Durga just started being aware of the world, and started entertaining new hopes. She was hoping she also could wear a printed frock like Padma, tie her braids with red satin ribbons, buy beautiful dolls and tease the other girls in her class, and take her books and slate in a brand new bag …
She heard her sister mentioning earlier that she would be turning six the next day. Durga went into the kitchen, and kept pulling her mother’s sari palloo. Durga was nagging her mother that she wanted a new frock with printed flowers for her birthday.
Mother got vexed and yelled at her, “We’ll see. You can tell Nanna after he came home. Now, go out.”
Durga ran out, looked up and down the street for Nanna, and went back to the kitchen. “When will Nanna come home?”
“He’ll be home for food for sure, if not anything else.”
“When will that be?” Durga asked, a little scared of mother’s reaction.
“Aren’t you going to ever stop this fussing? Just go, or else. Kantam, get your sister,” Her mother called out for her older daughter.
Durga was scared of her mother’s anger, left the scene quickly, went, and sat down on the front porch.
In her tender heart, several hopes were forming around the printed frock. I need to get a frock, much nicer than Padma’s. She teased me yesterday since I didn’t have one like hers. Why should I keep quiet? I told her I had two such frocks. I’ll get up first thing in the morning, go to the store with Nanna and buy a frock, a gorgeous one!
Durga fell asleep right there on the porch, dreaming about her new frock. Mother came out and tried to wake her up but couldn’t. She picked her up and took her to the bedroom.
Durga woke up in the morning, went straight to her sister and asked, “Where is Nanna?”
“He’s not home yet,” akka replied.
Durga went to her mother and asked, “Amma, my frock.”
“What frock, you and your stupid frock. You’re chewing me up,” she yelled.
Durga went away to her room, crying. Just then, father walked in, ranting, “abbha, what a nuisance. Children are scuffling around, no sign of peace in the house.”
Durga rushed to him, wound around his legs and said, “Nanna, won’t you buy me a printed frock?”
“Stop fussing! Just go, you need a frock, hum. Nasty place, hell’s better. Nobody seems to think that I need to have peace of mind; man of the house needs some peace and quiet after a hard day’s work. The children are let loose like a herd of bulls to attack me,” he said harshly.
With that, mother snapped. “You brought home nothing, and yet you say you’re tired! Yeah, tired of what? Playing cards? The woman is expected to treat her husband royally, even it meant go begging. What a miserable life!”
This had been quite common at their house for as long as she, Durga could remember. So she did not pay attention to the brawl. All she needed was a frock. She went to her father and started crying. Father slapped her. She wound up in a corner and went on sobbing.
Mother whined, “You’ll have any sum to squander on gambling but not for us. Stupid life, can’t even buy a dress for our little child; poor thing she had to ask and even then there is no hope.”
Durga could not control herself. She wanted a printed frock. She would never ask for anything else ever again, not even for a second frock. Just for this once … a frock with floral prints. She would even give away the color box, she was so fond of, and all the slate pencils she had been collecting for years. She would pick the guava fruits from the tree in their backyard and give them to whoever wanted them. Just one frock, that’s all she longed for.
Durga went on crying. Akka came and talked to her. Annayya came and tried to talk some sense into her. Durga did not stop crying. He spanked her. Mother came and tried to coax her. Still Durga did not budge from her place. “All right. I will use one of my saris, and have a frock made for you,” mother said, as a last resort to calm her down.
“Go away, I don’t want it. I’ll never ask for it again. I don’t want anything. I will not go to school, will not eat food, I don’t want anything,” she said, gasping for breath.
“Go to hell, you stubborn idiot,” mother snarled and spanked her.
Durga never cried again. And she never expressed such a wish again. As she grew older, she understood her predicament better.
Father had gotten used to gambling all his earnings and returning home empty-handed. Mother kept fighting with father, and managing the household with the little change, which father would throw at her occasionally. Akka was growing up but lacking in decorum; she was running around shabbily for want of better food and clothing. Annayya was roaming around in town and returning home only to eat. Her younger sister knew nothing except to cry when she was hungry; or else, falling asleep. Durga was growing up amidst this array of people.
Occasionally, she would want to ask mother for something, but could not bring herself up to it. Her classmates talked about so many things, and what they had got as gifts at somebody’s wedding. She would stare at them, trying to swallow the bad feeling in her mouth. What if somebody gave her a present like that? What if somebody pulled her closer and said that he or she would buy a dress for our Durga just once?
Even the simple thought was exhilarating for her. Is it possible that at the time of akka’s wedding they possibly could have a dress made for her? Would they say this is for our Durga? Hope! Durga kept dreaming about her sister’s wedding just for that one reason.
One day her mother told ten-year old Durga, “Tomorrow akka is getting married.”
Durga wanted to say, “what about new clothes,” but she couldn’t.
The following day, they all went to the temple, wearing clean, washed clothes. The wedding was finished in thirty minutes. Durga could not understand what happened there. There was nothing–no new clothes, no wedding band, no eating laddu, and jilebi, and no paan.
After a week or so, Nanna yelled at annayya, and annayya ran away from home. Durga’s hopes returned to normal. She was sure that they somehow would manage to get new clothes for her. That did not happen. She thought, maybe, annayya would get a job, make money and buy new clothes for her. That did not happen either.
Durga started wearing saris now. It was her final year of high school. She would never ask anybody for anything. She would not open her mouth, no matter how much she needed something, not even when it was important. Never a word came up from her heart to her mouth. She would not let it happen. If at all, if it were a dire need, she would approach her mother furtively, and mumble, “amma, my saris are falling apart.” In that moment, tears would fill her eyes.
She never got anything unless she had asked for it. There was not a single person, who would come to her and say, “Durga, I bought this for you.” Whether she was alive or not, her father couldn’t care less. She did not know whether her brother was alive or not. Mother had been managing everything all by herself. It was the mother, who went around begging people and got help for her education. Mother wanted Durga to have a better life. What else could she ask for? She was not lucky enough to receive a gift given to her, with a few kind words such as, “I brought this for you.” There was not a single person on the entire planet who would say that to her.
Durga wanted to cry. Sometimes her friends would ask her if she had new clothes on a festive occasion; and she would say she did not buy any, hiding her hurt. She would gape desperately, when her friends approached her, wearing a new sari, new bangles, and new ribbons, and told her that her brother had brought the sari from Bangalore, or sister had brought it from Delhi, or an aunt had got it from Calcutta. On such occasions, Durga would wonder if ever in her life such a day would come. If not a sari, a piece of ribbon at least! Would there ever be a moment when she could hear the sweet words, “I brought this for you”? Could she ever be that fortunate? Sometimes, she would just imagine the moment somebody had brought something for her, and would go into raptures. Her eyes and heart would inundate with hope.
Durga finished high school. Mother and father wrangled over it, and agreed to send her for teacher training. Each day had been a struggle for Durga. Her unusual hope was growing bigger and bigger. She was feeling crushed under the wait.
After she was done with the teacher training, she took up a job. She had hopes about herself, about her income, and her own life. She received her first paycheck, and came home. Her mother said, the money was needed for her younger sister’s education, to pay off the outstanding loans, and to meet the household expenses. Crushed, she handed her entire salary to her mother. Durga understood her responsibility.
Life went on. The family’s situation was improving. Durga’s little sister was growing up. Mother’s problems were waning. Yet, Durga’s hope remained the same.
She was getting salary each month. Festive occasions were showing up in their natural course. For each festival, Durga was buying new clothes for father, mother, and little sister with her money.
Her colleague, Sakuntala asked her, “How come, you buy clothes for all of them, but not for yourself?”
Durga said, “How can I buy for myself? You tell me. Nobody says, ‘you get one for yourself.’ How could I buy clothes for myself?”
Sakuntala did not know whether to pity her or reprimand her. She would just stare at Durga.
Durga brought new clothes, gave them to all of them. She watched them and wondered if any one would ask her? At least, the little sister ask, “Why didn’t you buy for yourself”; Or, the mother ask, “How come you did not buy anything for yourself?”
No, nobody said that. Nobody cared about her. She was not fortunate enough to hear the simple words, “This is for you.” So be it. Why couldn’t they say at least, “You get a sari for yourself”? On the other hand, she overheard her mother say to her neighbor, “I don’t have to tell her. She goes out, and if she finds something that she likes, she can buy herself. Only we are stuck at home, and so rely on her mercy.”
True, she could buy for herself. She in fact had been buying things for herself. She waited and waited, hoping somebody would suggest that she buy for herself, and got tired of it. Also, her saris were worn out and she had to buy for herself.
But her little sister would not let her enjoy that either. “Your saris are nicer than mine,” she would say. That watered down whatever pleasure she could have had. Then she would not feel like wearing them anymore.
One of her colleagues showed interest in marrying Durga. He approached Durga’s father. Her father said, “We have no objection if you want to marry and take her with you. We cannot pay any dowry or anything. Also, her little sister’s education is her responsibility.”
Both the parties agreed to foot their own bills, and the wedding was performed in a temple. Durga knew only too well her father’s attitude, but she hoped that her husband might buy her a sari. After they had set up the family, her hope started sprouting again. Did he not marry her because he wanted to? The man, who had married her on his own accord, wouldn’t he bring something for her? Wouldn’t he look into her eyes lovingly and tell her he had brought something for her? Just for once, if he had done that, she would cherish it for the rest of her life. It’s enough if somebody brought her a rare, unique gift—whatever that is—but meant specifically for her, a gift that acknowledged her existence, something meant for her, and because that would make her happy … if somebody had given her that experience just once in her lifetime, she would cherish it forever. She would worship that thing with flowers for the rest of her life.
Each day, she watched her husband, his hands, and face, for that special object, specifically meant for her, for the one thing that identified as an individual in this world. Her heart would beat faster as he approached her. With a bright face, and bubbling with excitement, she would shiver head to foot. She wondered how she was going to contain herself.
Without noticing her excitement, her husband would walk past her, and change clothes and sit next to her to help her in cooking. It took one half hour for her to collect herself.
As days went by, Durga was losing even that hope. Her husband had no such thought. His activities were limited to sending money to his parents, using Durga’s income to managing the household expenses, and spending time with his friends.
Durga hoped in the early days that he would bring her flowers at least. In an attempt to alert him, she bought sandals for him once. And on another occasion, she bought him clothes. He took them and kept quiet.
Durga felt like crying. Whatever sins she might have committed in the past lifetime? What a wretched life! Not one person would think of spending not one paisa on her. Dismal penury is better compared to this life! \
Sakuntala was wearing a new sari every month. She would say that her husband bought it for her. She looked very happy and beautiful in that moment. Next-door neighbor showed her a sari; she said her mother gave it to her when she went to visit her.
“That’s nice,” Durga said. It was okay even if it were not nice. It might not be nice, but it was brought specifically, exclusively for her; isn’t that enough to feel blessed? If anybody had done that for her, she would accept the gift, no matter what, and carry it on her head.
Sometimes she would go to the flower shop to buy flower. But she would return home without flowers; she could not bring herself to watch all the men gathered around at the shop. She would be speechless whenever a neighbor showed her bangles and said her husband had brought them for her. Sometimes she would run into a colleague at some store, and he would ask her, “You are here anyway. Please, help me select a sari for my wife.” She would make some excuse and leave the place quickly.
Years passed by. Now Durga was being referred to as Durgamma. She had two sons and one daughter. By the time her son starting walking, holding on to her little finger, her hair started graying. She gained weight, and her pace slowed down.
Durgamma used to lie down on a cot in the open yard, hugging children and telling them stories. She was feeling elated as the children surrounded her, calling her amma. Their love for her gave her immense joy. As soon as she got her salary each month, first thing she would do was to attend to the children’s needs. Then only, she would turn to her other business. She was sure her children would take care of her after they had grown up. They would fulfill her wish. They would recognize her as their mother and give her gifts … so on and on.
Durgamma did not forget her one wish. One day Sakuntala showed her hairpins and said, “My daughter said that she went shopping and saw these pins, and immediately she thought of me. Aren’t they smooth and nice?” Durgamma heard it and told herself, “My daughter also will bring hairpins for me. She will.” She was excited at heart for that charming moment. “My son also will bring me something. He’s so fond of me,” she pondered joyously. She could barely wait for that moment.
Durgamma’s eldest son, Prasad, got a job in another town and left, leaving his mother behind. Her daughter got married, and even before Prasad. Now only the youngest son was living with her.
Ever since Prasad left for his job, Durgamma was waiting for him to send something for her. Would he send money? Or clothes? Maybe something unique that is available only in his town! What a long wait for that fortune to smile on her! He loves her very much. He would do anything for her, would bring whatever she wanted.
A month passed by. Durgamma received a letter from her eldest son. “I got my first paycheck. I have to pay the hotel charges, and other debts. I also need better clothes to wear. There are also a few other expenses. For all these reasons, I am not in a position to send you money for a few months. I hope you’ll understand. I am looking for a room to rent.” The letter went on these lines.
Durgamma was devastated. Is this all there is to her life? Is this her luck? Not even children could understand for who she is; could not recognize her yearning. Can’t she get anything without asking for it, specifically? Can’t she get anything unless she went herself and got it?
A huge wave of sorrow soared in her heart. Why does she have to have this desire? Why this particular desire, which she could not confide in others? Why could this little wish from her childhood days not be fulfilled even after she had grown so old? Why didn’t the wish die at least? Each and every person could have this smallest wish fulfilled but not her, why? All other desires became insignificant and disappeared but this one desire became the strongest and rooted deepest, why?
Durgamma was going around as if she were out of her wits. After months, the forty-year old Durgamma was bedridden. In just ten days, her situation took a turn for the worse. Somebody sent telegrams to her son and daughter. Her husband sat by her bedside and did not leave for a minute.
“Amma, amma, I came. See, I am here,” her son said in a choked voice.
“Amma, amma, I am Lakshmi,” her daughter was crying.
Durgamma opened her eyes with difficulty. Even then, her eyes flashed with hope.
“Durga, Durga,” her husband called her in a shivering voice. Durgamma looked at them pitiably. She looked at her son and daughter yearningly. And she closed her eyes, disappointed.
They all broke into sobs. After a half hour or so, somebody said, “The dead body must be covered with a new sari. Bring one.”
Her eldest son got up and said, “I will bring it.”
“I will bring a new saree for my mother,” he muttered to himself, pulling out his hard-earned money from his pocket.
(The Telugu original, eduru chuusina muhurtam, was published in Telugu swatantra, October 1960.
Translated by Nidadavolu Malathi and published on thulika.net, July 2005.)