GOOD FORTUNE By Illindala Saraswati Devi

Seenayya died.

He died after suffering in bed for over two years and suffering very badly; he could not chew or swallow.

His death did not bring tears to anybody’s eyes. His family thought, “The jeeva[1] in his body has been writhing under pain for over two years and now it is freed finally.” Now he was not suffering any more. His mouth was closed shut. No more struggling. He lay there straight and stiff.

His room was located at a corner. Right from that corner he’d been groaning, screaming, calling for everybody, and fretting and fuming because nobody responded to his calls—not so much as even a peek; and then he would raise his voice even higher—all of this stopped.

It was three in the morning.

All of them were sleeping while the fan was spreading cool breeze around. Seenayya breathed his last without anybody in the house noticing it.

It’s daybreak. The sun was creeping up slowly. His four sons woke up. Brushed their teeth, had the coffee their wives brought for them, then they picked up the newspaper, a section each, and sat down to read.

All the children woke up, brushed their teeth, finished their coffee, took bath, and started organizing their books, getting for ready for school. They all were busy with their daily activities—jobs and the fear of not make it on time.

In that house, there was a 15-year-old girl, her vocal chords were muted. She was Seenayya’s only daughter. She kept looking into his face without batting an eye. She was worried since he was not moaning; she took his hand and felt his pulse; put her hand on his heart and tried to find if it was beating; touched his hands and feet. The body was cold and stiff.

Her name was Sundari. It was just in name only. She was truly beautiful. She tried to check up on Seenayya the best she knew how. Then she came out of the room, went to the servants and tried to sign to them—pointed to her heart and pulse on her hand and tried to explain that she could not hear it. Before they could figure out her gestures, she went to her brothers’s rooms and told them too.

They dismissed her, “Crazy girl! This dumb idiot makes fuss for even a small change in him. Maybe he fell asleep. The house is quiet. Maybe the medications worked today.” They all were getting ready to go to work. The daily events went on as usual.

Sundari could not speak but she was not stupid. She was doing all the chores in the house without directions fron anybody; nobody could find fault with her work. She understood that nobody was paying attention to her worry; she ran to Madhavayya who lived a few houses down the street. He is a distant relative of Seenayya.

She folded her two hands and explained to Madhavayya gesturing in her own way about Seenayya’s condition and begged him to come and see him. Madhavayya understood her gestures. He had been watching her since her childhood. He was also worried like her father about this girl who was born after four boys and about her speech disability.

Madhavayya noticed her sorrow, understood the situation, and got up quickly. He threw the towel on his shoulder and said, “Come, I’ll go with you,” and followed her.

By that time, all the men folks left for work and children for school. Working daughters-in-law rushed to their busstops. Only the eldest daughter-in-law was home, busy organizing things in her room.

Madhavayya went straight to Seenayya’s room and noted his condition. Sundari was crying her heart out. He wiped her tears and asked her to bring a mat. Per our custom in our country, they both moved the body on to the mat and covered it with a sheet.

Madhavayya came out of the room and said to Kanthamma, the daughter-in-law, “Ammayi, Kantamma, it seems Seenayya has passed away a while ago. Sundari and I laid him on a mat. About the others, are they at work?”

“Yes. They’re all gone,” she replied as if questioning so what?

“All the sons must come home; the daughters-in-law need to be here as well. They all must get this message.”

“How can we? We don’t a phone in our house. What should we do?”

“Haven’t you been making phonecalls from my neighbor’s house? Come, make the calls. It looks like he’s gone 5 or 6 hours back.”

“Did Sundari tell you? She’s crazy; she gets nervous for no reason and gets on everybody else’s nerves too. Would they let us talk on the phone so early in the morning and that too about death?”

“Why wouldn’t they? This’s an important message; I’m sure they wouldn’t object to such an urgent message. Go, give them the message.”

“I don’t know, I’m scared.”

“Then, write down their phone numbers at work and give it to me. Also include the numbers of your co-daughters-in-law. I will make the calls. They all must come,” he said, annoyed and frowning.

“I don’t know for sure. I will note down as much as I could recall. I think he was okay while they all were home. Or else, I am sure, they wouldn’t have left for work,” she thought as she jotted down the numbers.

Madhavayya went and made the calls. They all came home. The neighbors noticed the commotion and they also gathered around.

“Didn’t any of you go into his room before leaving for work and check his condition? Probably he died sometime at night,” Madhavayya said, distressed.

“We all get up and get busy with our things. We have to rush through the day or else we’ll miss our buses,” the sons replied.

“That’s true too. But when you have a sick man at home, you must look after him, no matter how busy you are. And he is not somebody; he is your own father, responsible for your existence; the father who sweated to make money and raised you; gave you all education and raised you like princes. It’s your duty to take care of him.”

“The doctor said ‘No need for any more medications. He was not able to swallow even liquids. There is nothing I could do.’ So, all we have to do is to watch, right? We’ve been checking on him before we went to bed each night. And again, before we left for work. What else we can do, you tell us. There is no remedy for his sickness. We put him in the hospital and arranged for his medications. It wasn’t easy to arrange for his radiation treatment yet we got that too for him. We did everything the doctors told us to do.”

Madhavayya had no response for this logic at the moment. Sundari sat next to Seenayya and was sobbing, heartbroken.

“Poor man. He’s suffered horribly, not one or two days but for two long years.”

“All his kindness, good heart and patience came to nothing.”

“The sons are well-educated and settled in good jobs. They all are happy with their families. But what about this poor Sundari? God gave her gorgeous looks but not voice. She has no mother to start with and now the father’s gone too. What would she do from tomorrow on?”

“What else? The brothers would get into a brawl—each telling the other to take her responsibility. Wherever she is, and although she’s still young, she’ll take on all the chores and sweat out. She’ll manage somehow enduring all the yelling and battering from the sisters-in-law.”

The neighbors were passing comments, and saying whatever occurred in their tiny brains.

Madhavayya said, “Why waste time? We have to cremate the body. Let’s start making the arrangements.”

The neighbors pitched in, Seenayya’s body was devoured by the flames.

Sundari was befuddled. She has no father anymore, who’s going to take of her? Nobody in this house recognized her service no matter however hard she worked. Nobody ever asked her did you eat, did you take bath; not even casually if not caringly. Madhavayya asked her occasionally as he passed by. She cannot speak, so she cannot express what’s in her heart.

After her father died, Sundari’s life became even more dreary. She would sit in the same place for hours; no desire to eat or drink but shed tears incessantly.

His sons were worried about Sundari in their own way. For some of them it was a terrifying problem.

Sundari’s beautiful face was worn out; primarily because she lost her father; the second reason was lack of food. And also she was worried what her brothers might decide in her regard. All these issues together got to her and got her to a point where she could collapse at the slightest touch.

After the death rites were completed, Madhavayya, in a way, assumed the headship at their house. He asked them, “You all are well-educated and well settled in life. Poor Sundari, she is still young and mute on top of it. Up until now, your father took care of her. Who’s going to look after her welfare from now on? What about her future?”

“What about it? We’ll know if we asked the lawyer—what did father do in our case? what did he bequeath to whom? We phoned the lawyer but he’s not in town,” the eldest son replied.

“Does he know about the present situation?”

“I called him from my office and told him. He was sorry about the news and said ‘He suffered a lot; Cancer is like that. There is no escape from that disease.’ We’ll know all the details after he’s back,” the eldest son said.

Time’s passing by slowly. The sons are waiting for the lawyer anxiously; they’are worried about father’s allocation of his possessions.

The lawyer returned from his trip like a dazzling sunlight. Seenayya’s sons went to him, on their way home from work, and told him, “You must be tired. We can meet tomorrow,” reminding him of their meeting on the following day.

Each has his own hopes and wishes. The brothers spent all night dreaming I wish I could get this or I hope I’d get that. Seenayya owned the two-storeyed building they were living in and also a 15-acre strip of land. He set aside the income from the land separately. It was a fertile strip of land. He bought it in Madhavayya’s name, since Madhavayya was childless. Lately he was also purchasing certificates of deposit in Sundari’s name and gave them to the lawyer for safekeeping. The boys were not aware of this transaction.

One day Seenayya read in the newspaper: A doctor from Germany will be coming to Bombay. He can make the mute persons speak by fixing a plastic sound box in the vocal chords of the people who are voiceless. He visits Bombay twice a year. He works only on young persons; he first takes an x-ray of the relevant parts and examines if his procedure works or not. Since the procedure is time-consuming, he suggests feeding the person nutritious food. After examining the x-ray, he takes the necessary measurements and will have the sound box made and returns after six months. Then he will perform the operation and installs sound box. It takes sometime for the sound box to adjust and work in conjunction with other parts of the person’s body. Up until then, the patient must stay in the hospital under his supervision. After the sound box is well-adjusted to the vocal chords and blood circulation returns to normal, after the stitches are healed, he will teach words, one by one, slowly. He will train his assistants in regard to the steps to be taken while he is in Germany, and will keep in touch the local doctors via phone on a regular basis. He would be instructing them on the procedure as appropriate. Some of the patients could start talking even before he returned from Germany.

The news item, published by the hospital administrators, said it was a golden opportunity for those who could afford it financially. It also said that the fee depends on the amount of work involved. Dollar value changes constantly. One must have about one hundred thousand rupees on hand towards the expenses—the fee for the surgery, their stay in Bombay for those who accompanied the patient, and such.

If Sundari were really lucky enough, she could obtain speech capability with this new kind of surgery. After she’s gotten her speech, they could think about her education and marriage. Seenayya wanted to do whatever he could to make Sundari have a normal life like everybody else. That was all he could hope for as her father.

Seenayya told Madhavayya about his plan and made arrangements with the help of the lawyer secretively. He was corresponding with the doctor whenever he came to visit the hospital in Bombay and gathering information. This surgery was kept secret among the three of them. At the time Sundari just turned thirteen.

Just about the same time, a doctor examined Seenayya routinely. The doctor told him that he has cancer in his throat. While he was in the hospital and receiving radiation treatment, he continued to have the produce from his land sold, certificates of deposits purchased and deposited them with the lawyer.

Although he was known as Seenayya in his town, his full name was Srinivasulu. He retired as Registrar and had been receiving pension each month. He opened an account in a local bank to be operated jointly by Madhavayya and Sundari and kept his wife’s jewelry there. The sons were not aware of this. By the time they all got married, their mother was already gone and so the daughters-in-law never knew about her jewelry.

During the two years Seenayya was suffering from cancer, Madhavayya was visiting him regularly. Seenayya was discussing these matters with Madhavayya at the time. He also made Madhavayya swear to secrecy. Seenayya told him, “Madhavayya, treat Sundari as your own daughter. Spend all this money for her welfare. If she could ever speak, think of it as her mother’s luck. Don’t ask what is luck for a dead woman. Wouldn’t she be watching Sundari from up there and be happy if Sundari could ever speak like everybody else! Maybe, I’ll also be happy from up there. These are all my golden dreams. Madhavayya, my daughter’s luck depends on your kindness and goodwill.” Seenayya took his two hands into his own and shed tears. On the third day following this incident, Seenayya died.

About a month ago, a letter from Bombay and addressed to Madhavayya came in the mail. It said the doctor would be returning to Bombay next month from Germany and asked him to bring the girl for tests; also that the doctor would be in Bombay only for two months.

Madhavayya heard that the lawyer returned home, and he went to see him after dark. Madhavayya brought with him the certificates of deposit, which were in Sundari’s name. The following day was the day the sons would be receiving their shares of the property.

The next day, the lawyer read the details of the will; the sons could divide the property—the house they were living in and the 8-acres of land which was being handed down over several generations—among themselves as they pleased. The sons also read the will. There was no mention of Sundari anywhere. They read it over and again to see whether their father had stated anywhere who should take care of Sundari and whether he had set aside any additional amount for the purpose. There was no mention at all of her.

The following day they all would go their separate ways. Where would Sundari live? Her third vadina will be having a baby in about two months. Therefore the brother and vadina invited her kindly into their home. Sundari moved in with them and took care of all the household chores. One month passed by; vadina started whining about Sundari.

One day Madhavayya came to see Sundari and overheard vadina complaining to her husband, “How long are we going to bear this burden?”

Madhavayya asked, “Don’t your other brothers take her to their place?”

“The stopped visiting us completely. How long can I put up with this?” Sundari’s third brother said.

“Ask your brothers to come here. Tell them I want to talk to them,” Madhavayya said.

All the brothers arrived within a half hour. Madhavayya asked them about Sundari.

Babaayi, our father did not say a single word about her in his will. Did he think that we should take care of her jointly? Why couldn’t he allot an additional amount to one of us for the purpose of assuming her responsibility? He held a job too; yet he couldn’t think on those lines. If I take her in, my wife would question how is it our responsibility. So also my other brothers’ wives. I can’t think of any answer for this question,” the eldest son said.

Madhavayya replied, “Alright. You all are pointing at each other and asking you or me? I will adopt Sundari. Send her to my home. She is mute, she can’t speak but she can understand the situation very well. You don’t have to worry about her responsibility any more.” He looked at them. they all heaved a sigh of relief as if a huge burden was lifted off their chests.

Madhavayya continued, “Your father was going to tell you when it was time to do so. I was also thinking the same thing. Seenayya was my mother’s sister’s son. I have no children and I didn’t marry again after my wife died. Your father invited me to come and live with him. I told him, ‘No, I have my house. I’ll live there and cook my own food.’ We used to see each other everyday. Send Sundari with me.”

“Take her. No stuff to pack or anything. All she has only is a change of clothes. She can pick them up and go with you.”

By then Sundari was standing there with her clothes folded and holding them, all ready to go.

“Shall we go to our home?” Madhavayya asked her. She nodded and followed him.

The brothers’ bickering helped Madhavayya in finalizing his trip to Bombay. He sold his house and land and took Sundari to Bombay. At the Bombay station, they had coffee and tiffin and went to the hospital. The doctor from Germany also reached his office at the same time. He invited Madhavayya and Sundari into his room. The doctor was young, just under thirty. He asked Madhavayya to tell him about Sundari. Madhavayya replied that Sundari turned fifteen and that she was mute.

“Is she the girl you’ve written to me about?”

“Yes.”

“Let me examine her. I’ll have the x-ray taken and see,” he said and walked her into the x-ray lab. He showed to the technician the parts he needed the x-rays of. The technician did as he was told.

After examining the x-rays, the doctor took them into his office. “Give her nutritious food. She has to be strong. I will take the measurements, have the device made and be back in six months. Then I’ll perform the surgery and enable her to speak. My consultation fee for the present service is one hundred rupees. The surgery takes lot longer. At that time, you will have to pay a higher fee to me, in addition to the hospital charges. She is very beautiful. In our country, it is a different kind of beauty,” he said, watching her with curiosity.

Madhavayya assured him that he would pay the stated fee, had the papers drawn, and added, “We’ll go home for now and be back in time for the surgery. I’ll give her healthy food. Is is possible for me to stay with her in the room after the surgery?”

“Yes, you can. No need to fear about her. I’ll perform the surgery myself. I’ll get her to talk. She’ll have to stay in the hospital for some time.”

“We will.”

After they returned to their town, Madhavayya started giving her good food—milk, vegetables and eggs—twice a day. The change in Sundari’s appearance was visible by the end of two months. Her face glowed with wholesome looks. She is a beautiful girl to begin with, and now, with nutritious meals, she looked like a beauty queen.

After six months, they received a letter saying that the doctor was back in Bombay. During these six months, Madhavayya sold his house and other things. He sold the land Seenayya had given him also. Both Madhavayya and Sundari packed their boxes and set out to Bombay. They didn’t know where to stay. The city and the people were new to them. They left their luggage in a room, took bath, had tiffin and went to the hospital.

Sundari was admitted into the hospital right away. The surgery was scheduled for the next day.

The next day, she was taken into the operation room. Madhavayya could not figure out at what time they started performing the surgery but he noticed that four hours passed by according to his watch.

The doctor sent word that Sundari was still unconscious and so nobody was allowed into her room yet. Madhavayya went to a close by hotel, ate and returned to the waiting room at the hospital. Inside, Sundari was being fed glucose water through tubes. The doctor stayed at the hospital for the night, sat down next to her bed and made sure that she was getting the food properly.

On the following day, the doctor sent word to Madhavayya that he could come in and see her. “The surgery went well. I readjusted the relevant parts in her throat and fixed the plastic sound box in her vocal chords,” the doctor said and added that she would definitely be able to talk, and that he was sure to hear her voice before he left. He also suggested that she can eat as usual after the cuts from the surgery were healed.

Unlike in all the cases in general, the doctor did not collect his fee at first. He said he would take it only after Sundari has gained her voice. He was visiting her every day, whenever he had time.

The hospital staff were surprised by the extra care the doctor was taking in her case. They also were taking good care of her. X-rays were being taken occasionally. It showed that the plastic sound box in her vocal chords was set well and looking natural. After running tests, the doctor tried to make her utter words one by one. He said A, B, C, D, and tried to have her repeat them. Her voice sounded very weak at first and then gradually went up. She started uttering each letter, watching the lip movements of the person who was across from her. When the doctor was not around, Madhavayya sat next to her and helped her utter small words. The doctor told him not to make her speak longer than one half hour a day.

Madhavayya was elated that Sundari could speak. He thought, per her father’s wishes, that he should find a good bridegroom for her and arrange her marriage after she gained her speech.

Sundari kept practicing speech. As long as the doctor was in her room, she would repeat each word he had said with great enthusiasm. He was teaching her English words; and he was feeding her the food himself. He was quite taken by her beauty.

Sundari is not very good at speech yet. Nevertheless she is getting interested in the doctor and is attracted to him. She is learning quickly whatever he taught her and he is equally excited about her progress. They are beginning to laugh and tease each other.

Madhavayya had no problem in teaching Telugu words to Sundari. Since she is already familiar with the subject and since it is only a matter of physically voicing the Telugu alphabet, she is picking up Telugu fast enough. The doctor is making every effort to teach her English.

One day Madhavayya entered her room and saw that the doctor was holding Sundari’s face in his two hands and saying something. The doctor saw Madhavayya, moved away quickly and said, “I’ll teach her speech as long as I’m here. In Germany, there are specialists to teach the language and further education. Should I take her with me, what’d you think?”

“Doctor garu, we don’t send unmarried women with strangers to anywhere?” Madhavayya said.

“Then I’ll marry her. I’m very much taken by her beauty,” the doctor said.

“Aren’t you married?”

“No, I’m not married yet. I felt like marrying after seeing her. You have no objection, do you?” he asked.

“This young woman is my daughter. I have no other family but for her. I can’t live without her,” Madhavayya said.

He is happy that the doctor wanted to marry Sundari. But what about him, after she’s gone? The very thought brought tears to his eyes.

“I’ll go with her. I’ll find a job and earn my living. Take me with you. I’ll pay your fee in rupees. You can convert them into dollars. Besides, this girl has money of her own. You can convert that sum also into dollars. Her mother’s jewelry is in a safe deposit box. I’ll get them for you. Doctor garu, she has no mother, never knew what the word affection meant. You must take good care of her.”

“I’ll worship her like a goddess. We can think of conversion after your returned from you town,” the doctor said, watching Sundari fondly.

“Where is the marriage going to take place—here or in your country?” Madhavayya asked.

“Why do you say ‘your’ country? You’re also coming with us! Say ‘our’ country. I am so lucky! I got such a beautiful woman for wife! No need to discuss any fee for me. Give it to her. One more thing. Would you mind if I call her by a name I like?” the doctor asked Madhavayya.

“Where is the question of my likes and dislikes? Whatever you two like goes for me too,” he said and went away. He returned with the jewelry on the third day. “Wear them and show them to the doctor,” Madhavayya told Sundari. She wore the jewelry and showed it to the doctor.

“Oh, you’re so beautiful! Like a doll! Wait, I feel like taking a picture of you with that smile,” he said and brought his camera.

Madhavayya was happy that lady luck smiled on Sundari in such a strange fashion. He had a picture taken standing next to Sundari.

(Author’s note: This story was written after reading a news item in Newsweek in Chicago. It was reported that a doctor in Germany fixed a plastic sound box in the vocal chords of one or two mute persons and succeeded in getting the persons speech capability.)

[End]

 

²²²

(Translated by Nidadavolu Malathi and published on thulika.net April, 2004.)

(The Telugu original adrushta rekha is included in the anthology swarna kamalaalu by Illindila Saraswati Devi) .

 

[1] The divine spirit in human body, equivalent of life-breath.