Big chunks of clouds are scurrying around in the sky as if they are in a hurry. A small white fleck of cloud slithers one way and another baby cloud another way. Then the two chunks stop in the middle and merge in to one piece. In a split second, they break up and each goes its own way. They are taking over the sky and changing into different shapes … like scattered cotton balls, or jasmine buds that slipped through the fingers.
Kamakshamma sat by the back door, watching the floating clouds. She is depressed. How quickly the clouds are changing shapes! … Even before one has gotten used to one shape, it is changing into another! They all are slithering away so beautifully! Embracing each other snugly and breaking away the next moment! Momentary attachment, she told herself.
The Sun is going down. There is no telling how much quiet this house and this garden become by dusk. Of the two servants in the house, for one, it is to start cooking, and for the other, it is time out. The rest of it is just absolute silence, but for the leaves rustled by the wind!
The schedule for Kamakshamma is just to sit there everyday by the door facing the garden, lost in meaningless thoughts, and watch the clouds, the trees and all around. There is no change in this ever.
This house is located on the outskirts of the town, with three mango groves on the three sides of it. Green leaves and green parrots happily chirping come and go freely, as they please. The gardener works in the garden during the day and goes away in the evening.
Kamakshamma’s husband Sundara Rao inherited this garden from his father. He acquired the house himself. He has some business in the adjoining city. Kamakshamma never asked what kind of business he is in. He will not tell, even if she asked. He believes it is not necessary for women to know such things. There is no need to mention separately, that like playing cards and roaming around with friends are parts of his business.
Everyday, one train comes in the morning and goes in the evening sluggishly. There is no specific time, it arrives sometime after seven in the morning and goes to the neighboring city. It returns in the evening sometime after seven. Sundara Rao travels everyday by the same train. He leaves in the morning and returns home at night. The station is two miles away from his home. In the morning he eats his breakfast and walks to the train station. If he has something to carry, Sankaram, the servant, takes it and goes with him. The train is very much used to Sundara Rao’s travel. No matter how late it is, the train will not leave the station until he got on it. Sankaram goes to the station again in the evening and returns along with Sundara Rao. That is the way it is every day.
Fourteen years back, Sundara Rao felt like having a house built in the midst of this garden and live a life of solitude. He told himself, “What is there in the cities but for the dirt and murk. On the other hand, it is so peaceful. The city is close by. I can go there each day and take care of business.” He had the house built here. However, only Kamakshamma is experiencing that solitude presently. She did not ask for that solitude yet she got it. That is how the life is. One person wishes for it. Another person gets it without asking for it. They do not need it yet it becomes unavoidable.
When Kamakshamma came to this home first, she used to say to her husband, “Your business is in the city day in and day out. Why live here?” Sundara Rao did not listen.
He would reply, “How can you get this solitude and peace in that city?” He leaves home while it is still dark returns after the Sun is down. Only he should know what kind of solitude and peace he is enjoying. Kamakshamma does not understand it yet she says nothing about.
At first, when Sundara Rao had the house built, there were only he and the two servants, the cook and Sankaram. Even then, his schedule has been the same—leaving the morning and returning in the evening. After two years, a thought occurred to him. He thought it would be nice a thing called wife was in this house. As soon as he got the idea, one of his friends suggested Kamakshamma to hi, He agreed.
Kamakshamma’s parents are ordinary folks. Her father’s income was enough for food. There was no desire to put aside, no hope there would be some to put aside. Kamakshamma was their only daughter. They had an unruly son. He ran away from home. The parents did not buy jewelry for Kamakshamma but raised her fondly. They put her through school up to eighth class.
In her younger days, the one wish that had not been fulfilled was wearing jewelry. Nancaramma, who lived across from them, was Kamakshamma’s friend. Nancaramma had jewelry head to foot. She used to be jealous of Kamakshamma’s golden complexion. Kamakshamma would look at the jewelry on the dark skin of Nancaramma and wished she had them—a wish she could never control. She would pester her mother for jewelry. Her mother would reply, “How can we get jewelry for you? You may get them after you grow up, get married. Maybe your in-laws will have ornaments made for you.”
Therefore, in Kamakshamma’s mind, an uncanny relationship between marriage and jewelry developed ever since she was a child. For that reason, she had no other choice but to wait for that moment.
After Sundara Rao had decided to marry Kamakshamma, mother said, “He looks fine, has good property too. They say he has mango groves, fertile land, and some business. However, you are fifteen and he is thirty. What do you think?”
Kamakshamma did not pay attention to anything her mother had said. She asked, “Will they give me all the jewelry head to foot?”
Mother was surprised. “I don’t know. We did not ask. If we look for another groom, we will have to pay dowry. You know we don’t have it” mother murmured.
Kamakshamma was down. She was tense for three days. She had been waiting all these days for what, marriage or ornaments? On the third day, the mediator-friend brought the news. He said Sundara Rao had in his possession lots of his mother’s ornaments. They all would be transferred to Kamakshamma, no doubt. Kamakshamma’s face lit up. Mother suppressed all her suspicions and smiled. The wedding was performed.
Kamakshamma did not think it odd as she stepped for the first time into this solitary home where the parents-in-law and brothers were absent. Whatever environment we walk into feels right. We get used to it. Kamakshamma has gotten used to solitary life. Except on rare occasions, she is not bothered by that loneliness.
At home, she has no work. Servants take care of everything. After she came here for the first time, she used to dress up every evening, comb her hair, and put on all the jewelry of her mother-in-law. She would look at herself in the mirror again and again and feel good about it. She would walk around in the garden, wait for her husband. The day passed by.
It has been twelve years now. Still it is the same. The difference however is the jewelry is not giving the same pleasure now. She puts them on as a matter habit but they feel heavy now. She does not feel like taking them off though. The attachments we invite into our lives become heavy in course of time. Yet we cannot severe those tries since we have gotten used to them.
In the evening Sundara Rao brings a magazine as he comes home. After he is done with bathing and eating, he hides his head in the paper for an hour, sitting on the porch facing the garden. Kamakshamma rolls the pan leaves into parrot-shapes and stacks them up. Sundara Rao takes some. Kamakshamma sits there idly shredding the rest of the pan leaves and glancing around. Nothing comes to mind for either of them to talk about. At the end, Kamakshamma asks the same question as a matter of habit, “What is new in the city?”
He continues to read the paper as he replies, “What is there to say? The same as always.”
That’s it. Silence prevails again. Kamakshamma says something again. She keeps talking without expecting a response.
“The jasmine vine has two sprouts.”
“The red rose may bloom tomorrow.”
“The mango buds are falling to the ground, I wonder why.”
“Ghosh! It rained so hard earlier in the evening. The garden was nearly submerged. They say untimely rain is not good.”
She keeps talking this or that. He keeps saying “ha” and “ho” heedlessly. From the tone, we cannot tell whether he is listening or not. At the end, he says, “Maybe there is some good program on the radio. Why don’t you listen to that?”
That is the end of it. She gets up and goes in. In the bedroom close by there is a battery-operated radio. Kamakshamma turns it on. Sixty varieties of sounds burst forth. Amidst of those sounds, she hears a low-toned song. The terrible silence is broken in one big stroke. She finds comfort in the thought that there is somebody. She falls asleep while thinking the same thing. He turns off the radio when he comes into the room.
Yes, that is how the time passed by. In her life there is hope and no disappointment. No overwhelming pleasure, no drowning grief. Her life has been barely moving boat in a serene river.
Only once the boat rocked. She a taste of the cool breeze. The withered branch sprouted. She became alive. Kamakshamma laughed.
That day the Sun was hot. It was about one o’clock in the afternoon. Kamakshamma was taking a nap in the bedroom facing the garden. Kamakshamma, half-asleep, heard a flutter in the front porch was scared at first. Then she assumed that some bird might have come from the garden into the verandah. She closed her eyes. There was the flutter of the wings again from the verandah. She decided to go and see what it was.
She saw a parrot in five hues, snuck on the railings in the verandah. It was looking at Kamakshamma furtively. It was gorgeous displaying several hues of red and yellow on its body between its wings and red nose. Kamakshamma had never seen such a beautiful bird before. She kept gazing the bird, enthralled by its beauty. The parrot tried to escape. It flapped the wings a little and remained in the same place, looking at Kamakshamma pitiably.
The bird’s leg was broken. It could not move. She was worried thinking, “Oh, no. What could have happened if a dog or a cat had jumped on her?’ She called Sankaram, the gardener. He picked up the bird easily. The bird did not object.
Kamakshamma closed all the doors in her room and kept the bird caringly. The wound on the bird’s leg healed in three days. In the meantime, Kamakshamma had a cage brought in from the city. The bird became a prisoner permanently. Kamakshamma got plenty now to spend her time on. Unwittingly, a bonding happened.
Now she is busy, has no time for anything else. Each minute she is worried what the bird might be doing. Is the cage clean for it? Hope no cat entered the room? Did it eat the fruit chunks I put in the cage?—the same thoughts and concerns all the time. She named it Chinnari. She is under the illusion that some day the bird will learn how to talk and speak sweet chirping words. Fantasizing that, she kept chirping herself in front of the bird for hours on end. She was not even aware how the time passed by. In the evenings, she used to walk around the garden, holding the bird carefully so it would not fly away.
Now she has plenty to talk about with her husband also. She waits anxiously for her husband to come home. As soon as he is home, she reports in a hurry all the day’s happenings:
“Chinnari did not take milk, not even one mouthful.”
“Ate only two chunks of fruit.”
“It escaped from the cage and went around the room twice. Luckily, the window panes were closed, or else.”
“Chinnari is learning to speak. It is learning fast from me. This morning I said, ‘akka’ and it said ‘akka’ too.”
Like this, she keeps saying, some sadly and others with great enthusiasm. Sundara Rao also listens curiously. Some kind of passion has swept her away. A shade of it has crept on him too. So also to the servants. The entire environment at home has changed totally.
Kamakshamma’s heart has experienced the bliss for six months. Chinnari’s heart has agonized, being imprisoned in the cage. Smiles danced on Kamakshamma’s face. Chinnari’s wings beat up on the cage wires, got tired and let go of it.
That day, it rained heavily all afternoon. The rain water seeped through the window sills and filled the room. The rain stopped in the evening. The sun-rays glimmered through the wet leaves.
Kamakshamma has the room wiped clean and opens the window panes to dry the room. She talks to the bird. Opens the cage door and puts fruit chunks. She finishes eating and lies down on the bed, waiting for her husband. Sundara Rao has not arrived for a very long time. While thinking, she dozes off. Sundara Rao comes late and decides not to wake her up.
The next morning, Kamakshamma looks lazily at the bed next to hers. Sundara Rao is asleep. Turns to the cage. Chinnari is not there. The cage is empty. Kamakshamma jumps out of the bed and looks again. The cage door is open. The window panes, opened last night, are open.
Grief overtakes Kamakshamma. What happened to the parrot? Probably, after opening the door last night, forgot to close? Is it possible the bird flew away? Or, the cat came through the window and took it away? She shivered head to foot with panic.
She calls the servants and asks them. They know nothing. They are also surprised to see the empty cage. Worried, they search the entire garden and do not find it. Not knowing what else they can do, they give up. They tell Sundara Rao as soon as he woke up. He says, “ayyo” and leave it at that.
Six months back there was no parrot. There is no telling where it came from and why. Now again, we do not know where it went. There is no way of knowing it.
Kamakshamma stares at the empty cage and goes into a fit of sobs. Sundara Rao says, “Are you crazy?” Sankaram put away the cage. That is all. After that each gets busy with his or her own chores. The cook starts cooking. The gardener gives water to the plants. Sundara Rao gets busy so he will not miss his train. That is all. There is no sign of another life existing in that house, none whatsoever.
Kamakshamma sits there staring into the emptiness for a long time. Nobody understands the bond she has developed with the parrot, or what she has gained and lost in the process.
“I lost the buttons for my coat. Do you mind fixing them? It is getting late for my train,” Sundara Rao says.
Kamakshamma takes the coat without a word. That is it. After that, she never mentions the Chinnari’s name again.
Several days pass by. The bare trees start sprouting. With the arrival of spring, even without invitation, birds arrive chirping noisily into the garden. The aroma from the mango sprouts pervades the entire garden. Kamakshamma’s heart once again wakes up.
She feels peaceful as she watches the birds chirping and flying all around in the garden.
The gardener notices that Kamakshamma is watching the garden zealously again after a very long time.
He approaches her and says, “See amma! So many birds came as soon as the mango tree started sprouting. See how beautiful they are! If we hang the cage in the garden just for a day, we will be able to catch a parrot. We can raise it.”
Kamakshamma shudders. She says, “No, no. Do not do that. See how happy and free they are! Let them live happily like that. They come and go as they please. That makes me happy. I can sit for any length of time, watching them. Aren’t they all ours? Why capture one bird, lock it up in a cage and in the process invite trouble for ourselves? Needless bonding.”
The gardener does not understand her comment.
The birds in the garden chirped merrily at once.
Translated by Nidadavolu Malathi and published on thulika.net, September 2008..
(The Telugu original, paaripoyina chilaka, was originally published in the early 1960s.)