Cinnodu stood with the empty bucket after pouring the cane extract into the container. Jagganna sat close to the fire, which had been cooking the sugarcane extract, to warm himself. His eyelids were dropping under heavy sleep. “Did you hear…?” he asked Cinnodu. Cinnodu looked askance. He stood staring into Jagganna’s eyes.
Jagganna did not stir. Seated as he was without opening his mouth, he looked as if he was trying to gather his breath.
“That wench is sure to die, ra. She won’t live any longer. She’s stubborn too. She has been crying so much that she has reduced her self to half her size. She won’t survive, Cinnoda, she won’t!” Jagganna spoke after removing the tobacco role from his mouth to release the smoke. The red flame reflected as waves on his wrinkled face and graying hair.
“Cinnoda, bring the sugarcane bundle!” Jangamayya shouted feeding cane into the machine.
Cinnodu dropped the bucket at where he was standing and rushed to the northern end of the shed for the cane. He dropped the bundle near the machine and went back to the jaggery-stove.
The maim fellow who had been filling the stove with the cane-waste could not hear Jaganna’s words. He was outside at the southern end of the stove. He could only see Jagganna through the thatched walls of the enclosure though not hear.
“The fellow married off the daughter to a great son-in-law! Had he really thought twice before deciding? Does the son-in-law have any respect for relationships? Can any woman ever live with him as his wife? Leave aside all those diseases he contracted, wonder how long this gold of a girl will survive…! When the bastard who lives in the village could remain blind, how can one expect the bastard of the neighbouring village to exercise his discrimination? The magic of money! Nothing in this world gets visible…money blinds…! Money rendered his vision hazy. All he had seen was that the man came off a moneyed family. That too the only son! The lands! The properties! The gold! The money! The business! Nothing else seen. He was blind even to matters of right and wrong. Blind to name and fame! The money magic has clad his eyes with several layers. The girl? She is gold! The gold doll’s life has now been reduced to ashes!” Jagganna was all pain for the girl. He had seen Subhadra when he went home for his meal. It’s five or six weeks that the girl had touched any food. She looked like a lizard glued to the bed. The pain he experienced on seeing her had been haunting Jagganna. Jagganna himself had been uneasy when he heard of the marriage proposal. Don’t eat grass for the sake of money, he even warned Narsayya who didn’t bother to care his words.
Cinnodu saw that the flame was going low. “Have you finished your work…? O, Cottoda get some waste for the stove!” he shouted in irritation.
The fellow has a maimed leg. He can sit any length of time and work without getting tired. Jaggery generally gets cooked through out the night. The stove needs to be filled with the waste non-stop to keep it burning. It’s a difficult job for the day. Hence the work gets done only during the nights. The bulls had been turning the machine drearily. Jangamayya was busy feeding the cane into the machine. The extract had been continuously flowing itself into the bucket below. The machine had been making crude rhythmic noise. Dasu who had been tending the bulls while they rotated the machine heard Jagganna’s voice. He remembered how he cried one night telling the father to hang his sister with a noose instead of getting her married to that man. He decided then and there that he would beat up his father once he grew a little more. Mother always keeps her mouth shut. Even she fears the father. Why, how much he wanted to study… “No! Studies are not meant for the like of us,” ruled out the father. Dasu was forced to abandon his studies and gotten to work on the fields…recollected Dasu as he walked behind the animals.
Cinnodu had already heard of what Jagganna spoke of. He always liked Subhadra as the best in the family. Since his fourteenth year, he had been a field hand with Narasayya. It’s ten years now. The girl always addresses him as uncle. She’s yet to understand the social dynamics. Why, no body addresses a field hand as uncle! Cinnodu too felt unhappy when she was married off against her wishes. Just as the others, even he felt that the boy from the moneyed family was not the right choice of a husband for the girl. Now having heard Jagganna, Cinnodu felt that Narasayya had been greedy after money.
“What can be done now, tata except to reconcile ourselves…At least before the three knots were tied…”
Cinnodu too heard that Subhadra had not eaten for the last three days. Nobody could force her to take food. When the marriage celebrated with great pomp had failed, every face lost its luster. All the relatives who intended to stay four or five days had left within a day or two.
“Times have changed. People have changed,” said Jagganna, once again puffing at his tobacco role. “How much difference between those days and these days! There was no money then. No greed as of now. Wonder how this money has been growing and how people have been after it spoiling their lives! Does this Narasayya lack any thing that he should give away his daughter into such a family? No respect for human feelings, good nature and righteous living! Cinnoda, everything Veera Brahmam prophesied is sure to happen. Every bit of it! A woman would rule the country, he said and here she’s ruling. The outcastes will become temple priests, he said and they have become. No respect for relationships, he said and there are no respectable relationships between man and woman. I’m an old timer. May not live longer. You’re a young fellow. You’ll live four seasons. You’ll see the way of the world with your own eyes. You’ll then mark my words. As children have we known pictures? Or these trains? Have we ever seen an airplane? Or this craze for currency? …Where does all this lead to?”
Jagganna had been resisting the heavy sleep and been speaking to none in particular. At times his voice broke into two or three different tones:
“Paper-currency blew away silver coins,
The paper remains paper,
Hungry stomach remains hungry…”
The maim fellow sang from outside in his unique way as if he understood Veera Brahmam’s philosophy. “World, Jagganna tata, this is the world,” he said with a wry smile.
The cane mill continued to rotate. Fourteen-year-old Dasu had been driving the animals. The machine made grating though rhythmic sounds. The cold outside had slowly gathered its intensity.
### ### ###
Narasayya came walking to the shed with torchlight in hand. He searched everywhere under the thatch-roof where the machine had been working. He considered Jangamayya a thief to his core. He was sure that Jangamayya would steal whatever might be available in the vicinity. As for Jagganna, though almost a part of the family has the habit of dozing away at the drop of a hat. Cinnodu though a bull at work does not apply his brains to the work he may be doing. He won’t even know if something was lost. Cottodu, though brainy, is full of guile. Narsayya had no other option but to employ them. That’s one reason why Narasayya would never leave the machine shed. It had been just half an hour that he left for home for a meal. Yet his mind remained with the work at the shed.
The thatched machine-shed faces east. A fence made of leaves and branches protects the other three sides. Once inside the shed, on one side lay new earthen containers of terracotta for storing jaggery. About fifty-to-sixty containers have already been filled. A cot is laid on another side. A huge well-like stove measuring to the height of a man in its depth is seen to the east of the shed. There is also a pan equal to the stove in its diameter. Beside the stove, there lay the huge containers meant for preserving the juice extract measuring to the chest of a man in height. Several floor mats, bedspreads, blankets, grass, lighted petromax lamps completed the furnishings of the shed.
It’ll take another fifteen days at least to cook jaggery. Till then the shed is Narasayya’s home. Narasayya sat on the cot.
Cinnodu took the stick from Dasu and started driving the cattle. Dasu was about to go home when Narasayya stopped him. ‘I forgot to take my medicinal-pellets. Send them through Rangayya, my son,’ he said.
Narasayya had lost his peace of mind ever since the daughter’s marriage. He bought two acres of wetland. So far he hadn’t had the time to get it registered. He dare not trust the field hands in preparing jaggery. He had to attend to several jobs all by himself. Added to these, now there’s no happiness in having married off the daughter into a moneyed family.
“I prefer to jump into a well or a pit to end my life but I cannot live ayya…I cannot live in those concrete houses. You turned my life into ashes, ayya…!” is what she had been crying all the time. Her sorrow nagged Narasayya’s heart like a pest.
“Has Subbulu eaten?” Jagganna asked with his eyes still closed. Narsayya dared not utter a word. He is scared of Jagganna. Jaganna had warned him to think twice before he settled the alliance. Narasayya thought otherwise. He thought the marriage would improve his status in the village. He thought the marriage would bring both the families that had been at loggerheads for the last twenty-five years together. He thought the marriage would reduce the police harassment and going around courts of law. The family disputes have been taxing his purse heavily. Besides, the investment on money lending and even the lands would be his with the marriage. Narasayya thought that all these would sure resolve with the marriage that would benefit him and bring him peace of mind as never before.
“Saying you’ll hack her will not deter her. You’ll have to make her see reason,” said Jaggayya.
What does she lack? How have I been treating her! I sent her to a house that has lots of property, money, name and fame. She cries as if I had committed a big blunder. As for the son-in-law, tell me, who is a Sri Ram? Except that all his affairs have been exposed. Don’t many others carry on with their affairs stealthily? The man is full of youthful vigor…so what if he had affairs before the marriage… thought Narasayya before he had finalized the marriage. It’s beyond him to comprehend what could have gone wrong with the marriage. He had to cross and double cross the stiff competition from other prospective families vying for the alliance. It made Narasayya angry that the daughter had been obstinately kicking off his hard won victory. He even raised his hand against her in anger. “You threaten to die…Die if you so desire! I’ll burn your body at the graveyard, immerse your ashes in the nearby stream and assume that I’m no longer indebted to you!” he had shouted at her in irritation. It’s two days that he had seen the daughter!
The sweet aroma of the cooking jaggery filled the shed. In the silent starry winter night all that one heard was the sound of the cattle as they circled around the machine besides the sound of the cane-extract as it poured into the bucket. The country stove had been burning to its limit. Cottodu was busy feeding the stove with the waste. Jagganna was dozing in a sitting posture. Cinnodu was driving the cattle simultaneously filling the containers with the extract. Some movement was discernable from the nearby cattle driven mill. Overcome by slumber Narasayya stretched himself on the cot.
### ### ###
“Had you both the legs, you would gobble the whole world!” said Jagganna surprised at Cottodu’s expertise. Cottodu smiled dryly. Jangamayya complained of some discomfort in the stomach and had left for home. Cottodu was busy working at the machine sitting beside it. Jagganna was filling the containers.
Narasayya busied himself in filling the new earthen pots with the cooled extract of the night before. The day broke. One no longer felt cold as one got busy at work. Cinnodu was still driving the cattle. Cottodu simply fooled around.
Cinnodu saw Narasayya’s younger son rushing towards them. He was speeding along the cane-field bunds.
“Wonder why Subba Rao is rushing this way?” he said seeing him.
Narasayya didn’t pay heed. Jangamayya had been drying the cane-waste in a corner. From the shed, across the cane-fields the village is just a furlong away.
Subba Rao was panting. He walked straight to his father. “Ayya, mother wants you home—come with me—Subbappa…is missing!” He said holding his breath.
Jagganna looked at Narasanna whose face turned pale.
“Jagganna,” he called and walked towards the village with the son.
Jagganna entrusted the work to Cinnodu and followed Narasanna.
“Look what Subbulu has done…it seems she’s not home!” Narasanna’s voice broke. The entire village had already crammed full in the compound waiting for him. The daughter had turned him into a laughing stock. She had now become his enemy. Which well or pond she might have jumped into? He remembered her cries of helplessness. The news would soon reach her in-laws. That such and such Narasayya’s daughter jumped to her death would be the gossip of the village. They would conclude that the death was a protest against the marriage and the father.
Narasayya’s compound thronged with people. They were all under the pandal, still green
Narasayya imagined that the body had already been placed in front of the house and the villagers were now around it. People had already begun searching for the body in the village ponds and wells.
### ### ###.
Lakshmana Murthy had been preparing tea on a coal stove. Jagannadham was with him to listen to the news on the transistor radio. “Where’s the drawing master?” he asked as he sat in the easy chair placing the transistor in his lap.
“Left for his town, sir,” replied Murthy. It’s only this year that Murthy had joined the village school as a secondary grade assistant. The drawing master joined ten days after him. Jagannadham likes to move with these young boys. He enjoys spending time especially with the drawing master for the political news he shares with him. Lakshmana Murthy is a highly disciplined man. His day starts very early. He exercises regularly and follows it up with a bath in the village pond even during winter. Once home, he performs his puja and cooks for the day. He is not interested in anything else, not even pictures. Lakshmana Murthy looked different after a fresh shave.
“Why had he left so suddenly? Without telling anyone?” asked Jagannadham.
Though a Telugu master, Jagannadham looks as stylish as a science master. Aren’t a dhoti, an upper cloth, a snuff-box, a namam similar to number 111 a must to a Telugu teacher, the younger teachers would always tease him. “For you I’ll dress that way when the EO visits the school,” he would tease them back.
Lakshmana Murthy didn’t know what to say. Gopalam of course asked him to inform Jagannadham of his leaving the village. But he didn’t know how to break the news… It scared him. Last night Gopalam had fled the village with Subhadra much to his dislike. Gopalam even asked Murthy to accompany him to the railway station. Murthy did not. He does not even know any of the routes beyond the village limits. On top of it is his timidity. In his fear he pleaded in vain with Gopalam not to elope with Subhadra. He even warned him of the risk involved to no avail. As long as the girl was with them in the room, Murthy had remained a nervous wreck. The girl’s dare-devilry surprised him. He wanted to rush to the math teacher for advice. The couple didn’t allow him any time. A torchlight in one hand and the girl’s hand in the other he had headed southward from the backyard across the fields. Lakshman Murthy shuddered in fear as he recollected the events. Sleep evaded him the whole night. He was sure the villagers might attack his house any moment.
The mud-walled hut Lakshmana Murthy lives in is to the west of the village. The hill-breeze comes directly into the hut. Though it’s past seven in the morning, the air had remained cold.
“They’ve been searching all the wells and ponds,” he said.
Lakshmana Murthy could not remain seated in the chill open air. News was on the AIR. Inside, the coal-stove had been spreading some warmth. He dropped some tea-leaves into the boiling water. He liked the aroma.
“Naxals killed the Vice-Chancellor of Jadavpur University… Smt. Indira Gandhi condemned the religious extremism in the country…An agreement seems to be in the offing concerning the royal jewelry…Improving the life of the common man is the topmost priority of the new Congress…”
“Elections! Elections! Elections! These politicians are killing us,” said Jagannadham forgetting every thing about the drawing master. He is intolerant to political propaganda. Elections irritate him. Once, a politician had forcibly transferred him for not campaigning for his party. At another village a political group had beaten him up for criticizing its leader contesting the election. There’s yet another instance when he was bullied into vacating the house he had rented because he spoke to the rival party. Finally when he had resisted the Head Master’s religious fanaticism he came on transfer to the village as a punishment. Jagannadham had become vary of political freedom or franchise.
Lakshmana Murthy handed him a cup of tea.
The cold had been bone biting. Lakshman Murthy wondered where the two might have gone in that bitter winter. Besides, there has always been the fear of bears, he thought to himself. Neither of them knew the way! Where could they be…? By morning the village was agog with the news that Subhadra jumped herself to death. He heard it while bathing at the pond. His fears compounded when he understood that the village had believed the rumour.
Tea was warm and tasty. “Subhadra didn’t die,” he said to Jagannadham who sat with him by the stove.
Jagannadham looked inquisitive.
“Drawing master…” Lakshmana Murthy paused.
The transistor belonged to the drawing master. He didn’t carry any of his belongings with him except the torchlight. His bed roll and his attaché had been lying in a corner.
“I’m nervous… won’t they blame me, sir?”
Jagannadham was lost in thought. A similar doubt occurred to him as well. Several times he personally experienced the ‘power’ of the so-called feudal lords. He didn’t know what to say.
In the fields to the west of the master’s hut there lays the harvested rice crop dotted in between with the cane crop. A small canal, with several rows of trees on its bund, passed through the fields. A little distance away, more into the west, is a mango grove crossing which one reaches the thick forest of Mahendragiri ranges. Jagannadham’s eyes stopped at the mountain range.
### ### ###
A group of five to six houses, to the south of the village is known as the dhobi-street. All the houses there face southward. The sugarcane fields of the village landlords start at the backyard of these houses. Beyond the fields is a small stream. The entire area is thick with trees, shrubs, bushes and so on.
In Nukaraju’s front yard the early sunrays looked like a pale yellow sari spread out for drying. On the cold windy morning Nukaraju had been busy lighting the coal in his iron-box.
Nukaraju had been feeling sleepy. His eyes were dropping. The whole night he had been walking and returned home before dawn. He had been with Subhadra and the drawing master as they waited for the train to arrive. He felt his body aching. The night had been weary and he longed to sleep. But he should deliver the ironed clothes to the teachers. The village clerk’s servant had already made a couple of trips to collect the clothes. He still had to iron them. The headmaster’s peon too was there for the ironed clothes. The village level worker (VLO) said he had to go to town…
Nukaraju picked up the washed clothes from the stone platform, sprinkled water, rolled them and kept the roll aside. By now the iron box had been well heated. He dipped his finger in a glass of water and threw the water drops on the box to check the heat. He first began with the munisif’s shirt.
Nukaraju thought of his wife while he ironed. He told Sarada to remain home. She didn’t. She went with the mother-in-law to the dhobhi-ghat.
Nukaraju finished ironing four shirts. He was about to start the fifth shirt when Cinnodu came. He stood at the door.
It’s Cinnodu’s habit to stop at Nukaraju whenever he went to Narasayya’s fields. He would stop to light his beedi there. Nukaraju and Cinnodu are buddies. They went to late shows together. They would go to the village fairs together. They went to the hills to collect firewood and coal together. Standing similar in their height and muscles, they can easily pass off as brothers. Since childhood it had been their habit to bathe together in the village pond.
When he saw Cinnodu, Nukaraju suspected that Narasayya must have sent him. Cinnodu thought that Nukaraju looked strange.
“Have you heard about Subbulu, Nukanna?” Cinnodu asked glancing obliquely.
Nukaraju kept mum.
“Subbulu fled somewhere. Somebody told Narasayya that you’re in the know of it. The President and the Village Head are at Narasayya’s house. They had sent me for you,” said Cinnodu briefing his mission.
“There’s no one home,” mumbled Nukaraju placing the iron-box aside and getting ready to follow Cinnodu.
On the way Nukaraju told him of last night…
Seeing Nukaraju people on the street talked among themselves.
In spite of the cold outside Nukaraju began to sweat profusely when he saw the village elders. He wasn’t sure if he should disclose the truth. What, if I don’t…? What, if I did…? What would they do to him…? His mind was full of questions.
Nagaraju suddenly turned bold. Stubbornly bold…
“What’ll they do? They’ll scold. If angrier, they’ll beat. What have I done? After all I didn’t elope with Narasayya’s daughter! I saw the drawing master and Subhadra. He’s a gentleman,” thought Nukaraju to himself. “Help us, Nukaraju,” the girl pleaded her eyes brimming with tears. Nothing came to his mind then. He simply accompanied them up to the railway station to show them the way in that darkness. Nukaraju thought he was on the top of the world when after boarding the train safely, they both held him by hand and said they would never forget his help
Now they would beat me up, let them, he thought. This alone needn’t be the reason to beat him up. They wield the power to beat him for any reason they deemed fit. Even kill him! Hadn’t the Naidu slapped him with his footwear, once? Didn’t the munisif trick him into a liquor case and had simply watched as the police beat him up? Hadn’t he offered his body submissively on either occasion? It’ll not be different now, thought Nukaraju.
There’s a cattle shed at a corner opposite to Nukaraju’s house. The shed was vacant as the cattle had been out for grazing. The bulls were any way at the cane-mill. The play-weary calves were fast asleep.
Nukaraju saw some village elders on the high rise platform. A couple of boys were playing in the shed. There weren’t any one else. The village folk had slipped away when they saw the village elders. Two field hands lost no time in leading Nukaraju into the shed and tie him up to a post. Cinnodu saw Nukaraju being led away. He couldn’t stand there any longer. Narasayya called him but Cinnodu didn’t care to stop. All he heard was a screaming Nukaraju. He wanted to bury all of the village elders alive.
Peda Naidu was still shouting… “How many of the young girls will you sell in the town? How many of them will you see off at the station? Where have you hidden the girl…?” Naidu seemed to be tired of shouting. He had been beating Nukaraju wherever possible. He poked him at his sides with a stick. When Nukaraju tried to shout, he gagged him with a stick. The daughter-in-law’s elopement was a great insult to Naidu. He felt beheaded by the act of hers. Except to peel the skin off Nukaraju, there was no other way to conceal her shameful act. By now Nukaraju had been whining and whimpering. His head hung loose.
### ### ###
The little stream stopped there as if to look at Sarada. The white cloud and the blue sky hid themselves under the stream to enjoy her beauty. The trees, creepers, flowers, grass everything on the banks had been busy singing to her.
It’s not even a fortnight that Sarada had come to the in-law’s for the first time after marriage. She has been slowly getting adapted to the village breeze its sun, its fields, its trees, its streams… She’s slowly getting tuned to Nukaraju’s mischievous eyes and talk, his body odours. Now she is like the earth stirring up to the first rays of the light. It’s only now she’s getting to replace ‘her’ people with the new relations. She has just begun to understand what it’s to be in love with life. She has just begun to trust strangers.
If my daughter had left for the in-laws, there wouldn’t be anyone for my support, thought Nukaraju’s mother. She decided to bring Sarada home for good. There were two other washer men busy at the ghat. The surrounding thick green hills made the ghat appear as no man’s land.
Sarada had heard about Nukaraju while she took the washed clothes from the mother-in-law for drying them on the bund.
The mother had abruptly left the work and ran crying “my son, oh, my son!” She was impervious to the young daughter-in-law or that she might scare her. Sarada too ran after her. “O, god, don’t kill my son! O, god, save my son!” She had been wailing all the way rushing to Narasayya’s house. By then the whole village including children had gathered at the house.
The mother saw Nukaraju tied to a post. She didn’t go to him. In stead she fell at Narasayya’s feet. “Babu, you’re our god…only you can save my son!” She innocently pleaded least suspecting that Narasayya had been behind all this.
“What Nukaraju…he’s no more!” Somebody murmured. The words didn’t reach her.
Jagannadham standing there began to brood: Is this violence or non-violence? Another teacher who was also in the crowd was surprised that none had protested. What’ll these village elders do next, Lakshmana Murthy was asking. “That he jumped himself to death will be the verdict. Later they’ll give the body for cremation,” answered the drill-master. If it proved that the girl jumped to death, whom would these elders have killed? The father married off the daughter to a diseased man for his selfish ends. Were she to die contracting one of those diseases, whom would these gentlemen kill in revenge? Just because the girl is happy that they caught hold of this innocent bastard, broke his bones, gagged him with a stick and finally killed him. Let it ripen! Let it ripen! Let all their sins ripen! Only the fully ripened fruit falls to the ground…brooded one among the crowd.
Even now the mother didn’t understand what had happened. Sarada too reached the spot. The crowd appeared like melting shadows to her. Her vision got blurred. She struggled in vain to search for her husband. She tried to wipe the tears she could not control in order to see things clearly. The world looked dark. At last she found him at the post. She failed to recognize him. Frightened on seeing the stream of blood she had fled the place, screaming wild towards east. She didn’t even turn her head back at least once. She ran as if a band of flesh-eaters chased her. Across the fields, banks and in spite of the thorns. In spite of slipping several times. She ran to her mother. Her father. Her brothers. Her companions. Her shelter. Her relatives. Her people who had been her strength. She decided she would lead the entire village equipped with brandishing swords, spears, bows and arrows. All to save the husband in the next village. Even if it involved the killing of the entire village.
The munisif’s younger brother is a first-class magistrate. The village leaders sent a messenger to him. The father-in-law’s nephew is a circle inspector. Another messenger had been sent to him. Narasayya’s wife’s brother himself is an advocate. Yet another man had been sent there. The sarpanch himself accompanied the local MLA.
The villagers who had witnessed the death could not eat that night.
Nukaraju, Sarada, and the mother haunted them.
Translated by B. Indira and published on thulika.net, March, 2011.