I’ve been thinking of writing about her for a very long time but nothing is coming to my mind. I racked my brains but could not find the material in her life for writing a story. One could search her entire life up and down yet find not a single instance worthy of a story. How can I write a story when there is nothing special either in her life or lifestyle?
I”ve been living next door to hers for over three years now. We share the front verandah. She practically lives on that verandah day and night. But for the time to cook and eat in her kitchen, she is always on the porch either lying or sitting on the tape cot. I am not sure exactly when but soon after I moved into that house, I started thinking about writing a story about her. I”ve been trying to write ever since but my story never took form.
I was even downcast a few times, thought maybe there is nothing in her good enough for a story. At the same time I am also bothered by the question why would I even consider writing a story about her if there is nothing about her? I rake my brains and nothing comes to mind. Nevertheless I am convinced that there is something in her that makes a good story.”
Everyday I see her on the cot as I return from work. Occasionally I would say to her, “What are you doing, peddamma!” Sometimes my wife, having nothing better to do, starts chatting with her, “What curry you cooked today, peddamma?” And she speaks all right when we start it, with no enthusiasm, none whatsoever though.
I wonder if there is something in her life that is not obvious to me. I inquired neighbors. I”ve talked to so many people yet could find nothing more than I had known already.
I understood that she was married when she was about fifteen-years old. Her husband died five or six years ago. She has one son and one daughter. The son is working in another town. Her daughter got married ten years ago and went away. The son comes to visit her once a year. The daughter drops a letter once every six months. Beyond that, there is nothing special in her daily life. What is there to write about in such a monotonous life?
Yesterday, my wife and I were going to a movie. I invited her, “Peddamma, come on, let”s go to the movies.”
“You two go, son,” she said sounding indifferent.
“Come on, Peddamma. It”s a good movie,” my wife also said coaxingly.
Peddamma said, “What’s the point of watching movies and dramas? You two go.”
On the way to the movies, I said to my wife, “I wonder what she does all day.”
“She is fine, no botherations, nothing to worry,” my wife said. I sensed a touch of jealousy in her tone.
“What? Do you also want that kind of happiness, no kids, no husband?” I said.
“Chhi, no, that’s not it. Don”t you think it”s better to have nobody to care for rather than carry the head-load of a family?”
“Can anybody survive with no one to care for? Is it possible to live without any interest or diversion in life?”
“Isn’t she living?”
True, she is living. But the question is what’s she living for? I was walking and thinking. After a while, my wife asked me, “Are you thinking about her still?”
“Yes,” I said, “I want to know about the secrets in her life.”
“What secrets one can have, especially women?”
“You’re right, you’ve spoken a universal truth,” I said laughing. My wife also laughed.
After a few more minutes, I said softly, “Maybe she slipped, probably sometime back.”
My wife came to a sudden stop. “What kind of talk is that? Do you think so lightly of women?”
“Okay, move on. It’s getting late for the movie,” I said.
We resumed our pace. The thoughts about her would not let go of me. Probably she made a big mistake in her life and maybe that is worrying her constantly. Remorse can pull down a person quite low. Otherwise why would she live like that”without any pursuit in life, no interest and no enthusiasm about anything? Then I thought of something else. Had she made a very bad mistake, there are several easy ways in our country for one to redeem oneself. She could recite Gita regularly, pay a visit to the temple once a week, and may even sing bhajans occasionally. She did not take to any of these practices. Maybe it is not remorse that is bothering her. There is no trace of depression in her demeanor. All she is showing is distance, lack of involvement, and lack of enthusiasm. That”s all.
Today my office is closed. I settled down for a nap in the afternoon. My wife finished the chores in the kitchen and went into the verandah for a chat with peddamma.
“The movie was very good. I tried so hard to persuade you to go with us but you wouldn’t,” my wife started jubilantly.
“What movies, just a pastime,” peddamma said passively.
“Really, peddamma, it was good. Shall I tell you the story?” my wife said with renewed vigor.
“What stories, my child. Aren”t our lives in themselves stories?”
I was trying to get some sleep; her words shook me off of my stupor. There is a story in her life! I could not figure out what it is but there is one for sure. Hopefully I will know now. I am all ears.
“What kind of stories we can have in our lives, peddamma? We live today the same way we did yesterday and will tomorrow. It is the same old ganugeddu life?”
“I guess. What else is there in anybody’s life?”
“Let it be. Tell me your story. You tell me all the things that have happened in your life. I want to hear them.”
Peddamma sounded apathetic. “What is my story talli? It is the same as everybody else’s.”
“Tell me that same story,” my wife said coaxingly.
I am listening intently.
“What is there to tell in my life, amma? I was born and raised the same way as everybody else. My folks raised me the same way as others. They married me off as I turned sixteen, again the same way like all the others. After that, in the next four years, a son and a daughter were born. What else is there in my life?” Peddamma finished her story. I am disappointed.
“What happened after that, peddammaa?” my wife asked inquisitively.
Peddamma said with the same detachment, “What would happen after that? The same thing happened as always. My son and daughter grew up; we married our daughter to a young man and sent her away with him. She is living her life. My son has a job and is living his life.”
Now I am even more upset with peddamma. She started out like there was something to tell and then let me down. For a while, they two were quiet. Probably my wife was thinking what to say next. After a minute or so, I heard my wife’s voice again. “Did you suffer a lot of hardships in your childhood, peddamma?” she asked.
“No hardships ammaa! No different from the usual hardships we all face. Wouldn’t the adults beat you if you act up too much? When mother hit me, father used to comfort me, and when father beat me, mother used to comfort me. The only thing I can say is, during childhood, we cry for a while and forget the pain, no matter how big it is.”
Quiet again, probably my wife is thinking again. “Did they arrange your marriage against your will?” I was surprised by my wife’s ingenuity. She asked the same question I would have asked. It sounded like she asked the question for my sake. I am waiting for a response from peddamma.
“Why would I not like it, amma? My parents arranged a suitable match. Even otherwise, how could a girl, just sixteen-years-old, have likes and dislikes?”
“Please, don’t misunderstand me, peddamma. Did you and your husband have a good relationship?”
“Why not we have a good relationship, amma? My husband was not a bad man; just an ordinary man.”
“You mean you two never had fights.”
“Won’t there be usual arguments in any family? He used to be angry now and then, like when the food was not good. Sometimes he would yell at me if I left the wick lamp too high.”
“You never had a real fight?”
“Why would we fight? Are we low-life folks, amma? Once, very long time ago, probably in the first year of our marriage, I was getting ready to go to my natal home. After I had done all the packing, he said “don’t go.” He did not eat the entire day. I thought of fighting but he brought me a new sari, Coimbattur sari, and asked me to wear it—a kind of childish act. We were young then.”
I am not sure if my wife has seen something in those words but I am confused.
“What happened after your son and daughter had left, peddamma?”
“What else? It was quite normal for about five or six years. One day, my husband lay down; said he was not feeling well. That is it, he never got up again. He was gone, leaving me alone, after twenty days.” Even those words, she said in the same ordinary tone. There is no sign of any emotion in her voice. I got tired of their conversation. My spirits are down; obviously there is nothing to know about her, no matter how long I listened.
“So, you’re saying there are no events worth mentioning in your life.”
“What else is there, beyond these things, in anybody”s life?”
“Don”t you have any desires?”
“What desires we will have at this stage in life, amma?”
“So, you don”t have any desires that never came to fruition in your life? No unfulfilled desires?”
“What desires women will have amma? All they wish for are saris or jewelry, right? That too, they wish only until they had one or two children. After that, they will not have any desires.”
Silence for a few seconds. My wife said, “First tell me one thing, peddamma. You always seem to be lost in thought, as if you’ve made a mistake and now regretting it. Did you do something you should not have done?”
I thought she would be irritated by this question. She spoke without any irritation, “Why would people like us do something that we should not have done? Don”t we all know about good behavior? How can we survive if we lost our standing in society talli?”
What a stupid chat, I told myself and pulled the sheet over my head. After that, I have no idea if my wife showered a torrent of queries on that woman. I woke up at four and went into the kitchen for coffee.
“Did you hear peddamma’s story?” my wife asked.
“I did not listen to the end. Have you learned the secrets of her life?”
My wife smiled pitiably and said, “No secret. Poor lady, I asked her in so many ways, the questions I should not have asked. I asked because I trust you. I even asked questions that should have angered her. She answered all my questions without anger or frustration.”
“So you’re saying there is nothing special in her life.”
“Nothing, there is nothing worth mentioning. She is a very ordinary woman.”
“Very ordinary woman. What can I write about such an ordinary woman?” I said.
Maybe my wife noticed a streak of disappointment in my tone; she shoved the simmering hot coffee glass in my hand, and said harshly, “All you worry about is your story. You don’t have even the slightest concern for her?”
I did not understand my wife’s attitude, not in the least.
For comments by Nidadavolu Malathi, translator, click here.
(The Telugu original, mana jeevitakathalu, was published in November 1959, and later included in the author’s anthology, Alasina gundelu.)
(Translated by Nidadavolu Malathi and published on thulika.net, January 2007.)