The poultry in front of Paidamma’s hut is twittering kuckoroo ko noisily. Paidamma is shooting away a volley of insults without mentioning anyone in particular. The darybreak sets off along with her holler. Bright sunrays are dispersing with sleazy giggles from behind the yellow ganneru bushes by the hedge of the mansion of Sri Raja Vatsavayi.
Paidamma’s daughter, Nookaalu, is crying. She sat down by the door with her legs stretched out and crying. The sight is pleasing to the four men on the porch of Peddiraju at the end of the street.
The villagers are getting ready to go to work. Women from cowherd families are ambling way to the lake, like mustard seeds poured on a polished slab.
Paidamma is standing in the middle of the street. No, she stood on the path of dharma, and continued to mouth away insults as though she is possessed.
Passersby watch her but for how long do you think that is? They stop and utter a few comforting words like “Oh, no, what a pity, what could’ve gotten into them? Are they sick or what? … So devious! … so strange …” and then walk away minding their own business.
They are used to Paidamma’s screams and holler but now her daughter is crying. They’re all surprised to see that. She never cries. She is always laughing and making others laugh too. She dribbles her time away with abandon and excitement.
Nookaalu glistens with the charm of a robust eighteen-year old. She’d jump at anyone who said a bad word to her. Other times, she’d jiggle shyly, and her fleshy cheeks would pull in flashing two gorgeous dimples. No matter how big the other person is, she’d say, “You rogue, go away,” and walk away with a pout, like a turkey in full sail.
Usually she brings ears of corn and carpenter ants and feeds them to the hen. She also picks blades of grass from the lakeshore and feeds the lamb. She enjoys picking banyan tree leaves, rolling them neatly like paan and feeding the baby goat while patting warmly. Occasionally, she opens her voice and sings gairamma songs or children’s songs in loving voice. The cowherds in the neighborhood would gather around her and coax her into singing over and again. She acts like she was shy for a while and then opens her voice, sitting under the moonlight spread all over like a pumpkin flower in full bloom. Her tunes resonate on the wall of Rajah’s mansion across the street.
Vissanna used to say, showing of his wit, “The moon has a spot on his face but not Nookalu. That is how we know one from the other.” We do not know whether he had read Sivasankara Sastry’s Bilhaneeyam or Mahodayam but we can be certain of one thing; Nookaalu’s face is the proof that his metaphor is an apt one.
Sanyasi agrees with Vissanna’s comment. He says, “The Creator bundled up the entire beauty in a gorgeous young woman called Nookaalu and thus left nothing out for us to call ‘loveliness’.” That is true. There is so much beauty in Nookalu. Now that Nookaalu is crying frantically.
Nookaalu is not married, not yet anyways. A few times, probably four or five, young men came and proposed to her. Each time she came up with a different objection and dismissed him, saying, “To hell with him. How can I live under one man’s watch?” Paidamma’s daughter always would have her say in all matters.
Mother can never say no to her daughter. “I’ll get her married when a boy of her choice comes along,” she’d say. Paidamma and Nookaalu are wanting for what, do you think? Nothing really. The bright gold chains–naanu and teege—which Paidamma wears around her neck would receive a new glow when Nookaalu wore them. Paidamma also has gotten Rattayya make a new set of naagujodu for Nookaalu’s ears. She also bought four sarees with heavy borders from Sanapati when he came with his bundle of sarees for sale. She sold the lamb to buy them. Nookaalu always walks around in sarees that looked like freshly cut flowers.
There is not a single day Paidamma missed work as day laborer. Both the mother and daughter would work in the fields in the agricultural season. Other days, they would be busy either pounding rice or spices for pickling, or repairing roofs, or whitewashing the walls, so on—there is no job they are not good at.
The women folks in the neighborhood envy Paidamma but are also scared of her. They will not be able to find work if they ignored Paidamma. She is their supervisor.
The supervisor’s daughter is crying and the supervisor is standing on the street and blasting off a volley of abuses. “Might as well slit my throat, you idiots, might as well set my house afire … you scoundrels, you want to watch me burn down to ashes? I wish you infested with bugs, wish your arms burnt to dust … you give me grief … what d’ ye think you’ll get by giving’ me grief, you scoundrels.” Her pitch is getting bigger and bigger as she went on shouting.
Vissanna, Appanna, Sanyasi and Chittibabu slink down the verandah edge across the street and go towards the lakeshore, stroll down the shoreline and disappear behind the tumma trees. Paidamma’s hut is teaming with baby goats, poultry, and lambs. But she is particularly fond of the one hen that is sitting by the door and yowling. Each day in the morning Paidamma lifts the bamboo screen, and the hen soars, fluttering her wings, to the compound wall of Raja’s mansion and leaps to the ground from there.
On one such day, she wandered around in the yard for a while, got together with the debonair rooster daintily, laid a dozen eggs for him, and hatched them. She was left with only one egg after the crows and the eagles had finished eating them up. That one egg became one lovely chicken with an elegant turf, vibrant feathers and cute little beak and teeth.
Paidamma goes out early in the morning and brings ears of corn. She chafes them on the bamboo screen and separates the kernels. Then she brings out the lamp. The mother fowl then calls the baby chicken, cluck … cluck … cluck. The baby chicken would come screeching knii … knii …knee, and slither under the mother’s legs. Sometimes the little one tries to pick a kernel. Mother hen picks the kernels deftly and eats.
Paidamma tells herself, “See that sneaky fool of a mother. She’s gobbling up all the kernels, instead of feeding the little ones.” She then moves the lamp to the little shelf by the door, and falls asleep while glancing Nookaalu sideways.
The baby chick has grown big and plump. She is not ready to lay eggs yet but is quite big. This little one is borne to a debonair rooster and that shows in her gait and demeanor. Normally, she follows the mother fowl all the time. That night she did not return to her pen.
What’s happened to her? Paidamma searched the entire village up and down, could not find her anywhere. The little chicken disappeared without a trace. That is why the mother hen is crying and Paidamma is shouting. Why wouldn’t she? But then again, what else can she do but shout and scream. She may be the supervisor for all the laborers in the area, yet she is just a woman.
On the previous day, in the twilight, all the four—Vissanna, Appanna, Sanyasi, and Chittibabu—got together, whispered to each other and cooked up with a plot. Appanna owned a fishing pole and hooks. He brought the pole, attached the bait to the hook and let it down over the compound wall. The little chicken took the bait, wiggled and flapped her wings. The other chicks got scared and ran in a flutter.
Vissanna bound jumped over the wall in a split second and seized the chicken. He rushed to the mango grove at a distance and hid it under the branches; made sure that nobody noticed it. Then he returned to his friends and narrated to them his extraordinary feat in great detail; he also told them where he had hidden it. His friends were impressed. Later that night, all the four—Vissanna, Sanyasi, Appanna and Chittibabu—reached the grove after the moonlight got bright. Tiny bits of clouds flew over the moon occasionally; the moonlight was enough for them nevertheless. Foxes were yelping occasionally at a distance but the night was not all that scary.
They sneaked the items they needed for cooking from their homes and brought them to the grove. It was not even ten yet but there was no sign of a soul anywhere in the vicinity.
Vissanna untied the youthful chicken and brought it. She was crushed in the hands of those four, and lost her figure. The chicken that should have laid eggs and hatched them into charming fowl, the chicken that has been growing under her mother’s caring wing, was reduced to a mushy ball.
All the four men whispered into each other’s ears in that dim light. They ripped her apart piece by piece; rolled the pieces in the masala they had brought. They collected three stones and set up a stove and set the brass pot on it. The pot was shining in the moonlight. They started a small fire and blew on it until it started flaring up. They threw in the splinters they had collected earlier and built the fire. The fire rose into long, sharp flames and extended further. In that light from the flames, the faces of all the four were shining.
The food in the pot started simmering. The chicken Paidamma raised so fondly got crunched in their mouths. They mangled her into tiny bits and gobbled up.
“Hot, hot,” Appanna gasped. Even in that soft light, they could see his face warped by smallpox. They rejoiced in their loot, went to the lake and filled their blazing bellies with water.
Paidamma took care of that chicken like her own baby, like her own life. When she called, “come on, come on,” the chicken would flap her wings, come running, and jump on to her shoulder excitedly. That is what Nookaalu is crying about. All along, up until now, she has been laughing but never cried. The four burglars who used to whimper at the sight of Nookaalu gathered behind the tumma trees and snickered now. In their snicker however there is also a trace of fear that their secret may not be safe forever.
Paidamma continues to curse them, nonstop.
Nookaalu continues to weep, nonstop.
(The Telugu original, kukkutachorulu, is included in the anthology, Sitaalu jadupaddadi [Sitaalu fell ill] by the author and published by Padmapriya prachuranalu, 1964. Translated by Nidadavolu Malathi and published on thulika.net, July 2007.)