The Small Wheel

By Nidadavolu Malathi.

“The deeyivoo (District Educational Officer) saar is coming.”

The school peon Venkanna usually arrives at the headmaster’s house at six in the morning. That day he woke up at midnight and started getting ready because the “deeyivoo saar” is coming. The “deeyivoo saar” is the District Educational Officer at regional level who conducts the inspection of schools once a year.

His wife Simmachalam did not share his enthusiasm.
“Who cares whether it is deeyivoo saar or his grandpa. They don’t give a damn about you. Here you are going nuts for a over week now,” she snapped turning over to the other side on the mattress.
“How would you know,” Venkanna responded, a little annoyed. He put on the shirt he got it ironed last night. It cost him 12 paise.

He could see his father in front him, wavering like a cobra. Eight years back Venkanna moved to the city. At that time his father told him, “Hey, Venka! We are not going to raise some two story building by ducking our duty and playing hooky. For us there is pride in working hard, have a measly meal and sleep under the tree.”

That is why Venkanna raised a beautiful garden around the school although it was not in his job description; there was no special allowance for that job; the only word from the headmaster was a nod and a cluck. Last year when the schools inspector came with his wife, Venkanna gave her fresh blossomed marigolds in a lotus leaf.

She took the flowers and said “lovely” in English. And she smiled kindly. The Inspector took the hint and asked him, “So do you do all the gardening?” There was a touch of kindness in his tone.
Venkanna was ecstatic. “Yassaar,” he nearly choked as he replied. He felt like the movie producer whose very first picture celebrated the 100the day showing. The garden feasted his eyes like a gorgeous woman in her prime of life.

“Good. See, our country prospers only when young people like you work hard,” the Inspector said.
“Yesyas. He iza very industriousend sinsearu,” said Sarmaji, smiling.
Venkanna felt thrilled one more time.

He was also in the picture taken at the end of the day. That picture is still there in his hut, hanging low from the beam, and hitting Simmachalam’s forehead each time she moves around and thereby receiving a few choice blessings from her.

Venkanna took that job in the city because he felt that a school job is respectable. He thought that that way he’d get a chance to see the elite, could exchange a few words with them, etc.; not because he had no life in his village. And he thinks his move has paid off. On one occasion, a movie star who played the villain roles came to visit the school. He was not like a villain at all! Everybody said that he was quite a gentleman. Venkanna agreed. On another occasion a minister came to visit. That day the hustle and bustle in the school was almost like the Mangalagiri Temple car festival. Venkanna was also in the photo taken at the time the minister laid the foundation stone for the building. The minister even had a kind word for Ventanna.

He could count such experiences on his fingers. Simmachalam does not understand this.

“Why can’t we stay in our village and farm our little strip of land,” she questions with puzzled looks.
“What is there in farming. One time flooding is enough to wipe out everything clean,” says Venkanna.
“Didn’t my brother say that we haven’t had a grain in 3 years?” he adds. “And why should we believe him?”
“Well, because we have to believe one man or one God. Who said that? I think it is that movie star Jaggayya.”
She doesn’t know all the intricacies of a school administration, poor thing, he told himself, feeling a little sorry for her ignorance.

Simmachalam watched him leave whistling. She also got up to go to work.
A little smile spread on her lips.
***

Sarmaji hit the roof as soon as he spotted Venkanna at the gate. “I told you to come at dawn and you show up now,” and then he turned toward the kitchen, “Is the coffee ready yet?”. He turned again to Venkanna again and said, “Go, go. Quick. Get a horse-cart. Not that lame horse. I know it is your wife’s brother’s father-in-law’s cart. That horse moves like a snail. Get Viraswamy’s cart.” Sarmaji continued issuing orders while fixing the pleats on his dhoti and putting on a clean shirt.

By that time Venkanna is long gone. So he turned again to the kitchen and continued giving orders to his wife. He was going bonkers for over a week about this DEO’s visit. He got the entire school building washed as if it were Pongal festival. Made sure that the cobwebs are cleared from all corners. All the library books that scattered all over the town were brought back. The walls were whitewashed. The black boards received a new coat of paint. The falling fence around the garden was fixed upright.

For each of these jobs he had to bellow like a small train engine. He told Elamanda to paint the dark patches on the exterior wall. Elamanda brought a bucketful whitewash, went through a few gestures of painting as if he were playing a role on the stage and disappeared behind the walls to smoke a beedi.

“If you keep disappearing like this how can we get the job done,” Sarmaji asked him with a frown.
“Just for a second, saar, just for one puff” he replied humbly.

Somehow Sarmaji got him to pick up the brush again and turned around only to see that Venkanna was nowhere to be found. He told Venkanna in no uncertain terms that beautifying the garden comes only after painting the black boards. Assuming that Venkanna was in the garden, he sent Puttanna to bring him back in to the building. He waited and waited. There was no sign of either of the two peons. Gritting his teeth, Sarmaji went to find them himself. He found them in the south wing where the first Assistant was making them move book shelves.

A few weeks ago the first Assistant had all the library shelves moved to the science lab since there were no books in the library. He was using them to stock the science equipment and other stuff. Now, since the library books are being gathered and brought back to the library, the shelves need to go back to the library.
Sarmaji has just about had it. “How come you need only these two idiots all the time. Didn’t I tell you to put the lab attenders to work also?” He said swallowing his anger like a bitter pill and issuing an order in the form of a question.”

“Attenders, sir? Where are they? One of them went to fetch your children. And the other went to your house. He said your wife wanted to run an errand for her”. There was a note of satisfaction in his tone–the kind one feels after settling a long overdue account. It was bothering him for a long time. The headmaster won’t let the peons go to the assistant’s house.
“How long does it take to fetch the children? These fellows take two hours for a 5 minute job. Why couldn’t you tell them to return soon. Do I have to mention that detail as well? Of course. The world has to think I am a heartless despot and you all model citizens.”

Sarmaji left growling like a ferocious animal.

The first assistant was confused, failing to see the connection between his words and the headmaster’s reaction. By the time the arrangements were completed almost all of them showed the Shakespearean face. No matter how attentive they were to details, there was always something still incomplete. By the time Sarmaji finished the coffee the younger daughter gave him, he saw Venkanna, along with the horse-cart and Ramulu holding the straps. Since Sarmaji was ready, he got into the cart. “How come it took so long,” he said as if it were a formality to yell at Venkanna.

“Viraswamy’s cart broke down. And you said ‘no’ to my brother-in-law’s cart. It took all this time to track down Ramulu,” answered Venkanna. He replied because it was his duty to reply. He wasn’t sure if Sarmaji cared to hear what he has to say.

Ramulu’s horse has no physical disabilities. But it is not broken yet. Ramulu and the horse were still new to each other. He walloped his whip and jumped on to the cart seat. The horse in protest completed on full circle right where he was. After a few minutes of struggle all of them were still at the same spot. Ramulu got off and was trying to explain the directions to the horse; the horse started walking backward!

In Sarmaji’s mind fear replaced anger. Panic struck and he started uttering several sounds expressing surprise, anger, fear and frustration. The script went somewhat like this:
“Hey, hey, ho, ho..”
“Stop, stop”
“What is this, a horse or a donkey?”
“This is what you’d get for the DEO?”
“Gosh!, what did I do to deserve this?”
“Should I jump out or stay put?”
The last line was not spoken but it was in his head. One of his legs stuck out from the back of the cart.

Ramulu kept reassuring him that there was nothing to be afraid of. He said the horse was a pancakalyani(God Indra’s). It’s only a matter of getting used to. Once he starts he will fly like a rocket…
Venkanna couldn’t decide he should take sides with whom.

While all the three thus got lost in their own monologue kind of words, they arrived at the railway station. They felt better after learning that the train was running two hours late. They were also happy that coffee in the thermos stayed in the thermos. The horse settled down chewing the cud.

Finally after two hours’ waiting, the DEO, his youngest daughter Saroja, his personal assistant and the peon got out of the train. Venkanna felt great being the first to meet the DEO among all the school peons. “Hey, why are you standing there like a flagpole. Get that suitcase and basket,” Sarmaji yelled at him. And he turned to the DEO and expressed his belief that they had a comfortable journey. Then they were lead to a kind of waiting room. While the DEO and his daughter were freshening up, Venkanna felt lost since he wasn’t sure how he could serve the coffee for so many people. The DEO’s peon did not offer to help Venkanna. He was maintaining his status.

Venkanna was jerked out of his train of thought by Sarmaji’s voice. He was cursing Venkanna for standing there like a lamppost and ordered him to serve coffee. Venkanna picked up the thermos like an accursed spirit. Still he did not know how to explain that there wasn’t enough coffee in the thermos for all of them.
Sarmaji looked at him growling one more time. There is a blame in those looks. They are saying I brought you because you are better among the lot. Those looks are saying “Oh, God! Why are you doing this?” The DEO was upset that Sarmaji and Venkanna were standing there staring at each other like the actors who forgot their lines on the stage. The daughter was annoyed for no reason. The first assistant intervened. He gestured to say that “Serve it only to the DEO and his daughter”.
The personal assistant pulled Venkanna aside and asked, “Can’t we get tea around here?”

Venkanna sincerely hoped that he could tea for this gentleman.

“No, sir. We don’t have a tea stall within 4 miles. As soon as we reach our village, I will make sure that you will get first class tea,” he said making the personal assistant sad and happy within same one minute.
Finally each struggling with their own thought, they all managed to arrive at the guesthouse.

Sarmaji noticed that the DEO is not pleased with the room. He turned to Venkanna and said, “Didn’t I tell you to get this room cleaned first thing in the morning,” and added as a compliment, “lazy buggers”. Venkanna was enjoying the moment–watching the daughter’s pleasure at the sight of the red hibiscus, which he himself put in the vase last night. So he was not upset by Sarmaji’s anger. Instead he convinced himself that “The saar, as an officer of the system, has his own problems and obviously forgot that Venkanna was with him (Sarmaji) since the crack of dawn”.

Sarmaji also got lost looking for an answer for some question the DEO raised. “Cant we get cigarettes here?” He wants Navycut. Sarmaji couldn’t tell the DEO that the only kind they can get here is Berkeley, or have to settle for beedi. So he ordered Venkanna. “Go, quick. Bring a tin of Navycut. Should be back as if you never left this place.”

Venkanna jumped on to his bike like a fighter-cock in the ring. He was hoping that he could find one or two cigarettes, if not a whole tin, in somebody’s pocket. He knows he can’t get even if he had a crystal ball. All that is on his mind at that moment is how happy the saar will be IF he can find some.

By mid-day he could find a half-packet in some small store. “You took half a day to bring 5 cigarettes,” Sarmaji yelled but there was no harshness in his voice. “Go home and get carrier meals. It is getting late.”

Venkanna hopped on his bike again and left. The madam has the food ready but there were no banana leaves to serve in. He had to hunt for leaves for another hour. By the time he got to the guesthouse, everybody there was boiling with hunger and anger. Venkanna scrambled through and quickly set the table. By the time they all finished eating it was three in the afternoon. Sarmaji told Venkanna to go home for his lunch and be back in five minutes.

Only he knows that he cannot get home in five minutes; God knows there is no time to eat. So he went to the fruit stall at bus stand, ate a bun and returned. It took ten minutes.
It was announced that the DEO will rest for the day and go on inspection of the school the following day. Venkanna was told to stay there waiting on the DEO.

The DEO’s daughter wanted to see the garden now. So inspection of the garden was scheduled for the same evening. The daughter picked as many flowers as she pleased. The DEO looked at the fresh vegetables with “approving” eyes. He pointed out his favorites without exactly saying so. He turned to Venkanna and said, “Very good”. His daughter sad, “Beautiful”. Venkanna nearly choked as he replied, “Namaskaram, saar and madam”.

In the evening he again brought carrier(food) from the headmaster’s home. It was 10:30 by the time they finished supper. Venkanna still hasn’t gotten permission to go to his home for his supper.

The DEO leaned back in the easy chair comfortably, and lighted a cigarette and flipped the burning matchstick to the area behind. The match stick fell on the plastic table cloth. There appeared a design automatically on the table cloth.

Sarmaji flared up pretty much like that table cloth. It was his. He got it from his home just to impress the DEO. “You scoundrel! How many times have I told you that you should always be alert. You will never learn. The only way you can learn is if you are fired. Alertness.” Then he turned to the DEO and said apologetically, “I told him, sir, yesterday to keep an ashtray here. Can’t he remember it when he brought the cigarettes at least?”

Venkanna did not say that he was never told about the ashtray.

The DEO said, sounding casual, “You must know how to manage these people. Fine him”. It was almost like preaching some sort of a universal philosophy. Sarmaji told Venkanna that he was fined five rupees. The reason: negligence of duty, he was further told.

The next day the DEO has inspected the classes, the school building, the laboratory, and the library. He showered praise: the school building is clean, the garden is beautiful, and the all the teachers appeared to be respectful. He shook hands with the headmaster and all the teachers. Gave his blessings to the young and advised them to work hard.

After putting the DEO and his gang on the train, the headmaster took a sigh of of relief. “Gosh, he’s gone. I could have easily performed the marriages for two girls,” he told himself. He also hoped that the DEO would not write a “bad repot” after all this stress and strain. Sarmaji proudly relayed DEO’s comments to his wife. The DEO said, “I should congratulate you”.

At the same time, Simmachalam was serving food for Venkanna, gave him a piece of pickle she got from madam’s house and saved for him. “You haven’t eaten for a week. At least now you sit, relax and eat well,” she told him with a touch of concern in her voice.
Venkanna took a bite of the pickle with great relish and went on narrating all the wonderful things that happened at school. “Can you imagine how happy the deeyivo saar was to see the garden; he praised it so much; he said very good. The young lady said oh, beautiful, lovely in English. The headmaster saar made me pack one basket full of flowers and two baskets full of vegetables to send with them. It seems he’d kill for green beans. And he also shook hands with the headmaster and all the teachers. A perfect gentleman!…”

Venkanna went on blabbering zealously.
Simmachalam was watching him and giggling.

There was only one detail Venkanna did not mention to Simmachalam. That he was fined five rupees the day before!

*****
(End)
Editorial note:
As a daughter of a school teacher and later as an administrator of a university library, I have come to know the low-class people– peons, janitors and maid servants. I was always impressed with their openness. I’ve also noticed the pride those low-class people have in their jobs, their big heart to forgive the transference of the frailties, fears and frustrations inherent in the middle-class moralists. And, at the end of the day, these small people enjoy their measly meal and sleep with content. How many of the middle class and the rich can say that?
Then there are questions: After we got our independence, we have democracy in place, have laws against untouchability professing equality, are working towards the eradication of the evils of caste system, and introduced western institutions in the name of progress. Instead of, or in addition to, higher castes now we have higher officials. Have we really progressed? Have things really changed? If so, for whom?

The award-winning Telugu story, chiru chakram has been published in Andhra jyothi weekly, April 2, 1971.

The Telugu original is available here