I wasn’t sure about what the mother and daughter were whispering about to each other. I did not
understand who provoked them and what forces were at play. My eldest daughter was stubborn. She said she would not go to any of the colleges in town. She said they were like the mom and pop store round the corner, and that she would attend only a reputable engineering college in Chennai and that too only in computer science courses.
It was due to my inability that I could not say a word to her. She had received good marks in the
Intermediate class. I could not ask her why she had not obtained good rank in MSET. I recalled the old times when I had wanted to do M.A. in English but had joined the M.A. in Philosophy. I concluded that not all the tests in life would be in your hands.
In accordance with her wish, I admitted my baby in a reputable engineering college in Chennai. I paid the donation the chief administrator of the college had scribbled in pencil. Also paid the college and hostel fees. I put her in the hostel, told her to study well and returned to Tirupati.
It added up to two lakhs so far. In addition to the land that had gone for my education, out of the
remaining land, another fifteen acres were gone now.
I would have to see if my second child at least would obtain a good rank in the MSET exam next year. If we want to live a high quality life, we have to suffer hardships; there is no other way. My daughter was going to be the first girl to become a computer engineer in my family. If my father were here, he would have been very happy. My mother had sold the land gladly and given the money.
The Parry’s corner bus stop, like my mind, was in turmoil. Although Tamil was being spoken loudly, other languages were also reaching my ears. It was a sundry world filled with the poor and the feeble carrying handbags and bundles of clothes, men holding briefcases and suitcases, women wearing jewelry in their necks; it was a flamboyant world—an assembly of tradition and modernity. I was watching all those sarees, dhotis, safaris, pants, slacks, big red kumkum dots, lines of ashes on foreheads, and people chewing paan leaves. I told myself that Chennai was a safe place for children’s education. The bus set out for Tirupati.
I looked at the man sitting in the seat next to me. He was absorbed in reading the paper. Mine was the window seat. I sat there watching through the window the city businesses and the locality recede. I could hear voices, laughs and the sounds of munching. Psychological pressures and physical exhaustion. I closed my eyes, leaning back cozily in my seat. …
A series of visions—some vague, some lucid and some well-formed—were moving like shadows in front of my eyes:
My village Simhadripuram, the village fair, our house, our school, the clean water well, the house behind ours, and the sounds of the loom.
At the village fair, me as a five-year-old, sitting on the shoulders of Abba [grandfather], and Abba buying everything I pointed out–puffed rice, bendlu, bettaasulu, paalanurugulu (snacks) —and I collecting them all in my towel folds …
Me as a ten-year-old, holding on to Abba’s little finger, and asking him to buy laddu, kajjikaayalu (sweets) and spicy snacks.
Abba is saying, “You must eat well. Eat well, grow up and take care of our fifty-acres. Why do we need education? Isn’t this property enough for us? We can eat well and feed a few others too.” There, only Nayana [father] and me, no one else around. Nayana is saying, “Orey Chenna, Your Abba is not interested in putting you in school. Until now, we could keep this property only because I am the only child. The life of a farmer on the land is the same as the life of an animal tied to a pole. Times are not going to be the same always. Who knows how many more famines will hit us and how many more necessities crush us. Farming moorland is like matka, a gamble. We don’t know what we are going to get but are sure to lose lot more. So, get good education. You can get a job. We will always have whatever land we already have.”
Amma [mother] is serving food in our plates. She is whispering so only I could hear, “Chennayya, you are the only child for us. I’ve heard that your father was very good in school. But your Abba was worried that it would ruin this kingdom. He made your father quit school while he was in the fifth class. You at least should get good education. Look at our Chowdamma. … Her father is a skilled worker, no doubt. He is not home 2 or 3 days a week, always busy with the weavers association activities. When he is not home, her mother takes over the loom work. Chowdamma helps her throwing the shuttle, fixing the threads and so on. She grabs a book whenever she finds time. We are not asking you to do any chores at home. You can study, don’t you think, better than Chowdamma?”
Chowdamma … Chowdeswari …
The sounds of the loom.
. Her white round face, pretty nose, big eyes, thick dark hair, her laugh …the deep streaks on the cheeks. Chowdeswari is a good talker. I see her as a ten-year old, wearing a skirt and a blouse with puffed sleeves. She is running, and behind her, I … yes, that is me …
“See Abba, this Anna, see pedanaayanaa, see Chennareddy Anna. See him, peddammaa! He
wants me teach him how to weave a saree,” she is saying, gasping.
Abba, Nayana and Amma are laughing. Mingled with theirs, the laughs of Chowdeswari’s mother’s laugh.
Chowdeswari’s mother is saying to Abba, “Mamaa, maybe your son Reddy can weave.”
Abba is saying, “Look here, Ammi, it’s enough if he tills the land; nothing can go wrong. That’s the kind of blood is his. Weaving is not a concern for us.”
Chowdeswari is saying, “You said it very well, Abba. Farming is different from weaving. In weaving, loveliness in itself is the skill. We have to make sure that it does not sink, thread is not broken, and there are no lumps.”
“Ha, ha, I can weave lot better than you do. Chowdamma, I am your competition anywhere anytime,” I am saying.
Ummm, Abba’s dead body, Chowdeswari is crying between hiccups more than everybody else.
Headmaster is saying, “Hey Chennareddy, Chowdeswari ranked first in school. You did alright too, got first class. Studied in a spirit of competition, I suppose.”
Fifteen-year-old Chowdeswari in a skirt and a half-saree is laughing.
A loud laugh of somebody.
I woke up and looked around. The man sitting next to me asked something in Tamil. I told him in English that I did not know Tamil.
“Are you a Telugu man?” he asked in Telugu.
I nodded yes.
“You dozed off, probably tired,” he said. He was polite and gentle.
“Yes,” I said with a smile.
I looked at him, scrutinizing. He could be over sixty, had a commanding personality. He was tall, wearing eyeglasses on his long face, had a long nose, his ears too were big, and his shoulders turned upward.
“Why, what are looking at? I am also a true Telugu man, expatriate Andhra though. To put it another way, I am a foreign Andhra. By the way, are you going to Tirupati?”
Yes, I said.
“What do you do in Tirupati?”
“I am a Reader in Venkateswara University,” I said. It was very recent career advancement, so what, I told myself.
“What’s your dissertation topic?”
I told him the title of my Ph.D. in English, “The ideology of public welfare in Mahabharata.”
He repeated it, translating it into pure Telugu, “Mahabharatamlo samkshema rajyabhavana. Was your research based on the Sanskrit version of Mahabharata? Or the Telugu version?”
I did not feel like admitting that I had no knowledge of Sanskrit. Nevertheless, he being a senior, I want to be respectful, and answer as honestly as possible. I tried to speak in Telugu. I said, “Although I relied mainly on English and Telugu translations, and on the critical works, and commentaries on Mahabharata in English and Telugu, I had received help from a friend in the Sanskrit department when I had to quote the Sanskrit verses as needed.”
“You are speaking good Telugu. We also should have the love for our language like the Tamilians. Not necessarily totally and fanatically though,” he said with admiration.
He continued as if in a soliloquy: “We cannot establish the time of Mahabharata accurately. That is the problem with our history. We may try to examine the language in Mahabharata and other internal evidence. But the text existed somewhere between 4th and 15th or 16th centuries B.C. There are so many interpolations. …
ashtau sloka sahasraani ashtau sloka sataani ca
aham vedmi Suko vetthi sanjayo vetthi vaa na vaa
The original eight thousand, eight hundred verses of the original Mahabharata became jaya
mahabharata [Victorious Mahabharata] with a quarter of one lakh verses. Now it is four times bigger with all its variations.”
I was stunned by his memory power. I decided not to get in the way of his talk. The zeal of those
immersed in research came back to me.
He resumed his speech, “There are countless influences on Mahabharata, and its subordinate
episodes. Let it be. I am talking about matters of statesmanship and worldly wisdom. The term welfare reminds me of rajadharma [duties of the king] Narada had preached to Dharmaraja in Sabhaparvam. It reminds me of the question, ‘Are all the lagoons filled with rain water making the farmers happy? Are the poor farmers and the businessmen getting seeds in the form of loans?’ Let us say there are people who would question our government in this manner. Probably our welfare dharmarajas will say, ‘The rains are not asking for our permission first and then fall. We are planning to buy the Terminator seeds. We are borrowing money from the world bank to the extent possible and arranging loans for seeds.”
I was amused by his sense of humor. Along with me, he too laughed.
“I have a doubt. There are discussions of various kinds of occupations in deergha nikaayam, maha vaasthu and Milinda panha. We need to examine Sangam literature also from this perspective. There is a discussion of weaving in Arthasastra. You might have seen it too. The president must employ skilled people to weave; only women should be employed for spinning and weaving; wages should be on par with the type of thread and labor. If the product was of inferior quality, wages should be modified accordingly,’ it states. Do you think the king would have paid those women nearly fifty thousand panaalu [copper coins] annually the same way as he would to the chief priest and his advisor? Robbers! I believe that they had paid not even sixty panaalu to those women. What kind of a welfare notion is that? It would be nice if the feminists had examined it from this angle. All that flaunting of welfare programs would be exposed.”
I was shocked to see the quickness in his words. As was pondering over his questions, explanations, comments, humor, sharpness, and his manners, I recalled seeing his photo and an introductory article about him in a prominent English daily a while ago.
“You … you are… Professor Nagaraju, Professor Nagarajan.”
“How did you recognize me?” he asked, smiling and curious.
“When I was interviewing for the lecturer position, you came as one of the experts seventeen years back. I did not recognize you until now. I am sorry,” I said.
“You’re better than I, I must say. You have recognized me but I did not recognize you. Your name?” he asked.
I told him my name.
“I spent ten years in U.K. and Germany. I returned to the coop after my wife had passed away. It’s a year since I returned. I am going to Tirupati, hoping to stay there for two or three days. Maybe you know Dr.
Chowdeswari in the economics department in your university. Her husband is a blood relative of mine. I am fond of Chowdeswari more though. … I spoke all kinds of things. I am old you know. When you mentioned philosophy, my tongue went off nonstop. Don’t think otherwise. Probably I was irritating you.”
Dr. Nagarajan picked up the book from his lap and was lost in reading. I did not have the courage to chat with him again. He told me about his relationship with Chowdeswari.
Thoughts about Chowdeswari shrouded me along with the scenes I was watching through the window. I recalled the day Chowdeswari had informed me of my appointment and congratulated me even before I had received the orders.
“How did you know? Is it true?” I asked Chowdeswari. I was happy and apprehensive.
“Learned somehow … You are selected,” Chowdeswari said.
I was beginning to wonder if Professor Nagaraju had told her.
On that very day, I had asked Chowdeswari, right away, “What about your selection?”
“Don’t know. I am confident that I’d be selected definitely. I don’t think the other candidates have the qualifications I have. I have published articles based on my research in foreign journals. I did very well in the interview too,” Chowdeswari said, well composed.
That composure! It was more like arrogance. I had been having problem with that arrogance only.
We both had joined in our respective departments on the same day. Yet Chowdeswari had become a Reader four years earlier than I. It was one of those reserved posts. She became a reader. And she would be a professor in a day or two. That is the way the department politics play out. I’ve always had a kind of jealousy towards Chowdeswari, some hatred, and rage! I had developed some antagonism,which even I could not explain, in regard to other castes and these reservations.
Two years back, I had asked Chowdeswari to be our panel candidate in the elections for the teachers association. I still have not forgotten the words Chowdeswari had spoken in no uncertain terms on that day. She said, “I do belong to a particular caste among the B.C.s, I don’t deny that. I am not responsible for that. However I cannot stick my head just for that reason into this caste-based quota political process.”
I swallowed my anger. But my group bawled at me. Thenceforth, I have stopped speaking with
Chowdeswari. How can anyone tolerate pepper spray on an open wound?
Professor Nagaraju and I got off the bus in the R.T.C. bus stand in Tirupati. Chowdeswari was there standing in front of us, surprising and confusing. I forced a smile. Chowdeswari took the travel bag from Professor Nagaraju. She tuned to me and said, “Let’s go, the three of us together.” I could not turn away. I followed them silently. I was about to call an auto, Chowdeswari said, “I brought the car.” I thought she brought a rental car.
Chowdeswari stopped in front of a shining blue car. That was a Santro. She opened the back door on the left. Before I could recover from my astonishment, Professor Nagaraju said, “Come on, get in. I’ll move to the right.”
Chowdeswari was driving in the midst of Tirupati throng and culture.
Professor Nagaraju said, “The travel was pleasant in Chenna Reddy’s company. You can call me
eccentric. After I had learned that we belonged to the same field, I went on talking lots of things in the bus. I don’t know whether it was killing time or sharing the thoughts I had on my mind. I mulled over and he listened. In fact, I even got new thoughts because of him. By the way, Chowdeswari, your daughter said she liked the I.I.T. campus. She liked those trees, the surroundings and all. Classes are started too. It seems they all have to take care of everything by themselves, each one of them. They all are busy with their own work, teaching …learning … teaching, I talked with her before I left. I was elated to find her so zealous, just like the way I had been in Germany. There are still institutions that give to children the power needed to acquire education and knowledge. In this country …”
I did not know what Chowdeswari thought. She kept driving and said to me, without turning around, “My daughter phoned me an hour back. She said your daughter is also studying computer science in a reputable engineering college in Chennai. Maybe it caused you hardship, maybe censure, but you did a good thing all the same. The two girls, yours and mine, are very good friends, I don’t know if you know that well or not.”
Now it became clear to me. I understood the real reason behind all that whispering between my daughter and my wife. Chowdeswari’s daughter was attending I.I.T. and my daughter was in a private college. A fit of jealousy shot up. I was speechless. Some parching feeling, some anguish, Is this also an effect of the reservations?
“We’ll go to my quarters first and have tea. I’ll drop you off at your place later,” Chowdeswari said to me. “I am very tired. I will come some other time. Let me get down at the corner on Padmavati Women’s College Road. From there, my house is only a few yards away,” I said.
“My daughter told me that you have moved. It gives me a chance to see your house as well,”
Chowdeswari said and drove to my house. I got out and invited them both in.
Professor Nagaraju said, “I’ll come tomorrow or the day after. I will be here for a few days, don’t I?”
“Just a minute, Mamayya,” Chowdeswari said and got out of the car. She walked into the house along with me. She talked to my wife briefly, said, “Let’s meet later” and went back to the car.
My wife was overwhelmed, I guess. With an elated expression on her face, she said, “New car, very nice. She’s bought it recently I think. Chowdeswari is a lucky woman. And a good person.”
I did not understand. What is the link between luck and good nature? I struggled to suppress the
burning sensation inside. I would have said to my wife that had we two incomes, I would have bought a car long time ago. After that, I would have to listen to her jabbing and that stopped me from saying it.
I went in to take a bath. The entire time I was bathing, I was beset with the memories of my crummy scooter and jealousy of Chowdeswari.
After a couple of days, Chowdeswari came to my office along with professor Nagaraju, unannounced. “Mamayya said he would like to see you and your department. … I have a class. I’ll be back by 12:15 to take Mamayya back to my home.” Chowdeswari said and left. I thought of introducing him to our department head, other professors, and lecturers. I asked Nagaraju about the same. He did not show any enthusiasm saying all the people he had known had retired.
“Is your thesis published?” he asked, sipping the tea, I had served.
“No,” I said.
“Why?” he asked.
“Lack of interest,” I said.
“In research or life?”
I could not answer the question.
“Give me a copy of it if you have one. I will return it after reading,” he said.
I picked up my thesis from the papers and books lying scattered on the table behind me and handed it to him shyly.
Two of my students, a boy and a girl, working on their M.Phil. and Ph.D. came. I introduced Professor Nagaraju to them. He answered all their questions on several topics in Philosophy. He also elucidated the discussions and the research in progress in U.K. and Germany.
Chowdeswari returned at 12:15 sharp.
I invited Professor Nagaraju for dinner at my place that evening, and Chowdeswari too.
Nagaraju got up, ready to leave with Chowdeswari. He said, “Tomorrow, after dinner, we’ll go to the temple and then proceed to Chennai. I have a lecture to give at Madras University the day after tomorrow.” He pointed to my thesis and said, “I’ll make sure you got it back before I left.”
Not the next day but the day after, Chowdeswari came to my room around eleven o’clock. “I thought of coming to your home yesterday but couldn’t. Mamayya told me to deliver your thesis carefully to you in person and left for Chennai,” she said, smiling. She put it on my table. I took it and threw it on the table behind me.
“Mamayya said he had read your thesis completely the same night. He commended it, said ‘excellent work’. He told me to tell you to stay in his house if you go to Chennai. He’ll also write to you,” Chowdeswari said.
“My research students were thrilled that he talked with them. A man of no pretenses,” I said.
I was surprised by that address of Chowdeswari. I could look straight into her face.
She said very calmly, “We both come from the same town, grew up in the same place, and attended the same school. Don’t you ever remember those days?”
“I do remember.”
“Lately, for over two years, you’ve been keeping distance from me. It seems you are angry with me. I don’t mind if you are still angry with me. I just want to let you know what is on my mind,” Chowdeswari said.
I wondered what she might say. Whatever it is, so be it, I told myself, tidying up the papers on my desk.
“There are two categories of people: those who keep whining in life and those who win the life over. You belong to the first category, Anna.”
I was taken aback by Chowdeswari’s words. “How?” I said, deeply disturbed.
“You carry the weight of your wealth,” Chowdeswari said.
“What did the wealth do?” I said, collecting myself.
“Have you ever noticed the difference between the investment and labor spent on one acre of land and the returns on it; and the same way, the difference between the investment on weaving sarees and the labor and the returns on it? You come from a family of fifty acres.”
“That wealth is getting drained now. I have two girls to be educated and married,” I mumbled.
“That is the problem,” said Chowdeswari.
I did not understand her words.
“Look Anna, I am the same Chowdeswari that had repaired the threads in the rent-free house in your backyard, the same Chowdeswari that had woven sarees then. I had enjoyed your affection, and some support too. But I had not earned riches and caste, right? My insecurity was my motivation. Getting rid of it was my struggle. This is the life I had won over, not something freely given away by somebody.
“You know my father’s ways. The politics he had believed in and the unity in the weavers association had collapsed and he was devastated. He did not step back though. He put me through college by weaving sarees, buying, carrying them around to other towns to sell them. I had always received some support—some scholarship or other, like the cold water for mixing with the hot water. My father used to tell me stories about the weavers in the fifties in Proddutur—those who had migrated to Bhivani and Coimbatore from all these districts and about the hardships they had been through to make a living …”
Chowdeswari dabbed her wet eyes with a kerchief; it was troubling to me. I could say nothing.
“Anna, I have become a reader before you have. Should I think that is the reason you are angry with me? Or you are angry because I got the readership because of my caste and the reservation system stemming from it?”
My ability to answer Chowdeswari’s direct question fell sharply.
“Or, should I assume that you are not aware of my qualifications?” Chowdeswari asked.
“I know,” I said weakly.
Chowdeswari took the water bottle from the table behind me. She poured some into a glass and started sipping slowly.
Chowdeswari had come first in the tenth class, first in the Intermediate and also in B.A. In M.A., she had been university second. Foreign examiners had commended her Ph.D. thesis as great. Her research papers had been published in prominent national and international journals. She earned the reputation as a good teacher. I was aware of all that.
“Let it be. Let us assume that I do not have great qualifications, assume that I possess only minimum requirements. Is that wrong? Same way, tomorrow or the next day, suppose somebody else from a caste lower than mine and with minimum qualifications was promoted to higher position before I was. Why be jealous? These things keep happening until all the mistakes that had happened in the course of history and are still happening are vanished,” said Chowdeswari.
“Maybe true,” I said apprehensively.
Chowdeswari said slowly, “Anna, everybody says you are a good teacher and a good guide. You are angry with whom? Why? I heard that you have stopped writing research papers. Can’t you stop visiting the officers clubs? You are hurting yourself, why?”
Chowdeswari poked me where it hurts most. I started recalling the times Chowdeswari had chided me—when I was playing marbles, running around with bad boys, when she saw me smoking cigarettes during my M.A. days. I understood that she mentioned the club because she was aware of my habits. I could not open my mouth in front of Chowdeswari’s candor and affection.
“Tomorrow is Sunday. You, vadina and the little child should come to my home for dinner. Oh, no, I almost forgot the real reason I came. Nagaraju mamayya told me to tell you that he would arrange to publish your thesis, and he would let you know if there is anything to add. … You all must come to my house tomorrow. Please forgive me if I had hurt you in any way. Remember you used to pull my braid, and wouldn’t stop even when I cried, ‘it’s hurting, hurting’. .. See you later.”
As she left the room, Chowdeswari seemed to be a lot superior, compared to myself. I wished that, like Chowdeswari, my children at least would not wine but win over life beautifully.
Also, in my heart, change started sprouting anew.
(The Telugu original, sankatavimochani, was first published in Andhra Prabha aditya hrudayam,
Sunday, April 6-13, 2003, and later included in the anthology, Kethu Viswanatha Reddy Kathalu, 1998-2003.)
Translated by Nidadavolu Malathi and published on thulika.net, October 2007.