“Let’s go to Milwaukee tomorrow,” said Siva Rao.
Sumana turned towards her husband, Siva Rao, with disbelief. Her big eyes turned bigger; really?
“Yes,” he said.
The Lord Siva has issued His command![i], the phrase resounded in her head.
Sumana was nine-years old when she chanced to meet a lady in the neighborhood and befriend her. She used to call her “kathala Attayya garu” [storyteller auntie] fondly.
After nearly thirty years, she heard from the same kathala Attayya garu again. She was ecstatic.
This is how it happened: Attayya garu came to California for a short visit with her son, Rambabu. One day, while she was turning pages of a local Telugu magazine, to her great surprise saw Sumana’s name. She brought it to her son’s notice right away. “Ohhhhhhh, this little girl I know her. So she lives here now? She is like a daughter to me, don’t you remember? She used to come to our house everyday … I knew her since she was this little,” and she held her hand as if she was marking the girl’s height in the air. Rambabu got on his laptop at once, conducted a people’s search, found Sumana’s phone number, and dialed the number.
Sumana picked up the phone and said hello.
“Wait, I’ll get your friend,” he dropped the handset on the table and went away.
Sumana was confused. Who this friend could be? … Before she came to any conclusion, she heard hello from the other end. The voice sounded a bit mature, to be a friend of her age.
Sumana said hello back and asked apprehensively, “Who’s this madam?”
“Me, dear, your teller auntie from Mangalagiri, remember? You used to come to our house every day in the evening after school.”
“Wow, kathala attayya garu! Oh, no, how could I forget you? When did you come? Where are you?” Sumana was startled and then chocked; she could hardly contain herself for all the joy the tidings over the phone had brought. She could barely keep her feet on the ground.
“Yes dear. Rambabu is in California now, you know. He bought a house. I came for gruhapravesam[ii],” she said, feeling elated that the little girl had not forgotten her.
“Wow, listening to your voice again, so nice, feels like I am in your kitchen again!” said Sumana.
“Where do you live? Anywhere near by?”
“No, Attayya garu, California is far away for us. If you come to Chicago, let me know. We can come to see to you?”
“Chicago? I don’t know about that. I might go to Chicago. Is Milwaukee close?
“Ah, yes, it is close, very close, Attayya garu. Tell me, when will go to Milwaukee?” Sumana was thrilled by the prospect.
“I don’t know yet, dear. My father’s brother’s granddaughter lives there. She has asked me a few times to visit her. Her husband has some job in some company. She stays home with the two kids. I am not sure yet, thinking about it though. The travel here is such a hassle, you know.”
“Please, do come. I would like to see you also. We can come to Milwaukee and bring you to see our house. You have to see our house also you know. … Travel is hassle, I understand. It is not that easy in this country despite all the flights,” said Sumana, feeling choked.
“Who’s she?” asked Pandu. He understood that mom was talking to somebody she liked very much obviously.
“Attayya garu,” she said and explained to him how she had become so fond of her. We went on talking about Attayya garu, unaware that the boy had stopped listening.
Attayya garu called Sumana again after she had arrived in Milwaukee. Her uncle’s granddaughter, Ratnamala also was very amiable; she told Sumana over and again that she must visit them upcoming Saturday.
Ever since Sumana had received the news, she had been trying to pursuade her husband Siva Rao to take her to Milwaukee to visit her favorite Attayya garu from her childhood days. Unfortunately, Siva Rao had not been able to do so; something or other had been coming in the way. The fact is he would not miss a puja or a religious ceremony in any Telugu home within one hundred miles radius under any circumstance. At the beginning Sumana did not want to go with him to all these festivities but he prevailed upon her eventually. He told her, “If you do not believe in God that is fine. Just come for prasadam.[iii]” That worked for her. Their six-year-old son Pandu would jump on any occasion that got him out of the house. After that it had become a tradition in their family. However, the current situation put Sumana in a different mood.
Sumana was losing hope; kathala Attayya garu would leave Milwaukee and go back to California the following Sunday. After that, she would not get another chance to see her again.
“Let’s go to Milwaukee coming Saturday,” Siva Rao.
Sumana’s heart shot to throat. Thoughts about the teller auntie rose in her head like a swarm of bumble bees. Sumana was floating on the clouds after Siva Rao announced that they would be going to Milwaukee on Saturday. She could not sleep all night. She could recall as if it happened yesterday the home of Attayya garu, the mind-boggling aroma from the spices Attayya garu was using in her cooking. Finally in the wee small hours her eyelids drooped heavily.
The car stopped in front of Ratnamala’s home. She invited them in gleefully.
Sumana’s eyes were hovering around in the room for the person she had been looking forward to see. She sat on the edge of the sofa. Her heart was pounding like the little engine.
“Attayya garu will be here in a minute,” said Ratnamala; a little smile spread on her lips understandingly.
Pandu was restless. Siva Rao was trying to keep Pandu occupied.
“What would like to have? Coke, coffee, tea?” asked Ratnamala.
Pandu said coke. Siva Rao said no thanks. Sumana shook her head, nothing for me.
She wanted to see only Attayya garu. That’s all she wanted. She kept looking around and toward the staircase. When will this wait end?
Attayya garu appeared on the staircase, at last. She was small of stature yet had a commanding personality, like the statue of goddess Rajarajeswari devi in a temple. The signs of age were visible yet nothing changed. She was fair complexioned, always displaying an amicable smile on her red lips, eyes radiating affection; hair turned completely grey giving the whole face a new glow. Back then, her hair was shiny black. She would apply coconut oil and comb it neatly, put it in a bun, and tuck a bunch of jasmine flowers. Then, she would make one more bunch of jasmines and keep it on the little table by the door for Sumana.
Sumana sat there glued to the chair and watching Attayya garu as she walked down the stairs… Attayya garu walked up to her, took her chin in the palm, and said in a touching voice, “Let me see your face; getting old, can’t see clearly. So, how’re you doing? Is this your kid? Very cute, just like you ….”
She went on and on asking question after question nonstop. Sumana’s eyes turned moist for all the kindness Attayya garu is showering. Yes, that’s my boy, he is my husband … she was answering in the same order. She wanted to ask as many questions, wanted to tell so many things, not a single word would come out of her mouth.
Attayya garu sat next to her, put her hand gently on Sumana’s head and said, “It’s so long since I’d seen you … You’ve grown up so much, I never thought I could see you again, not even in a dream … It’s all the Lord Siva’s will, I believe …”
“True Attayya garu, I also wanted to see you, always thinking about you but never thought it would happen.”
“That’s the reason they say even an ant would not sting unless He commands so.”
“It will sting if you stick your finger in its anthill,[iv]” Pandu said, referring to the story he had heard so many times.
Attayya garu laughed heartily, “Aha, did your mom tell you that? Even then the ant would sting only if it has Siva’s command.”
“How would we know the ant has His command?” he asked.
Attayya garu pinched his cheek playfully and said, “You’re also into stories like mom? You’ll know it when it stings you.”
“It won’t sting if it did not have His command?”
“No, it won’t.”
Ratnamala smiled and said, “Let’s eat. It is getting late.” She walked towards the kitchen.
Pandu sat there with a pout. He was getting bored. Ratnamala noticed it and said, “I wish my kids were home. They would have great time. Unfortunately, they went to a birthday party, my first son’s friend’s birthday. I told them to stay home but they wouldn’t listen.” She turned on the cartoon channel and handed the remote to Siva Rao and went into the kitchen.
“Can I help?” Sumana followed her.
“It’s almost done, not much really, almost done; ready in five minutes. You two chat. I’m sure you’ve a lot to talk about,” she said.
At the table, Attayya garu sat next to Sumana, gently playing with the curls on her forehead and talking, “You had a dark, thick mop of hair; I used to struggle to braid it. Did your husband tell you to cut it?”
“Oh no. He did not say anything. I did it myself; it is easy to take care, you know.”
“Is he making good money? After all, it is only for the money our people come running to this country, leaving behind families and properties; isn’t it true? Are you saving? We never know when the wealth comes and when it disappears. Why aren’t you working? Did your husband object? So, how come only one child? He is making good money, you have everything, you should have bellyful of kids. One eye is not eye and one child is not child, my mother-in-law used to say. I also have only one child, Rambabu, you know.”
Sumana was flabbergasted. She never imagined this side of Attayya garu-endless flow of inquiries about her personal life. She did not know how to answer them. She felt like a little chicken caught in the hands of a naughty boy. Her heart shrunk; she threw a desperate look Ratnamala; seem to be saying “save me” look. Ratnamala was busy with something on hand and with her head down. She might be trying to hide the fact that she was enjoying the entire scene.
Sumana gathered all the strength she had and made a desperate attempt to stop Attayya garu as she said, “Oh, no, no, he did not say anything, nothing at all. In fact, he never interferes with any of my ways. I just do whatever I please, that’s it. He is not like that at all.”
“How come you are not working? I’ve heard here you have all kinds of facilities to take care of children.”
“I thought I’d rather take care of children myself than ask others. Children are more important to me.” It hurt her that to think that Attayya garu should feel that she was doing something wrong.
Ratnamala also felt like saying something in defense of moms taking care of children. “That’s what I said too,” she said and started setting the table. “Will you tell them to food is ready,” she said to Sumana, putting an end to the chat temporarily.
Sumana thanked her stars and her hostess, jumped to her feet and dashed to the living room. She came back and sat next to Pandu on the pretext she needed to feed him. However she could not escape from the torrent of questions from Attayya garu completely.
Attayya garu sat across from her and continued her enquires: Is the young man [her husband] treating you well? Is he doing well in his job? You own the house? …
On the way home, Siva Rao turned to Sumana and asked, “Happy?”
Sumana could not come up with a proper answer for that question.
Sumana put down the pen and started folding the paper in her hand. Siva Rao returned from office. He saw the paper in her hand asked, “Letter? Wherefrom?”
Sumana handed over the paper to him without a word.
Siva Rao took it and stared at her. Is it from Attayya garu? Sure looks it! He was confused.
Sumana shook her head, read it.
Siva Rao sat down and started reading the letter.
“chiranjeevi saubhagyavathi Sumanaki,[v]
Your Attayya garu blesses you and writes as follows. I am doing well here and hope you all are doing well.
I was very happy that you had taken the time to come from so far away just to see me. I never thought I would see you again in this lifetime, my baby. You made a point of remembering me and coming to see me. It made me so happy. May God bless you!
You’ve always been a good girl, even when you were a little kid. Remember, you used to come running to our home after school every day. I used to wait for you anxiously and your uncle used to tease me, your pet child has not come yet? At the time you were six-years old and you grew into beautiful young woman right in front of my eyes and finished high school. I however see you only as that six-year old child. That’s why I was so excited yesterday. I was so excited, wanted to ask you so many questions, wanted to know everything about you … I could barely contain myself, my dear: How’re you? What are you doing? How is your marriage? Is he taking good care of you? I know my questions would be annoying to you. But, what can I say? What can I do? You know I am not educated like you. You tell me, how would I know the etiquettes of your generation? I have no idea what movies you watch and what politics you talk about. That’s all Sanskrit to me. I live only in my small world and I talk only about the very few things I am familiar with and only in a manner I have gotten used to. That’s all. Anyway, while we are on the subject, I am asking again. Is your husband treating you kindly? He is not into drinking and flirting, right? Okay, never mind. I’ve seen him. He looked pretty decent to me, I’m sure he is a perfect gentleman and he is very fond of you.
Do you remember? One time your uncle went out of town and he wrote a letter to me from there. I didn’t know how to read and asked you to read it to me. I asked you all right but did not let you read it to the end. I snatched it away from your hands midway. I had a feeling what might be there and I was scared in case you might start asking questions. Now, you’ve all grown up, maybe, you’ll understand what it could be about. I know your husband is romantic too!
At that time, anyway, I bawled at your uncle for writing the letter, knowing full well I did not know how to read. He bawled back at me, saying that is why I am telling to learn how to read and write. After your family had moved away, I started to learn how to write, with the hope I could write to you, but it did not go far.
Remember you made a small mat in your crafts class and gave it to me. You told me I could sit on it at the puja time. I still have it. I would not sit on it though for fear it might wear off and get ruined. I know what I should do now. After I return home, I will sit on that mat and perform Satyanarayana puja in your name, seeking the Lord’s blessings on you, your husband and the child. I would wish a long happy marital bliss for both of you.
As for me, the fact that you’ve come to see me is enough. I never thought I would see you again. And in all probability, I may not see you again. My part in this world theater is nearing the end. I am only waiting for the Lord Siva’s command. As soon as he says go, I will depart. Please, do not be mad at this foolish Attayya garu.
With all the best and kindest blessings,
Siva Rao turned the paper back and forth, looked around for the envelope, and looked into Sumana’s face. He moved closer and said lovingly, “You have understood Attayya garu and written the letter just the way she would have written. It reflects her perception completely, as if you were holding a mirror to her heart. The wording is completely hers, no doubt. If she could see this, she would be ecstatic.”
Sumana could not feel all that reassured. “What is the point of words? It should show in action,” she spoke softly.
“Stop, you should not feel guilty like this. Recognizing something about a person and admitting it is just as important. Do you know how many people cannot or will not even see that?” And then, he said, in an effort to lighten the air, “This is all cute but you’ve made a drunk and flirt,” and brought his face close to hers.
Sumana bit her tongue, squinted and smiled, leaning on his chest.
The phone rang.
“Pch, bummer,” he said, as went and picked up the phone. He listened for a couple of minutes, and said, “Oh, no! I am so sorry. … Sure, I will tell her. … take care,” and hung up. He turned to Sumana.
Her face fell. She was staring at the paper in her hand. She kept circling the phrase “the Lord Siva Commands” mechanically.
Siva Rao walked back to her, sat next to her and said, “Attayya garu suffered a heart attack last night. They are still conducting tests, no need to worry about, he said. She may not need surgery.”
She could barely see the words the Lord Siva Commands through the film of tears that gathered in her eyes. Suddenly, she grabbed her husband’s hand and said in a husky voice, “Let us perform Satyanarayana puja.”
Siva Rao was startled. This was the first time he heard it from her. He managed to hide his surprise and said, “Of course, we will perform the puja. I think Paurnami [Full moon] falls on next Saturday, good for the puja.”
Author’s note: This was originally written in Telugu, inspired by a friend’s a casual comment. Then, readers actively participated in a discussion on the story, especially on the ending. Following their responses, I wrote a second version, making several changes to suit the ending. This translation of the second version again needed a few more changes in view of the fact that this needs to be made readable by non-Telugu speaking audience.
In all, I must say, this has been a good exercise in writing fiction and translation. Thanks to Telugu thulika readers. I hope you all enjoy this version also.
The links for Telugu versions on Telugu thulika:
Sivudaajna (ver 1) http://wp.me/p9pVQ-9G
Sivudaajna (ver. 2), http://wp.me/p9pVQ-b6
Published in 2008.
– Nidadavolu Malathi
[i] Refers to a Telugu proverb which says not even an ant will sting unless the Lord Siva commands it, Sivudaajna ayitee kaani cheemaina kuttadu.
[ii] Ceremony marking family’s move into a new home.
[iii] Food or fruits offered to God and eaten by devotees as a sign of receiving His blessings.
[iv] A children’s story in which a little boy pokes into an anthill and the ants sting his finger.
[v] In our culture, the form of address at the beginning of letter reflects relationships between the two as well as blessings or regards as the case maybe. The address here indicates the old lady started the letter with her blessings to the young woman.