Puttanna owned a hut with two center beams. He put up the two beams to provide a shade over their heads. Actually, the husband and wife had been the two beams for that hut. Puttanna and Sitamma were of the same height not only physically but also at heart. If you see them you would wonder if the Creator had split one soul into two, created bodies for them and sent them into this world, saying “go, play for a while and return.”
Puttanna was a weaver by profession. But for a few hours a day, he would keep throwing the shuttle in his hand all day, weaving the cloth in the frame. Sitamma would never leave the spinning wheel. Working by the side of her husband, her job was to separate the yarn, winding it on the bobbins, starching the cloth when it was spread, and brushing them. They never felt like that they were slogging. They had accepted their work as a yajnam. Sitamma’s eyes bloomed each time she finished rolling one bobbin. Each time Puttanna wove a piece of cloth, a smile spread on his lips like snake gourd flowers.
In front of their hut, there was a ganuga tree. Their cow was tied to a pole under the tree. The cow was a sight, sporting a discolored ocher, the two horns straight up and joined at the apex, and the heavy udders down by their generous nature. That ocher-colored cow had a white baby ox. The baby ox was tied to a pole far away from the mother cow. The mother cow would look at her baby and moo often. At other times, she would crane her neck and watch the village. For her, the baby ox was not the only baby, she had many adopted children. From them, each morning there would be an inflow of spouted pots. Puttanna would milk the cow, fill those pots, and return home with his empty pot. If you see him at that moment, you would notice moonbeams on his face. The reason for that light on his face was his gratification that his cow’s milk was being used for the little ones in the village.
Puttanna’s ancestors had lived in that village for a very long time. Cherishing the good relationship which had been handed down from generation to generation was an important goal for him. Whenever a wedding took place in any home in the village, he must weave the special garments, madhuparkaalu,[i] and give to the bride and groom. During the wedding season each year, he would spend days and nights at the loom. Sitamma would not lift her hand off the spinning wheel or so it would appear. They would not accept money for madhuparkaalu. The bride and groom would wear those clothes, sit on the wedding planks and pour talambralu [rice smeared with turmeric] on each other’s heads. Watching the event and shedding tears of joy—had been a custom for Puttanna and Sitamma for a very long time
Puttanna had no desire for charity from others. Good deed and duty were his fortress that needed no assembly. Sitamma had not asked for anything beyond that either. However, the cow had to be fed. Therefore, the people who came with spouted pots also would bring feedstuff and sesame slabs, a by-product in sesame oil production. During the thrashing season, one farmer would bring hay after thrashing was done, without Puttanna ever asking for it. Another would bring bales of jute stalks and throw them on the roof for the cows to chew on. They would not listen if Puttanna objected. “Your cow is the kamadhenu, the heavenly cow,” they would say, smiling, and go.
Anyway, with all his money going into making madhuparkaalu each year, his entire income disappeared eventually. He was too proud to ask for a loan. He would say to Sitamma, “Ayya [his father] used to say better to kill oneself than ask for a loan.” Sitamma would agree, “Would I accept loan? How could I bear even to consider that? Isn’t it like the big eagles eating up the little birds in the nest?”
While things were being like this, a wedding came up at the house of Papayya, the village alderman. Usually, in their village, weddings would not be performed in the Sravana[ii] month. However the family were worried that Papayya’s mother was losing her sight. She said, “wouldn’t you let me see my granddaughter’s wedding?”. Papayya was moved by her words and set the date for the wedding. And they decided to perform it in five days.
Sitamma went to the well and on her way back, she saw Papayya. He said, “Sister, we’ve set the date for my girl’s wedding next Saturday. Tell bava also.”
“Yes, annayya! You’ve given me good news. I’m going home with water, will come to your place later and talk to vadina,” she said and left. At hearing the news of wedding, smiles rose on her face but after walking few steps they gone. She quickly went home and put down the pot. She passed the news to her husband. At first, he laughed and then the laugh was squashed like a lamp lit in the wind.
“We can bear physical labor but where can we get the yarn?” he fretted.
“Maybe, just for this once …” Sitamma said and stopped.
“Just for this once … what? Do away with custom—is that what you’re saying? I cannot do away with custom. I would rather do away with my life,” he said, struggling to control himself.
“I did not say do away with custom.”
“Then what did you say?”
“Maybe, a loan.”
“Don’t say that to me. If we take one rupee on loan, the man who gave us would get a sway you can’t even imagine. Now we have good sleep for a while at least. Even that would be gone. When I remember the loan, can I remain steady and weave the woof? I will not take a loan no matter what,” he said, dabbing his eyes with his uttareeyam.
Sitamma felt bad inside for bringing it up. “Yes. Don’t borrow,” she said.
They both kept quiet for a long time. Then Puttanna closed his face in his palms and said, “Maybe, the cow …”
“The cow?” said Sitamma.
Silence fell between them once again. They both felt unutterable pain in their hearts.
“What can we do? Instead of letting go of the custom, handed down from generations, isn’t it better to let go of the cow? Enough if we give the clothes in time for this one wedding. We can go away from this town, by next wedding season, if that’s what it takes. The custom does not follow us to the next village, right?” he said.
“If we sell the milk cow, what happens to all those who are coming for milk every day?” she said.
“What else can we do? So be it. Let’s sell it right here in town. All the families with babies can go there and get the milk,” he said.
“Would they have that kind of sense?” said Sitamma.
“We can think only so far, not beyond. I will put the cow on the market today itself. After I am done eating, I will go the city and bring the yarn,” said Puttanna.
“All right,” said Sitamma.
Puttanna dabbed his tears hard with his uttareeyam, untied the knot on his head, shook the hairs and tied up again and left.
The rays of daylight were rising just then. The moon was showing up on the top end of the ganuga tree as if it was stuck there. The cow lowed as Puttanna stepped into the yard. Puttanna could not control his grief. He went and embraced her neck. “Are you angry with me? Are you hurt that I am selling you? What can I do? I’ve got to do this for the sake of custom. Wherever you are, I will come and visit you everyday. I have been worshipping you like goddess. If not you, who else can save me now?” he said, wiping her entire body with his uttareeyam. Hardly able to leave her, he left.
Next morning, he broke a branch from the ganuga tree and brushed his teeth The sun on the east rose halfway up; the rays were shrouding the village. Birds, still in their nests, were wiggling their wings. The spouted pots arrived at Puttanna’s home. There was no cow. An old woman asked, “Puttanna, where is the cow?”
“I sold it, amma!” Puttanna said, without turning back.
“Ayyo! You’ve sold it? What happens to our babies now? Because you are pouring a mouthful for them, they’ve been sleeping well, and going into fits,” the woman said.
“What can I do, Amma? It’s the times! When I sold, I told Acchanna, the buyer, to continue giving milk to the children,” he said.
The people with spouted pots stood there looking despondent.
The local priest was one of the people who came for milk. He came forward and said, “You are a saint, you’ve made a sacrifice for the children. Because of that, so many stomachs were filled and the babies slept well, so many mother’s eyes were grateful.”
“What can I do, Babu! I wouldn’t have sold the cow if it were for my livelihood only. I had to sell it to save my standing in the village,” said Puttanna.
“That is our ill-luck,” the priest said.
Just then, Sitamma came out. She said, “Here, listen, I’m going to Acchanna to hand over the kuditi[iii] pot to him.”
“Go ahead. Starting today, and with that kuditi pot, our ties with the cow are cut off forever,” Puttanna said.
Papayya’s wife came with two new bed sheets, showed it to granny. Granny was braiding the bride Parvati’s hair and asked, “Pinni! Which one between these two should I use?”
Granny held Parvati’s braid with one hand, fingered the two sheets with the other and said, “Both are so so. Use one and fold the other and leave it on the head side of the bed.”
Parvati’s mother took Parvati’s face into her palm and asked, “Which one you would like?”
“You are asking her, what for? All she cares is her man is good, what does it matter how everything else?” said granny.
Parvati’s mother went inside with the sheets. Granny said, “Parvati! Never mind all this teasing. You’re going to meet your husband for the first time. One life is going to become two, and the two lives will become one. This youth and love are not going to last till you win him over. The only things that stay forever are sacrifice and dharma. You two keep that in mind. I’ll tell you a story. If he asks you to talk, tell him this. This is not from some far off place. You know our Puttanna, this is his story. This is not from longtime back but the present. Do you know what a great sacrifice he had made.” So saying, she narrated the entire story—how he had sold the cow to make madhuparkaalu for them.
Parvati heard it entirely and kept thinking. From that reflection, the thought that she should help Puttanna somehow rose like a ball of wool.
Granny tightened the braid and finished it with kuppelu[iv]. Granny sat there playing with the warped flowers, left after the braid was done.
In the bedroom, Parvati stood next to the bed. Rammurthy, the groom, smiled and pulled took the coin, navarsu, from his pocket and reached for her sari palloo. She quickly stepped back.
“Gold, gold,” he said. Let us assume he was calling her by that name. He knotted the sari end with the gold coin and said, “You may spend this as you please. On the first night, a man should not accept a woman without tendering gold.”
She was drawing lines on the floor with her toe.
He seized her hand.
The incense sticks burnt to ashes half-way through.
She started telling him the story—how Puttanna sold his cow to make madhuparkaalu for them.
Rammurthy lay back on the pillow and listened to the story, holding Parvati’s kuppelu in his fist. At the end, he said, “We have to bow to Puttanna for making such a great sacrifice. He did his duty and we should do ours.”
“What is our duty?” asked Parvati.
”We will return the cow to him.”
“Will Puttanna agree to that?” Parvati said, looking into her husband’s eyes.
“I’ll think of the details. By daybreak, the cow must be in Puttanna’s yard. By the way, where is Acchanna’s house?” he asked.
“The house just next to Rama mandiram!”
“If so, I will be there by the time the rooster crowed. Pay him the money, and tell him to hand over the cow to Puttanna.”
“But, if I buy the cow with this gold …”
“Is there a better deed than that, Parvati! You told me about a magnanimous man on our first night. Youth is like a white horse in our lives. No doubt there is a pleasure in riding on it. Yet there is a great commentary in traveling with our eyes on an objective. Let us not fare like all others blinded by youth. Let us fare with greater good as our goal. You’ve convinced me that you will be my arthangi [half of oneself] in achieving that goal. The belief that our lives will be blessed has showed up in my mind,” he said, rearranging Parvati’s curls.
”What else can I ask for but walking in your steps and share an unwavering life with you?” Parvati said with boundless joy. Rammurthy drew her head towards his chest. Her heart clung to his soul like the dharma to sacrifice. Just then, the rooster crowed. She jerked. He laughed and held her tighter to his heart.
Puttanna and his wife stayed focused on their duty until the madhuparkaalu were delivered to the wedding party. That job was done. The weight in their hearts lightened. But they missed the cow most. Somehow they consoled themselves and fell asleep. The cow appeared in their dream. Puttanna heard the cow bellowing. He got with a jerk, pulled some hay from the top of his hut and took it to the tree in the front yard. He saw the empty pole standing sadly. His heart felt like it sustained cracks and a few pieces fell. He went in and lay down, could not sleep. Felt like the cow came, rubbed her face against his stomach, was asking him to scratch. He sat up suddenly. His eyes were piercing through the roof and the heart into the void. He remembered the words of the priest, “the children were sleeping without hiccups because of the milk, you had poured.”
Then followed the cries of the children, came haunting. He shut his ears tight and called, “Sita, Sita.” He told her about his feelings. “Why worry about the things past. We have to think about what is next,” she said. “Did God think of the things to come? All we can do is only to feel sorry for what happened,” Puttanna said and went out.
The beams on the east were spreading. Puttanna could not look at the pole, he bent his head. “Moo,” he heard the cow bellow. He thought that was also his imagination and looked up. The cow was standing under the ganuga tree. He ran to her, embraced her neck, called “Sita, Sita!, the cow freed herself and came back.”
“What do you mean ‘freed herself’? Wasn’t she tied to the pole as always?” she said.
Both of them were awestruck. Who would have brought and tied her to the pole? Maybe, she freed herself and was wandering on the streets. Probably a passerby saw that, being unaware it was sold, tied it to this pole.” Puttanna said and started wiping her horns with his uttareeyam. He felt like he had heard one horn say, “you taught us to sacrifice” and the second horn say, “How can we achieve your sanctity?” as he wiped them.
“It was time for milking. Let’s drive her to Acchanna’s home,” he said, untying the rope from the pole.
“We can take her there after letting her eat a sheaf of janapa,” the wife said.
“Let’s take the bunch also there. Babies’ parents might be there for milk,” he said. He untied the rope and started to walk with the rope in his hand. The cow did not move. “No other way. We have to hand her over,” he said. The cow started walking as if she had heard his words. She walked forward. Sitamma followed them, holding the janapa pack. They barely walked a few yards; they saw Acchanna. He said that Papayya’s son-in-law gave him money and so he brought back the cow and tied to the pole in their yard.
The couple looked at each other. “What do you mean he gave you the money?” asked Puttanna.
“Maybe it was a loan,” Sitamma said.
“We’ll turn in the cow and ask him. Let’s go,” Puttanna said and turned to Acchanna, “You keep the cow at your place, Bava!”
“I’ve got the money in my bag,” Acchanna said.
Husband and wife brought back the cow and tied her to the pole under the ganuga tree, and went to Papayya’s house.
Papayya’s son-in-law was sitting on a plank, decorated with silver flowers and brushing his teeth. Next to him was a silver jug. The father-in-law was standing by the patio and was waiting just in case his son-in-law would say something; he was ready to respond if the son-in-law asks. Papayya’s wife came to the window, saw the son-in-law, pulled the sari palloo over her shoulders and smiled at her husband. He stuck out his tongue, meaning she should go in.
Puttanna and his wife came.
“Bava! Showed up so early in the morning, what is the matter? Thinking of leaving my sister at her maternal home?” asked Papayya.
“Do I have to come if that is the case? My Peddamma used to say that no need of permission for daughters-in-law to go to parents’ home and for blackbirds to coo,” Puttanna said.
Papayya was tickled but did not laugh, reminding himself that his son-in-law was there. He cast a glance sideways at his son-in-law.
Rammurthy was about gurgle but could not control his laugh. He spit it out.
“Our Puttanna bava. He is the one that had made madhuparkaalu for you. Not just you, for any wedding, he is the one that supplies them but would never accept a paisa. He is that generous,” said Papayya.
“I know,” Rammurthy said.
“What I do is generous? What? Did I have temples built? Or, temple tops? Or had built chowltries? I came to ask your son-in-law a question,” Puttanna said.
“What is that?” Papayya asked, surprised.
“I sold the cow to Acchanna. Your son-in-law bought it and brought to my home back and left it in my yard.”
“Ha? Your cow?”
“Yes, I tied it in your place. I’ve got the education from you only. You sold it as your dharma. And I bought it for the same reason and brought it back to you. Can you say that it is wrong for us young people to learn about sacrifice and dharma?”
“I am not saying it is wrong. … But I am asking why donate the cow to a person like me? If you give it some family who has children, then you’ll reap the fruit but not to me …”
“I know, thatha. If you have the cow at your place, ten babies would be fed each day. If I give to somebody else, only their stomachs would be filled.”
“Probably that is true. Yet it is not right I should take the cow from you. I will give you an IOU.”
“You will write an IOU, thatha? You’ve given us madhuparkaalu for what IOU we have given you? Has ever been a time when you have given madhuparkaalu that can be settled with an IOU? These promissory notes have been put into place only because of lack of sense of cooperation and dharma. The god had signed one promissory note to the entire human kind, which said it is only fair that the haves should pay off the notes signed by the have-nots,” said Rammurthy.
Parvati, standing by the window, was listening the entire conversation. Puttanna stood there without uttering a word. The words spoken by his son-in-law sounded like a shower of nectar to Papayya. He was peeking into his son-in-law’s heart through that windows of his words. He thought it was his luck that he should get such a fine man as –son-in-law; “no, no, it was the good deeds my Parvati had done in her previous birth.”
“So be it, Thatha, think that that cow is not yours, you are its trustee. Keep donating the cow’s milk to the children in the village.”
Puttanna’s joy knew no bounds. “If that is my job, I would do it, dancing. They say there is plenty of goodness in helping the people in rank and file, and the service rendered to children is the same as service to God. If you give such work, anybody would accept it happily. Then, let me take leave of you. I do not know how to bow to you. Whenever you visit this village, you should come and visit me and the cow.” So saying, he walked two steps, turned around and said, “You are young yet have a good heart. The adage is one should live under the roof those who have good thoughts. I will stand by this patio up until you left. If you have any more good words, please let hear it.” He was ready to leave.
“Thatha!,” said son-in-law.
“What is it Babu! More good words occurred in your mind? Tell me, Babu.”
“Yes, I’ll tell you. How can be dearth of good words when I see you and your zeal? Listen, I am saying. I have plenty of wealth. My father-in-law signed of two acres of land per custom. Because he called it ‘gift’, I could not say no. I thought to whom should I gift it. Now I know. You are the great donor who had been giving madhuparkaalu to newly-wed couples. I will sign off those two acres of land to you. I call it madhuparkaalu trust. You keep weaving madhuparkaalu and giving to all the newly-weds in future, with the income from that land to pay for the madhuparkaalu.”
“That is a gift? Madhuparkaalu manyam? If I accept that, how can I call it service? No, I do not want it,” Puttanna shouted.
“Thatha, do not speak like that. However much you get from it, it would barely suffice for the yarn. Still there is plenty of work to put in to produce madhuparkaalu. Your pure soul is reflecting in your woof and warp. You are not only worshipping the idyllic weaving trade but also donating your labor. Yours is a great soul. It is only through people like you, our culture sustains its ancient form. Who else are patriots and thyagamurthulu[v] if not the supporters who are patronizing these professions; you are like beams of moonlight for the rural life. The village is like a tent of flowers and people like you are the flowers in it. Thatha! I will have the papers drawn this very day.”
Puttanna was chocked with pleasure and he stuttered. He had no words to say, went around in circles and finally said, “All right, babu. I will see you soon.” He ran to his home. The village accountant was also very surprised. He followed Puttanna.
Parvati, who was standing by the window, threw a marigold on to her husband. He turned around. “thyagamurthulu!” she said.
“Who’s taught me that?” he said. He poured some water from the silver jug into his palm and splashed it on her. Those water drops glimmered on her face like pearls of snow on lotus petals just blossomed.
For articles of Ravuru Satyanarayana Rao in Telugu, click here.
(I am grateful to Srimati T. Jnanaprasuna, author’s daughter, for sending me a copy of the Telugu original, madhuparkaalu. The story has been published originally in Krishnapatrika.
Translated by Nidadavolu Malathi and published on thulika.net, December 2009.)
[i] A pair of specially made garments for bride and groom to wear on their wedding day, usually given by bride’s parents as a gift..
[ii] The fifth month in lunar calendar.
[iii] Liquid mix of ground cereal crops for animals.
[iv] A ball of yarn, usually held together with a gold cap. It is used to finish the braid.
[v] Persons who make sacrifice for common good.