Andallu stood before the mirror, tucked a huge bunch of roses in her long braid, and finished the braid with the gold bells tying tightly at the end. Rolling her big beautiful eyes all over the image in the mirror, she watched herself as if she was taken by her beauty. She did not notice the arrival of Lakshmanacharyulu or the plantain leaf packet in his hand.
Lakshmanam watched his wife’s absorption with her beauty and coughed a small cough.
Andallu jerked turned around; her wide eyes became wider. “Ah, you! How long since you’ve come,” she said in a kind of dragging tone and put the coffee flask on the table.
“What does it matter how long I’ve been here? Been standing so long, my legs are hurting; yet you won’t let go of your love for your primary husband for me,” he replied somberly.
“Don’t worry my beautiful! I meant the full-length mirror fastened to the dresser your primary husband, no other person. Am I not second to him? Don’t you do all those things only in front of him? Whether it is a new sari, flowers in your hairdo, the dot on your forehead and the eye make up—the entire make up is only for him, isn’t that right? You don’t even look at me without his permission.”
“Uh, go away. You’re too much. You are turning into a poet par excellence,” she said, chuckling.
“Haven’t our great teachers (predecessors) stated that the poet may see what the sun cannot? Am I not a poet? My namesake, Lakshmana kavi, translated the Bhartruhari’s poetry and left at that. I would have written a lot more inculcating all the three rasas—the sensuous, the liberating, and the devotional,” he said, smiling.
Andallu saw the packet on the table and asked, “What’s that?”
“Things you like very much, Devi!” he said, teasingly.
“Things I like very much?” she said, warily.
There was a reason for Andallu to be apprehensive. Andallu was pregnant for the first time. She was five months along. She was a beautiful woman to begin with. And, with the pregnancy and the morning sickness, she became even more beautiful, that is thinner and more delicate like a kasiratnam vine.
Lakshmanam loved her immensely because she was his first cousin and also pregnant. He was the only son to his parents. Now, within one year of his marriage, he was going to have a son to prolong his pedigree. Right away, he wrote to his mother and mother-in-law. Andallu had said, “don’t” but he did not listen to her pleas.
On the previous day, Andallu was bored and so went to her neighbor Subhadra’s house. Subhadra was frying potato pieces and onions. Andallu’s mouth watered not the fried dark brown potato pieces but for the onion pieces which glowed brilliantly in the steel pan.
Subhadra continued to blabbing this and that and asking questions in between. None of the words went into Andallu’s ears. All her eyes were glued to the onion pieces in the steel pan. She was lost in imagining the onion bits in her mouth, even savored each drop of the sweet juice scrumptiously; her tongue experienced the taste of hot pepper as well.
“Fifth month along, I suppose. How come your mother has not come yet? First time pregnant, you might be yearning for various things to eat. If mother is here, she will know what appeals to your tongue and makes it for you. You are a loner by nature. You know what they say—young wife’s managing the household is like splinters ablaze; no steady, lasting flames. If you feel like eating something, tell me—chutney or curry, anything. I’ll make it for you. You are no different from my younger sister. Anyway, you are still young, why bother about traditions? You know, these men run to the hotels and eat all kinds of junk and nobody questions them. Again the same fellows go at it, isn’t that great?” said Subhadra warmly.
At once, Andallu wanted to say, “Please, akka, let me have a bit of the curry” but again thought, Cha, how can I ask?” Subhadra would announce the story to the entire town. “I might as well buy the ingredients and make the curry myself,” she told herself and returned home, fettering her thoughts tight in her head.
Thus when her husband said the packet contained something she wanted, she thought it might be onions; she was worried that he had found out about her craving for onions. The reason for her fear was Andallu talked in her sleep sometimes; it became a pattern for her. Sometime back, she had wished for a red gold-threaded sari and that night in her dream, she had said, “I wish I could wear a red gold-threaded sari and go to the movies with you.” The next morning, soon after he woke, he went to the store and bought a red gold-threaded sari. At that time also, she had asked as always, what the packed had contained. He had responded the same way, “Something you always wanted.” She had opened the packet and was surprised to see the red sari. He had explained to her later about her speaking in her sleep. Now Andallu feared that she had talked in her sleep possibly. For that reason, she could not reach the leaf packet and open it. She was scared that she might find a pesarattu or onion in it. No matter how much her heart craved for it, how much her husband loved her, she did not have the courage to ask him for something that would flout the family traditions. She looked at him with hesitation and embarrassment.
“Come on, open it and see,” he said teasingly.
That frightened her even more.
Open and see Andi,
See and take Andi.”
Lakshmanam kept humming a Punjabi style tune as he unwound the thread around the packet.
Andallu felt sick in the stomach with fear. She ran to the backyard, threw up, washed and sat down in a chair, wiping her face with a towel.
Lakshmanam brought a spoonful of maadi fruit juice to calm her nausea. Then he said, “You’ve not opened the packet yourself” and finished opening it. It was a bunch of swarna sampenga flowers. Quite taken by their aroma, Andallu, said, “ha!“ and took a deep breath.
The next day, after her husband had left for work, Andallu bought onions and garlic from the vegetable vendor. She packed them carefully in a newspaper and hid them in the midst of the stack of her saris. She planned to fry potatoes and onions in the evening and eat. She cut the vegetables and was about to fry.
Suddenly, Lakshmanam appeared out of nowhere like a villain of the piece.
“Andi, I booked tickets for the movie Navarang. Quick, go and change. We can eat after we returned,” he said.
Andallu who was planning to make the onion curry and eat before he came, was dumbstruck. He did not tell her about it in advance. Anyway, she quickly threw the onion and potato cuts in to a dish, washed her hands first with cow dung, then with soap and returned. Poor thing, she did not have the pleasure of watching a movie on that day.
The next day, she told her this is not way to do it. She started making pakora as soon as her husband had left for work. She put the frying pan on the stove, poured oil into the pan and turned the heat on. Then she mixed chick pea flour with chili powder and salt; started chopping ginger, green chillies, and onion finely.
Just in that moment, Vimalamma, a neighbor, pushed the door open and walked in. She laid the sitting plank and asked, “What are you doing, pregnant woman? Are you making some snack? Is that Bajji?”
Andallu hesitated for a moment; then told herself, “She is here, so what? I feel like eating and so I’ll make them.” Then, she hesitated again. “Gosh, isn’t she going to announce to the entire town?” By nature, Andallu was a nervous woman by nature. She thought for a second and in one quick move, she threw away the onion pieces, cut green plantain and made bajji.
Vimalamma gave her a couple of sweet mysorepak pieces, “Here, eat.”
Andallu put several pieces of bajji on a steel plate and gave them to Vimalamma, “Here, give them to your kids.”
By the time this event ended … the maid came … then it was time to cook supper … Lakshmanam arrived … The day was over with the routine as always.
Throughout the night, Andallu dreamt about onion fries and pakora.
Ever since she woke up, she waited for her husband to leave for office.
As soon as he left, she shut the doors tight and ground mung beans, chopped ginger, green peppers and onions finely and made pesarattu,, well almost … Before she poured the dough on the grill to make pesarattu, she heard somebody banging on the door. Whoever could be? Andallu was nearly in tears. She sighed, threw the onion pieces out the back door, scrubbed her hands with dirt until the smell was gone and then opened the door.
Her mother-in-law Ragavamma and sister-in-law Thayaru were standing in front of her.
Andallu’s face turned pale.
‘“What are you doing, Vadina! My brother is not home and you’ve shut the door and started cooking all your favorite dishes?” Thayaru said, teasingly.
“Ha, that’s funny! It surely looks like she is eating! Andallu! You’re so skinny, why? Seems like you’ve lost plenty of weight. If you’re too shy to ask me, why didn’t you write to your mother, you silly,” said Ragavamma, putting her hand round Andallu’s shoulders lovingly.
After that a few days went by wildly with things like bathing and eating, Ragavamma making dosa with the dough Andallu had prepared, distributing the sweets she brought—the sugar minapasunne, ariselu, chakrakeli bananas—to neighbors, and so on. They stayed for two months, Andallu was seven months pregnant.
During those two months, every time Lakshmanam got ready to go to the store, Andallu’s face looked restless as if she wanted to say something. He tried to coax her into saying it but she never said a word. He was restless.
Towards the end of the seventh month, her mother Ravanjamma and sister-in-law Alivelu came to bring her home for delivery. The house buzzed with relatives and festivities and special dishes for the next four days. Yet there was no sign of the pregnant woman getting her craving satisfied. Whom she could tell and what could she tell? Had she told? … Wouldn’t that be ridiculous, regardless they were her relatives? She thought of telling her mother or sister-in-law about her craving. Each time her heart pushed her forward her tongue pulled back.
Her mother-in-law said to Andahllu’s mother, “Vadina, talk to your daughter and find out what she wants. I’ve made several dishes but she ate none with relish. You are the mother, you should know. If she tells what she wants, I can make it for her. She is the only daughter-in-law for me. At this age, I am not happy unless I make her favorite dishes and feed her.”
“Ha, ha ha!” Ravanjamma burst into a big laugh and turned to her daughter, “Andi, why don’t you tell us what you want. Looking for the two bits mom dishes out (smacking) or what?”
“Come on, Vadina, say it. If you don’t say and have it now, the baby would be born with puss in the ear. People like us are supposed to fulfill all the yearnings before a pregnant woman turns mom,” said Alivelu, laughing.
“Is that true, I mean the puss in baby’s ear?” said Andallu looking worried; her eyes and face were taut.
“What? Are you not convinced still? Or, is your heart craving for fish soup or something for heaven’s sake? We have the saying—Each one of them is a Vaishnavite, yet the crab soup disappeared, ha, ha,” Alivelu went on laughing.
Mother and Vadina told Andallu to pack the box so could leave soon.
Andallu shook her head shyly and said, “Wait for a few more days.”
Both Thayaru and Alivelu broke into a big laugh. “We know, we know the whole story. Your heart is yearning to go to movies and walks with my brother, after we are gone. Isn’t that right? That is the reason you want to avoid going with us,” they teased her.
Andallu pouted, assumed a bharatanatyam style posture of anger, went into the backyard and sat down.
“Don’t sit outside in the open at the twilight time; this is the time for demons supposedly. It’s okay with us if you’re angry with us, just don’t sit here in the out,” said Alivelu, tucking a bunch of chrysanthemum flowers in Andallu’s hairdo and stroking on her cheeks fondly.
The next day the house was pretty quiet. Andallu started getting back to her routine sluggishly; she had outgrown the habit in the past two months.
Lakshmanam sat on the doorframe and kept watching her ample mien, her eyes bashfully drooping, and the cheeks glowing with blush off and on for no reason.
In Andallu’s mind well-cooked onions bits were glowing and spreading a heartening aroma around. She looked at her husband with salivating tongue.
“What is it, Andi? You look strange, why?” Lakshmanam asked.
“Nothing. What do you suggest for the side dish?” she asked. In that moment, she wished with all her heart that her husband would bring onions and garlic, make a heap of them in front of her, and tell her, “Here, make soup with some onions, fry some with potato cubes, save some to make pesarattu in the evening, make pakora with a few in the afternoon, fry bits of garlic and toss into the lentil chutney and bits of fried onions in gongura chutney; also, add a few fried bits of telakapindi powder (a by-product in sesame oil production) and chili powder.”
Lakshmanam laughed and said, “What does it matter what I want nowadays? You do whatever you feel like eating.”
After he finished eating, Lakshmanam was ready to leave for office. He called Andallu to find a handkerchief for him.
“Look in the chest of drawers. I am in madi sari. I cannot change until after I am done eating,” she said.
He went into the bedroom and tossed and turned all the clothes in the chest. Suddenly, a paper packet fell on to the floor. He opened it; onions! At first he was surprised and then walked into the kitchen. “Andi, the kerchief smells of something,” he said, smiling.
“What smell? Two days back at the festivities time, I distributed some scent bottles and stowed away the remaining two bottles in the chest. Why? Aren’t they good? They called it Rehana or Nurjahan or something, I don’t know for sure,” she said, lowering her head and eating dinner.
“Hum, it would’ve been nice if it was the scent. This smell is something else,” he said, pretending to be thinking.
Then Andallu understood what he was saying. Hurt, she looked pitiably into his mocking eyes.
“Couldn’t you tell me? Don’t I deserve that much of a chance to satisfy your desire?” he said affectionately.
Later in the evening, on his way home from work, he went straight to the hotel.
“Do you have onion pesarattu?”
“We make them only in the mornings, Sir,” the server said.
“How about pakora?”
“We have it with cashew.”
“Let it be. Have sambar to go with idli?” Lakshmanam asked, annoyed.
“No Sir. Today’s sambar has drum sticks,” server said, a little surprised at Lakshmanam’s love of onions.
“To hell with the idiot face! … Stupid town, stupid, stupid town. What else can we expect after driving away all the Tamil friends out of the state? We have such a huge town yet only one hotel!” thus cursing, he expressed his brotherly love for Tamilians.
Next morning, he headed for the hotel as soon as he woke up.
“Come, Sir, come. Be the first to eat, the fresh, super fresh pesarattu awash with onions,” server went in and brought four pesarattus with extra onions.
Lakshmanam carefully packed them in his kerchief and dashed home in a whiz.
“Andi, Andi, come quick,” he called out for her, bubbling with excitement.
Andallu came in, quite pleased for her husband’s affection and care for her, and devotion and attention towards her. Her eyes were wet. She was about to unwind the thread on the packet.
“Girl, what are you doing?” her brother Venkatacharyulu showed up.
Andallu was baffled. She was not sure whether she should be happy to see her brother, whom she had not seen for a while or feel sorry that her heart’s desire remained unfulfilled.
“Girl, they told me that today is an auspicious day. Sastrulu told mother that moodham (adverse days per lunar calendar) sets in soon. She asked me to bring you home today. Bava! Don’t lose heart about her. I’ll send her back along with the son in the third month, I promise,” Venkatacharyulu said.
Andallu looked at her husband, disheartened.
Lakshmanam watched her as she tossed the packet out the window sadly and said, “All right. Write to me regularly.”
After coming to her natal home, it became even more stressful for Andallu. The place was out and out rustic to the core. In that village, her people were the acharyas (religious mentors). With whom she could share wish?
As her pregnancy advanced, her fear that the baby could have puss in his ear was getting stronger than the wish to eat onions. Whether her eyes were open or shut, all she could see was a beautiful baby boy cute as jackfruit and his ears wet with puss! That became the constant vision in her mind’s eye! That was her doing too, isn’t it? How is it going to be resolved?
She was suffering inexplicable pain in her heart. Lakshmanam was writing letters and asking, “How are you? Has your desire been fulfilled yet?” What could say? She had not told him about possibility of the puss in the baby’s ear, and that was better. Had he known, he would have made her eat onions, regardless how many people protested. In such matters he could be very aggressive. As she recollected her husband’s range of capabilities, she got goose bumps all over.
It was vaikunta ekadasi day (special holiday for Hindus). Ravanjamma and Alivelu fasted per tradition. Since Andallu reached full term, Alivelu cooked food only for Andallu and Venkatacharyulu.
In the evening, Venkatacharyulu said to his mother, “Amma, I am taking the cart to Palem. The movie Bhakta Ambarisha is playing. Do you want to come?”
Andallu was elated at the mention of a movie by her brother as if she found something that had been lost for a while. “Yes, amma, you should go. You’ll be back by eleven anyways,” She said eagerly.
“I’ll stay with Andallu. Yes, attha, you go,” Alivelu said, being the daughter-in-law in the house, she felt it was her duty.
Andallu insisted over and again. She said, “Just go, you both should go. What is the harm if you two are gone for a few hours? If I am not here, you would have to take turns anyways. But now I am here, and I will take care of the house. You go,” and convinced them—both of them to leave together. After they were gone, she closed the front door and went to the neighbor Sastrulu’s house through the back door.
Baamma garu invited her tenderly. “Come dear, come. Sit down,” she said, peeling onions.
“What are you doing, baamma garu? Where is Raji? She is not home?” Andallu said.
“Would she be here? As soon as your brother Venkati brought the cart, she jumped in and sat in it … Who knows when god will give you relief?” she said, by way of comforting Andallu.
“What are making for supper?” asked Andallu casually.
“See these? Making soup with these saligrams (precious stones of worship),” she said, pointing to the onions in her hand.
Something on the stove made a hissing noise.
“You sit here. I think the rice is boiling over. I’ll remove the excess water and be back,” said bamma garu and went into the kitchen.
Andallu grabbed a few onion bits, hid them in her sari palloo and said, “Baamma garu, my back is hurting. I’ll go home and lie down,” and left quickly.
“Wait, I’ll give you coconut sweet balls,” bamma’s words vanished into the thin air.
Andallu took a bit of thick tamarind juice in a pan, added a little jaggery, onion pieces, green chilli pieces, salt and turmeric and put it on the stove and sat there fanning the flames. As it started simmering, she held her two hands over the dish to catch the flavor, brought them to her nose and enjoyed the aroma, swallowing the water in her mouth. She kept thinking—the soup must simmer first then cool down and then she should eat to her fill!
Just below the patio, the parijatham buds were opening one after another. The almond tree in the backyard shook its leaves as if it understood the circumstances and her condition. In that breezy evening, the potato and onion fry, pesarattu, pakora, and lentil chutney were hovering around in steel plates in front of her eyes. Andallu suddenly curled up; something in her stomach hurt; she felt like throwing up. Finally, she understood the main problem.
Quickly she took the hot dish from the stove, emptied it into the rim under the almond tree, and lay back against the jute-rope cot. She called bamma garu for help.
That evening, Ravanjamma garu and Alivelu returned from the movies and found a blue-collar midwife Veeramma giving bath to the baby boy, the size of a juicy mango fruit and bamma garu tying a piece of cloth around the new-mother’s waist.
Alivelu was overwhelmed as she watched her newly born nephew. Andallu, eyelids wavering lightly and she brimming with the love of a new mother, said to Alivelu, “Vadina, check the baby’s ear. Is there puss?”
The words, spoken in a feeble voice got lost in the resounding voice of Ravanjamma; she was saying, “Where is the metal dish, Andallu?” The voice sounded like a bell.
Alivelu could not hear Andallu’s question.
Lakshmanam received the telegram sent by his brother-in-law Venkatacharyulu. At once, he rushed all his colleagues to the hotel and ordered onion pesarattu and pakora for everybody.
“Lakshmanam, you’re celebrating your son’s birth, you should feed us sweets but not this hot stuff that scorches our tongues. Come, bring us sweets,” his friends said.
“You finish these items first. We’ll have sweets too,” Lakshmanam said, overwhelmed and bubbling like the sea.
His friends could not figure out why Lakshmanam ordered those items; yet, it was lunch time and they all were starving. So, they ate.
Lakshmanam could see the satisfied face of Andallu and the baby vaguely. He smiled to himself contentedly.
Translated by Nidadavolu Malathi and published on thulika.net, June 2010.