I received a telegram informing me that mother was on death bed. At once, I took leave of absence from my college in Hyderabad and left for my hometown. Later however I began to wonder why I went; could not figure out why I went at all. As soon as I had received the news, I felt a kind of inexplicable restlessness and turmoil at heart; it was not grief though. In that mood of restlessness and without much thinking, I headed home. It was true mother was on death bed. She had been dying for a long time and now she got much closer to the moment of death. She would be dead in a day or two for sure.
My younger sister Kamala was living in a town not too far from mother. Therefore, she was able to arrive at our hometown with her husband Ranga and children right away. After they had arrived there, Ranga had sent the telegram to me. I set out at once but I also felt that my trip was unnecessary. From the beginning, there had never been a close relationship between my mother and me. I never had a mother to speak the truth. For mother, Kamala was the only daughter. Then, the question is why did I start right away? I know showing up at the time of her death ritual would be sufficient to please the public.
I arrived at my home. People were scrambling around in a flurry. The house was shrouded in a thin veil of death. Mother lay in the bed. She looked as if she was worlds away; her eyes were half-shut.
Ever since I arrived here, I was feeling cramped. I could not think straight. An inexplicable restiveness took over; it would not let me sit in one place calmly even for a second. The sun was down. I could not stay in the home any more. I told them I was going to the mango grove and left.
“At this time of day? Why?” Ranga asked me in a chiding tone and throwing a strange look at me.
“I’m bored. Why did you ask me to come so soon?” I asked him.
“Why? Well, mother said where’s Sarada? That’s why,” he said.
“Oh!” I said indifferently.
On my way to the grove, I started feeling impatient again; being edgy pointlessly. Then saw Chukkamma, a woman I have known since childhood.
“How’s mother?” she asked. She was ready to break down.
“The same,” I said.
“You’ll be here for how long?” she asked.
“One week,” I said, walking. I know she would not stop. She could go on for any length of time.
“Going to the grove? For what? What are you going to do there?” she called out from behind.
I kept walking, pretending not to hear her, and thinking what would I do? I had done nothing ever since the day I had been born. I just could do nothing!
There was a burial ground next to the grove. It belonged to our family exclusively. It was called Papadi bondalu. For several generations, my family members had been buried in that ground. Father had ended there and mother would end up there as well.
I did not go to the grove to see the place where mother might end up. As a matter of habit, I visited this place often to see where father was buried. In this deserted place, amidst the wild bushes, that pious man had been burnt to ashes. It was over in just one hour, I recalled. I sat there under a mango tree and stared at the cemetery, desperately searching for my father. The thoughts in my heart froze in that moment. It was soothing as if father was present in front of me and there was no dearth for anything in life.
Father had died suddenly. I was not nearby at the time. By the time I came from Hyderabad, he had been consumed by the funeral pyre. It seems, Mamayya, Kamala’s father-in-law, said, “He (father) lived a pious life. It would not be proper to hold his body overnight and let it go stale.”
The words ripped my heart apart, almost. I cried nonstop for one week. I was angry with all those people; they did not let me see my father for the last time. I was so angry; I was afraid I could go crazy. It took three years to convince myself that I would not go crazy. In those three years, I had done lot of things to attain peace of mind. I saw a psychiatrist. I visited a few Swamijis. There was no counting how many general doctors I had visited—all that to no avail.
They all said lots of things but all that was empty talk—tedious, irrelevant, quack philosophy. How could “unrelated” people help? I must be deluded to hope that they could help me, I concluded.
The only person in this world who had loved me was “father”, regardless of who said what. It made no sense to me. How could they cremate father before I saw him for the last time? Nobody had the right to do so, except perhaps mother and she did nothing. Frankly, I was his primary heir. Kamala was not to be counted since she had been married. Maybe, mother did it out of revenge. Then, I remembered that she had not even had the vengeance in her for me. I calmed down.
As far as I could remember, mother and I had never any relationship between us. There was neither love nor hatred. She showered all her affection only on Kamala. I’m not saying she was unjust towards me knowingly. I would say she even tried to be fair and impartial, it’s possible. But, from my perspective, who would want justice without bonding?
She invoked only a feeling of antagonism in me. Maybe it was the egotism in her that was responsible for that. I was not sure if I was to be blamed for that, partly at least. Whatever the reason, the net result was the relationship between mother and I was gone. Like I said, I might be partly responsible: Even as a little child, I was not prepared to kill my self-esteem in order to win her love and concern. I might have inherited her egotism, come to think of it. As far as I could remember, I never worked to win her affection and praise, although I always looked for them; I never found them.
Mother never shared my pleasure or pain. One time, I fell and was hurt. She sent me to the doctor at once and made sure that the wound was treated. It hurt and I cried. She said, standing a little away from me and without regard for my pain, “Well, you have to bear the pain since you got hurt all by yourself”. Yet another time, I was down with typhoid. She gave me the medicines, milk and soup regularly and carefully. No nurse would have done more to anybody yet there was no empathy. She performed her duty loyally. It was the same when I came first in my class. She said, sounding more like a directive, “Don’t think that coming first once is enough. You must keep it up always. Study hard.” I saw it; no way I could touch her and dropped the idea in course of time completely.
Father was not like that. When I suffered, he suffered. He rejoiced when I got high marks. I am sure he would not have reprimanded me, had I received low marks. He was God. At some point, I was not sure how it happened but I felt that mother was ignoring him; she was not taking care of him. There was really no reason for me to come to that conclusion. Nevertheless, I shouldered the responsibility of pleasing father on my own. Since father had no sons, I decided to fill that dearth. I studied hard as if I was a son. I imagined the job openings I might be eligible for and possible opportunities for promotions, and the government loan I could obtain for the house I might build in Hyderabad; I hoped for them and felt happy about them. Eventually, I took a job—all that because I knew father would be happy about them. I never entertained the thought of marriage, not at all. I told my people unambiguously that I would not get married. How could father have a son, had married and gone? That is how now I became a thirty-three-years old Miss Sarada and vice principal of a college in Hyderabad.
My parents performed Kamala’s wedding with our maternal cousin, Ranganatham. They had three children. He had completed his Ph.D. in America and become professor at the university in Tirupati even at that early age. He was one year younger than I. Next to father, Ranga was the only person who would wish me well in this world. From the start, there had been a brother-sister relationship, innate and empathetic, between us. I was very happy that my sister had got such a fine man for husband. Sometimes however I felt that Kamala was not appreciating her husband’s merit, and that he was being subjected to some kind of injustice.
It was getting dark. I returned home. There was no sign of wailing from inside the house. That meant mother was not dead yet.
“What are you doing alone in the grove so long?” Kamala asked.
“There could be snakes in the dark, you know,” Ranga said with a smile.
“What would snakes do to me?” I said.
Kamala was annoyed. She left the room to feed the kids.
“Shouldn’t you get married?” said Ranga.
He had been giving this advice from time to time. I was amused.
“Isn’t that wrong … I mean is it proper for us to talk about my marriage while mother is on her deathbed? What do people say if they heard it?” I said, laughing and added, “There is one Subba Rao in the Secretariat in Hyderabad. You too know him. He also gave me the same advice sometime back. And he asked me to marry him.” I laughed aloud.
Ranga did not laugh. He thought about it for a few minutes and said, “Who could that be?” Then he remembered him. He said, sounding anxious “Is that Subba Rao? He had a half a dozen children too. For heaven’s sake, please. Are you thinking of marrying him, seriously? He is a very self-centered fellow.”
I was amused by Ranga’s anxiety. “I am so old where could I find an unmarried man? I know Subba Rao talked about marriage only for my income,” I said.
“Sarada! Please, don’t even think of it,” Ranga said.
In reality, I was not thinking of marriage. I did not pay attention to Subba Rao.
“Have I ever done anything just for my own sake? Just to please myself? Now, I have one opportunity to settle in life and you are saying no. Aren’t you selfish?” I said.
Ranga left without saying anything.
Atta called out from the porch where mother was lying. She called in a low voice, “Girls, Sarada, Kamala, come here.”
I went in. Mother was breathing heavily; it was a struggle for her. She was staring into the vacuum.
Kamala was crying.
I could not cry. I went back into the house.
When I thought about mother, the first thing that came to my mind was: The fact that even in my childhood, she thought I had not needed her advice because I was older of the two, although I was only two years older than Kamala. I never understood her reason for doing so. The other reason was a strange one. It was a surprise even to me that it had set on my mind so firmly. What happened was, during on one summer day:
The school was closed for summer. We sat down after supper one evening. In our family, children were not used to eating paan. For some reason, that I had it. My tongue turned red. I looked in the mirror. It was bright orange color.
Mother was not pleased. She looked at me and said, “With those bright red teeth, you’re looking like a rustic, Tamil girl. why did eat paan after I said no?”
I was humiliated. I looked in the mirror. True, I was looking like a rustic Tamilian with red-colored teeth, resulting from eating paan. But I was hurt by her attitude more than by the words. After that, I never touched paan again.
That incident left an indelible mark on me. When my father suggested a marriage proposal, the first thing that came to my mind was this paan incident. I told him right away that I would never marry. As a matter of habit, he never pressed the issue or forced his opinion on others. He would mention just once and leave it at that. It was the same with the marriage proposal too. After I told my people so, nobody ever again brought up the issue of marriage with me.
After father passed away, my life began to appear meaningless, futile and without support. Now, as I reminisced those events, I was beset with a strange desire to eat paan again. I called Sitayya and told him to go to the store and bring a paan for me. I felt relaxed as I chewed on it. I could hear the people inside crying in a low pitch. I wondered why I could not eat paan all these years. I enjoyed no pleasure of any kind, why? I could do nothing to have good time, on my own, why? – I kept asking myself. Suddenly, a devil possessed me. I wanted to do something bad just to please myself. Subba Rao came to mind. He was past forty yet looked handsome, fair-skinned, and commanding. I wondered what would happen if I accepted his proposal him. “Sarada! Please, don’t marry him,” said Ranga. I wanted to write to Subba Rao at once. If I don’t write now, probably I would never be able to write to him. I wrote to him right away that I was willing to marry him.
I knew that Subba Rao was prepared to marry me only because of my job and money. So what? If it comes to that, who does not want money? I remembered when I mentioned to Kamala that, after father’s death, I might inherit the small strip of land he owned! You should see her face. I felt like laughing. Kamala turned livid. She said, “Why bother? You have no family, no children. And you have good job. Isn’t that enough for you? Why do you care about property?” She was mother’s favorite child and for that reason, I am sure she would inherit the two hundred thousand rupees, saved in mother’s name; Kamala was aware of that. I was upset that she was greedy even for this little property. Yet I told her, “Don’t you worry. We both will share it equally.” Her husband Ranga was on my mind at the time.
Mother said, “Why don’t you buy a nice house in Hyderabad?”
“I am not that blessed. Where would I get that kind of money? My father is a pauper you know,” I said.
I said that probably to hurt her. She was quiet. Maybe, she thought she would have to advance some money, had she spoken.
I folded the letter to Subba Rao and put it in an envelope. Just then, Ranga came. “Come, quick. Your mother is dying and here you’re sitting laid-back and chewing paan. What kind of a woman are you? Up, up, come,” he yelled.
I went into the verandah. Somebody had shifted mother from the cot to the straw-mat on the floor. They gave her a sip of Tulasi water and whispered Lord Narayana’s name in her ear. Mother’s life breath merged into the eternal ether.
Amidst all their wailing, something rose within me—a turmoil that was inexplicable and different from shedding tears.
After the death ritual was over, they showed me the will created by mother. One half of her property was allocated to Kamala and the other half to me specifically to buy a house in Hyderabad, it said.
I was stunned as I heard it. I felt weak as if the entire life force slipped away from me. Why did she do that? Why? I asked myself. I was distressed. It felt like I was cheated and robbed of my property. My life breath froze. Only the stains from yesterday’s paan remained on my teeth.
Feeling weak, I tore up the letter I had written to Subba Rao. I shut the door and sat in my room. An inexplicable fit of sadness broke the barriers and flowed in the form of tears.
… … …
Life started all over again!
(The Telugu original, matru devo bhava, has been published in the author’s anthology, R. Vasundhara Devi kathalu, Author, 2004. Translated by Nidadavolu Malathi and published on thulika.net, August 2010.)