Selfish Man by Sarada (S. Natarajan)

A young man came to the lawyer Vijayaraghava Rao’s home around 11:00 in the morning. He was about seventeen. He was fair-complexioned and sweet-looking, yet his tattered shirt, pants, and the wretched expression on his face werespeaking of his poor disposition.

Hesitantly he walked toward Vijayaraghava Rao’s office room and stood by the entrance. It was Sunday. The lawyer just finished eating, chewing paan and reading the newspaper. He heard footsteps and looked up.

The young man stood there in all humility, rubbing his hands. He was not sure how to ask what he wanted; no word could come out his mouth. He was scared.

The lawyer threw the paper behind his chair and asked gently, “What is it you want to say, my boy?”

The young man was still unsure how to put it in words. He managed to walk one more step into the room while struggling to find the right words to say and looking at the law books. He said with great difficulty, “The thing, sir, I am studying here.”

A kind of curiosity showed in the lawyer’s demeanor. “It is all right, you can tell me,” he said. He thought of asking the young man to sit down but did not for some uncanny reason.

The young man still did not have the courage to look straight into the lawyer’s face. He said timidly, “I have the food arrangements for six days. I don’t have anybody yet for Sundays.”[i] Is it necessary to say the next words?

The lawyer looked at him head to foot keenly, examining him. He understood the young man’s predicament and asked kindly, “Don’t be afraid. What are you studying?”

There was a change in the young man’s manner. Probably hunger on one hand and walking in the sun on the other debilitated him, he could not stand anymore. He sat down on the floor and said, “I am in the 11th class, sir.”

Vijayaraghava Rao felt even more kind towards him. “You want food on Sundays. Of course, you can have, that is fine. What is your name?” he asked him with concern.

The young man said politely, “They call me Prakasa Rao, sir.”

The lawyer looked around as if he was trying to recall something and said, “By the way, did you eat today? If not, come in, take bath and eat.” Then he turned toward the next room and called, “Subrahmanyam!”

Subrahmanyam, the clerk, who was busy checking some case files, came in quickly, “You called me, sir?”

The lawyer nodded in assent and said, “Take this boy in and tell them to give him food.”

The clerk had never seen this kind of generosity in the lawyer in all the 10 to 15 years’ of his service. He was surprised yet without appearing so, asked the young man to follow him; they both went in.

***

Vijayaraghava Rao earns about five to six hundred rupees a month. He also inherited twenty acres of land and two houses. His son was studying law in Madras. We may assume that he had no problems in this world. There was one huge worry for him—that is his daughter who was born an invalid. Padmavati was born with weak legs, which rendered her incapable of walking. It is no surprise that watching her crawl on her scrawny legs brought him inexplicable pain at heart and other problems. But for the weak legs, she had no other limitations in any way. Her father arranged for her studies at home. She had enchanting voice. Except the legs, we must admit that she was gorgeous. The only thing bothered the father was what was in store for her in future. Generally speaking, it is natural for the mother to have such worry rather than father. She discussed about their daughter with her husband several times. She did so even on the day the young man came to their house for the first time.

The lawyer was in the kitchen and eating supper. He looked at his daughter, sighed and told himself, “I have plenty of money, yet what does it matter?”

Mother was serving food. She said, “Emandi, is this how it is going to be? I am nagging forever. Or, are you also thinking about it?”

“Am I sitting around doing nothing? Why do you talk as if you are the only one worried and I am not?” the lawyer said.

Mother poured buttermilk into his plate and said, choking, “God is not kind to my baby, otherwise…”

The daughter was trying to understand the conversation going on between her father and mother. She asked, “What is it, father?” She wanted to say something but could not.

Father said, touching her back tenderly, “Don’t you worry about these things. You eat and go to bed.”

Mother also said the same thing.

Padma however was smart in some ways; she understood their concern and seemed to ask why they should worry thus. She turned to her father, looked at him perplexed and asked, “Daddy, are you talking about my marriage?”

Vijayaraghava Rao felt a little embarrassed yet replied, “Yes, my dear.” He decided that it was not fair to keep it from her, considering she was fifteen, educated and worldly-wise.

“Father, do I have to get married?” she asked, having come to a decision in her own mind.

Mother said, chiding, “What kind of talk is that, my girl? Don’t talk your half-baked ideas.”

Father was surprised. He said, not chiding though, “What’s that? Why are talking like that? Why don’t you want to marry?”

Daughter believed strongly that her father could understand her. She said, “Father, I will spend my immobile life in this house only. Why do you want to marry me off to somebody and make my life even more ridiculous? Like my brother, I will also live here in the same house. Am I a burden to you, father?” Her voice became hoarse and her eyes showed sings of moisture.

Mother was distressed by the daughter’s words but father was quite used to this rhetoric. He said, comforting her, “My girl, what you said is true yet you have to think about your future. Who knows how things are going to be in this house after your mother and I are gone. How can we trust that your future sister-in-law would be nice to you? If you have a man whom you can call yours, then there is no escape for him from his duty. Look, you may say we have money. But how can we settle with money alone? Don’t you have to have a person for support? You tell me, dear.”

He laid it out so well yet he was also worried by the same question—whether he could bring a bridegroom for her. He could offer one half of his wealth yet nobody from his part of society would come forward to accept the proposal.

They all finished eating and got up to wash hands. Prakasa Rao was standing in the verandah under the shade probably for supper. Padma’s mother Rukminamma called him, “Come, Prakasam!”

Vijayaraghava Rao looked keenly at the young man one more time as he passed him in the hallway.

Padma spent all night thinking about the same topic.

It was the third week since Prakasam had started his weekly arrangement at the lawyer’s house. Prakasam had no one in this world that he could call his. Possibly, there were some distant relatives but none of them would fall into the category of “my people.” One may call a friend “my friend” no matter however wicked that person is but that is not the case with relatives. Prakasam’s attitude was also the same. That was the reason he continued his studies by collecting donations and making food arrangements at the houses of kind people.

It seems he was not able to collect sufficient funds for the fee for that month, so he decided to ask the lawyer. First he thought he would go straight from school to their house and then wondered if the lawyer would be home at that time of the day. He then decided to ask for money at night when he went for supper.

That night, Prakasam’s hungry voice moved the lawyer who was deeply lost in his thoughts.

“Sir, Pantulu garu!” Prakasam said.

Pantulu garu came out of his reverie and said, “Come in, dear boy, have you eaten? Come, sit here on this bench.”

Prakasam took those words as premonition of his success; he did not sit but said timidly, “Sir, the thing sir, the school fee for this month …” he stopped as if he was choked to complete the sentence.

The lawyer understood the boy’s thought and asked, “how much?” as pulled out the drawer and took out a ten rupee bill.

That was the first time Prakasam had ever seen a ten rupee bill. He said, “Six and a half, sir” and walked closer to receive the money.

The lawyer looked the boy up and down for some reason and asked, “Boy, where are staying?”

“In Dikshitulu garu’s house, sir,” he said, putting the money in the pocket of his tattered shirt.

The lawyer seemed to have come to some conclusion. He said in a voice, filled with enormous kindness, “Come here, sit. I’d like to speak a word with you. Do you mind?”

Prakasam sat down on the carpet, laid on the floor.

Probably, the lawyer had finished the process of thinking in his mind; he said with a determined voice, “Starting tomorrow, you stay with us. Why hop from place to place? Why arrange for food for each day in different homes? Why worry about school fee like this? I will pay for your education up to whatever you want to study. Is that okay with you?” He looked into the boy’s face.

Prakasam’s countenance turned blood red, having succumbed to surprise, under the brilliance of electric lights. He could not figure out whether it was a dream or truth. After two or three minutes, he could say, “Yes, sir.”

The lawyer got up from his chair, put his hand on Prakasam’s shoulder and said as he walked him to the door, “You hire a rickshaw and bring all your stuff.”

Prakasam felt was embarrassed or something. “I have only a blanket and one more pair of clothes there sir,” he said stuttering and left quickly.

***

Five months passed by. The heat from sun and the moonlight continued to be as usual. Prakasam’s lifestyle however shot up to higher echelon. Poplin shirts, Glasgow dhotis and bicycle were not the signs for his echelon. Usually, a poor man’s thought also flow only a smaller scale. Even his dreams would not think up of valuable things. In fact Prakasam had no dreams at all. Prakasam used to hope for a better shirt than the tattered one and own book instead of studying somebody else’s book five months back; now all those thoughts were gone; he started dreaming big dreams.

In the lawyer’s home, he had every kind of freedom one could hope for. The lawyer’s wife, Rukminamma was treating him with great kindness and affection. We cannot say Prakasam came to understand all the ramifications in that family, but he understood a few things in that house. Because of what he had learned, a few desires came to his mind. As if to reinforce those desires, his familiarity with Padma also started to grow. Padma liked him because of his poverty. She and Prakasa Rao were sitting down in the evenings and chat. Rukminamma enjoyed watching them thus sitting together and chatting. The lawyer garu also remained silent, as if supporting their meetings.

As one becomes worldly-wise, one also understands the society much better. In this society, one earns respect only when his financial position has improved. In reality, the respect accorded and the value attributed to the good and bad qualities and artistic talents are very little. In many places, it may be none. This perception of this societal reality had occurred to Prakasam. The people who had not said hello to him previously were showing respect not just to his clothes but him too. His humility and good nature were not noticed but now they were.

Things being such, there was no surprise he wished to have this kind of life forever. But then, how could he obtain this respect permanently? While he was pondering on these lines, his mind turned to the lawyer’s disabled daughter. She was beautiful and educated but with useless legs. She would never be able to get married. What if she … to him … he did not have the courage to think further. Although she was lame, would they marry her to an orphan like him? He felt dejected, chided himself and kept quiet. Probably, those who were down on their luck for sometime suffer from inferiority complex always.

Lawyer garu did not say anything until Prakasam had finished high school. He did not let him feel wanting for anything.

Prakasam finished high school and approached the lawyer garu one fine evening to obtain his permission

Lawyer garu saw him and showed him the chair next to him. He noticed that Prakasam came to ask for something. Amicably as usual, he turned down the radio volume and he asked, “What do you want, dear boy?”

Prakasam wanted to give some opening statements but did not know what to say; he said in a humble voice, “I would like to study Intermediate.”

“Of course, go ahead,” lawyer garu said. There was some anxiety in his voice, a kind of struggle, as if he wanted to say something.

Prakasam was waiting for his words.

Lawyer garu turned off the radio and said as if he was examining the boy’s psyche, “There was something I wanted to tell you for sometime now.”

Prakasam was silent, as if wondering what kind of thunderbolt was about to strike.

The lawyer garu had thought it out thoroughly. He had guessed earlier that as a result of the conveniences he had provided for him, Prakasam would accept his proposal. He said, “Dear boy, you said you have none whom you could call your own. You would remember forever, if I help you to improve your lot. However, there is one worry that has been bothering me day and night—worried about the future for my daughter?” His voice was choked after that; he could speak no more.

Prakasam’s heart started racing; he wondered what he could be saying next. “Tell me, sir,” he said, getting ready to hear whatever the lawyer had to say.

“I cannot be free from the worry, until and unless I see my daughter married. I will make sure that you have no worries in any manner for the rest of your life.”

Prakasam seemed to have understood his approach. “That is fine, sir. Do you have to go on explaining like this? How can I repay you for all the help you had given me?” he said quickly.

Lawyer garu just said, “That’s good, dear boy.”

Padma’s marriage with Prakasa Rao was performed quietly without much flourish. Lawyer garu created a document appropriating one house and ten acres of land to Padma. Prakasa Rao thought of asking to put it in his name. But for a person who feels a kind of lowliness, words do not come out of the mouth easily. After the wedding ceremony was over, some annoyance bothered Prakasa Rao and made him lose his peace of mind. He put an end to his studies. The reason for his annoyance was the few friends and others who commented on his wedding day that he was a fortunate man, looking at him pitiably. The reason for their pity—was it the fact he would not be able to go on walks with his wife, like they do? … He could go on thinking further but his mind would not let him, he kept quiet. Following lawyer’s advice, he started his family life in the house that was willed to Padma. He hired a cook. Life was going smoothly. Yes, he did not the kind of pleasures he had expected in life from Padma.

Prakasa Rao was not a bad person; he could not however remain committed to his wife. He was not sleeping at him twenty days a month. Padma understood the circumstances clearly; she did not blame him. It was not because of her weakness though. She had never favored the idea of marriage from the start. She could not show affection specifically towards Prakasa Rao either. She believed strongly that if anybody came forward to become her husband, he would do so only because of plenty of selfishness on his part. Possibly that was the truth. Even Prakasa Rao had consented to this marriage only because of his poverty but not because his generous heart softened. His selfishness was so obvious she was not hurt and that was no surprise. Prakasa Rao never ridiculed her.

He kept quiet as if his behavior was the answer to all the questions one might raise. Yet there was one issue that had been bothering him rather frequently. That is the eternal question if there has ever been one. Money is necessary to hook up with another woman. Naturally, a person’s needs grow as his awareness improves too. Amidst his financial problems, he found asking his wife for money even more frustrating. But what could he do? Whatever little property they had was in registered in her name.

Possibly the lawyer did not foresee things to take this turn, he nevertheless put the property in Padma’s name, suspecting what could happen.

Prakasa Rao took as many loans as he could through respectable channels. But for how long? The loans totaled to seven or eight hundred; he was forced to ask his wife.

“Padma! I need eight hundred rupees,” he said in a voice filled with affection.

Padma looked into his eyes and said, “Eight hundred? Wherefrom I can get?”

“How can I say? Ask your mother or father …” he did not finish the sentence. He was awestruck by the change in her bright countenance.

With disgust all over her face, she said definitively, “I don’t have it and I am not going to ask them.”

Prakasa Rao, who never had shown anger, was furious and shaken. Nonsense, she could say it in no uncertain terms only because he was hanging around there for her food. There was only one way to avenge himself on her—leave this lame bitch. The thought about his own future appeared became irrelevant at this point.

Prakasa Rao, got off the bed. “You lame bitch! You showed me respect wonderfully for living with you. That’s enough. I can live anywhere. It is over between you and me,” so saying, he walked towards the door.

Padma kept quiet, did not say a word. She did not fall on his feet, contrary to Prakasa Rao’s expectations. Not only at that time, never had she been worried about him for the rest of her life.

***

(Author’s note: You need not wonder why this story ended so abruptly. The story would have a happy ending, if Padma had suffered from inferiority complex about her physical disability. If I had to make Padma fall on Prakasa Rao’s feet, there is no need to write this story at all. After all, Prakasa Rao did not marry Padma to make her happy only.)

***

The Telugu original, swarthaparudu, was probably written in the early fiftees. The current version for this translation has been taken from an anthology raktasparsa published in 1963.

Translated by Nidadavolu Malathi and published on thulika.net, December 2010.


[i] A custom in Andhra Pradesh, according to which, seven families offer poor students to feed, one day each, to help them continue with their education.