Mallamma stood up and took two steps toward Chelikani Venkaya. Venkaya walked in slowly, feeling crushed by the weight of his task. Mallamma was waiting for him. She was fully aware of his mission.
“What is the verdict?”
“Here is the dagger.” He quickly pulled the daggar from the sheath and held it up to her.
“To rip up the royal heart?” she asked taking the daggar from his hand.
“How is that possible?”
“How? Am I not a Velama child?”
“That is a man’s job, thalli!”
“Are you saying the Velama females are incompetent?”
“Thalli, aren’t the Velama females asuryampasya!”
“Meaning?!” Venkaya was stunned. Her words sounded like a protest to him.
“What do you mean? Chellamma! You are speaking strangely today. You know the protocol. Are you asking me to spell it for you?”
“I am asking you what is your position now?”
“Now or later, any time, there is only one meaning. You should never step outside.”
“That’s great. What happens if I step out?”
“Where is the Velama pride for men, if their women are seen by other men?”
“What a grim life! Women in all other castes, right from brahmins down to mala (untouchable) and madigaa (tanner), they all walk around freely. How come only we, the women in the royal families, are vulnerable?”
“Hasn’t that been the way always, a custom held for centuries?”
“Do we have to stick to that even when the circumstances are screaming for action?”
“How could you talk about circumstances? Where is the room for action, when we are acting with abandon?”
“That is my point exactly. Don’t I have to act with abandon?”
“In fact, it is imminent.”
“In order to carry out the job I am assigned to perform.”
“You mean strangling my throat. Right?”
The spirit in her question nearly choked him.
His head drooped as if in shame.
“Is that right?”
He lifted his head looking sideways.
“Come on, speak up.”
“What do you want me to say, thalli?”
“What would you say? What CAN you say? What a misery! The enemy is at the door, the circumstances are clearly out of men’s control, and you have nothing to say …”
“What are you saying, thalli? What is ‘out of men’s control’ for Velama heroes?” As he spoke his eyes pierced through like a javalin.
“What did you say? Ha?”
“Think I won’t?”
“So, what is your reason for showing up here now?”
“My orders, thalli.”
“I understand that. My question is what is his reason?”
“Fear of defiling your honor.”
“What? … For whom? … For Velama women?” Mallamma’s voice resounded like a thunder. Venkaya was awestruck.
“Had we been to the war zone, do you think the enemy could come up with any words worse than yours?”
“Is this the time for debate, thalli?”
“That’s precisely my point. That Velama women should not step outside is a norm. But when the circumstances get out of control, what is wrong in them stepping in?”
“Has it ever happened in the past? Any woman ever held a sword in any battle fought by Velama kings?”
“At a time when the depravity of the enemies is about to prevail, and the outsiders have the gall to tell us to leave our fort …”
“How can you compare one with the other?”
“Then, let us stop bickering. Who knows why the Velama women in the past did not go to war?”
Venkaya had no answer.
“Besides, where is the proof that the Velama women in the past were confronted with the same situation we are today, that they did not participate in wars, but committed suicide in the palace, that they stabbed themselves or burnt to ashes by their own choice. Who could corroborate all or any of this? Not only that. Possibly they all were hero-mothers (veeramaata,mother of a hero) and hero-wives (veerapatni, wife of a hero). It is also possible that they were not really anxious to be labeled heroic women (veeranganalu). Now, we don’t belong in that category. All the women in the palace are excited and asking, “why not we go out and stab Vijayaramudu? What is going to happen to our bravado (if we don’t act on that)? I am in a mood to pick up the sword myself. At the moment I have no way of knowing whether I am a hero-mother or not, since my child is still a baby. What else can I do? I have earned the reputation even in my childhood that ‘Mallamma counts for one’ (ennika ayinadi). I have proved myself a match for your king. Now don’t have to prove myself the mahishasuramardani?”.
Her words pierced through his eardrums.
“What would you say, Venkaya?”
He wanted to say something but no sound came out of his mouth.
“After all the efforts of Velama kings have failed … The bravery of Velama kings has been used up, …”
“THALLI! What did you say?” His voice reverberated the entire pride he had been cherishing to this moment.
“Don’t be upset. You might as well remember your reason to show up here and then speak. I am referring to a specific moment. When the Bobbili heroes’ bravery is dulled …”
“Please, thalli, I can not take this anymore. If you don’t put an end to this line of argument, my blood boils and …” He clutched his daggar.
“Blood boils? When? So, at the moment it is ice-cold, right?”
“Hara Hara Mahadeva! Chellamma!” He screamed, gritting his teeth, weilding his daggar and looking up as he shouted the battle cry. His body writhed head to foot like a lightning, freeing the entire spirit of royal lineage dormant in him. Then appeared Ranga Rao’s ferocious face in front of his eyes, admonishing him, “What did I tell you to do, and what are you doing?”
His anger was snipped in a split second. His face fell. The teeth stopped gritting gradually. He kept repeating, “thalli, thalli, …” and switched to a series of sighs.
His hand wilted like a stalk of spinach.
Mallamma was disgusted with his sudden outburst and quick cooling off.
“Do you think the enemy would give in for your empty words? You had to thow in the towel in one day, where is the room for the pride of Velama kings? Had the Bobbili kings shown their valor, could the enemy have a chance to enjoy his boot? What a shameful time we have come to!”
“Because we are thrown into bad times, the king’s command turned out to be like this.”
“That is not correct. Because it is bad time, the women should pick up the sword. Bobbili king is a hero of heroes and has a handful of gem-like heroes on his side, yet sought the help of the French. He didn’t have the courage to attack us alone. Can’t you see the reason behind his action? Why can’t the Velama kings see that? Why can’t they accept that there is nothing embarrassing in taking the women’s help?”
Venkaya was about to say something. But …
“Besides, this is not about men asking women to help them. It is about women coming forward and offering their help. Can you see the difference?”
“The result, however, …”
“The result? You idiot! The fact that Vijayaramaraju could not fight alone proves that he is effeminate. And guess how beautiful it could be when the Bobbili women take him.”
“Look, child! It is a proven fact that I am the dutiful wife (dharmapatni) of the Bobbili King, Rangarao. Don’t I also have to prove that I am also his sahadharmacharini (equal partner in discharging his familial and social obligations)
“Where is the contradiction?”
“What is left for me? my child! Vijayaramaraju offered three townships as mundabharanam (alimony for a widow). He (Vijayaramaraju) lives on to enjoy his life and I commit suicide.Don’t you see that that would be the worst kind of dishonor for me?”
The term “mundabharanam” slit through Venkaya’s heart. He was irate for the king’s words and for Mallamma repeating them. Several thoughts rose and fell in his head, and the emotional turmoil rendered him speechless. He could neither express them nor contain them. Struggling with his emotions, he did not respond to her query.
“Where is your king?”
“In front of the palace, among the other Velama cheifs. He is preparing for …”
“You go and tell him.”
“I have no orders, thalli!”
“All right. I will go. Who can stop me?”
“Who can stop you, thalli? Whoever has the nerve to stop you? But then, first stab me here,” he said, pushing forward his chest and tapping on the target with his index finger.
“What are you saying? Is that you think of this Mallamma? That is beautiful. If I pick up the dagger I would use it to prod the entrails of the enemy. I will never show my prowess on my own people. Is that clear?”
Her words thrust him like a javelin. He was silent.
“Dear child, did you think that Mallamma is a straightforward, all words-no-action-female hero of sorts, without a sense of discernment? You think I make no distinction between friends and enemies?”
Venkaya’s face turned toward her but his looks were still glued to the carpet.
“So, Venkaya, is it confirmed that I would not see the king again?”
By now Venkaya collected himself. All the education he has received through the years came to his rescue. He said, “After you leave this mean human body, you will reach the much coveted nirvana, thalli!”
“Don’t dish out that dim-witted philosophy to me. It is only this mean human body that carries the revenge and outrage.”
“Is this human body permanent?”
“Is your Velama pride permanent?”
He lowered his head.
“What about the king who came to tear down Bobbili? Didn’t he know that the human body is transient?”
“Only if we don’t crush his body on this soil.”
“Isn’t that what I am saying too? I would finish it?”
He had no argument there. “Could you please stop arguing with me?” he begged her coaxingly.
“You know the stories- the Bobbili business women confused the Golconda businessmen with their measuring weights, and the Bobbili working women crushed the Vijayanagaram chieftains with their pestles. Tell me don’t we, the Bobbili queens, count as much?”
“The king is waiting for me to return, thalli.”
“Why? He won’t attack the king wihout you by his side? And you can’t get excited until you stab your own mothers, sisters and children?”
Venkaya felt like she was pulling out his entrails. He closed his eyes heaving deep sighs.
“What a wretched time we have come to. Satyabhama tucked in her saree tight, picked up the bow and arrow and caused Narakasura to fall. The enemy troops shattered when Rudramma weilded her sword in Orugallu, and Nagamma in Palnadu. Don’t you think the world has to see what happens when Mallamma exerts her daggar?”
“What is the point of conjecture, thalli?”
Mallamma sprang like a cobra, steppedon, and spoke, “What? Conjecture?”
“Who knows what happens…”
“Same old line, again? Are those the right words for a Velama warrior to speak?”
“Is the land of Bobbili gone to dogs?”
“If only Tandra Paparayani varu were around …”
“I am not sure if Paparayani varu has heard of the situation here, or how he is holding down his fort.”
“True we don’t know whether Paparayani varu has heard of this or not. So be it. What about Bobbili fort? Do we have to let this go?”
“Paparayani varu is not here. What about others? Venkatarayani varu spoke big but where is the action? Venkatarayani garu is no good. That much is clear. What about the other kings, Rao Chinnarayani garu, Inaganti Narasa Rayani garu, Kakarlapudi Venkataramaraju garu, Vantena Bucchanna garu, …. Where are they all? Not one of them is man enough to come here and convey the message about the King’s sad demise??
“You won’t talk. Of course. What can you say? You came rushing in to the queen’s quarters, wielding your sword. What a great assignment for you! But, my child, let us, the Bobbili Velama ladies have the opportunity at least to stab ourselves, if not the enemies.”
“You know we the women from one hundred Velama families are like whetted swords. All this skill, that should have been put to use in time of need, is wasted like the moonlight in the woods. Does anybody have any idea how deeply distressed these women are about the plight of Bobbili, and how anxious they are to skin the enemy?
Listen, Venkaya, if we are not interested, we would not live even if we had won the battle. You go and get the permission from your king for us–either to kill ourselves or to jump into the battlefield.”
“Thalli, I do not have any responses for you. You know that we all respect you as much as we respect Rangarayani garu.”
“Then let us go to the battle.’
“That is defying the king’s command, thalli.”
“Then why this smooth-talk?”
“I am only a servant of the king. How can I defy his command?”
“If that is the command of the king, this is the command of the queen. You go and bring the King here.”
“Thalli, I don’t have the permission to show up in his presence, without finishing my task.”
“That’s it. … No matter how much I try to convince you, you give the same song. The world goes on even after we are dead. The world will make a note that the Bobbili Velama heroes could neither kill the king who had committed inhuman acts, nor allow the women to finish the job, when women offered …”
“What would you say?”
“We are just wasting time, I would say. There is no point in playing for time, I would say.”
“Of course, that is what you would say. You are a match for your king. I am glad you stuck to your guns at least in this regard. My child, whatever time is lost is lost. You might as well remember this. You go and tell your king that ‘Your wife told me to ask you, ‘how could you turn the sword on your wife, the sword that should have been used to pluck the heart of the enemy?’ Also tell him that I asked, ‘you are so anxious to protect our honor now, why didn’t you didn’t you think of that when the authorities sent you the message?’
“The life-breath hardly fits in a fist. Yet we are wrestling for this very life-breath. In a split second the life-breath disappears and the world will still go on as always. Who could tell how many times this life went through these revolving doors?
Yet I am certain that there has never been and never will be a predicament worse than this. What a shame! The enemy spoke ill words and my husband did nothing. My blood is boiling. Physical abuse is much better, if you ask me.”
“What is the point of mulling over now? What is the point of getting at you? How can I talk about others when unspeakable insults are poured on the wife of a great king like Rangarayani garu. If I, the Bobbili queen, choose to stay alive, Vijayaramudu is offering alimony.”
“What is it, my child? Is Mallamma standing in your way for the display of your valor? Here, I am sending her away. I have been blabbering nonsense all along. And all you see is me blabbering. Nothing more. It is confirmed that I will die without avenging myself on the enemy. Nothing is accomplished by my talking alone. I spoke a lot out of frustration. Please, Annaya, forgive me. Please tell your bava garu that Mallamma is capable of discerning the good from the bad, and sought his forgiveness also.”
“Lord Srirama! the Gods Sun and Moon! Here is my last namaskaram to you. Here are my last respects. This is my last prayer. Please, keep an eye on my baby son. I am begging you. Transfer all my remaining lifespan to him. Let the geneology of Bobbili kings continue through him. Credit him with all the valor that is dormant in the Velama heroes who are facing untimely death today. Let him finish the job my husband should have done. That is all I ask of you. That is the blessing I beseech you. That is when I feel avenged. This dagger is sharp. That does not matter though. When one has the courage, even a piece of wet cloth is enough to do the job… Sri Hari! Sri Hari! Sri Ha ..ri…”
Just one stab! The body fell with one thump.
Venkaya’s eyes turned hazy. Everything around looked vacant. In one split second his hands emptied the queen’s palace.
(Published originally in Telugu entitled vimanam ekkabothu… in Bharati, February 1926.
This version, courtesy of Visalandhra Publishing House, is taken from their anthology, Sripada Subrahmanya Sastry kathalu-1. )
Translator’s note: The story is woven around a famous battle called “Bobbili yuddham” fought in 1757 by prince Venkata Ranga Rao of Bobbili and prince Vijaya Rama Rao of Vijayanagaram, Andhra Pradesh, with military help from the French.. Prince Rangarao of Bobbili lost and sent his envoy, Venkaya to kill the queen by way of protecting her honor, per custom of the times. The fully-charged questions queen Mallamma raises with the envoy reflect the pride and self-respect women evinced. The use contemporary imagery in the title, boarding the plane, appears to reposition the storyline to appeal to the modern day readers. In all probability Subrahmanya Sastry is raising the same questions as Mallamma on behalf of all the women.
Translated by Nidadavolu Malathi and published on thulika.net, September 2002.)
 It is common practice to address the women in higher strata as amma or talli, meaning mother.
 The reference was to the enemy king.
 Velama is one of royal castes. They were rulers of Vijayanagaram Empire in the 16th century.
 A common phrase with reference to women in higher castes is meaning not seen by the sun, never left home.
 Venkaya addresses her as chellamma, younger sister which implies a shift in his position from an underling to protective figure. See Glossary for the intricacies of the interpersonal relationships in the heirarchy in India.
 Vijayarama raju, Vijajanagaram King defeated the Bobbili king, Ranga Rao in 1757. Mallamma was Bobbili queen.
 Mythology, the goddess Kali killed the demon named Mahishasura. Queen Mallamma implies that she would assume the form of Kali to end the King Vijayarama raju.
 Hara, and Mahadeva–epithets of Lord Siva, the God of Destruction. Also a phrase used as a battle cry.
 Satyabhama, wife of Krishna, went to war with Krishna. Krishna fainted while fighting, and Satyabhama killed the demon Narakasura.
 Telugu phrase: toka tokkina taachulaa... Lit. a viper whose tail is stepped on.
 A variant of garu. See glossary.
 Telugu proverb, adavi gachina vennela
 Older brother. See note 4. He has earlier established that he was older in age. She, in her final moment, accepted his status as older brother and protector.
 Brother-in-law. Building on the Annaya, Chellamma relationship, she is referring to the king, her husband as his brother-in-law.