyannarayana’s coffee. Satyannarayana was not only not upset. He was very understanding. “It’s okay. Never the little child go hungry. There is nothing more sinful than that,” he said. Only Radha knows how happy she felt about her husband’s kindness.
Kannamma has been coughing for a week.
One day she kept coughing all night without sleep. By morning she was running temperature too. She was shivering. Still she got up somehow and started her chores.
Radha gave her coffee and asked, “Last night, you were coughing for a long time, right? I could hear it.”
“Yes, ma’am. I was hoping it would go away. I wish I had kept an arek nut in the mouth. All night I was suffering from fever and chills. I am still running a little temperature. This morning I noticed a streak of blood in my spit while brushing my teeth!”
Radha got nervous. “Then, go to the doctor. Quick, get up.”
“No, ma’am. Why bother.. An arek nut will do..”
“Shut up. You should never neglect until it is too late. I know a doctor personally. I will write a note for him, explaining all the details. Take it. If he suggests any medication, go to the drug store and get it.” Radha picked up the pad and wrote a short note for the doctor introducing Kannamma. “She is a very nice person. She has no one to turn to. She lives in our house. Please make time to examine her carefully. My husband will take care of the costs,” she wrote.
Kannamma using her finger tips as a brush fixed her hair and put it into a bun. Adjusted her saree pleats. Took the note and said, “I will take Enkadu ma’am! If he cries… he disturbs…”
“Why him? A botheration! He is sleeping like a doll. If cries I can feed him milk. Go. quick.” She said, giving her the directions to the hospital, other instructions and money and hurrying her to leave.
Radha finished all her chores and was about to take a bath. The child started crying. She gave him milk and was walking around with the baby until Kannamma returned.
Kannamma came back with a happy face and said, “Doctor babu was such a nice man.”
“So? What happened? What did he say?”
“He gave me an injection. And gave me some pills also. He also gave me this note for you,” she opened the little knot at her saree end and gave it to her. She took her child. Radha went into her room and read the note.
The doctor warned her to be cautious regarding Kannamma’s condition.
“I have to do a blood test. And take an x-ray. Until then I can’t say for sure. There are signs of tuberculosis. I am writing this so you would be careful. I will give her shots for a week or 10 days. I gave her some pills. Make sure that she takes them regularly. If it is not T.B. this treatment should cure her. Don’t worry.”
Radha’s heart started beating faster. She couldn’t think straight. Suddenly she remembered the hot water she kept in the bathroom for her bath. She quickly came out of her room.
“ma’am! What did the doctor sir write?”
“Oh, no. Nothing. He said you should take the pills regularly. And should go to the hospital everyday for your shots.”
That evening she told Satyannarayana about it.
“You had better be careful. Let her do all the chores outside but don’t let her come into the kitchen. It is better to be careful,” he said.
Radha was surprised that her husband did not say anything else. She was afraid that he would suggest sending her away.
It is easy to ask her to leave. But then where can the poor thing go? We should wait at least until we know more about the cough for sure!
Radha made sure that Kannamma went to the hospital for the next two days. On the third day Radha received a telegram from her natal home. The telegram said that her grandma was seriously ill and that she was asking for Radha. The grandma has suffered a paralytic stroke about a year ago. Since then there were occasions when she would nearly die, would ask everybody to come and see her for the last time and then she would recover! So Satyannarayana looked at the telegram and laughed, “it is not your grandma that is dying. She is killing us. Don’t worry about it. She will live alright. Let’s wait until we hear that she has really stopped breathing and then you can go.”
Radha got upset. She was on the verge of a break down. Radha loves grandma dearly. Radha spent a lot of time with her grandma in her childhood days. She still wears the earrings grandma specially got made for her. Ticked off by his humor, she replied with a sad face, “Do you know how much she loves me? If she doesn’t see me she will die for sure. If there is a train now, I will take it.” She looked like she was getting on the train at that very moment.
“Why don’t you take the children with you? They will chew me up.”
Radha had to wait until the children returned from school in the evening. In the meantime she packed her luggage. She explained all the household duties to Kannamma. Satyannarayana will eat in some hotel. Kannamma has to cook only for herself. She made all the necessary arrangements.
“Don’t forget to go to the hospital everyday,” she reminded Kannamma. She left the entire house to her care and got on the train.
Satyannarayana put his wife and children on the train and told her, “Don’t you worry too much. There is nothing in our hands. What can we do?… Keep an eye on the children… When will you be back?” he stood on the platform and kept on talking.
“If grandma feels better, I will be back in about a week or 10 days.”
“Once you go there, you will forget everything else. If you return next Sunday that would be convenient for me to come to the station. Don’t extend your leave of absence,” he laughed.
Radha pouted for his humor.
“I wouldn’t able to sleep even if I go home now. I think I will go to the second show,” he said looking at his watch.
“Poor Kannamma is alone at home with the baby. Don’t stay out too long. Go home early.”
The train started to move. Radha’s heart felt heavy. She kept looking at her husband as long as she could see. Leaving him for a week or 10 days is not easy either.
* * *
In addition to Radha all other sisters, brothers, cousins also arrived there to send off the old lady in all grandeur. She saw everybody to her heart’s content and stayed alive for the fourth time.
“Ghosh! Is this a game for you?”
“We can not get leave of absence again. Next time we won’t be coming even if you die for real. Be nice. You might as well finish it now,” said the grandchildren threatening her.
“What can I do, children! Lord Narayan is not taking me,” she said proudly and smiling with her empty mouth.
“May be Chitragupta lost your file. Stupid offices. It has become common now a days,” said one of the grandchildren who is also an officer.
“That’s not it. Grandma has performed Chitragupta ritual for about 4 or 5 times. And so he is not going to issue orders anytime in near future. Let’s go.”
“Stop. Don’t talk like that about grandma. She is such a wonderful person. Wasn’t she giving all the cream to us behind mom’s back? And She used to give us rock candy too,” Radha said.
“Yes, of course. Didn’t she have earrings made for you? You will say anything to support her.”
“Grandma! It seems you have a lot of money. Are you going to distribute it to all of us or not? Say ‘you won’t’ and I will show you my muscle,” one spunky grandchild said.
“Ram! Ram! I don’t have even a broken shell. Would I lie just before die?”
“Grandma, first tell us this. Do you really want to die at all?”
“Of course, I want to. Lord Narayan has not called me yet. What can I do?”
“Okay. Let’s do this. In your name we all will perform rituals with a resounding noise. We will send petitions saying you are anxious to go. Okay? Should we do that?”
“Why bother, children! What is the hurry? Who knows how busy Lord Narayan is!” grandma said patiently.
They kept teasing her for a week. Then they started packing one by one for return journey.
Grandma asked Radha to stay for two more days.
So Radha did not leave on Sunday as was planned originally.
Satyannarayana went to the railway station and returned disappointed.
* * *
After 3 days, Radha returned at noon with the children. Kannamma rushed to the door and opened it. “Ma’am, can I get some water?”
Radha said ‘no’ and walked in.
The entire house was squeaky clean. In the past anytime she went away for a few days, the house used to be a mess. Now all the things are in place.
“How are you feeling, Kannamma?”
“Feeling good, ma’am. My cough is better now.”
“How is Enkadu?”
“When did sir go out?”
“He left early in the morning, ma’am! I don’t think he will be back before late night. Sir is very upset that you did not return on Sunday.”
“Why? What did he say?” Radha asked with a smile.
“Oh! I forgot. How is grandma, ma’am?”
“Good. She is fine.”
Kannamma gave bath to the children and changed their clothes. They went out happily to play.
Radha started cooking.
She was anxious to finish the chores, take a bath and get dressed like a fresh flower and look beautiful by the time Satyannarayana comes home.
She delegated several chores to Kannamma and she herself was engaged in cooking. She took a bath, wore a white saree, braided her hair and put on bindi. The children came in. She fed them in a hurry. It was 8 by the time she was done.
“Kannamma! Make beds for the children. They will go to bed early. It has been such a hassle in the train. Stupid journey. It will take a week for the life to be normal again.”
She coaxed the children to go bed.
“Kannamma, the maruvam leaves in the backyard has grown wild. Pick some and bring them in. I will make a garland.”
“We should not pick them after the lights are on, ma’am!”
“Don’t worry. It is okay. I was about to ask earlier, forgot.”
Kannamma picked one plateful of the leaves and brought in. Radha sat down to make a garland leisurely.
“Tell me, Kannamma! What’s new?”
Kannamma sat down with her head bent down. She didn’t speak.
“Did anybody come while I was gone?”
“No, ma’am. Sir wasn’t home most of the time. Why would anybody come?”
“So, how are you feeling now? you don’t seem to be coughing that much.”
“What’s the matter, Kannamma? Why aren’t you saying anything? … Look here.. Ho! What? Why are you down? Did the doctor say something?”
Kannamma shook her head implying a ‘no’, unable to speak. Tear spilled from her eyes on both sides.
Radha turned pale. “What, Kannamma?… like a child… crying without telling me what has happened?” Radha scolded her, while coaxing her.
Still Kannamma would not speak for a while. Then she wiped her tears quickly. “Sir is very angry with me, ma’am,” she said.
“Sir? Why is he angry with you? What for? He asked you to do something and you refused or what?.. No… Why would you refuse?”
“Ma’am, this is my karma. That is all I can think of!” Her voice choked with grief. Kannamma’s face was not bright as usual.
Radha’s heart started beating faster. She was suspecting that something was wrong. She raised her shaky voice as she spoke, “Stop crying. If you don’t tell me, how would I know? What really happened? What did he say?”
Kannamma broke down. “Ma’am, I swear on your feet. Please believe me. I am not a bad bitch. Would I betray you? I did not give in.”
Radha was aghast. Her entire body was shivering. Her fingers lost control. The maruvam wreath fell into her lap. She looked unstable. With difficulty she opened her mouth and asked, “What? Giving in to what? Why don’t you say what exactly happened?.. Tell me everything. I have to know.”
“Please don’t ask sir again.”
“Why not? What is it to you if ask him?” she said angrily.
“I will fall on your feet, ma’am. Please don’t make me lose the only support I have here. Sir is already very angry with me. He threatened me and told me not to tell you under any circumstances.”
Radha was enraged beyond limits. “Why don’t you answer my question – what really happened?… How dare you defy?” she nearly screamed.
Kannamma was stunned. “It was Sunday night, ma’am… Sir went to the train station for you. He returned very angry.”
Radha’s world started spinning.
On Sunday night Satyannarayana went to the station to meet Radha. Usually that is the train Radha travels by. He waited until the train left. He returned, disappointed. For a while he wandered on the streets. He ate in a hotel. By about ten o’clock he went home.
Kannamma was awake. She opened the door.
“Didn’t ma’am come back, sir?”
“No. She didn’t.” He walked furiously into his room.
Kannamma went to his room, stood at the door and asked, “Should I bring some milk for you sir, or should I start making yogurt?”
“I don’t want it. Do as you please.”
Kannamma went into the kitchen, added yogurt starter to the milk and put it away. Made sure all the doors are closed, turned off the lights and went into the verandah and sat down in her bed. Venkadu was sleeping. She pulled him closer. As soon as she lay down, she fell asleep. She may have slept for an hour or hour and a half.
Suddenly the light flashed on her face. She woke up as if somebody shook her. She quickly fixed her saree folds. She couldn’t exactly place the person standing in the doorway. “..eh.. eh…” she started shouting.
“It’s me… Just me… I want water…” Satyannarayana was standing there. He was in his T-shirt and lungi. Kannamma sprang to her feet briskly and said, “I forgot sir. The water jug is in the kitchen.”
“Bring it,” he said and went back to his room.
Kannamma covered the child well, and went into the kitchen to bring water jug and a glass and took it to Satyannarayana’s room. In the room light was on. The window panes that are usually open are closed now. The mosquito curtain over the bed is lifted up on one side. Kannamma, still sleepy, did not notice all this at first. Satyannarayana was sitting on the edge of his bed. She went closer and put the water jug and glass on the table. “Should I pour some water for you, sir?”
“I will get it.” He poured some water and took one gulp. He put the glass next to the jug. “See there. There is an amruthanjan bottle in the drawer.”
He could reach that drawer in one step.
“In this drawer, sir?” Kannamma opened the drawer and took out the amrutanjan bottle. She approached his bed and was about to hand it to him.
Satyannarayana pretended like he didn’t notice it and suddenly stretched out on the bed. “Come here. Rub it here. My head is splitting with pain.”
Kannamma was confused. “You had better do it yourself, sir. My baby is alone out there.”
“Bring him in too. You can put him there, on the other bed. Why outside? It is so cold. Should I bring him in?”
Kannamma’s drousy drowsiness has gone now. Her arms and feet started shaking. She put the amrutanjan bottle on the edge of the table and turned around in a hurry. “No sir. You rub it yourself. I am going to sleep with my baby.”
“Hey. Are you defying me? Stop right there. You are in my house and shouldn’t you honor my word?”
Kannamma was besieged with anguish. “Of course, sir. Why wouldn’t I honor your word? If you ask me to do some chore, won’t I do? Ma’am said you are a good man and so I was feeling reassured sir.”
“So? What happened now? You won’t be lacking for anything as long as you live here. Do you think that ma’am alone made the decision to let you stay here with us, without my permission? Do you want to go around begging from house to house again? Listen. There is nothing wrong either for you or for me. What is it you are afraid of? Nobody will know. I won’t tell ma’am.”
Kannamma was shivering. “It is not about knowing, sir! Even if it is without her knowledge, no, sir. Ma’am loves you like her own life. She thinks of you as a God, like the Lord Rama. Think of her face sir. You two together are like that divine couple, Sita and Rama. Why do you want a bitch like me? I am not good enough to touch even your foot.”
No need to be picky but Kannamma is not a head turner. She is short like a little bird. Jet black color. Small pox marks all over her face. Her hair is turning gray in a few places and is put into a bun, the size of a lemon. She has four rubber bangles on each of her arms. Her saree is dirty and even the white border became part of the entire black saree. Her body is smelling with sweat and the child’s vomit. Since Radha is not around to admonish, she is quite messy.
Satyannarayana’s anxiety to embrace her is rising by the minute. He stood up. Although hesitant, he took one more step forward and quickly grabbed her arm. “I know all that. She is not lacking in anything now. Come here Kannamma. First sit down here on this bed.” He said as he pulled her toward the bed.
“Sir, sir. Please let go of me. I am like a sister to you. Don’t ruin me. I can’t show my face to ma’am. I will roast in hell. I am begging you. I’ll fall on your feet,” she said, pouring her heart out and falling on his feet.
“Chi. What’s this whining? Listen to me. Ma’am won’t know about this. Trust me. Look here. Don’t you want to raise your son and give him a good living? Don’t you want him to go to school? If you stay here, you will be wanting in nothing. Whenever you want money, ask me. Should I give you now? You can ask for money. Don’t be stubborn.”
Satyannarayana reached to his pants, pulled out his wallet, took a ten rupee bill and said, “Here. Keep this. Will come in handy. I will give you more later.”
Kannamma was standing there bewildered. She pushed away the money as if it were an insect and said, “If you have money, so be it. You have no right to pressure me. I don’t want your money. Nor the kind of education you are offering for my son. If I can’t live, I will throw him in the well and I will jump myself too. I am not a bad woman, sir. I am leaving right now.” She boldly pushed him away and walked out. She took the child in to her lap. “Darling Enka! There is no end to our hardships.” She broke in to heartrending sobs.
Satyannarayana was stunned and then came to the door. “Look here. Whatever happened happened. It is my fault. I didn’t expect you to be this kind of a person. Don’t tell ma’am though. She will throw tantrums. Remember this. Not even one word to ma’am.” He repeated and left.
Kannamma couldn’t sleep.
She let the light on in the verandah and sat there all night like a rock.
* * *
“Ma’am, I don’t want to create problems between you and sir. But Gangamma has taught me a good lesson for keeping this kind of a thing a secret. Suppose I keep quiet about this. What if sir makes a move on me again and you see that? What is the point in trying to explain then? No matter however I try, will you believe me? Now my job is done. You had better take care of your husband yourself. Keep an eye on him. Sir is very upset with me. You are the last resort for me. You are the only hope for me”. Kannamma’s voice showed signs of relief. Her face lit up. She sat there staring.
Radha was out of her wits from the start. She heard her as if in a dream. It was like a terrible bad dream. She stood up without much effort on her part. The maruvam leaves spilled and fell a little away. She stomped on the leaves and kept walking. Her head was spinning. Her eyes could see only darkness. She felt the children’s bed at her feet and threw herself down into their midst.
She couldn’t remember how long she stayed oblivious.
It was past eleven. Satyannarayana knocked on the door. Kannamma went and opened the door. He was walking looking down. Kannamma said from behind, “Ma’am has come back sir.”
He turned around with a sudden jerk, looked at her and again walked forward. He stood in the doorway. The room was dark. Radha was not on the bed. She was sleeping amidst children.
Satyannarayana was hesitant. He changed and wearing a towel walked into the bathroom, took a bath and came back. He wore a lungi and hung up the towel out to dry. There were no signs of Radha waking up. Did this bitch Kannamma tell on him? Oh, hell! She can’t be that bold? Wouldn’t she know what happens if she tells, after he warned her?
He slowly went and sat next to Radha. He touched her hair caressing. Radha woke up with a twitch. She was scared as if she had seen a ghost in the dark. Then sat up. Satyannarayana couldn’t make out the expression on her face.
“You came by which train?”
“How is your grandma?”
“Okay… Why didn’t you stay a few more days?”
“What is it, Radha? Are you okay?”
“I have a headache.”
“Why didn’t you say so? Should I rub amrutanjan?”
“No. I don’t like that smell… Should I… serve food for you?”
“No. I didn’t know you have come back, right? I ate in the hotel.”
Radha got up and came into the verandah.
Kannamma was lying down, with her knees pulled up to her chest. “Kannamma!”
Kannamma woke up. She got up and asked, “Yes, ma’am?”
“Why did you fall asleep without eating. I dozed off. You should have helped yourself. Come on. Get up. Bring your plate. It is almost midnight.”
“What food now ma’am,” she said bringing her plate nevertheless. She put her plate near the door and asked, “Ma’am, aren’t going to eat?”
“I have a headache. I can’t eat at odd hours. I will have some buttermilk.”
“He has eaten.”
She served food for Kannamma, poured some buttermilk in a glass, washed her hands and went in.
Satyannarayana was sleeping on the bed. Radha again went and slept amidst children.
“Radha! Why are you sleeping there? Come here.”
“The baby is not feeling well. He keeps waking up. Probably was frightened of something.” Radha did not get up and go to him.
“Why? What happened to him?”
“Seem to be running temperature.”
Satyannarayana kept quiet. The baby was not the reason for Radha for not going near him. Did Kannamma tell her? If she had told her, would Radha be this calm? Wouldn’t she ask him straight? Is she still worried about her grandma? If the grandma dies, what should I do to comfort her?
Satyannarayana tried very hard to fall asleep.
Radha couldn’t sleep all night. The blow turned her heart into a stone. There was not even so much as moisture in her eyes.
All of next day she was the same. She sent Kannamma to the hospital. She talked to Satyannarayana as usual. The only thing missing was the smile that used to lit up her face.
They finished supper that night.
Radha was sitting next to the children with a book.
Satyannarayana came in and sat next to her. He said something.
Radha said something else in reply.
“What did the doctor say about Kannamma?” he asked.
“He is giving her shots. Her cough is a lot better now.”
“Even if it looks better.. We can’t trust that. Who knows? T.B. is not to be taken lightly. A very dangerous disease. And we have children at home.”
“What are you saying?” Radha lifted her face and looked straight.
“Why should we take such a big risk? All you need is a maid, right? For ten rupees we can get anybody. We have to consider our health first.”
“What happened to our health now? The doctor said, if it is not T.B. she would be all right.”
“So what? If we have to make sure that it is not T.B. we need to spend another 50 or 60 rupees. Why bother with all that mess?”
“Even otherwise, it is such a hassle to feed a person forever. Imagine two full meals a day, tiffins, coffees and one half seer (about a quart) of milk for the child — how much do you think that would all add up to?”
Radha struggled hard to suppress a surge of disgust. She sat, holding herself steady and replied, “I gave her the job only after asking you first. At that time you have agreed to all the expenses. You even said that she deserves it because she was putting in her two pennies worth. You said there is no greater charity than feeding a baby. Why all this accounting now?”
“What do you mean why? Where is the rule that we must support her. For somebody who works for money, what does it matter whether this house or that house? She can earn her living anywhere. Why should we keep her in our house?”
“Explain to me why we should not keep her and I will let her go this very minute. Why did your opinion about Kannamma change like this?”
“My children’s health is more important to me. I don’t have such a big heart as to welcome a T.B. patient into my home.” Satyannarayana stood up.
“Forget big heart. Do you have a heart at all?” The words rattled in her heart. She took a deep breath silently.
Radha has the strength to confront him on each of his lines and shut him up. But she didn’t want to get down to that low level.
They both were sitting there avoiding eye contact for a while. Then Satyannarayana got up and went to his bed. Radha turned off the lights and slept with the children.
The next morning…
Radha woke up with Enkadu’s crying. She went outside and asked with concern, “Why is he crying? I heard him cry at night also several times.”
“Since last evening he is suffering from diarrhea ma’am. Your son gave him a cookie. I let him eat. I think that upset his stomach. He has been crying all night. Didn’t sleep at all. May be he has stomach ache?” Kannamma, replied with concern.
“You can wash the dishes later. Pick him up and hold him for a while. Put him to sleep slowly. Take him to the doctor later. Don’t worry, He will be all right. You know children do get sick.” Radha said and went into the bathroom to freshen up.
Kannamma took the child into his lap and sat down. Radha washed the dishes she needed for the moment and prepared the coffee and tiffin.
Satyannarayana got up, went into the bathroom and came back, ruffled.
“Radha! What is that pile of clothes in the bathroom? How can I take a bath? Don’t have the sense to keep the room clean?”
“What clothes?.. Where?” Radha was confused.
“My child’s clothes, ma’am, I put them there in a corner, thinking I could wash them later,” Kannamma quickly put down the baby and ran to the bathroom. She picked up the clothes, washed the room clean and returned.
Satyannarayana finished freshening up. Radha brought him upma in a plate to his room.
“The little rascal has been crying all night. Couldn’t sleep at all..” He said as if talking to himself.
Radha didn’t want to but replied anyway. “The child is sick.”
“Of course, it is natural for children to get sick, on and off. How long this nuisance in this house?”
“I am telling you one more time. I don’t like having Kannamma around. Tell her to look for another place. Later today I will ask Appalamma to come back to work.”
Radha walked out of the room silently.
Kannamma looked at Radha dreading something. Radha turned her face away and quickly disappeared into the kitchen. After ten o’clock, she sent the child to the hospital.
Kannamma got medicine for her cough and the child’s diarrhea.
“Ma’am, Sir was saying something!” she asked fearing the worst. She was perplexed and has been wanting to ask this question all day.
Radha did not reply straight but asked her, “How long can you live like this hopping from house to house? Would you consider going back to your brother’s?”
Kannamma looked disheartened. “He won’t take me in, ma’am.”
“How about making some inquiries and finding your husband?”
“Where can I look for him, ma’am?”
“Don’t you have anybody else you can turn to?”
Kannamma’s eyes started filling up. “Ma’am, what is there that you don’t know? I don’t have anybody. And the people I have won’t let me in.”
Radha felt as if she was on the verge of breakdown herself. He kept quiet.
Satyannarayana returned home in the evening. Had his coffee. He walked around holding his last child until dark.
Radha gave food to the children.
“Should I serve your food as well?” she asked her husband.
“I will, in a minute. Did you tell Kannamma?”
“What? Why don’t you answer? No respect for my word or what?”
“Kannamma! Kannamma! Why do you hate her so much?”
Satyannarayana hit the roof. “Why do you love her so much? What kind of a deal you have with her? After all she is only a servant. Why are you so stubborn in her case? I told you I don’t like her. Why can’t you let her go?”
Radha did not speak. She stood there like a wood figurine.
“Ma’am!” Kannamma plucked courage and called her from the verandah.
“Ma’am! can you please come here?” The quiver in her tone was noticeable.
Radha went out as if walking on air. Kannamma was holding the baby in her arms. She has the bag in her right arm. “Ma’am! Please remember me. I am leaving.”
“Where to?” The words came to the tip of her tongue. Radha suppressed the words with difficulty. “Kannamma! Where can you go now? It is getting dark. Why don’t you wait until tomorrow?”
“No, ma’am! What difference does it make? Wouldn’t it get dark tomorrow again? I might as well go. Take care of the children.”
“Kannamma! Wait. I’ll be back.”
Radha went in quickly. She opened her box, and pulled out 50 rupees from her handbag. Kannamma was already at the backdoor.
“Kannamma! Here. A little cash. Keep it with you. You will have lot of expenses starting tomorrow.”
Kannamma looked at the money apprehensively. “What for, ma’am? Sir might…”
“This is my money. Earlier my grandma gave it to me. Come on. Put it in your bag. Be careful. Take care of Enkadu. Don’t forget to give medicine to him.” Radha’s voice choked.
Kannamma couldn’t speak. “Ma’am. Don’t forget this bitch, ma’am”.
“Stupid bitch! How can you live in this world?” The words did not come out of her mouth. She wanted to tell, “No matter however much you face hardships, don’t you ever lose hope.” But she didn’t. She couldn’t close the only one way out for her.
Kannamma walked past the backdoor. She looked piercing through the darkness as if she was trying to scare away. With the baby in one arm and the bag in the other, she kept dragging herself and went away.
Radha clung to the door tight and broke into sobs. After a while she calmed down and wiped her eyes. She bolted the backdoor and went into the bathroom to freshen up.
Satyannarayana was in the verandah sitting in a cane chair and reading newspaper.
Radha went in and lied down next to the children.
Kannamma has left. Like the lamp lit in a blast of wind, she went in to the defenseless world.
Come to think of it, what kind of a safeguard her own life has compared to that of Kannamma? Is it having a husband who provides food and clothing? Is it the support of a husband whose actions are unpredictable?
Suddenly she remembered Leela.
“Leela! What a great person you are! You can read people so clearly! You said my heart would break if I were betrayed. You were mistaken in that one instance. Nothing happened to me. I am eating and walking around fine. But I must admit one thing though. This calamity did not take my life away but certainly created a commotion in my heart. Messed up my past. It opened my eyes and changed me into a human being. Leela! if I don’t write to you about this disaster, I will be betraying myself!” She was writing pages and pages in her mind. Radha got up feverishly. She turned on the light and sat down at the table. Picked up the pen and papers.
“Leela! I have come to understand the real values in my family life. My pride is shattered. I am embarrassed beyond limits. Leela! I’ll tell you the truth…”
She was startled and her pen stopped.
Radha looked up wearily.
Satyannarayana’s face was lit up with a smile. Radha turned away.
“What are you writing?”
“Some letter..” Radha stopped the letter and walked away. She rushed out of the room.
“Radha!” Satyannarayana called out and went looking for her.
Radha was sitting in the middle room near the window and in the darkness.
Satyannarayana turned on the light. Approached Radha. He put his arms on her shoulders and asked, “Are you angry with me?”
Radha pushed away his arms.
“Is this fair? Why are you so angry? Tell me.”
Radha shook her head side to side, implying a kind of ‘no’.
“I am not feeling well. Please go away.” she said in a voice that sounded more like an order.
A streak of anger showed on Satyannarayana’s face. “I know what caused this not feeling well. Why are you so worried about about a beggar woman?”
Radha looked up sharply. Her eyes were filled with infinite courage. “Beggar woman? Do you know how she became a beggar woman? She became a beggar by holding on to her integrity! She became a beggar by refusing to betray my confidence! If she were worldly-wise, she would have earned plenty of sarees, blouses, jewelry and much more. There are so many people who would put her on a pedestal and arrange education for her son. She cast out all that and walked away like a beggar woman.”
Satyannarayana was aghast. It is clear Radha knows the story. He gathered all his strength.
“What are you talking about? About whom?”
“Who else? of course, about that beggar woman. I’ve told you her entire story. She came like a little bird afraid of the net the hunters are spreading around. I assured her that she would not be hurt here. She was ecstatic thinking that this is an ashram of gods.”
“Yes. So what? What happened to her?”
“All this pretense, what for? Is there no end to your depravation?”
“Radha! You are talking whatever you please. How could you believe everything she has said? Are you giving more weight to her words than mine?”
“In fact she is million times better than you are to me. I married you in accordance with the traditional principles, I gave myself to you totally and without any reservation, stood by you in good and bad times, trusted you and have been sharing my life with you for the past 10 years. And you tried to commit a crime – an unforgettable violation of trust. On the other hand, that woman couldn’t violate my trust just out of gratitude. She remembered that I was there for her when she was down and she would rather go back to the streets than betray me. Who should I trust? If I am a human who should I love? Who is more important to me?
So far I have been seeing her only as a servant. I gave her a full meal. Gave her clothes. I stood by her when she needed me. All this I did out of kindness.
But what did you do? You offered her the place of a lover. You invited her into your bed. You promised her to pay for her son’s education and help her raise him. You took such a great trouble to convince her. If asking for food is “begging”, what do you call it when you were craving a favor from her? That is royalty? Manliness?”
Satyannarayana started walking back and forth in the room. He stopped suddenly and said, sounding sarcastic, “You said that she is a good woman. I wanted to see how good?”
“Why should she be a good person at all? Is that it? So what did she prove? Very bad, right? She did not surrender her body to your manhood? So you chased her away. That is why you turned her homeless?
I shut my mouth and listened patiently as you lectured on health, knowing fully well that you were craving to sleep with a woman suffering from tuberculosis; I put up with it when you said that we can not support her which meant going back on our promise to support her. Why? For the sake of that desperate woman, for that homeless woman. But what could I do? What could I do?”
Satyannarayana stood there like a pole, looking straight. Radha was looking out the window as if she couldn’t care less about anything.
Satyannarayana approached her slowly. “Radha! Tell me one thing. Don’t I love you?”
Radha resented it as if she heard some horrible words. “Love! Aha! This love should be recorded in history with letters of gold. All the poets should sing in one voice. Aha! Ha! What a great love! Probably your love would have doubled if Kannamma had agreed to your wish.
You would have continued to play the game behind my back. All those looks, laughs, and chatting behind my back would have continued. Your desire for her crossed out your love for me. All the beautiful life we had together for so long could not win over one low desire.
After such a big game behind my back, after I’ve come to know about it, you still are asking me, “Radha! Don’t I love you”? I must really admire your guts!” Radha’s face was drenched with sweat. The dot on her forehead started running down.
Satyannarayana stood there fixed to the floor. In reality there was never such a horrible incident like this between those two, the husband and wife until now. Radha is not an angry person by nature. Satyannarayana also is a “gracious” person.
Satyannarayana couldn’t speak for a while. “Radha! I have to take it anything you are pleased to say. I did make such a huge mistake. But please be patient and listen to me also. Kannamma is never more important to me than you are. There is no comparison at all between the two of you. On that particular day nobody was home. She was alone. My mind took the wrong turn. I told her all kinds of things just to let me have her. All those words are just empty words. After I am done with her I wouldn’t have remembered a thing.”
“Oh, God!” Radha closed her ears for she couldn’t hear anymore. “Your perversion has gone so low? That naïve woman took refuge here, thinking you and me are Lord Rama and Sita. I left town trusting you. Didn’t it occur to you that you should be protecting her with thousand eyes, the woman put so much faith in you? Why can’t you see the other woman as a mother? Can’t you expect anything else except the disgusting relationship from another woman?
You are known for your integrity and good manners. Aren’t you ashamed that you couldn’t protect a destitute woman? You invited her, told her lies, was ready to destroy her…Oh, God. My heart is breaking into pieces!” She broke into a fit of sobs, hitting her head against the wall. Radha never cried like this before.
Satyannarayana started shivering. “Radha! you don’t know how sorry I am.”
Radha was taken aback. “Sorry? Who? You? Why do you keep adding to your lies and fall farther and farther down. Can remorse ask for revenge? Will remorse make a devil of a man? If you really feel remorse you would have fallen on Kannamma’s feet and ask for her forgiveness. You would have been grateful to her for saving you from your depravation. But what did you do?”
“Radha, I am not really angry with Kannamma. I was afraid that she might tell you what has happened. I wanted to get rid of her as soon as possible.”
“You got rid of her all right. Has your crime washed away from your heart? To cover the first mistake, making another is the right way? If Kannamma gets tired of life and commits suicide, whose fault that will be? Wouldn’t that be yours? You will come to understand this tomorrow if not today.”
Satyannarayana’s face turned pale. He had to work up his courage to speak.
“Radha! Forgive me. I can’t say anything more.”
Radha wiped the sweat on her face madly. The dot on her forehead melted and spread all over her face making it frightening. “I know. I know. I knew even at the beginning that you would ask for forgiveness at the end.”
Radha looked up straight into his face. “But what if I were guilty of such betrayal? Suppose I invited some peon in to our bed room when you were not around, and if you had come to know about it, what would you have done? Should I tell? There is no question of asking me. You would have plunged a knife into my heart and avenged yourself on me. By now my body would have been incinerated in some funeral yard and been turned into ashes and have been blown away by the winds. But if you do it.. I have to forgive you. What else a woman can do? Why won’t a woman forgive? My trust is not similar to yours. My pain is not like your pain. My heart is not like your heart. I must forgive you. How easy it is for you to ask for forgiveness. I would have believed you if you had come to your senses as soon as Kannamma said ‘no’, accepted her as an honest woman, and told me yourself all about it right away and then asked for my forgiveness. Then, then I would have forgiven you wholeheartedly.
But… now I can not. I cannot forgive you and turn myself into an animal.”
Satyannarayana’s ego was hurt very badly.
“I made a mistake in haste. That’s true. This is a mistake any man would commit I am sure. Am I not asking for your forgiveness?” He took a couple of steps toward Radha and held her hands.
Radha pulled her hands away angrily. “Let’s not prolong this debate unnecessarily. Your heart has changed the minute you invited another woman into my place. I cannot forget that for the rest of my life. With that thought in my mind, I can not prostitute myself to you.
Familial relationship is a delicate one. It is a noble one. It should be cherished in that manner only. It is not a bullock cart to bring it back on to the tracks every time it slips off. Why bother about marriage when we don’t deserve it. Just like animals, the humans also don’t have the right to marry.”
Satyannarayana was shocked at Radha’s mode of thinking. “Radha! What are you talking about? Why are you so angry?”
Radha spoke without faltering. “This is not anger. This is the solution for our problem. I can not think of anything else.” “For how long?”
“As long as we live.”
He did not understand the depth of Radha’s words until now. Satyannarayana asked the stupid question, “How can we live like that?”
“I can. What do I have in this life? Who should I stifle my heart for? But I am not saying that you should also adopt the same method. I will not ask you about your lifestyle. There is no need any more.”
“While we are living in the same house….”
“If it is not possible to live in the same house, we will go our separate ways. Although it was not necessary until now, I will make my own arrangements for my food.”
The husband said weakly and testily, “What about children?”
“What about children? They will be fine. They are as much your children as mine. They will be fine wherever they live.”
This Radha, the same Radha who used to love him without reservation, who used to be so obedient to him,..
“Radha!” Satyannarayana’s courage sunk.
Satyannarayana’s manhood was put to shame.
Satyannarayana tried desperately to speak like a human. He said in a shaky voice. “Radha! I will go right now. I will search the entire town and find Kannamma wherever she is and bring her back. I will beg for her forgiveness in front of you.”
Satyannarayana did not wait anymore. He put on the shoes and quickly left the house. “I will punish myself for my crime,” he said aloud.
Radha did not stop him. She was not pleased either. She did not trust him anymore.
She sat there like a figurine. Everybody is a gentleman as long as the days pass by smoothly. A person’s real nature surfaces only when he faces the adverse circumstances. Then it proves whether somebody is a human being or not.
“Oh, God! Where are you? Can you hear my prayers? Have you not created at least one truly loving person who would not stray from the right path at heart, in word and deed. Show me a husband who lives all his life only with his wife virtuously. I will touch his feet in admiration and consider myself blessed.”
It did not sound like a prayer to God. It sounded like a desperate cry sprang forth tearing the innermost walls of her heart!
* * *
[Dedicated to that virtuous man, if there is one – author]
Translated by Nidadavolu Malathi and published on thulika.net, September 2001. The Telugu original, aarthanaadam was written in October 1967.