A Piece of Ribbon by Beenadevi.

 The evening was stretching sluggishly. The sun was tired and left in a hurry but the moon took his sweet time to show up. The breeze was singing softly. The tiny grass blades were waving their heads like esteemed artists.

That was a huge mansion. The lawn surrounding the mansion was filled with several beautiful flower plants. The doctor was sitting on the lawn and watching, entranced, the flowers around him and the gliding clouds in the sky. There were chairs on the lawn but the doctor always enjoyed stretching on the lawn and enjoy the setting. He looked like he was pondering over something but hard to say what it was about. It could be the friends who had not showed up yet. It was past their usual time and getting dark. Or, it could be about the baby he struggled to bring into this world a while ago. Probably none of the above; he was just immersed in appreciating the beauty of the flowers dancing on the tips of the plants at a distance.

Viswam, one of his friends, entered the scene disturbing his reverie, “What’s the matter? Doctor garu is sitting alone, lost in thought?” and added, “I thought I’d be late but I see I’m the first to show up, after all. Anyway, what’s the matter? You lay down here like Sita under the Asoka tree?”[1] Viswam sat down next to the doctor. He believes that he talks humorously. He always boasts of the award he has received for his performance as a comic character in a school play. He speak always things he thinks funny, that’s built into his nature.

Doctor chuckled softly. Viswam said, “What’s it, you are smiling about, doctor garu? Did I disrupt your solitude? If so, I’d go away and leave you alone.” He got up to leave but the doctor stopped him, “No, please, sit down.”

“It’s getting dark so soon now. Where is everybody? This stupid winter, gets dark so soon. By the time we leave office and get home, it’s already time to light up the lamps,” Viswam said again.

The doctor responded only with a chuckle again.

“How come you are so interested in the flower plants? Trust me, even the local parks don’t have this many varieties of plants,” Viswam complimented, watching the plants around.

Siraj, an engineer, came and joined them, apologizing for his delay, “Sorry I’m late. Held up by some stupid contract work.” He crashed next to Viswam. Siraj is well over six feet tall and appears like he is far superior to others, both physically and ethically.

Doctor said, “Oh no. You too are settling down on the ground? We don’t mind, you can sit on the chair. I like to sit on the grass and I’m used to this and like it too.”

“That’s all right. After all, haven’t we been sitting in chairs all day? Let’s relax on the green grass for a while,” Siraj replied, leaning on one of the chairs.

“It seems doctor garu didn’t have much work today. Stretching on the lawn idly,” Viswam commented. Doctor was lying on his stomach and counting the blades of grass. Before he could respond, his wife, Visala, entered like a whirlwind and started talking tensely, “Why wouldn’t he sit there idly? After dumping all his work on me, why not ? No consideration at all! Why can’t he see that the workload is breaking my back? Why can’t he think of helping me out?” She sat down in the chair next to the doctor. She’s used to giving it straight whether it’s right or wrong. The husband and the wife, doctor and Visala, have a very genial marital relationship, despite their contradictory natures.

“You are looking tired,” Siraj said to Visala with concern.

“Tired? I’m nearly dead. Especially these delivery cases, no sense of timing at all. I wish they had a set season or schedule for childbirths,” Visala replied, annoyed.

“Like Gireesam[2] said, maybe you would have less work if we had more child widows,” Viswam said, showing off as usual the sense of humor he never had in the first place.

“Even then, where is the guarantee?” replied Visala.

Doctor and Viswam burst into a big laugh. Before Viswam could understand why doctor laughed, Visala spoke again taunting her husband who was lying at her feet and pleating her saree frills. She said to him, “What’s this, babu! As is, everybody is getting on my case, saying I am chewing you up, treating you like a slave. Please, move away from my feet.”

Doctor ignored her comments and was busy enjoying the jari butterflies cleverly woven into the border of her white handloom saree. “Visala, this saree is really very beautiful. The man who wove this saree must be a poet,” he said with admiration.

“Ha! Don’t I know your crooked mind! How could you see the workmanship of this saree border in this darkness? Don’t you try to flatter me. I know you do whatever you please,” Visala retorted teasingly. Siraj was listening to their chitchat, sitting down with his legs stretched and pulling the blades of grass. Viswam tried to offer his moral support to the doctor, “Isn’t it true that you used to paint in the old days?” Visala cut in, “That’s what I am fretting about, too. You see what it has come down to—he was painting before but stopped after our marriage? Wouldn’t it look like I bungled with his painting career?” Before she could finish, the bald-headed judge garu came rolling in like a ball, and asked, “I heard you say something about painting. What about painting?”

Judge garu and lecturer, Sankar Rao, who came with him, settled down on the ground.

Visala said, “Oh, no. You all are sitting on the ground and here I am sitting in the high chair. I think I should move to the ground too,” but the judge garu did not let her. “Never mind us, amma, please don’t get up. We all were sitting on chairs until our backs nearly broke You, on the other hand, don’t have a chance to sit at all. You do all your work standing on your feet. Besides, we are no strangers,” he persuaded her to sit on the chair.

“It’s so dark, how did you manage to work in that courtroom?” Siraj asked the judge.

“Tell me about it! The whole world is brimming with injustice. The work in the courts equals the volume of injustice in the world. As the sin is mounting so also the work in the courts,” judge said. The judge spent most of his time in the courts yet he could not stand the unfairness. He sees something horrible and new each day.

“Are you saying all you have in your courts are only sin and injustice?” Viswam asked satirically.

“Injustice does not come alone. Fairness and Justice always follow the injustice on its heels. Anytime one person walks in with injustice on his hands the other side brings in justice,” Judge retorted.

Doctor let go of Visala’s saree pleats and started watching her feet from various angles. He asked the judge, “So, judge garu, who do you think is worst hit by injustice?”

“Me,” Visala said abruptly. “Wouldn’t you say marrying a person like doctor garu is an injustice squashed on me?” she asked.

“No, come on, seriously. I think the worst injustice has been done to Rama[1], if you ask me,” Siraj said.

Judge broke into a big laugh, “If you start adoring Rama and Vibhishana,[3] all your people will excommunicate you.” The reference was to Siraj’s religious upbringing which is muslim.

“What else can he do? Here we are highly educated and yet forgetting that it is unfair to attach race and religion to gods,” Visala commented.

“You still haven’t answered my question,” doctor said.

Judge replied, “What do you want me to say? There is injustice everywhere and every action is unjust. Let’s take the case I handled today, for instance. The complainant, about 25-years old and poor; her looks were not bad either. She was educated too, maybe minimally. She was married quite young. After the marriage, her husband never invited her to his house, for whatever reason. She waited and waited until she was tired of waiting. How long could she wait around? Now, after ten years, she filed for a divorce,  demanding alimony.”

“What’s wrong with that idiot of a husband to leave the poor woman like that?” Siraj expressed his concern for the woman, stretching next to the doctor.

“Maybe she has a questionable past,” Viswam commented, showing off that he has made a clever observation.

“That woman must be from ancient times. If I were she, I would have seen the end of him right away,” Visala said angrily.

“That’s not true. Her husband says her uncle did injustice to him.[4] That’s the mentality of some people, I guess. We don’t always need big reasons to call it unjust or unethical. Sometimes what we consider a tiny incident could cause tremendous pain to someone else. We don’t have to hit somebody or even use swear words. Our rude behavior could make a sensitive person suffer,” judge said.

The doctor cut in, “You’re right, every word of it. That reminds me of an episode that happened long time ago.”

“Well, let’s hear it,” Viswam asked.

Visala remarked, “Doctor garu has always stories to tell. I am not even sure why he went into medicine; maybe to hassle me. I think he should be sitting in some corner writing poetry or painting pictures. He can’t even stand it when a patient suffers or his family weeps. He would cry along with them. Luckily, he became a government doctor and gets his paycheck regularly no matter what. Had he gone into private practice, we would be having grass for supper.[5]

“Doctor has a kind heart. He must have done plenty of good deeds in his past life to be born so kind,” the judge said.

“Tell us the story,” Siraj asked anxiously.

“All of you may not like this story,” doctor sounded apologetic.

“Is that meant for me?” Viswam muttered.

“He didn’t say that,” Siraj said crossly.

The doctor began telling his story, “This happened long time ago. I remember the details only vaguely but there is a part in my mind that is indelible.” The doctor stopped for a second and then continued, “I was in my fourth year at the medical college. I always liked solitude and so did not want to live in the dormitory like other students. I rented a room in town. After a while I had to vacate the room, I don’t remember why. Then I started hunting day and night for another room.”

“Probably, that’s the reason you failed one course,” Visala interrupted him.

“No, Visala. That’s not true. My health was not good at the time and so I could not put in enough time into my studies. That was the reason I failed. Do I have to remind you the housing conditions in Visakhapatnam?[6] For want of space, people lived even in garages. I managed to find a room somehow on the second floor of a house. The landlord, a bank representative in some local bank, occupied the ground floor. I hardly felt his presence. God knows when he was in and when out. I saw his wife a lot and his daughter occasionally. The daughter was their first child, and they also had three sons. I never really paid attention to those kids. Very often they’d go out and got beat up; or, stayed home and enjoyed the same pleasure from their mother. The nicknames the mother gave her three sons were: the first idiot, the second donkey, and the little idiot. She did not learn to love her children until after her latter years, I believe. I must say she must have been beautiful in her day, she was fair-complexioned.

“Had she worked on her demeanor and etiquette, probably she would have looked graceful but did not seem like she was bothered about such things ever. She would fix her hair once in the evening and would go around like that until the next day, as if that was not her hair. She looked worried about something or other constantly, always had a dirty dish or a broom in her hand, always on pins and needles, either yelling at the maid or the bank peon. If you hear her voice, all you could think of was the huge drums or the cymbals you would hear normally during sankranti festival. I am not saying she was a bad woman, not any worse than any other woman I’d known. Girl, did you wash the young idiot’s face? Viranna, wake up the first idiot; getting late for school. You, little idiot, don’t touch the milk pan. It’s burning hot; Viranna, go to the market now; otherwise,  you’ll find only rotten vegetables … That was the music I heard everyday for my wake up song as well as for my lullaby at night. I never tried to get involved in their family matters. My only connection to their family was the maid, Rajamma. She used to clean my room.

“It went on for a while; two seasons had changed without any memorable event I could recall or think of. Then ill-health overtook me. Although it was not the kind I should be worried about, it did force me to stay in bed for two weeks. There was no diet problem but a different issue came to the fore. I needed a person to bring coffee and meals from the hotel, and fruits and cigarettes from the store. Rajamma finished the chores in the landlord’s house and my room in about one hour in the morning and one hour in the evening. At her own home she had to cook for her husband, a rickshaw-puller. Thus she was in no position to attend to my needs. So, I asked her to find someone else to help me out with my newly developed necessities. She said, “No problem, babu, I will send my little girl.” The next day the little girl, Lakshmi, came. She was dark-skinned but had a bright face befitting her name. An inexplicable beauty in her face and innocence in her eyes added to her charm. She must not be older than ten at the most, I thought.

“Lakshmi was confused a little on the first day, not knowing what chore first and what next. But she had picked up quickly on the second day and there was no need for me to tell her anything after that. She never showed any signs of weariness or frustration for anything. She would finish any and every chore given to her; she was always up and running zealously. Sometimes I would give her a fruit or something to eat; she would take it but leave it behind when I was not looking. I told her to take the leftover food after I was done eating. She took it home instead of eating it herself. For a while, I thought she was shy to eat in front of me and then it occurred to me that she might be taking it home for others in her family. Then I felt guilty which I would not have if she were not that young. I couldn’t help thinking other children of that age in our families. Our children can’t even feed themselves. What was the sin she has committed to deserve that? She was waiting hand and foot on me for the little cash I paid, why? This sort of thoughts pulled me down, although I was feeling better physically.

“In course of time Laxmi became a source of worry for me, a serious problem. Her good nature pierced me through like a shaft. I prayed to thousand gods, wanted her to make some mistake, display some mean trait that is common for all humans. I would’ve felt elated if she had accepted the food I gave her or took it from my container and ate it. I was hurt and it soon turned into a strange and vicious desire to drag her down into a sinful act. Probably the sickly atmosphere in my room was to be blamed. One day, I left some change out in the open where she could see and went onto the terrace hoping she would steal it. She did not touch even one paisa. Assuming that she did not see it, I did the same the following day, put some change on the window sill. She simply moved it to another place on the sill while cleaning the windows. On another day I gave her money and told her to go to a movie. She said she would take it when a good movie came to town.

“I accepted my defeat gladly. I was pleased that the sin of causing her to commit a sin did not touch me. After that, I could not treat her like a stranger anymore. I accepted her as a friend close to my heart and recognized the divinity in her character.

“Days went by like ripples in water. Laxmi was employed by me but the landlady was making full use of her services. In return all that Lakshmi would get was only yelling and cursing from her. I recovered completely but continued to get meals from the hotel, maybe because I was still feeling a little weak or maybe because I wanted to continue paying her whatever little I could. Then came the sankranti festival. I decided to go to my village for the holidays.

“Before I left, the landlady’s daughter showed up along with Laxmi. The landlady’s daughter was all dressed up like a fully-blossomed marigold. She came to show me her new outfit she got for the festival—a bright green skirt and a red blouse. I looked at her and the first thing I noticed was a piece of light blue ribbon in her hair, nicely folded like a butterfly, and visible from both sides. The ribbon also has small bugs with wings on it. I told her that her outfit was beautiful. She left feeling elated.

“After she left I looked at Laxmi, standing there in her tattered frock and shabby hair and I could not forgive myself. That poor child possessed qualities most of us are sadly lacking. She brought my carrier meals from the hotel as usual. I told her I was leaving town and she could take the food. We two went onto the terrace. It was seven in the evening. The night was driving away the evening. The people on the street were roaring like an ocean. While I was locking the doors, Laxmi stood leaning on the wall. I noticed an unusual anxiety and despair in her eyes. I never felt this bad, not even when I left my hometown, leaving my kid sister behind. For a second my heart missed its regular beat. I was even annoyed with myself for leaving my cozy, comfy attitude and getting into this mess. And then my pity for her doubled by way of  reparation for my annoyance. I could not hold back anymore. I stroked her cheeks gently, although the cheeks were smeared with dirt.

“What do you want, Laxmi?” I asked her.

“She looked me with her sad eyes and asked for one half rupee. It felt like I’ve got the heaven in my palm, like the moonlight spreading blindly on the terrace acquired a fine aroma, and that I was blessed. I quickly pulled out one half rupee from my pocket and gave it to her. She clutched it tight in her fist. I walked towards the stairs silently. I was overtaken by the fear that she might spend that money on her younger brothers but my curiosity got the better of me. “What are you going to do with that money?” I asked her as gently as I could. She replied meekly that she would buy a piece of ribbon, like the one the landlady’s daughter had. I felt relieved. I was proud of myself that I could help her to fulfill her only wish. I told her I would be back on the following Monday and that she should bring carrier meals for me that evening. She shook her head, looking very grateful. I thought about her in the train. She did not ask for silk outfit or gold jewelry. All she wanted was a piece of ribbon. I can never forget the ribbon pieces and half-rupee coins I saw in my dream that night.

Sankranti festival came in colorful galore. My entire family was very excited. But I was down as if I lost something valuable. Each time I saw a young girl in new clothes, Laxmi kept coming to my mind. On Monday morning I was getting ready to leave. My mother insisted that I stay one more day since my visits were not that frequent. I left in the evening and for the first time in my life I felt good about leaving home. There were also other things that bothered me as well. Vadina who treated me like her own brother came to the railway station; and, my brother reminded me affectionately that I should come for the christening ceremony of their soon-to-be born child. They were going to have their first baby after ten years of marital bliss. I was touched.

“The train arrived two hours late. By the time I reached my room it was past 8:30. I was climbing the stairs wondering whether my brother and sister-in-law would have a boy or girl. I saw Laxmi sitting next to the parapet wall, curled up; my heart stopped beating for a second. The street lights were shimmering on the stainless steel container next to her. It was biting cold. She was trying to pull together her worn out frock desperately protecting herself from the cold. It never occurred to me that she could sit there waiting for me. I opened the door and asked her why couldn’t she wait downstairs on the porch. She did not reply. I told her that she could wash the dishes the next day and sent her home.

“After that, I got very busy with several functions at our college and so I did not think much about my room. I was totally immersed in the college plays, directing duties, and sports events. I couldn’t help noticing a change in Laxmi’s behavior though. Her eyes were filled with despair and sadness in place of the usual glimmer; the smile on her lips vanished; and she was dragging her feet heavily. It took me four days to realize completely the extent of the change in her. I asked her why she was down and she said there was nothing to talk about.

“Three more days went by. Then I remembered the ribbon Laxmi wanted so badly. “Did you buy the ribbon for yourself” I asked her hoping for the best. She shook her head meaning yes. “Why aren’t you wearing it” I asked her. In response, two drops of tears rolled down her cheeks. “What happened Laxmi?” I asked her coaxingly.

“Laxmi said that her mother was not well on the sankranti day and so she went to the landlady’s house to do the chores. After finishing the chores, she sat down on the front porch and wore her new ribbon in her hair. The landlady saw that, claimed it was her daughter’s and snatched it away from Laxmi’s hands; she called the girl a thief, and even commented that that was the mentality of all low class people. Laxmi tried to tell her that she bought it herself, and the landlady’s daughter was wearing hers which could be verified after the daughter returned home. But the landlady would not hear a word of it.

“I wanted to tell Laxmi, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll get you another piece of ribbon,’ but my college friends showed up out of nowhere like a herd of goats before I could say it. I’ve promised them earlier that I would stay with them in the dorms for the next three days to help out with the college functions. So, I told Laxmi I would not be needing carrier meals for that night and the next three nights, packed some of my clothes and left.

“Look at that! Wouldn’t you say that it was gross injustice? In what way, Laxmi was inferior to the children in our families? Our children cry for chocolate and biscuits and she wanted a piece of ribbon, worth a paltry half rupee. God gave her even the opportunity to fulfill her desire through me. Her wish was granted but she was denied the pleasure of enjoying it. The landlady appeared as Kali and snatched it away like a piece of sacrificial offering. Probably the landlady did not think of it on those lines. Probably, it is only a small, a very ordinary, incident for you all. For a person who earns one thousand rupees a month, one half of a rupee is worth a broken shell. But for Laxmi? Can you say in good conscience that an irreparable damage has not been done to her? I can’t imagine how much mental agony this apparently small incident could have caused her. But can anyone of you say that her trust in humanity has not been killed forever? Wasn’t the action of the landlady unfair? Can we forgive her? Didn’t she have a responsibility to verify Laxmi’s claim before snatching away her ribbon? Even if she had acted rather rashly, shouldn’t she have returned the ribbon to Laxmi after realizing her mistake? Wasn’t her action the same as robbery? Isn’t that unjust and unfair or not? What would you all say?” the doctor stopped, feeling heavy at heart.

Nobody could respond right away. The darkness spread thick. Suddenly a strong wind blew and the telegraph lines at a distance made harsh sounds. An owl on the tamarind tree nearby screeched and flew away batting her wings.

“That’s a strange story,” Viswam expressed his opinion.

“Looks like there is a second part to this story,” Siraj said.

“You have it if you want it, or else, no. Personally I wish this story had ended there,” the doctor said and continued his narration, “On the surface, I was acting very excited, singing and dancing for the next three days but the thoughts about Laxmi kept bothering me. I was anxious to fix the wrong that has been done to her. I would’ve bought another piece of ribbon and ran to Laxmi but I was afraid that my roommates would laugh at me. The dorm felt like a jail cell and my roommates jailors. Finally the day came when I was freed from that jail. I left the dorms, bought a ribbon on my way and came to my room. That day Rajamma came instead of Laxmi. She said Laxmi has been ill for the past three days and assured me that she would bring my meals from the hotel herself. I told her I could eat at the dorms until Laxmi recovered. After she cleaned my room, I gave her the ribbon and told her to give it to Laxmi. She looked out the door for a second, turned to me again and asked me harshly, “Did she ask you to get it for her?” I was taken by surprise, a totally unexpected turn of events. I was scared that she might hurt Laxmi and that made me lie to her. I told her that Laxmi was totally unaware and that I wanted to give something to her.

“Two more days went by. I kept asking Rajamma everyday and getting the same reply—the fever did not go down. I asked her about medication. Rajamma said that the fever was caused by some sort of scare and so she had the soda shop owner recite a mantra.[7] I could treat her but at the time my knowledge of medicine was minimal. I was convinced that if Laxmi had fallen sick out of fear, the entire sin must be accredited to the landlady. What else could I think when she attacked a little, innocent child and called her a thief for no reason.

“But it never occurred to me that Laxmi’s situation could take a turn for the worse. Not until the third day. Rajamma knocked on my door at two in the morning and woke me up. She seized my two hands and started crying. “I’m lost, my world is crumbling down, Laxmi’s condition is getting worse. Please help me, save her,” she said between sobs. I could not move for a few seconds. I did not expect things to go wrong this bad in such a short time. I knew very little about treating patients, plus I had no tools even if I wanted to. I told Rajamma to wait, ran to the next street and got hold of a house-surgeon [resident]. He was a nice person. He immediately followed me with whatever medications he had.

“We two followed Rajamma to her house. After I became a doctor, on innumerable occasions, I ran to save patients who were dangling between life and death but the pain I suffered on the way on that particular day was beyond words. All the roads stretched out dark and endless like adiseshu.[8] Each furlong felt like a mile and my watch seemed to be moving too fast. I cursed my feet for not being able to walk faster. For the first time, I’ve realized that this city had too many narrow paths and they all were very dirty. The streets were empty and quiet like graveyards but for a couple of donkeys standing like statues and representing the patience of the animal world. But this was not the time to describe the surroundings. Laxmi’s house was just one room located next to a sewer. I could not tell where the sewer ended and her house started.

“Two children lay in the mud on the floor like pigs. Laxmi lay on a saggy, jute-rope cot in a corner. She was covered with a tattered blanket. Although she was covered, I could see her two eyes, peeking through the blanket, emaciated and staring at the ceiling with frightened looks. Her face turned crimson and the fever-stricken eyes took over her entire face. They looked like a torch that would start the fire soon and turn her into ashes. She could not keep her eyes on any one spot steadily. The two red eyes were like a swing rocking back and forth between life and death. The dim lamp in the corner was casting ominous shadows. It felt like death was hiding in that dark corner.

“Within a few minutes of our arrival there, Laxmi’s temperature went up further and she started shivering. Although my medical knowledge was limited, I could understand her symptoms. Her two hands and feet were jiggling as if the god of death was dragging her but she was refusing to give in. I hid my face in my two hands and closed my eyes tight. It was like the death grabbed my shoulder and was challenging me that there was nothing I could do, death was waiting for me there. For once, I got so close to death and experienced what our philosophers and intellectuals preach. I came out of myself in that moment and looked at myself the way others and God would look at me.

“Despite all my flagrant display of sympathy for Laxmi, what have I done for her, really? In what way I was better than my landlady? The only difference was she called her names and I did not. Is that a virtue? Didn’t I have a higher responsibility towards the girl’s health and welfare? If I had, did I do my duty? I paid her a few rupees and had her wait on me hand and foot while she was still a child! Was I not accountable for her poverty and despair? How many Laxmis are starving and sacrificing their lives so that I and people like me could enjoy a comfortable life? This is not a matter about Laxmi alone. This is a problem without solution and relating to millions of innocent Laxmis in this destitute world, and to numerous inept people like me who are convinced that they are in fact kind and generous, and women like our landlady who could not recognize the innocence of young hearts. Who knows how many Laxmis need to be ruined before this problem is resolved.

“While I was pondering over the subject, the resident doctor continued to examine Laxmi’s condition. Laxmi’s mother was weeping quietly. An old woman from next door, with one leg in the graveyard, was consoling her. The resident doctor finished examining Laxmi, gave her a shot and told me that we should wait for a half hour and see. At the end of half hour there was no change in her condition. Then he suggested that we must take her to the hospital, there was nothing more we could do here. Laxmi’s father went out to get a rickshaw. I could not control my distress. The next door neighbor brought his rickshaw also.

“After the rickshaws arrived, Rajamma removed the blanket and picked up Laxmi, overcome with pain and sadness. Laxmi’s hands were hanging flaccidly over Rajamma’s shoulder. As I saw the hands my head started spinning and the earth shook under my feet. The ribbon I gave her was hanging down from her hand like the noose of Yama.[9] Poor Laxmi, the only wish of hers—she  got a chance to have it fulfilled, lost it and got it again but never had the satisfaction of wearing it. That piece of ribbon was like a crumpled wick. But she held the ribbon tight as if she was afraid that the landlady would come and take it away from her again.

The two rickshaws started out for the clinic. Laxmi’s father was pedaling the rickshaw and the mother sat inside holding the child. It looked like the God planned it that way—that the two persons who brought her into this world were also instrumental in returning her to Him. The resident doctor and I followed them in the other rickshaw. Normally I don’t believe in omens but my heart flinched when I heard a tituvu bird[10] chirped as we set out to leave.

“The entire world was in deep sleep. A few persons with injured noses and crushed faces were making fire with their fingerless hands[11] to protect themselves from cold. We could bring Laxmi to the hospital soon enough. The physicians and nurses in the emergency room did all they could to help Laxmi through out the night. It was time for the sun to rise. The physician said he could not say anything for certain for another twelve hours at the least. There was nothing I could do. It was not in the hands of the humans anymore, only God could save Laxmi. I returned home at about 8:30 in the morning. Rajamma’s husband was overwhelmed with gratitude and offered to take me home in his rickshaw. I declined politely and rented another rickshaw.

***

Up until now the doctor was smoking. Unwittingly he swallowed a puff of smoke and choked.

“Oh, Lord Rama! Probably that girl had died! Please, tell us the rest of the story,” said Siraj.

Pch! I wish there was no second part to this story,” the judge passed his judgment.

“I don’t know. I wish there was no story at all, a story of this sort, if you ask me,” Visala said. Although her words sounded satirical, the doctor understood her sensitive thought underneath her comment and stroked on her knee gently but nobody noticed it in that darkness. Actually the reason for their harmonious relationship, despite their apparently conflicting mentalities, was the sensitivity in Visala’s humor and the doctor’s good nature which is appreciative of her humor.

“There’s nothing more to tell,” the doctor continued, “My only thought on my way back to my room was to avenge the injustice done to Laxmi. I had several thoughts like skipping payments of rent for six-months or setting fire to the landlady’s house but couldn’t come up with any plausible plan. As I opened the gate and entered the premises, I saw that the landlady was talking to somebody in a voice filled with kindness I never heard before. She was saying, “Come on, you silly, come. I warmed the milk for you and kept it in the kitchen. Go, have the milk. I was waiting for you.” I wondered who she was addressing, turned around and saw a stray dog. The dog was at the gate, saw the landlady, and walked away with her tail between her legs.

“With that incident, my abhorrence for my landlady rose to a new height. I always hated, even from my childhood days, the women who would talk to dogs and crows. I went into my room and got busy with rearranging my stuff. The landlady’s daughter came in with a magazine she’s borrowed earlier. She was wearing two ribbons in her hair like two butterflies. I could see right away that one of them was Laxmi’s. At once a thought occurred to me like lightning—an opportunity to settle the score. I must seize the ribbon that belonged to Laxmi. Although I believed Laxmi’s story completely, I also wanted to verify the truth on my own. “The ribbons are nice. Did you buy them yourself?” I asked her. “My mother bought one and I bought the other myself,” she said.

“When did your mother buy?” I asked her again. “On sankranti festival day,” she replied.

“I was in a dilemma whether I should grab the ribbon or not. My landlady settled it for me. I heard her shouting, “Viranna! That bitch Rajamma is ‘no show’ today too. She goes on saying that her child was sick and ducks the work here. Stupid child wouldn’t die and the mother wouldn’t come to work. Come on, you clean the dishes.” I was enraged by her language regarding a child who was fighting for her life. I decided to take the ribbon.

“Come here, let me see the ribbons. They are really nice. I want to hold them in my hands,” I said smoothly. She gave them to me without hesitation. “Which one was bought by your mother?” I asked her. She laughed at my stupidity and shrugged, “I don’t know.” Probably she thought I was crazy and ran away.

“I stood there for a couple of minutes wondering whether I should be happy or sorry for what I did. I never gave in to my frustration to that extent, never before and never again. I lost totally my sense of right and wrong. I couldn’t tell what I was doing and what will I do next. In the meantime, the landlady walked in dragging her daughter, like a sacrificial lamb to the temple. I saw her coming and went to the terrace. She said with a smile, “How can you play games with a child? Never mind. Return the ribbons to her.”

“I wasn’t playing games. I took them for real,” I said. “Why did you do that?” she asked.

“You tell me politely which one is Laxmi’s and I will return the second one,” I said. “Are you stealing my child’s ribbons?” she shouted. “How could you steal Laxmi’s ribbon?” I said. “Are you calling me a thief?” she said with her eyes popped out.. “Not just a thief. You’re a highway robber,” I said.

“The landlady’s voice was heard in the entire neighborhood and all the neighbors gathered on our terrace. She saw them and became even more belligerent. We both exchanged strong language. “I shouldn’t have rented the place to a mean thief like you,” she said, with her face turning red. “I shouldn’t have rented a room in the house of a mean thief like you,” I said. “Watch out. I will make you pay for this,” she said. “We’ll worry about it later. If anything happens to Laxmi, I will crush your head for sure,” I replied.

“My landlady got scared by my words. She called out for her husband for support. Up until now I didn’t believe that he could get angry ever. He came upstairs, stood on the last step and said, without raising his voice, nonetheless harshly, “You fool! Swearing at women?” I jumped like a cobra, “And you’re a man? you worthless idiot.” The neighbors held back until then but could not control themselves anymore, I believe. They burst into a big laugh as if a bunch of porcelain cups and saucers flew into the air and fell on the floor. “You don’t know anything. You shut up,” he ordered his wife for the first time in his life. She took his orders for the last time in her life.

“Both of them went downstairs along with their daughter. Our neighbors extended the same kind of support the audience would extend to a stunt hero in Telugu movies and left the scene somewhat unwillingly. I went into my room regretting my unwarranted action. Then came the landlord’s servant. Even amidst all that commotion, I could not help wondering if the landlord thought I was crazy and I chuckled. The servant had a hard time conveying the message from the landlord but the gist of it was I should vacate the premises in three days.

“Why would I stay three more days in this wretched room? Get me two rickshaws now,” I said. He ran out of the room like a race horse. As soon as the rickshaws came, I put all my luggage into the rickshaws, threw the rent I owed them to-date at the servant and moved to a friend’s apartment. From the moment I started walking down the stairs until I got into the rickshaw, I kept waving the two ribbons as a sign of my victory and causing the landlady’s eyes turn red. Leaving that house was like having a refreshing shower. Laxmi also recovered by the grace of god in about a week and went back to her house.” The doctor stopped the story.

“Forget the story. You’ve created a lambadi[12] scene here,” Siraj commented.

“The comic ending is interesting,” the judge said, joining the rest of the crowd in their laughter.

“I knew even from the start that this is how it’s going to end,” said omniscient Viswam.

The doctor was annoyed and said, “Then tell me what happened next.”

“What’d you mean? Is there a fourth part for this story? It’s like the Republic Productions’ 24-part full-length serial movie,” Viswam ducked the challenge.

“Okay, you tell us what happened next,” the judge asked the doctor.

“This part has nothing to do with Laxmi,” the doctor said as he proceeded with the story, “After about 15 or 20 days after I moved to my friend’s room, I was getting ready to leave for school. A young police officer showed up at the door and saluted me. I wondered whatever I could have done to warrant his appearance. He handed me the summons and asked me to sign on a piece of paper acknowledging receipt. He explained that the delay in delivering the papers was due to tracing my whereabouts and the case was scheduled for that very day. He also told me that the magistrate was very strict in enforcing the law and that I should be present at the court at 11:00 a.m. sharp. I asked him what the case about was about. He said that the bank representative and his wife filed a case against me claiming I used abusing language and stole their daughter’s ribbons.

“I was really upset. She called me names and so did I. She took Laxmi’s ribbons unjustly and I took their ribbons openly. The account has been settled right then and there. I was disgusted with their attitude and appeared in court. It was nearly 11:00 by the time I reached there. The court looked like a house after a dead body was removed. The magistrate just learned that he did not get the promotion as expected. His staff and the lawyers were disheartened for him. I stood outside on the verandah, worried that my case should come up at that ill-fated hour. Some police constables stood under the tree smoking cigarettes. Some felons were also there. A couple of old felons were smoking bidis[13] with a greater flair than the police constables. The younger felons looked scared and apprehensive. I did not realize until then that women also were brought to the courts. Some of the female felons were dressed up as if they were on their way to the movies or beach, chewing paan and fooling around with the police constables. The smell of liquor at the court was unbearable and I started feeling sick in my stomach.

“Suddenly, the police constables threw away their cigarettes and the felons their bidis. The women spat out their paans. Everybody turned towards the gate. The magistrate entered like royalty. The peon in front told everybody to make way for the magistrate. An older peon walked behind him carrying a heavy box, and without looking on either side but watching only the magistrate. The magistrate kept walking and waving his hand up and down. I saw the way he was getting respect and I wished I had the job myself.

“The magistrate took his seat as soon as he entered the court. He looked calm and collected. The fact that he did not get the promotion was not showing on his face. The court clerk called out the cases one after another and mine came up after one half hour. The court clerk handed the papers to the magistrate. He looked at the papers, then at me for a second and said, “I am postponing your case to tomorrow. You can bring a lawyer if you want.” I told him that I was going to tell my story the way it happened and therefore there was no reason for a lawyer. After that, I posted bail and got out for the day. I tried to read the court papers but couldn’t understand a single word of it. They must have used a carbon paper that was in use for the past six months. I couldn’t even tell in which language it was written.

“The next day also I went to the court in time like a good boy. My case was called out. The complaint stated that I used swear words with reference to the bank representative and his wife and stole their daughter’s ribbons. The  magistrate asked me, ‘Did you commit the felony? What’d you say?’ I thought I was supposed to give straight answers and so told him, ‘Yes. It was true that I called them names and took their daughter’s ribbon.’ I was waiting for him to ask more questions so I could narrate the entire story. The magistrate looked down and kept scribbling something. After a few minutes, I started getting worried about the sentence I could be handed. I did not know what to do. “That’s not correct, sir. It’s true I took the two ribbons but one of them was not theirs,” I said.

“Then a man in khaki pants and black coat came in, that was the assistant public prosecutor, I was told. He said, “You’ve agreed that one of the ribbons was theirs. That’s enough.” It was like I gave him something. The magistrate delivered his ruling. He stated that I was found guilty under section so and so; this however being my first felony, I was freed on one year probation; and during that one year I must not commit anymore felonies but behave myself.

“Thus ended the story. Does this mean after the probationary period is over, I could go around committing any number of felonies, or even murders and that would not be considered illegal? I wondered. I found a bailer and got him sign my release papers,” the doctor wrapped up the story.

“Are you saying you too had the experience of the heat from our department?” the judge said, laughing.

“So Laxmi escaped death but you lost an eye,[14]” Sankar who was quiet all this while said.

“Can we sing janaganamana[15] now or is there more to it?” Viswam asked as he got up to leave.

————

(The Telugu original, Ribbanu mukka was published in Jyoti monthly in 1965 and received Rachakonda Viswanatha Sastry award in 1999.

Translated by © Nidadavolu Malathi and published on thulika.net, September 2003)



[1] The epic hero of Ramayanam..



[1] Female protagonist in the famous epic, ramayanam. The episode under reference is Sita was abducted by the evil king Ravana, and held her captive under the Asoka tree.

[2] A famous character from a Telugu play, “Kanyasulkam.”

[3] Rama was the protagonist in the famous epic, ramayanam. Vibhishana was the younger brother of Ravana, the anti-hero in the same epic, and a devotee of Rama.

[4] The narration is not clear here. My understanding is the uncle under reference is his father-in-law and the woman’s father who probably arranged the marriage against his will.

[5] Eating grass, gaDDi tintaam in Telugu, is a common adage, meaning nothing to eat.

[6] A city on the east coast of Andhra Pradesh. The medical college in Visakhapatnam provided the setting for many stories in Telugu.

[7] Like being possessed by a devil, all kinds of irrational arguments are offered and a mantra is a kind of recital invoking the ruling gods and praying to fix it.

[8]  The thousand-hooded cobra from Hindu epics.

[9] Yama was the god of death in Hindu mythology.

[10] A common belief among our people, the teetivu bird’s chirping brings bad luck.

[11] Possibly lepers.

[12] Lambadi people are nomads, who go around performing on the streets.

[13] Tobacco rolled in a kind of ebony leaf.

[14] A popular proverb, chaavu tappi kannu lotta poyindi, meaning escaped death but lost an eye, normally with reference to the same person. Here the speaker stretched it to include two people, Laxmi and doctor.

[15] India’s national anthem.