She was new to the town to start with. On top of it, the houses were so far apart with huge open spaces in between as if they were flung around on purpose. The place was strewn with big bushes, which looked like demons squatting on the floor at night, and tumma trees shaking their tops as if they were possessed. The town just started growing with railway tracks on one side and a blacktop road on the other. On the other two sides, huge open fields were lying far looking like black cobras stretched across slovenly and guarding the town. A big juvvi tree seemed to be sitting on the back of that cobra like a gigantic demon reining the place. Underneath, a well with steps was like the supreme truth laughing and barely visible through the tree’s hanging branches in the dim light. I trembled at the sight. I had goose bumps all over.
I was so scared I did not have a wink of sleep the first night. I blamed myself. How did I decide to take this room, after searching for so long? I was told that the woman who had worked in this job stayed in the same room. How did she manage? I should have looked for a room I liked. Why did I rely on the servant? Look, what he had found for me! Pch. Nowadays, the servants have no sense of duty at all. They don’t care even for high-level revenue officers, why would they mind, “a woman welfare officer,” come to think of it. If I asked him, probably he would say straight to my face, without blinking an eye, “What can I do? I could not find a better room for you. If you are not happy with this, go, find one yourself. Don’t ask me, I can’t. In fact, finding a room for you is not my job.” Okay. I’ll manage somehow for a month, wait until after Sankranti festival is over. In the meantime, I can keep looking. Today marks the beginning of Sankranti; that means just one month, thirty days ….
I kept brooding over all night, tossing and turning, startling and shivering each time I heard the leaves from the trees outside rustling, worrying that it maybe an owl or a bat. I was totally beside myself.
I heard as a cock crowed at a distance, got up, and turned on the light. I looked at the watch. It was four, one more hour or hour and a half to daybreak. I went back to bed but could not sleep. Bored, I started pacing up and down in the room. The early morning Express train passed by with huge shriek and jostled me. I wanted to see train running at super express speed. I had closed the windows last night prior to going to bed because of my fears. Now I opened them. The train shrilled wildly and shot through the dark rapidly. The cars were moving fast, obstructing my view of trees and the houses briefly. I kept staring at the string of lights from the cars without batting an eye. After a while, the lights were gone to far-off places and disappeared. I turned around and suddenly felt dizzy. Maybe because of watching the moving cars. I closed my eyes tight one more time and opened them.
In front of the house across from the open fields, I saw, in that dim light, a person slightly bent forward. I rubbed my eyes and looked again. The branches of the tumma tree were wavering because of the wind and obstructing my view off and on, still I could see the person clearly. A young woman, probably sixteen or seventeen, was putting rangavalli meticulously. She wore a skirt and a half-saree; her braid was hanging over her shoulder. Nobody else in the neighborhood woke up yet. What a sense of commitment! She got up at dawn, and started her artwork in the front yard. I could not stop myself from watching her and the floor designs. I was not even aware how long I watched her as the muggu on the floor was taking charming shapes by her fine, soft fingers.
Suddenly I heard a noise; somebody from next door came out. The young woman quickly moved into the shade of the tumma tree. Maybe shy. Of course, natural at that age. Bashful even to lay eyes on anyone. I chuckled slightly, closed the window, and went to the table to study the files in preparation for the day. After the sun was up, I peeked through the slightly opened window again. I saw a woman, probably their servant, sprinkling water mixed heavily with cow dung. Oh, no. This dimwit is ruining the beautiful designs the young woman drew earlier. I rushed to the window, opened it, and looked for the designs. There was nothing on the ground. Not even a slightest trace of the beautiful muggu.
For the next four or five days I was so busy with my files which I had to study as a newcomer. I even brought them home for want of time, and wrestled with them until midnight. Being immersed in that kind of environment, I totally forgot about the young woman whom I had seen earlier at dawn.
One night I stayed up reading my files until midnight, turned off the light, and went to the window to open one windowpane. The young woman, whom I’d seen earlier, was sitting there alone on the ledge of the raised patio in front of the house. She was wearing a zari silk skirt and white, silk half saree. A thin veil of moonlight enfolded her lightly. Red bangles were sparkling on her beautiful fair hands. I could not see her face clearly, since she bent down. Yet her entire figure looked as if carefully sculpted and enchanting. She must be extraordinarily beautiful, I thought.
She was sitting there steadfastly without moving a finger. She seemed to be downcast and troubled about something beyond my comprehension. If she were not worried about something, why would she come there and sit all alone while the world was happily asleep. Poor thing. What could be bothering her so badly? Suddenly I felt a wave of pity for her. I told myself ‘poor thing’ barely, she looked with a jolt as if she had felt my thought. She looked up straight in the direction of my window. In that moonlight, her eyes and the tears rolling down her cheeks glistened. I wondered if she would be upset if she had realized that I was watching her through the window secretively. No, probably not. I am in the dark. How can she see me?
But then again, maybe she had seen me. Or else, why would she sneak into the shadows behind the wall in a hurry. I waited there for a very long time hoping to see her again. No such luck.
Next day it was Sunday. Usually I would spend my time either in the office or with a book at home. I had no other pastime. Yet, on that day, no book could capture my attention. I could have chatted with the homeowner but her husband was home. It would not be nice to asking her to come over. I opened the windowpanes once again hoping to catch a glimpse of that young woman and talk to her. I waited for a very long time without success. I was hanging around by the window till evening, for want of better things to do. I saw a skinny man with a parched face, looking older than his age and who seemed to be carrying the worries of the entire world. I saw a robust and slightly heavy-built thirty-year old woman, wearing a glasgoe saree, which was competing with a white rose in her Burma-style hairdo; she was fighting her age and moving around contentedly. A twenty-five-year old female servant was running around in the entire house across from mine, imitating her woman of the house. I could see everybody except the one young woman whom I was keen on seeing.
For a second, I thought about calling the servant. Maybe I could ask her if that woman was at home but then I dropped the thought.
It was a full moon day. As I noticed the white moonlight, like a spread of white flour, I felt like going for a walk. I finished eating, wound a muffler around my neck, and put on a sweater. Next moment, I thought of the monstrous wild bushes all around, the tumma trees and the vast plateau. I was scared and stayed put in my room. I could not fight my desire to enjoy the beautiful moonlight though. I strained to see as far as I could and sat there enjoying the vast, empty open space, the big juvvi tree, which looked like a guard on duty, and the glistening cement patio around the well. I wondered how even the scary sights in nature could look beautiful under a shower of moonlight.
All of a sudden, I saw a vague form rising up from the well. My heart stopped for a second. I had goose bumps all over. I was shivering. My mouth dried. I closed my eyes with both my hands.
After a few seconds, I heard a little noise from the house and removed my hands from my eyes apprehensively.
It was the same young woman! She was staring at me, standing in the shadow of the tumma tree. What a relief. I took a deep breath. The thought that there was another soul in that dark night gave me strength. I picked up the guts and looked towards the well once again. I even chuckled for my unnecessary fears. Probably that young woman also heard my meaningless chuckle. She joined me in my laugh. It sounded unusual. My wish to talk to her was augmenting by the minute. I waved my hand inviting her to come closer. I kept waving and she kept laughing but did not move, not even a bit. I turned around to turn on the light. That was it. The young woman went away. I waited and waited but she never came back.
As time passed by, our friendship was getting stronger. She was nowhere to be seen in the daytime but would appear at some odd hour in the night. It became a routine–I would wave my hand, she would laugh. I was anxiously waiting for an opportunity to talk to her.
And that opportunity came after all.
It was the day of Bhogi. All the women around–my landlady, the chubby lady in the house across the street, and her next door neighbor–every one of them locked their doors and left to visit with other women to participate in the Bhogi festivities in somebody else’s house. There was not a single soul around. I am not used to such visits and so stayed in my room. Besides, nobody invited me. Bored of sitting at home, I decided to go for a walk. I locked up my room and stepped out.
The sun was almost down. There was tiny bit of light. Darkness was settling in. I walked towards the open space. The young woman, looking sad, was standing in front of the locked door. She was wearing green clothes; her feet were smeared with turmeric, and adorned with red designs, and the design on her forehead–all indicative of a bridal wear. I walked a few steps towards and asked, “Didn’t you go to bhogi visit?” She lifted her face and looked at me. She forced a smile on her otherwise sad face.
“I didn’t go either. I was bored; that’s why I came this way,” I said.
She laughed suggestive that she understood.
“Let’s go somewhere. Come on, will you?”
She looked at me, surprised.
I stared back at her. She nodded, rolling around her gorgeous eyeballs.
“Where shall we go? You tell me. I am new to this place,” I said.
She thought for a few seconds and pointed toward the juvvi tree.
“Oh, no. To that spot … in this darkness?”
She laughed. It sounded like a challenge to me. “Okay, let’s go,” I said, picking up courage.
The young woman was walking in front of me. I was walking behind her. She was walking on the air, as it were, not touching the ground, and me watching her gait. Neither of us spoke on th way. We approached the well by the juvvi tree. She stopped there and sat on the edge of the well wall barely touching the rim. I sat down on a rock by the patio around the well. We both were silent for a few minutes.
After a while, I said, “You want to talk to me for a long time, I think.”
She lifted her heavy eyelids, took a deep breath, looked at me for a second, and smiled a disinterested smile.
“You seem to be sad for some unknown reason. Tell me why. Is there anything you are short for? You are the only child to your parents, I guess, right?”
She was quiet.
“I saw your mother and father a while ago. Your mother also is beautiful like you.”
She was taken aback. “Mother?” she said, sounding like it was coming from the bottom of the well.
“Isn’t she your mother? Who then is she? I thought she was your mother,” I said.
“Yes, everybody thinks so. She never lets anybody think different. She is my stepmother. My own mother died when I was ten.”
“Oh! But she is treating as if she were your real mother, right?”
“She used to be more than any mother ever could be.”
“You’re saying used to. You mean not anymore?”
“Now? Who cares how she treats me?” She broke into a big laugh.
“I’m confused. On one hand, you say she treated you very well and on the other you are being sarcastic,” I said.
“Of course, you’re confused. As you said, you’re new around here. You are not familiar with the life here. I’ll tell you, listen,” she said and started to narrate her story slowly in a grave and soft voice.
I was ten when my mother had died. Without my mother, my world became a dark hole. I used to cry every time I saw the cot she slept in, the things she was using, and the plants she took care of–each one of them reminded me of her and I would cry my heart out. But then I was not allowed to cry either. Each time I broke down, somebody or other would come and tell me, you shouldn’t cry, it’s wrong. Then I would go to the little room in the corner, and cry until I could not cry anymore, until the pillow was drenched in my tears. I would beg again and again, “Mother, please come back, come to me, and be with me once at least.” She never came back. “I will never see her again”–the thought would turn my stomach, tug at my guts and make me cry even more. I would sneak into some corner, go on crying until I was exhausted, and fell asleep. Then my father would come and see me, say, “You’re here, darling,” and he would cry too. Thus, we used to cry even more while trying to console each other. My aunt saw us pining away like that and took me to her home. I was on the way to getting to be normal in about four to five months, thanks to my aunt’s kindness and uncle’s warm talks. My father used to come and visit us, and made sure I was okay.
I was listening. She stopped for a few seconds and continued.
After several days, my father brought me back to this place. By then, my stepmother was already there in the house. My father told me to call her ‘amma’. I was determined not to do so. Besides I was upset everytime I looked at her, although I could not explain why. I refused to take orders from her. Frankly, I did not care for her presence at all.
“She noticed the way I was acting and she reciprocated it. For no reason, she started harassing me, constantly reprimanded me. Even for the slightest mistake on my part, smacked me. I could not take it anymore and complained to my father. That caused more problems. They would get into a squabble. He would yell at her, and tell her not to be hard on me or she would pay for it. Then he would hug me and comfort me. That helped me to forget the pain caused by mother’s death. My father was such a good man, I told myself as tears welled in my eyes. One day, my father and the other woman got into a big fight because of me. At the end, she said, ‘Who’s more important to you–her or me?’ My father said, “she” without thinking twice.
“Then I’m leaving,” she said.
“Go,” said my father.
“She did not leave but her method of being cruel to me was gone. She started acting lovingly and caringly towards me. She used to buy lot of things for me, whether I asked for them or not. She was so kind to me, more than my own mother I even thought that my own mother did not treat me like that. My father was also surprised as she went on saying “we need to get this or that for our daughter …’ After that, he was very happy. He started taking care of her also as never before.
“That’s nice,” I said. The young woman looked at me skeptically and continued her story.
“My father stopped paying attention to me after my stepmother started being very kind to me. After a while, he was indifferent to me, it looked that way at least. After he was convinced that my stepmother was taking very good care of me, he became oblivious of my existence completely.
As she went on showering love on me, my troubles and discomforts were also on the rise. She would force father to buy clothes and other things for me beyond his means. He would protest but she would not listen. Then father would run amok. I could not understand the reason for his anger. It ook me a while but I finally understood that it was because of me. No matter however much I tried to explain, he was not convinced. He believed that I was throwing tantrums for all that stuff. His income was limited and so our lives became unbearable with all those unnecessary expenses. As a result, my father, who never blamed me for anything, started yelling at me. He called me names like Sani, “millstone” and said I was born only to chew him up. All I could do was to weep silently. I fell on my stepmother’s feet and begged her to stop her frightening show of love. But no. She continued her plan like a cobra with a vengeance.
She was silent for a while and then continued her narration:
“I turned sixteen. My father started looking for a bridegroom for me. My stepmother told him that they should not settle for an ordinary bridegroom. She raised a rumpus about it, thumping on her forehead, and bawling that she, being the stepmother, would be blamed if they had not found a classy groom. After a month or so, my father gave in rather unwillingly and found a medical student. He agreed to pay ten thousand rupees dowry. I told him I did not want a high ranking professional like that, and I would not marry him. But my father did not appreciate my argument. He said, “Yes, you’ll talk like that today. And tomorrow you’ll go around telling everybody that your father and stepmother colluded and married you to a good-for-nothing fellow. Why bother, dear! Never mind. We’ll beg on the streets if that’s our fate. For the present, let me sell the house, pay off the dowry, and finish the wedding ceremony.”
“You will sell the house for my sake?”
I was heartbroken by my father’s words, and cried my eyes out. I fell on their feet, begged them not to through with it, fasted too, and taunted them that I would never agree to that ceremony. I told them, “I am not that selfish, I can never agree to a wedding that will ruin you for good, I am not that stupid, believe me, please, don’t go bankrupt for my sake.”
Neither my father nor my stepmother cared for my desperate appeals. The arrangements went on with great fervor. My father put the house on the market and even took the downpayment. They adormed me forcefully and made me a bride. The wedding was set to take place on the Bhogi day. It was sure to happen. If I were to go through the ceremony, my father would be left with nothing to live on. He would have to go begging, thanks to me. My marriage would take place the next day, on Bhogi day.” She into heart-rending cries, sitting on the well ledge.
I was shocked. “You’re going to get married today? Is that why you are wearing all those special adornments like kalyanam bottu and all? But where is the excitement that accompaines a wedding? Are you really getting married today?”
She laughed, resounding like a thunder. She started singing, “My marriage … haha … my marriage” and she jumped into the well with a big thud. I was awestruck and screamed, “Oh, no. The young woman fell into the well. Help, please, somebody, help.”
A few people heard my screams in that dim light and came running. I said hurriedly, “She fell just now, the bride, the young woman living in the house by the tumma tree.” I was tottering around the well.
The crowd calmed down and said, “Oh, you mean that woman, a no-good wretch. She died not now but last year on the same Bhogi day. God knows what was wrong with her; cast off a first-rate match.”
I was stunned. “That’s not true. It happened in front of my eyes, just now …” I was going to say but they cut in, “Stop it. It’s a year since she had died. You may have seen somebody else.” “Does that mean the woman I was talking to up until now is …Oh my God,” I blacked out and fell on the ground.
As I came to again, I heard all kinds of comments from the people around me.
“She killed herself, isn’t that enough? Why keep coming back and scaring the daylight out of others like this?”
“What do you mean why? Did she not make life a living hell for her father and stepmother while she was alive?”
“Well-said. Quite a piece of work, ruining their lives, alive and dead. Poor father, he was a god himself, and the stepmother loved her one hundred times better than her own mother.”
“Poor couple. Who knows how miserable they two are with the grief eating them up inside.”
“They are grieving because of their love for her but if you ask me, they don’t have to cry for such a stupid person who committed suicide because of her own evil ways.”
“That’s correct. What is wrong with her? Father brought her such an incredible proposal. What is she short for? Why kill herself? Worthless life, pure rubbish.”
I could hear the words coming from each one of them. I could do nothing and say nothing. I closed my eyes and tried to remember that had happened on that day.
I saw her pitiful face again. She was looking at me pitiably. The look seemed to say, “Even you cannot understand me?” My heart melted and a wave of sorrow burst forth at my heart.
“None of them knows the truth below the surface. They saw only your form but not the ache. How could they know what was inside your heart. I can understand, my dear. I know your soft creamy heart. I know how deeply you were hurt and why you had resorted to this unspeakable transgression. Wipe your tears, dear.” As I spoke, two tears rolled down my cheeks, evaporated from the fire at my heart, and disappeared in to the thin air–like that young woman’s life and my Women’s Welfare thoughts, which could not be implemented.
Translated by Nidadavolu Malathi and published on thulika.net, January 2007.
(The Telugu original, nijaanijaalu, was published in an anthology, Rajyalakshmi kathalu, 1967)
 In villages, some wells are dug with steps for people to walk to the water.
 Floor designs put with lime powder or rice flour on the front yard during Sankranti festival.
 Sankranti is a 3-day festival. The first day is called Bhogi.
 A planet of the 9 mythological figures, considered bringing bad luck.