Suddenly, from out of nowhere, people started pouring into our town; not just a few small crowds, but a multitude of them.
Our shelter was flooded with folks day in and day out. Some had no room anywhere and they started cooking on the front porches of some of the houses. A few others set up tents near the village well. The entire place was a chaos.
For the town’s storekeeper, it was a blessing. He buried his head in the cashbox and kept counting his earnings; he didn’t have time even to check which way the pin on the weighing scale was leaning.
Children could not stay home; they went bustling around, looking important and busy. Of course,
how can they stay home while so many people swarmed the town; and were scurrying around, like at a wedding party, with hundreds of new faces, short braids, and tiny hairdos. The children went to receive them with great zeal. They were everywhere, like a shower of pogaDa flowers, after the tree was shaken.
For the past four or five days, people started pouring in as if it were a village fair. The town was small, I mean very small. In fact, it can not even be called a town. Originally, a few huts were built by the roadside. And then, during the reign of the Vijayanagar empire,[i] two wells were dug and a few more families found their homes, hoping that the wells would provide water for their subsistence. Then they settled down and started farming the land in the area. That’s how it became a township. Nobody cared to give it a name. The people never needed it. The Revenue department however registered that land under the name of a neighborhood village. The town has one specific advantage though. Since it was located by the roadside. Other villagers, on their way to the city, found it a handy place for stopping briefly and resting.
On that day, Sivanna, a farm hand, had no time even to breathe. Normally, he was not a sweaty type of man, no matter how hard he worked; and so, he never looked tired. He was busy working, with his head down. He had no time to think. Still, a thing or two kept surfacing in his mind off and on, giving him a jab at his heart. Whoever could have expected that such a huge catastrophe would occur in their town?
No, nobody could’ve expected it; it is not unusual though, for the Rayala seema[ii] area. There are some dim-wits who’d call it ratanaala seema [diamond ore] but, it’s a rock bed to speak the truth. There are no canals to bring in water for farming in the area; and so, the farmers have to draw water from the wells, breaking their backs. Sometimes, they would have no rains for four or five years at a stretch, causing drought; the wells dry up, and the people have to struggle even for a morsel of food. Often the poor families are forced to leave the land, which they had trusted for centuries. They would go away to distant lands, in the hope of staying alive. That’s when families go away in huge clusters, leaving behind the gloomy townships. That is not unusual. But the people in this particular town never faced it, not until now.
By the end of the day, the commotion died down. Sivanna finished packing all the stuff that belonged to his landlord in boxes.
He went home and lit up the stove. The splinters caught fire and the flames shot up. He put a pot of water on the stove, added the maize grits and covered it with a lid. Then, he sat in front of the stove, watching the flames. He watched, without batting an eyelid, as the splinters blazed and the flames enveloped the pot. Vapors started oozing out from under the lid; the maize was cooking, hissing softly. He picked up the ladle and stirred the maize a few times, covered it again, and lowered the flames.
While he was sitting there, he made up his mind; he pushed away all the thoughts that were hovering in his head. No matter however much he suffered loneliness in that hut, unlike all others, he would not leave town. His landlord was leaving with his family; he did not ask Sivanna to go with him, not in so many words; but his wife said something to that effect. At the time, for some odd reason, he thought it would be nice if he went with them. He waited for his landlord to say the same thing but that did not happen. He was disappointed a little but did not suggest it himself. Then he considered going to some other place by himself, if not with his landlord, and making a new life for himself, as a day laborer or something. After all, he was just one person; couldn’t he manage somehow? He was at the prime of youth and hard-working. Then again, the other thoughts took over—the thought of leaving the native soil, however worthless it was, depressed him. What kind of relationship he has with this soil? Can’t tell! He could not explain it. He never shed a tear in his twenty-years of life; yet, today the thought of leaving this place was agonizing.
Sivanna told himself, “I am not going anywhere; I will not. The entire townspeople can go away; the town can be deserted totally and all the houses abandoned, but I am not leaving my home.” He convinced himself that all this was great—lighting up the stove by himself, washing and pouring the maize in the cooking pot, and after it was cooked, emptying it into the plate, and sitting down with his food and a slice of pickle, all by himself, and sitting for hours on end like that—all that seemed interesting and pleasurable for him; it even felt like a custom he must not sidestep ever.
Sivanna finished eating, spread a mat in the open on the front yard, and lay down with his hands tucked under his head. He kept staring into the sky. The moonlight spread sparsely on his face. He dozed off.
A little after midnight, the commotion stirred up again. Sivanna could hear the noises from the wheels of the moving carts and the jingling bells around the necks of the bulls. He got up quickly, washed up and went to the landlord’s house. By then, the carts were already there, lined up. Sivanna loaded the boxes in one cart, single-handedly. The landlord’s family got on the other two carts. Sivanna followed the carts to the outskirts of the town, to bid farewell. The landlady said to her husband, “I was hoping Sivanna would go with us.”
“Yes, that would’ve been nice. But I don’t think he would want to leave this place,” he replied, sounding casual.
Sivanna heard their conversation. He knew that those words were not spoken wholeheartedly; he would have felt hurt under different circumstances but he was not worried this time. He told himself again, “That’s true. I can not leave this town and walk away.” The carts went past the boundary line The landlord told Sivanna to turn around; he stuffed a ten-rupee bill in Sivanna’s hand. Sivanna didn’t want to accept it. He pulled back; the landlord called out for him. She said, “Look, Sivanna, this is our pleasure. Don’t say no. I know this is nowhere near all the things you’ve done for us. Yet, please, don’t refuse it. Ayya garu would be hurt. I know you don’t need this money. But sometime later you might want to go somewhere and then you’ll need it. Save it for that purpose. One more thing. Keep an eye on our house.” Sivanna nodded politely.
The carts moved on. Sivanna stood there for a long time and after the carts were out of sight, turned around and went home. After his landlord left town, Sivanna did not step outside his hut for a couple of days. In the meantime, almost all the houses in town were vacated. Even other villagers who were passing by stopped only for a few hours or a day and moved on. Some were on carts, some on foot, and a few older persons were carried by other men in dolis[iii]; and their animals followed behind them.
Sivanna came out of his hut on the third day; the sun was going down. He went to the village meeting place—the concrete patio—where people used to gather. He saw the three grimy stones, set to serve as a stove for the passersby. He went farther; he found nothing but a few rags and used papers; all the houses were filthy for want of care. Some of the streets were like dark tunnels; no smell from the animal sheds; no sight of greenery to be found anywhere, not even for sample. Sivanna kept walking, recalling the persons in each house as he passed.
As he approached the well, he saw something white; it was moving. He went closer.
He was taken aback. Poor thing; probably, she escaped from the herd and returned home. “Hum, you are also like me; leaving home breaks our hearts, right?” he said.
The cow lifted her face and looked up. Sivanna patted on its back gently and started walking, with his hand on her neck. The cow, as she followed him, kept looking back towards the well.
“You, silly animal, looking for water? Let’s go to my place. I’ll give you all the water you can drink,” he said. Then something else occurred to him. Where could he get fodder for the cow?
The cow was walking slowly, nibbling on the blades of grass that dropped here and there from the carts that went by earlier. Sivanna chuckled.
A faint layer of moonlight spread on the cow, and seemed to condense on her. Sivanna was amused that he should find this new life here where humans could not survive. There was no way to know whom that cow belonged to, or which village she came from.
Sivanna was walking, laughing to himself. The cow was walking behind him. Suddenly, some sound was heard from one of the side lanes. Sivanna did not hear it but the cow did and she stopped. She bellowed with pricked ears. Sivanna also stopped and then heard sobs coming softly from the side lane. He was taken aback.
The cow bellowed again.
Sivanna went into the lane. The houses on either side were very close to each other and the lane was too narrow; it was like a dark tunnel. He went farther and heard the cries of a little girl. He moved quickly and found the little girl. She, barely five-years old, wore a skirt and a blouse and standing alone. She saw him and stood there without moving.
Sivanna’s heart moaned at the sight of her. He could not imagine whose child she was; who could have forgotten here, from which village—no way of knowing.
Sivanna was baffled as he thought of the series of events that were occurring in his life.
He picked up the child and held tight to his chest. He said, “Don’t cry, baby. Nothing to fear. We’ll go to our home. I’ll feed you, sing lullabies and put you to bed. Okay? You’ll not cry
anymore, yes? We don’t have to worry about anything. You, I and our cow—we three will be all right. Let’s not leave this town ever. This whole town is ours now. Let’s not go anywhere any time, ever again. Okay?”
The child stopped crying but gasping for breath. The cow was walking ahead of them. Sivanna told himself, “It must be a blessing, the fruit of my good deeds of past several past lifetimes. How else can I account for this strange events—this little child coming into my life at a time when the entire country was hit with drought, the entire town starved for food, and deserted the place. I was the only one, alone and scared, to stay back; how could I explain these new relationships in my empty life?”
He pulled the child’s face closer and kissed on her forehead. The little girl put her two hands around his neck and snuggled her face in his bosom.
The heavenly bliss he felt in his heart at that moment was beyond belief. Only the full-blown moon would know!
(The Telugu original, vennela pandina vela [Even as the moonlight shone.] was published in Jwala. Translated by Nidadavolu Malathi and published on thulika.net, July 204.)