Dinner guest on Saturdays by D. Kameswari.

There was no reason for me to recall a fifty year-old story if it were not for the pellichuupulu[1]. we had scheduled for my granddaughter, Silpa. The groom, his father and mother came to our house on the said day. I did not expect, not even in my wildest dreams, that I would be seeing the vaaraalabbaayi[2], Venkataramana, from the past in the avatar of the father of the groom from America. I was dumbfounded. I opened the door. An elderly gentleman walked in, staring at me closely. Despite my grandma status, I was embarrassed by his stare.

saturday_guest

After exchanging the usual enquiries and introductions, he said, “Forgive me. Aren’t you Manikyamma’s daughter?” He said as if he could not contain himself any longer.

I was surprised. “You know my mother?” I asked him.
“You didn’t recognize me, I guess. I am Venkataramana. I used to come to your house for vaaraalu on Saturdays, in Ramachandrapuram. It was so long ago, a fifty-year old story, you might’ve forgotten,” he said.

***
I was eleven or twelve at the time. He used to come to our house every Saturday for meals. He was fifteen, meek, skinny and of fair complexion. Whenever he saw a girl, he used to drop his head whenever girls were around. Is he the same Venkataramana who used to eat at our home weekly? Who would think this bespectacled gentleman, a high court judge, with a striking personality, slightly balding hairline, would show up in the position of the father of an America bridegroom? I could never have guessed if he had not said so.

“Venkataramana, you … hum … yes, I remember now. What a surprise, us meeting after fifty years …like this! So, this young man is your son?”

His wife was fair-skinned and robust. His son was tall and also of fair skin. His position as a groom from America and his job in America were strikingly obvious in his attire and demeanor.

Venkataramana said, “His name is Prasad, my third son. My eldest son is a doctor, lives in England. Second son is in America, an engineer. My daughter and her husband, an I.A.S. officer, live in Delhi.This boy is my youngest.”

He was lively and proud as he spoke about his children. Of course, who would not be to have all his children faring so well in life? Aren’t we considering them as a highly desirable and favorable match only because of their notable status?

Silpa also finished her engineering course, got her M.S. degree from an American University, and has landed a great job. That is why we are looking for an American groom. My son had seen an ad in the paper and contacted them. After checking the details thoroughly we invited them to visit us, per custom, pellichuupulu.

“Your mother is a great lady, an incarnation of Annapurna herself. I’d eaten in so many homes but there was none like your mother She had fed me to my heart’s content with care and concern. She never acted like it was a chore. She treated me just like she would her own children. Anyway how is she?” Venkataramana asked apprehensively.

“She is fine, getting old, she is ninety you know. Her health just started weakening. She is here not too far, living with my younger brother,” I said.

“I am so glad she’s around. I must visit her and pay my respects. If it is not for her remarkable kindness, I would never have gotten to this position,” and he added, “Can you please take me to her?” His voice. His voice shivered slightly.

“Certainly, I will take you to her later. I’m sure she’ll also be very pleased to see you. Besides, she will also have a chance to meet the groom. We all can go together after this formality is over,” I said.

The bride and the groom went into the next room for a private chat. That gave us an opportunity to revisit the past. Venkataramana gave me a detailed account of how he had worked and managed to finish high school and after that earn his law degree. He started out as an apprentice under a senior lawyer, took a government job first as munsif, after that became a judge and then a high court judge.

“How did you recognize me? I’d no idea who you were at all,” I said, curiously.

“I’ve recognized you right away. I remembered you as the tall and fair-skinned young woman of the old days. You gained a little, with age I suppose, but not to a point that one cannot recognize you,” he said.
***
We used to tease him so much back then in your childhood. My mother used to feed two Brahmin boys on a weekly basis. Vaaraalabbaayi was a common practice in those days. Compassionate housewives would give food once a week to young boys from poor Brahmin families who would not be able to go to school otherwise. The boys would make arrangements with seven families for food, one day per family. On the set day, he would go to their house, wash up by the well in the backyard and eat there, sleep on somebody’s porch, study under the street lamp at night—that would his routine until he was done with schooling.

In those days not all towns had schools. Most of the Brahmin families in villages had no financial resources to send their children to the schools in the big cities. The only way for these children to get education was this vaaraalabbaayi system. And then, the boys would receive donations from others for the tuition fee and daily necessities. I heard that a lot of young men thus obtained their education and became lawyers, doctors and engineers. And also I have read stories such as “that boy ate in that house, landed a successful career, married this young woman without dowry,” … and so on.

This Venkataramana’s father was a yaayavaaram Brahmin, who could barely support his four children by his yaayavaaram practice, performing daily pujas in wealthy households, and or acting as a recipient of charity in the name of ancestors at the time of annual ceremonies. He was in no position to send his sons to school. He told his children, including Venkataramana, to continue their family trade, following in his footsteps. But Venkataramana would not listen of it; he cried his heart out, and in the end, ran away to the city in pursuit of his dream to learning.

In the city, he managed to seek the help of a few families and thus established himself as a “vaaaraalabbaayi.” A generous business man offered to pay for his tuition. Venkataramana borrowed used books from fellow students, and studied at night under street lamps. He was polite and unassuming.

On Saturdays, he would come to your house and sit on the porch in a corner but never came into the house and let us know that he was there for dinner. My mother had to notice him herself and tell us, “Poor boy, he is sitting there on the porch. Ask him to come in.” Only after we had invited him, he would go into the backyard, wash his feet and hands and come into the kitchen. He would sit in front of the banana leaf to eat. He was always such a perfect gentleman; would never raise his eyes and look at us girls.

My mother always served the food to Venkataramana the same way as she would to us. We watch to watch the ritual auposana–he took a little water in his hand, meditated for a few seconds, sipped up, and then would start to eat. He never asked for a second helping. My mother would chide him mildly, “How would I know if you don’t ask,” and scoop more food on his leaf. Even then he would not accept it without protest. He was shy, would cover his leaf with his hands and say, “That’s plenty, madam, that’s plenty.”
My mother would not stop. “You must eat, boy. You’re not going to eat anything again until your next meal in the evening.” And dump even more on his leaf.

On Saturdays, we had school in the mornings only. She fed all of us at the same time, setting a leaf a little away from us for Venkataramana. Early in the morning, she would keep ready the leftover food from the night before with buttermilk and pickle in a small dish. Venkataramana would bathe early in the morning, eat the leftovers and go to school. His modesty was a great source of fun for us; it was like he was asking us to tease him. We never felt hungry since we had been snacking all day on fruits, peanuts and such. Venkataramana on the other hand, had no such luxury; he had to wait until the food was given to him. But it never occurred to us back then. We were amused as we watched the food on his leaf, which looked like a huge heap, and the way he ate. He would make a big dint in the heap of rice, fill it with soup, mix them well, make big balls and swallow them eagerly. That was a sight for us. We would eye each other and at him and giggle.

Mother would gawk at us and reprimand us afterwards. “You nibble all day, you’ve no idea of what hunger feels like. The way you’re looking at his food, I’m afraid you’ll cast evil eye4 on that poor boy. He gets food only twice a day. He is growing you know, he must eat well. For his age, he should be able to digest even rocks. Maybe I should set his plate a little away from you, to avoid his snickering,” she would say.

I must admit, mother never showed bias towards anybody. She made sure that anybody she served ate well to his heart’s content whether it was a yaayavaaram Brahmin, servant or washer man. During the festivals, she gave them plenty. She never said no to anybody that had come to our door. She would always say, “Giving food once a week is no sin but only a good deed. We all must share from whatever little we have. That is our dharma.”

Poor Venkataramana! He’d be at our mercy for the three days mother had her periods. My sisters and I would conspire and pretend that we had not seen him on the porch, and wait to see if he would come on his own and ask for food. After waiting which seemed like forever, he would get up, go to the well, wash his feet and hands, come into the kitchen, lay down the sitting plank, sit down, and sprinkle a little water on the banana leaf, wipe it with his palm, and wait, with his chin touching his chest. We would pretend not to have seen him until he looked totally desperate and then only we would give him food. Sometimes, mother would yell from the other room, “He is here. Give him food.” Even then, we would not do it right away. We would bicker for a while– “You give him,” “No, you” and finally one of us would get to it. We would want him to ask for pulusu [lentil soup] or chaaru [tamarind water, similar to French onion soup]. Venkataramana would just make a hollow in the pile of rice and wait without a word. We would pretend not to have noticed it until he started eating the plain rice. Then only we took pity on him and served pulusu or chaaru.

Venkataramana had been a perfect gentleman, never lifted his eyes and looked at us, and never uttered a word. He’d done very well in school. Mother always said, “Watch him and learn.” She gave him my brother’s used pants and shirts. Once year, she would have a pair of new clothes made for him. She also gave him a mat, an old quilt, and a bed sheet.

Suddenly, things changed. My father was transferred to another town while Venkataramana was in the final year of his high school. Poor boy, he was so crushed. “Amma, this is y misfortune I suppose. Just one more year and I would have gotten my diploma. Now you’re moving away. I always thought you as the goddess Annapurna, showed up here only to save me. I’ve been a guest in so many houses but nobody like you. Nobody gave me food with such a kindness and concern as you did. You’ve been so kind to me, like your own child, never differently. Now I have to find another home,” he broke into sobs.

Mother was moved by his words. She talked to one of our distant relatives and arranged for his food on Saturdays in lieu of ours. She also gave him a few more used clothes, a tin box, a bucket, a mug, a dinner plate, and a steel glass and such. Venkataramana bowed to my mother’s feet and wept.
***

As I recalled all these incidents after fifty some years, I felt shame. I said, “We had made fun of you so much. You sat there like the Lord Buddha and ate without lifting your head. It was amusing to us back then. You sat down to eat but never once asked for a second helping. That used to tick off. I don’t know what you thought of all that. Now as I remember all that …” I said, feeling remorse truly.

“Oh, no. You are sweet. You were young then. Everybody acts like that in childhood,” and he added, “As for me, I was too scared to look at young girls like you, scared of being isunderstood. Besides, I was shy too. I knew you all were teasing me. But then, you are from a high class family.
How can I compete with you?” he laughed light-heartedly.

“Anyway, just to think that you have risen to this position, overcoming all the hurdles and hardships …”

“That’s all because of the blessings of the good lord. I was thinking of settling down as clerk in some office after finishing high school. But I ranked first in school and our headmaster was impressed. He encouraged me to apply for admission in the college in Kakinada. He also got me a scholarship, talked to one of his friends in Kakinada and arranged for my stay and books too. In addition, I worked at odd jobs like bookkeeping s and completed my education. In the process I understood the value of education and money. Therefore I made sure that my children stayed focused on education even from childhood. I told them how hard it had been for me and made them understand the need for education.”

“Well, you know the old adage, who can shape whose life? There are children who don’t do well in school under the best of circumstances, and then there are others who eat whatever they can get and whenever then can get, and still rise to great heights,” I said.

After their visit, I took Venkataramana and his family to my mother’s house. The judge bowed to my mother’s feet as soon as we walked in and said in a husky voice, “Amma, do you remember me? You are the Annapurna herself.”

Mother was embarrassed that a gentleman of his stature should touch her feet. She pulled back quickly and said, “No, no, babu, what’s this? Get up. I’m getting old; my memory is not that good. Who are you babu?”

“I am Venkataramana, Ammaa. I used to eat at your home in Ramachandrapuram on Saturdays. Don’t you remember?”

“Oh, yes, now I remember. So you are that Venkataramana? A judge now?”

“Not just judge, amma, a high court judge. All his children are engineers, doctors; they’re living in foreign countries. The groom, who is come to see our Silpa, is his son only,” I said. Mother’s hearing was failing, I had to speak louder.

“I am happy, babu, that you’ve got a good life. I knew even then that you would have a successful life someday. I used to tell my children to follow your example.”

Venkataramana folded his hands reverently and said, “Amma, I owe it to you. Kindly allow me the opportunity to clear your debt a tiny bit at least. Give me your kind permission to perform the wedding of your granddaughter with my son.”

They chatted for a while and got up to leave. After they all left, we started our discussion. We all liked the groom but there was also a touch of disappointment. His lineage was on our minds. Grandfather was just a yaayavaaram Brahmin, father lived on vaaraalu. In contrast, the bride’s family could be traced back to prestigious lawyers, doctors and I.C.S. officers under the British rule. The difference was strikingly obvious.

“What does it matter what the ancestors had done for living? The bridegroom has good education and  position,” my son said.

 

“That is one way of looking at it. As the saying goes, you must lineup up with equals in wars and weddings6. Also they said that we must take a bride from the lower cadre and a groom from the higher cadre. The important thing is to avoid conflicts and ego problems that might arise of wrong choices,” my husband said.

“Regardless the lifestyle of his predecessors, the father is a high court judge, which is on par with ours. The groom is good-looking and well-mannered. How can we expect them to be perfect in all respects?” I said.

“Let’s leave the decision to Silpa. If she liked the young man and his family, there is no need for us toobject,” my daughter said.

“Silpa, tell us what do you think? Any objections?” my son-in-law turned to Silpa and asked her.

“Do you like the groom?” her mother echoed.

Silpa nodded.

“But what about the family?” her father asked.

Silpa looked at us all for a second and said, “I believe that those who understand the ups and downs in life, and who build their life through hard work will have a much better perspective on life than those who ride on the high horse of the superiority of their ancestors. You know the saying, my grandfathers gobbled up tons of ghee, smell it on my lips; so saying they squander their riches on cheap pleasures recklessly. I don’t care for such people. In any case, at present, the groom and his family have a life comparable to ours, why should we have any objection? The young man seemed to be well-mannered, courteous and sophisticated. I also noticed his sense of humor and intelligence in the little time I had with him. Rest of it will depend on our understanding each other and willingness to adjust, like in any successful marriage. As far as I am concerned, both husband and wife must be willing to adjust.”

Oh, boy! I was thinking of Silpa all along only as a little girl but she came out so strong. She was thinking so clearly and so far ahead! She spoke
powerfully and shut us up.

Today’s youth are not worried about the past. They live in the present without worrying about future. All they’re focused on is the present. Yes, today’s young men and women are so clever.
***
[End]

Notes:

1 Traditional visit by the groom and his parents to the bride and her family for a formal meeting and discussions.
2 Customarily, generous families offer to feed poor Brahmin boys once a week for the duration of their schooling.
3 A custom. Poor Brahmins used to go door to door, tell the housewife of the name of the day, time and auspicious period in the day according to
lunar calendar. In return the housewife would give him rice and vegetables.
4 A common belief, meaning casting an evil eye.
5 In Telugu the saying goes as: evari karmaki evaru karthalu.
6 The Telugu adage is kayyaanikainaa viyyaanikainaa samaanulu kaavaali
7 The saying goes as maa taatalu nethulu taagaaru, maa muutulu vaasana chuudandi.

(The Telugu original, “weekly boy”, was published in Swarnandhraprabha, 15 June 2002, translated by Nidadavolu Malathi and published on thulika.net in April 2002).