Three Thousand Five Hundred Rupees Dowry or Debt? by Puranam Suryaprakasa Rao

I am losing my mind. My parents and the neighbors are more anxious about my marriage than I am.  I keep telling them that I am not yet ready to marry. I am not saying it is wrong for them to ask why. But they refuse to see my reasons with an open mind, and that is a problem for me. I have been trying to explain to them very politely in a language they can understand.

I said, “Think of my age and the circumstances we are in now. You’ll see why you should not be coercing me into marriage at this time; it is not right. I don’t think I am ready to assume the responsibility of one more person until I got the strength to stand on my own two feet. I am not qualified to do so at this point in my life.”

They throw a cynical look at me as if I am an idiot and am blabbering some nonsense.

My father’s brother, Babayya pats my back and tries to persuade me. He says, “You think like that only now. Tomorrow by this time, you will have a job. Don’t you think then you’ll have no problem supporting your wife?”

What else can I say under the circumstances? If I keep insisting, my mother starts crying; there will be no end to the flow of tears. After a display of her broken heart in that manner, what do people think of me? They’ll think I am hardhearted, and that she is paying for my insensitivity. I am not saying she is putting up a show only to disparage me in public. In fact, my heart groans each time I see her beat her forehead and cry, “I’ve seen four decades of my life and the fifth is almost here. Probably, it is my karma, ‘be unhappy’ is written on my forehead.” To me, the arguments on both sides sound reasonable and that is the problem. I cannot decide one way or the other. I have never set my priorities. I never said that the girl must be beautiful, would not mind if she was illiterate, nor cared for their riches. I have stated even at the beginning my reasons for rejecting all the proposals; have I not?

Father says referring to a bride, he has come to know, “They may not be high class but they match ours very well. Think about it, they are willing to pay three thousand five hundred rupees in dowry. It will be unfair to harass them for more.” Implicit is the message I am small-minded and going for bigger dowry.

Burning flames rise from toes to the top of my head[1] yet I contain myself. All these people are stupid; they measure the entire world only by their own yardstick. They think that everybody else thinks on the same lines too. They hold on to their own beliefs and advise others according to their own mode of thinking. They will never come forward and say, ‘I am prepared to sacrifice this’ when the occasions calls for it. In their mind, every act of theirs is a great sacrifice. What did my father say just now? Apparently, he believes that not asking for more than three thousand five hundred is a matter of integrity.  Here, we are extorting a huge amount from them and he is implying that we are doing them a favor, and for that, they should be grateful to us. As long as they—father, Babayya, mother—are living in this house, they will not stop bringing up the subject. And I will not stop going crazy and shouting back. 

It has been going on like this for a while. Each time I step outside, I run into somebody dying to lecture me. I will hear at least once a day from somebody who preaches, “Your father is pouring his heart out; why can’t you listen to him and make him happy? You know what they say; to get married in younger days is a pleasurable experience. Where is the joy in the wedding after you’ve grown up wild like a palm tree?” How can I expect them to understand when my own folks cannot? They talk as if the young are inexperienced invariably and must listen to every word the old folks without questioning. That being the case, how can I convince them and win them over? For all these reason, I have learned to laugh gravely; implicitly, they are being foolish. Then they turn livid and walk away quickly.

At present, I do not have a job. Father has retired. So even the little income we had been getting is gone. We are managing barely with the rent from the house. Days go by softly. I believe that adding even a slight weight means only sinking the ship in a second. If one more person enters our house as my partner, that is what is going happen for sure. I can imagine the consequences but not those who consider themselves adults.

What is the point of this marriage if not to make our family matters public? Actually, there is another reason stronger than all these arguments. I have been fighting against the injustices in society. That being the case, is it fair for me to accept three thousand five hundred rupees as dowry on the sly? Won’t the people spit on my face? Forget the public, what about my conscience? No question, it is rebelling against the dowry. You may ask, ‘Why not marry without dowry?’ I have a response for that too. I have mentioned earlier. The income we have is barely enough for us. We are already in trouble, how can we take on more expenses in the name of wedding—the burden of one thousand rupees more? Who is going to loan us the money?  Even if somebody is willing to loan it, how can we pay it back? Where is the way out? All these problems are caused only by our idiocy. It is the same as we inviting trouble all by ourselves willingly and knowingly. Therefore, I have made up my mind that it is not proper to tie the thali around a woman’s neck before I got a job. I am determined not to budge from my decision, no matter who says what. I have not until now. I must not take dowry as long as there is life-breath in my throat, absolutely. How can I, if I have an iota of integrity in me?

Father is upset. He says, “Have we not all married in our younger days? Now, you are making such a fuss over it.”

“You be quiet. Things happen according to what is written on our foreheads. This is what god has written on my forehead. I’ll plod away as long as this machine has the strength to go on,” says mother.

Father’s demeanor drives me crazy but mother’s style calms me down like a cool breeze. If ever I happen to break my promise and lose my ground, it should be because of mother but not the rest of the folks. What others say does not bother me. On the other hand, mother has shouldered the responsibility of the entire household happily. Recently she is looking tired, seems to be dragging along because there is no other way. And partly I am to be blamed for that. Not that I cannot understand what she is thinking. Of course, her wish is reasonable. All she wants is to have a woman who can step in and assure her, “I am here attha. I will take care of the chores.” I know how important that is for her.

Okay, maybe I should just go ahead and tie the thali in some woman’s neck…

Oh, no, how can I forget my pledge? And my integrity? How can I sweep all my writings and speeches on ethics to a corner? How can I go against my conscience? How can I walk my life through twisted shortcuts, thorny bushes and gutters, without rhyme or reason and willfully? I don’t have to tell you; it will be a hell for a person like me to live without a goal or direction. Some people, not knowing the right from the wrong, may commit any number of mistakes without thinking twice. But for those who know the difference, it is a fierce fight, like gods fighting the demons. There is no end to the struggle for a person to go against one’s conscience. 

I have been struggling like this for a long time. Something happened this morning and I changed my mind, almost. Last night mother went to bed, complaining of a headache. Soon it turned into a high fever. By morning, the temperature went down but mother became very weak. I am embarrassed even to stand in front of her.

I stand by the door and hear father say, “Don’t you worry. You go and lie down. You stay in bed. We will manage somehow.”

“No. I will cook, you two can help yourselves,” mother said.   

Father keeps arguing but mother does not listen. My heart thaws as I watch her drag herself, step after step, towards the kitchen. Probably a sight like that contains innately the ostentatious power to blow all my beliefs away into myriad pieces. I want to tell my father to find a suitable match for me at once. I am about to turn toward my father’s room, suddenly I hear a huge thump in the backyard. Father and I dash to the backyard.

Mother lay on the ground in a pool of mud by the well. The brass pot slipped from her arm, sustained a few dents, rolled over and stopped at the trunk of a tree. Water from the pot made little pools along the way.

We help her to get up, walk her into the bedroom. I entrust father with massaging her legs with ointment and go into the kitchen. I cook the food for that day. As I sit down midst the stifling smoke, I tell myself, “What an idiot I am! Today she slipped and fell because of me. Today I am struggling in the kitchen trying to cook and that is my fault. There is no other woman around to help mother, not even when she is sick. My marriage must take place no matter what. No more objections on my part.”  

The question of wedding expenses looms large in my mind. My brain is bursting with questions. I don’t have the dough to move a finger, where can I get the cash to perform a big event like wedding. If I take out a loan, how can I repay? There is one way to get married without any problem like barrowing and returning it. That is selling myself to the other party. I will have to smother my conscience, close my eyes, drop my head, and kill my smug stance. Then there is no issue, no quandary, and nobody gets hurt. All along I rebelled against the world, yelled at the world, swore that I would conduct myself as I was above the rest. Now I am going to slither my way into the crowd quietly.

One more thing happens in the evening dealing even a bigger blow to my heart like a mallet and shattering my determination totally. Mother is sitting in front of the stove to cook and drops to the floor. She could have sustained major burns but escapes narrowly. Father sees it in time and puts out the fire quickly. That is how I have surrendered. A series of incidents come together and undermine my decision.

My marriage has been fixed with the second daughter of mister so and so. Tamboolaalu [exchanging fruits, paan leaves and gifts] has also taken place and the auspicious day has been set. Invitations are printed.

I have said that beauty is not one of my criteria, yet the girl I chose is not unattractive. My heart is in a flutter for the moment I am going to tie the three knots around her neck.

Cash changes hands with a jingle from my maava [father-in-law] garu to father. They sound like a snide remark and my head sinks. Three thousand five hundred rupees, I sneak a quick look into maava garu’s face as he hands the money and wipes the sweat on his forehead. I see the sweat; that is how he has earned it and now poured it into my father’s hands. My eyes are burning. I wish more men were born in this country. Then women would be scarce. When a commodity is scarce and hard to get, its value goes up. Then all the men will have to scramble looking for girls. I wish this change had occurred by now.

Wedding arrangements are moving on. The tarpaulin tent is as big as the sky. The crowd under the tent is making huge noise. The aunts in charge of the arrangements are scurrying around in a hurry, shouting and yelling at each other while a few others are taking the heat. Some people are working the palm-leaf fans to fight the humidity; a few others are enjoying the service. All women folks are gathered in one corner and the men in another. The children are running around all over the place; some are climbing up the tent poles. People are walking in and out busily.

In our literature, beautiful neck is compared to a conch. I wound a rope around that neck. Suddenly I turn towards maava garu, who is wiping the sweat off his forehead after pouring three thousand five hundred in my father’s hands. The signs of satisfaction in his face lash out on my back.

The wedding ceremony has ended. The bride’s party said that it went very well. That was true yet my family said okay by way of maintaining their status quo. They think that taking the three thousand five hundred is embarrassing enough and that they have to show a trace of discontent. In their minds, if they give in now, the bride’s party will shortchange them in other matters, the gifts yet to follow. The organizers on my side are that type. They would like to snatch as much as possible in as many ways as possible. The struggle in my heart is intensifying. I want to read a good book. Then the question pops up in my mind. Am I entitled to read a book? Maybe I should talk with a decent senior. More questions … How long can I put up with this heart that is crushing under the weight of my moral dilemma? I swore to myself not to accept dowry yet I surrendered. I am weak and a nonentity in history now. How can I say that I have a life …?

This intense torment is killing me. I find a way out while sitting by the window and enjoying the cool breeze. It strikes like a lightning finally. It hurts to borrow ten rupees from somebody but the pain is gone after it is paid back. Would it not be nice if I consider the three thousand five hundred rupees as loan? What a beautiful thought! There is a comforting thought. I have found a way to reclaim my character.  That is good, a great idea. There is a big difference between taking money gratis and calling it a debt. Therefore, I must return this money as soon as possible. To that end, I should start watching my money now. I will have no peace unless I settled the account. The three thousand five hundred I had received from my maava garu is an obligation. When I return it, it is the same as marrying Visalakshi’s without dowry. I can see it already; my friends are pouring praise on me, “Ha, wonderful, you’ve done a good thing. You are a man of integrity, I must say.” Then, I come to my senses and laugh at my own thoughts. I can call myself a man of integrity only after I have paid off the debt. Until then, I am just one more of them.

I must settle it! And settle it with interest.

“You call it—the three thousand five hundred—dowry? Shouldn’t we be extracting five or six thousand at least?” Kamakshi pinni comes into my room, tweeting like a parrot.

I mumble to my self, “Here I am worried, wondering how to pay off this three thousand five hundred; she is suggesting six thousand? That will kill all my hopes of regaining my integrity and my passion for social reform. Wouldn’t I lose my mind if I take six thousand and squirm for the rest of my life?”

“That is more than enough as far as I am concerned. They are also human, aren’t they? They are ordinary folks like you and me. Wherefrom they can get that kind of money?” I say to her.

Kamakshi pinni turns around and calls out for my mother, who’s busy in the backyard. “Akka, did you hear what your son’s saying? Not even two days since he’s married and he’s already siding with them.” Her voice fades away slowly as she steps outside. 

Anyway, even as I hoped for, a thin veil of peace has settled on the faces of my folks after my marriage is over. Especially, my mother is happy, which in itself is a blessing for me.

“That’s my boy, a good boy. He listens to me as always,” she says, holding me up to the skies.

I am racing with time to find a job, begging each and every one I could lay eyes on, mailing applications in response to every ad in the papers, and visiting the employment exchange every two weeks. Months pass by. Visalakshi has come to live with us. Within a year, she’s given birth to a boy.

My family, which used to be a family of three, is five now. Family is growing but not the income. The child is getting sick once every three days, which translates into doctor visits and medicines. In short, life turns out to be exactly the way I predicted. Probably father too has seen the truth in my words I’d said before. He is pacing up and down restlessly and pondering, ‘Whatever happened has happened. What can we do now?’ Mother on the other hand finds some kind of relief. She cooks in the day and Visalakshi cooks at night. Visalakshi has taken on one-half of the duties. I am sneaking around in the house like a worthless idiot. I am spending my days bearing the burden of the debt on one hand and the family quandary on the other, and praying the good lord for better days. My maava garu has given me his blood and sweat. I can call myself a person only after repaying the money, the sooner the better. I will for sure. That decision in my mind has never wavered.

Fortune smiles on me at last. I have a job now. Visalakshi is pregnant with second child. She will give birth to a son or a daughter soon. I have only a clerk’s position yet my heart is bubbling with pride as if I am a governor of the state. I am walking around holding my head high for about four days, feeling like I am ready to save the world. Family life is going smoothly, no snags of any kind. I am saving a little at a time, nobody knows about it though. My determination to pay off the debt is making me do so. 

Visalakshi sits in the room, mending a tear in my shirtsleeve. She says, “All the clothes in the house are worn out; nobody in the house has a decent pair of clothes. Forget my needs, think of maava garu and attha garu at least. You must buy some clothes for them. And you must get a pair for yourself too.”

Yes, that is true. I must buy clothes. But where is the money? “We’ll see,” I say and leave the room.

The subject of income and expenses comes up again. I say to Visalakshi, “My income is barely enough to cover our everyday expenses. There is nothing to save. Good thing we don’t have debts.”

 “Maybe so but attha garu is really sapped. We’ll need fifty rupees to buy a couple of sarees for her. We can take care of money later.”

 “Where can I get it?”

“You’ve been around for so long. Don’t you have a friend that can lend you fifty rupees?” Visalakshi says. Her jaw drops in astonishment.

“Don’t I have friends? Of course, I do. It’s just that my self-respect will not allow me to go for it.”

“We have to find a way. Do we have to live in a tight corner forever?”

Encouraged by her trust, I go out to find a lender friend. After getting a ‘no’ from one friend, I go to another and finally get the money and buy clothes. After all this bother, all I could feel is only the hassle and the debt but not the clothes we could buy. I see the packet—two sarees for mother, two dhotis for father, two shirts for myself, and one pair of pants and a shirt for the boy and tell myself that is okay.

Now I am in debt not only to maava garu but also to a friend. Debt, debt, debt! I feel tension in my guts. I told my friend that I would repay him in a week. Ten days before for the first of the following month, father falls ill. We think he will get better in a day or two but it is a week before he opened eyes. His fever flared up like a bonfire. He has not eaten anything in twenty days. One hundred rupees are gone for doctor’s visits and medicines. I had no choice but spend the one hundred rupees I have been saving secretly. My first attempt to repay maava garu fails miserably.

A month passes by. Some relatives come to visit us. With that, the grocery store account doubles. Normally, we spend twenty or thirty rupees but this month it is well over fifty. Mother starts lecturing me on proprieties. She says, “You know it is not like they show up at our door every other day. They’ve come for the first time. We should give them a blouse piece at least, don’t you think? Maybe a pair of pants for the boys and kanduvas for men.”

My throat is drying up. I open an account in the clothes store. It adds up to twenty-five rupees. Debts are mounting like mushrooms. My monthly salary is being stretched to settle these accounts. I am digging one hole to fill another. In the process, I seem to have lost sense of balance; I don’t know how to tally the income and the expenses anymore. I am a man of liabilities now. I am in debt to almost every man, who has a head on his shoulder. Some of them are avoiding me as much as possible. And I am avoiding the rest of them myself.

Mother is not feeling well. She has not eaten for ten days. Compared to her, Visalakshi is better; she has fasted only for five or six days. Don’t ask me about the children. They need their medications once every three days. My health is not good either. Doctors are suggesting that I should have orange juice every day. That is a quarter-of-a-rupee expense per day. Visalakshi insists that I should take care of my health. I bring the fruits on credit from the store round the corner.

I sit down to balance the checkbook. The bills add up to over four hundred rupees. There is another reason for this growing debt. For the last two months, we have not got the rental income of fifty rupees per month. The old renters have left and the new tenants came only this month.

My family is also growing. The expenses are on the rise and the income is barely enough to pay the bills. My debts are growing. Digging holes and filling them has become a routine for me.

Time is passing by inanely. Now I have two boys and two girls. Yesterday was my thirty-first birthday. I had a head-bath, wore the best clothes from the ones I have, and went to the movies with Visalakshi. She is only twenty-five-year yet is looking like a forty-year-old. Her waist has sagged and the bones at the neck are jutting out. Her rose-colored cheeks, which used to display beautiful dimples, sunk in. She is talking like an aged granny. The neighbors are addressing her as Visalakshamma. Visalakshi is carrying the household responsibilities alone completely. My mother is gone on a pilgrimage. I tried to stop her but she insisted. She collected two hundred rupees from me and went on a pilgrimage with the neighbors. She is gone for three months at least. She said she would write to me if she needed more money. I borrowed two hundred rupees at the rate of one rupee per hundred per month interest. and sacrificed it to her meaningless traditions.

We put my second son in school, incurring expenses for the ceremony, aksharabhyaasam[2]. My maava garu is on my mind constantly. Three thousand five hundred rupees’ debt. I do not have a paisa in my pocket. All I have is only an abundance of determination. I must pay it back. It is tugging at my guts constantly.

Why did I marry in the first place? What did I accomplish? There was no reason except to bring children into this world, get deeper and deeper into debts, take three thousand five hundred rupees dowry in spite of my reputation and sizzling conscience, and to rush to my ruination—that is what it is good for, it seems. My friend Govindam used to say that the best medicine for the agitation at heart is to run away from home and one’s possessions. I thought he was crazy. But now I see the truth in his motto.

My colleague Venkatrao, thirty-five, comes to see me early in the morning.

Visalakshi wakes me up to tell me that somebody came to see me. I get up, wash my face, and go into the living room. Venkatrao is in the chair. “What is new?” I ask him.

“My marriage has been fixed. The coming fifteen,” he says, laughing happily.

“Happy to hear that. Who is the bride?”

“From this town only. They are not rich. He [the bride’s father] is working in a local bank.”

“How much dowry?”

“I’m not taking dowry, not even a paisa.”

I turn pale. I see maava garu sitting in front of me with a sneer. “That’s great,” I say, laughing feebly. My head is spinning. The numbers—3, 5 and the two 0s—are running amok in my head. Ten years passed by. Four children were born. My debts increased immensely … I feel a streak of jealousy. Here I am submerged up to the hilt in the family matters, and Venkatrao is standing at the entrance of marital bliss. My stupid act is staring at me as if I am seeing it in a magnifying glass, like a blatant line of charcoal on a white wall.

The thoughts of the amount I owed maava garu crams in my mind. I cannot have peace of mind until I have settled the account and proved myself that I am a man of integrity.

Children gather around Venkatrao. Their clamor tires me out. I yell at them, and drive them away. They disappear quickly.

“What’s that for? Why yell at them?” Venkatrao reprimands me.

“They’re the living proof of my stupid and senseless act,” I say.

Ccha. Why do you say that? I remained a bachelor only because I have nobody to take care of my affairs. Or else, I would’ve been married long time ago. Marrying at this late age, isn’t it ridiculous?” There is no truth in his words, not even a little bit. He does not understand my pain. Mother, father, four children—all this looks beautiful on the surface; but how can he know the underlying snags?

After he has left, I go to the backyard to take bath. Father is watering the plants. Visalakshi is in the kitchen busy cooking. I keep thinking about Venkatrao as I soak in water.

Three thousand five hundred—the money I have borrowed ten years back and still remains unpaid. That debt is still three thousand five hundred.

Life goes on but the debt is not paid up. I am aging but the loan amount remains the same. There is no change in my position.

“I want to see my mother and father,” Visalakshi says. I take out one more loan, and I put thirty rupees in her palm and tell her to go, see her parents.

She returns home after spending a month with her parents. She is in tears as she narrates the circumstances at her parents’ home. She says, “By the time I got there, father was quite worn out. It seems he has been very sick for a while. They did not write to me, fearing that it would upset me. He is still not free from the family responsibilities. He is working all day; he has to walk up the hill and in hot sun. He has not saved a paisa. His entire earnings had gone for the children’s weddings. He is left with nothing but debts,” and wipes the tears.

My entire body cringes, head to foot. Shame hits me like whirlwind. If I had not taken his money—the three thousand five hundred—he would not have suffered so much. Thought of Venkatrao comes to mind. I slither out of the room with my head down. Maava garu is getting old by the day.

We have sucked the entire blood from his body, like a leech. I pride myself on being a righteous man but, in reality, I hit a new low. I crave to be out of the ordinary but I am the same as everybody else. I can see that now. I cannot be a special person until I have paid off the three thousand five hundred, to the last paisa. I am not as big a person as Venkatrao thinks I am. I know only the definition of the word ‘integrity’; that is all. I squirm so badly because I know the definition.

Days, months and years are going by. Visalakshi has given birth to one more suputra [good son]. Mother is getting older. Father has withered like a dried up fruit but does not stop caring of the plants. Mother continues to complain about it nonstop. Visalakshi’s health is deteriorating, more emaciated than ever; she is on medication forever, or so it seems.

I am standing in front of the mirror and staring at the hairs that are turning grey and reminiscing the old times. My daughter Sujatha comes into the room, calling nannaa. I move away from the mirror and turn to her, “What?”

“Mother wants you come into the living room.”

I go into the living room. “Here, a telegram. See where is it from,” Visalakshi hands me the envelope anxiously.

A telegram! I am apprehensive, as I open it. “Your …”

Before I finish the sentence, Visalakshi clutches my two hands and breaks down, “Tell me, what is it?”

“Your …your father …”

“Father, how is he? Tell me,” Visalakshi’s choked. I am choking too. I struggle to speak, “He passed away,” I say, with eyes closed and heart racing. Visalakshi collapses and breaks into big sobs.

Mother and father come in running from the backyard. Everybody is consoling Visalakshi. She cries, stopping briefly in between.

My lender died. To whom should I pay the debt of three thousand five hundred, for which there is no record? Pity I could not pay it back while he was alive. How can I feel the satisfaction of having paid off, if I cannot pay it to the person from I received?

I accompany Visalakshi to visit their family. Her brother lives in some far off place. He comes, performs the death ritual and goes away along with his mother and a ten-year-old brother. I stay also leave after the tenth day. Visalakshi stays for ten more days and returns.

“My father shed sweat and blood to the last minute in this world. But what did he gain? The family has no place to stay. His body was moved to the street while he was still breathing.”[3]

My heart turns squishy when Visalakshi talks like that. I must pay back the three thousand five hundred no matter what. Maybe they can use it for the little boy’s education at least. I am more determined than ever.

One more year has gone by. We all go for the first anniversary of maava garu. We return home after four days.

We are sitting under the moonlight, after finished eating. Suddenly Visalakshi says, “Sujatha is growing up, ready for marriage. We’d better start looking for a good match. If we start now, maybe we can perform her wedding next year. Nowadays we have to shell down at least three or four thousand rupees as dowry. Or else we will not find a good boy.”

“Three or four thousand,” My heart starts pounding. I feel numb as if hit by a boulder. What about the three thousand five hundred I owed maava garu.

It is twelve years since I’ve got married. I have five children. My debts and my age are on the rise but not the income.

(End)

(The Telugu original muudu vela aidu vandalu was published in the hamsa monthly and later included in the anthology, kakulu, published in 1969.)

Translated by Nidadavolu Malathi and publish


[1] A popular idiom arikaali manTa nettikekkindi.ed on thulika.net, July 2007.

[2] Ceremony includes prayers of lord Ganesh and honoring the first teacher.

[3] Usually landlords will not allow a person to die on the premises of a rental property. The body will be moved to the front yard for fear of offending the owner.