ONE STEP UP Tangirala Meera Subrahmanyam

Beads of sweat were slithering down her forehead. Penchalamma’s hands were not free to wipe them. The red kumkuma dot on her forehead, the size of a rupee coin, got mixed with the sweat and splashed all over her face. Her blouse was wet and stuck to her body. She wound a piece of red cloth on her head as a protection either from the scorching sun or the dust.

 

Penchalamma was sweeping the street thoroughly with a small broom in one hand and a tin sheet in the other. The road-roller[1], parked on the left side of the street was making noisy. Seenayya was melting tar, throwing in coal and splinters to keep the flames ablaze.

 

Pentamma was on the side of the road. She was crushing the stones from the pile next to her. An improvised cradle, a piece of cloth, hanging from a branch about four yards away from her. Penchalamma’s baby was in the cradle. Pentamma looked at the cradle and called out for Penchalamma, “Look, the boy’s wiggling. Go, feed him. I’ll tell explain if case the supervisor shows up.”

 

Penchalamma put the broom and the tin sheet on the ground, took the baby into her arms, and sat down in the shade. She pulled out the little cloth bag which was tucked in her saree-folds at the waist, took a couple of wilted pan leaves, a sliver of tobacco leaf, and dark betal nut piece and popped them inside her mouth.

 

Just in that moment, a scooter whizzed by making loud noise. Despite its honking, the workers on the roadside did not budge, not even one inch, with a “don’t give a damn” look, like the students when the lecturer walked into his class. The man on the scooter grit his teeth, called them “dirty rogues”, slowed down, and walked the scooter through the crowd. And then he kicked the pedal to speed up.

 

Penchalamma feeding the baby and Pentamma crushing the stones went on staring at the couple on the scooter without bating an eyelid; they were mesmerized by the sight, forgot even to breathe. The man on the scooter looked like a hero in the movies. He wore a large belt and sun glasses. The woman on the backseat was looking modern in her nylex saree. Her hair was not braided but loosely rolled and tied, and she wore a plastic dot on her forehead. The woman threw a resentful look at them, as if saying, “How dare you sit in the middle of the street and get in our way?”, and then she turned away.

 

Penchalamma’s eyes were glued to the sight, she did not even notice that the boy in her arms was waddling his arms and legs. After the scooter had disappeared round the corner, she turned to Pentamma. Pentamma said crabbily, “We crush the rocks and lay the road and they get to havin’ a ball.”

“Well, that’s the way it is, that’s our lot. They’re the blessed ones,” said Penchalamma. She laid the child in the cradle and picked up the broom again. She pictured in her mind the charming view of she going around on a scooter with her husband and sighed.

 

The scooter started out at first like a race horse and then turned out to be mulish. It’s owner removed his sunglasses, handed them to his wife, and began checking the engine.

 

The wife was getting smoldered in her nylex saree. She kept wiping her face with her handkerchief. In the process, her make up was wiped out and the face was looking greasy. Tired of carrying the two-year-old baby in her arms, she put her down and began fixing her hair. Next minute, the child started screaming. The mother remembered that the child had no shoes, and quickly picked up the child again.

 

In all, everything–the heat from the sun, the problems with the scooter, and the fact that the baby had no shoes–summed up and made her furious. And she redirected it toward her husband. She said, “Get rid of that stupid scooter, that’ll end our miseries. Here we’re checking meena meshaalu[2] to buy shoes for the child, and yet decided to go on a picnic. Isn’t that foolish?”

 

The pleasure the husband had been enjoying up until now evaporated in a second. Downcast, he started kicking the starter over and again in the hope of reviving it.

 

Just in that moment, a gorgeous car slid by softly as though it was airborne. For a split second, a beautiful face flashed through the car’s window like a lightning. The young woman standing by the roadside in blistering sun, with the child in her arms, twitched pitiably. The lingering lavender aroma left behind after the car had passed for well over ten minutes, the scooter that would not start, and the husband who was dripping with sweat–they all bothered her even more. “What a dreary life. Two of us tear our guts [at the school] from dawn to dusk, and still our income is like a sheep’s tail, barely covers our daily necessities, leaving nothing for any other pleasure in life. Can’t even remember for how long I’ve been dreaming of buying a Georgette saree just like the one the woman in the car was wearing. Our children don’t even have a couple of decent clothes, how can I expect to have good clothes and expensive desires for myself?” she said to herself desperately. She remembered the children she left with her neighbor and wondered if they were giving her hard time. Lately she and her husband did not even go to the movies, because of the costs–the rickshaw and the tickets. This trip to a nearby village, Maipadu, was pretty much like once in a lifetime chance. What fun one could have on a scooter like this in this heat? One should go by car, like the other couple who had passed by earlier, that’s what I’d call fun. I think this is the way it’s going to be for us … She drew a long deep breath.

 

The car stopped in front of the traveler’s bungalow. The couple got out of the car, helped the two children to get out, and went into the bungalow, carrying the basket, bedding etc. .

 

The two children were chattering jubilantly and peaking from one end of the verandah to catch a glimpse of the sea. Their mother on the other hand was tired. She sat down, and was pondering, “Is it enough if one has wealth? No, I would call it life only when all the others pay us their respects. Nowadays only the man in power receives such respect. I still remember the day we celebrated our baby’s birthday? The district collector’s wife came. One peon opened the door for her, and another walked behind her carrying the gift. Between the two, she walked like a royalty, while all the others around bowed to her in veneration. That’s what I’d call being fortunate.”

 

Poor husband. He was lost in his own thoughts. “I could do gold business and earn a stash. But how can how can I get the ‘power’ she’s hankering for?”

 

The sun was blazing as always. The day laborers continued to crush rocks on the roadside. They would skip a day’s meal, and barter that money for their colorful dream–losing themselves in the fantastic life of the hero and the heroine on the screen, live their dreams in their imagination, and recoup their strength for the hard labor on the next day.

 

The waves in the sea are attempting to force themselves further and further on to the shore. People riding scooters, cars and flying planes are trying harder and harder to move up to the next step.

[End]

 

Translated by Nidadavolu Malathi and published on thulika.net, October 2006.

 

 

(The Telugu original, aasala metlu, was published in Vanitha monthly, December 1, 1978, and included in the anthology by the same name, published 2005).

——————————

[1] Machine used to smoothen the tar surface.

[2] A common phrase, meena meshaalu lekka hettu, means literally waiting for the right time, and by extension, delaying.