Category Archives: Telugu Stories in English

The Letter Lasts Forever by Nidadavolu Malathi

The Telugu word for letter [alphabet] is akshamam. The literal meaning is “that which stays forever”.

Due to frequent transfers in my father’s job, I could not finish high school the first time. I passed the mid-year exam and waited the next six months to attend college the following year. During that interim period, I had gotten used to shadowing my mother and learned plenty in the process—more than any education I had received in my school.

Among the lessons I had learned, the most important ones came from Sandraalu, the vegetable vendor, who used to come to our door every day with a basket filled with vegetables picked fresh from her garden in the backyard. She would bring glistening eggplants, tender okra, and the squash which she would not let me touch. She would say that Brahmin women would not buy them if they see nail marks on it.

Sandraalu had a way with words. She was great in telling about the events in her life like an accomplished narrator. Her stories are imprinted on my mind forever, more than any stories I have ever heard anywhere else.

Sandraalu would start with a trite phrase like “nothing stays forever” and then go into a sweeping narration of how she had trusted a Christian father, converted to Christianity, realized that the change had not been for the better, returned home, got an earful from her mother-in-law, hopped on a bus and ended in a neighboring village, Simhachalam. In Simhachalam, she had met with Jigini Saibu who was running a small tea stall at the bus stop on the outskirts of the village. He listened to Sandraalu’s story and invited her into his home.

He said, “You cook for me and I will provide a roof over your head.”

I do not know how many times I have heard this story. Each time it sounded afresh for me. I had never been tired of her stories.

One day, I asked her, “How come you are selling vegetable and not fish?” That is because she had told me earlier that she was a fisherwoman by birth.

As usual, she went into a spirited narration, swaying like a vine on a windy day. That is how I had learned about her stormy life.

On another day, she said, “That is the thing ma’am. Wretched times, wretched thoughts—follow on the heels of each other. My man and I had a great life, like royalty, from the sales of the fish my man had caught. I brought four kids into this world. Then, that white man came to our village and talked his head off; chewed us up. He said, ‘These high and mighty folks are not treating you well. Are you not people like them? Prick them and they also bleed just like you do, right? Not milk or honey? They don’t let you enter their homes, why? I’m telling you. You come with us. We will give you food, clothes, and let you sit with us in our living rooms.’ He mouthed big talk and I got carried away. At first, my husband was okay with it but then changed his mind. He said he would not go. My mother-in-law said, ‘You can go but cannot take the kids.” I went all right … but what did I gain? Nothing. I ended up doing the same thing at his house as had been doing before. One rock is as good as another to knock off one’s teeth.”

I understood Sandraalu’s words, partly though. The rest was Greek to me. All the same, I was fascinated by her eloquence. I wanted to ask her, “Tell me, what school you had been to? I want to go to the same school.”

She continued, “Listen to me, I am telling you. You were born to that nice lady, right? She is goddess Lakshmi herself. Can you switch her for another woman? No. Nobody can replace your mother. You can not. That is the way with religion too. You were born into one religion, you grew up with it, and you stay with it. What is the point of running after things? Nothing. We should learn to find happiness in what we have. That is the real wisdom. You are going to college and getting big education. After that, you’ll go away on an airplane to another country, looking for morsel of food.”

I was amused but the words that I “would go away looking for a morsel of food” pricked at my heart.

“How do you know?” I asked her.

“I know all these things, little ma’am. After I am done with this basket, I wait at the bus stop round the corner. There, people talk all these things. It is like All India Radio, you know,” she said with a piquant smile.

Sandraalu was the mother of four kids. One day I asked her why she did not sent them to school.

“What do we need all that schooling for, madam? Labor is our life. If we don’t put in our day’s work, we can not eat. Unless we eat, we can not work. I earn four rupees a day and the kids bring a rupee each; then we have eight rupees in all. That gets us through the day. For us, the kids are the assets, madam,” she said.

I shut up. I did not have the heart to tell her that education is important and that a person without education is nothing. She is telling me survival comes first. You can accomplish anything only after finding food to live.


Sandraalu had come to her senses. She understood that switching religion did not bring her prosperity. She returned to her husband and the family but it was too late. Her husband had already found another woman and settled down.

Sandraalu, in despair, jumped on the first bus and arrived in Simhachalam town. She ran into Jigini Sayibu, a tea-stall owner, running his stall next to the bus stand. He suggested, “You cook food for me, I provide a roof over your head.” Sandraalu said fine.

Sandraalu could not sit in the hut all day doing nothing. She was not that kind of woman. She decided to plant a vegetable garden and start her own business. Everyday, early in the morning she would pick fresh vegetables and go door to door in the neighboring city and earn a little money of her own.

One day, I asked her, “You say life goes on, and nothing stays forever. You believe that, why aren’t you staying home? Why bother to grow vegetables, take the bus to the city … all that hassle? What is the point?”

I asked because she had said her earlier that Jigini sayibu had asked her the same question. It seems he said to her, “My income from the tea-stall is plenty for both of us. Why sell vegetables?”

In response to my question, she said, “Madam, we are human, right? What did the God Almighty say? He said, ‘you do your duty and I will do mine.’ What does that mean? As a human being, you have a dharma. You do what you need to do. Don’t ask what is this or that. No point in hair-splitting legalities.” She went on for the next fifteen minutes lecturing about the legalities in real life situations. Something in her manner rendered me speechless.


Nearly one half of a century passed by yet the words of Sandraalu stayed on my mind as if they were etched in stone, as if I heard them just yesterday or the day before.

I live in America now. I sat in my office and was watching through the window the discolored sky like washed out dhoti, the Maple trees in skeletal state, more like the sages smeared with ashes, standing on one leg and meditating—the entire atmosphere seemed to hold mirror to time, something like a work in progress.

My brain became numb for no reason. At this time I should be on my couch, curled up and sipping hot coffee or much spicy pakora, and dissolve into the far-off space.

Suddenly, out of nowhere, Sandraalu came to mind.

Thirty years have passed by since I arrived in America. In the past twenty years, I had been through seven computers in a crazy attempt to keep up with the fast changing technology; I had been through all the stuff from 5¼ floppy disks to the ini cds, which would fit snugly in my palm; switched from desktop to laptop, not to the blackberry though. Not yet anyways. I feel like a beat up ferryboat caught in violent floods, I was stuck on idea of using the “new and improved” versions that mushroom the market endlessly. I have to follow them like the groom who repeats the marital vows mindlessly after the priest in the traditional wedding ceremony.

I have changed the Telugu fonts five times to date. I have to follow the dictates of technology for the fear of facing the music of disrepair. All my writings would be lost to the posterity and that scares me. I can not let that happen.

In truth, all this philosophical self-examination originated from the aggravation caused by my boss. Here is what had happened a year ago.

A Telugu-educated American professor decided to start a company for digitalizing the books in Indian languages. He offered to digitalize the books published in Indian languages, reformat them attractively, and save them for future generations for a fee. He suggested that he would take care of the marketing, if I agree to do the work as stated above. I know mine is not a marketing brain. Therefore, I accepted his proposition.

I was not sure why Telugu people could not have this work done at home. After all, most of the software engineers are from Andhra Pradesh. Although I agreed to his proposal tentatively, I was not sure that we would get any business for the same reason, that most of the software engineers are in India and thus it would make sense for them to undertake the project themselves. I was wrong. I do not know how but my boss succeeded in receiving business. To my great surprise, there are people in Andhra Pradsh willing to shell down good money and get the work done in America. Is it the concept of outsourcing that got to them, I do not know. Do they want to be part of this overwhelming globalization? Do they believe the language acquires a new hue in the hands of white folks?

I do not know. It is beyond my wildest imagination but it has happened. We are getting projects for digitalization.

Working on the actual project is a different story. I was shocked by the language in the book I was expected to digitalize. To illustrate this part in English is a task in itself. The vocabulary, the grammar and the sentence construction are horrible. I am lost; no way I can describe the spelling in English for your comprehension. I can not imagine any Telugu man or woman speaking like that, much less writing. From what planet this man or woman has come?

I explained the problems with the text to my boss. “Can we send the book back and ask them to revise and send the correct version?” I asked him politely.

My boss stared at me; he was polite. He leaned forward, put his palms on my desk and said, speaking softly, “Our job is digitalizing whatever we have received. It is not our place to correct their language and grammar.”

I know I am not supposed to correct them but there are places where any person with any respect for language cannot tolerate. And also places where I would have to make judgment call, which possibly is not fair, given the circumstances.

My boss looked at me as if he was pondering over and then said, “All right. I will contact them. In the meantime, you continue your work the best you can.”

“All right,” I nodded. Maybe I offended him by pointing out the mistakes. Maybe he was offended because I was the one that found them.

He added, “Our job is to digitalize whatever we are given, not correcting them.”

My spirits start drooping. Reaching out for a panacea, I start surfing Telugu web sites.

The computer era is permanent, is here to stay. I make no mistake in that regard, no illusions. However, there is a lot that is not permanent within the field of computers.

Suddenly a huge wave of depression surged in my heart. Half of the Telugu bloggers are software engineers. They are busy creating new programs and creating new programs to improve the hardware.

I am also part of that consumerism that is eating us away—constantly upgrading and updating the software and the hardware in my computer. I have run through the storage gadgets from 5½ floppies to palm-sized mini CDs and backup drives. I have upgraded my computer one after another from 80 processors to Pentium IV. The Telugu fonts I had started went out of date long time ago. The time I had spent digitalizing my stories had been wasted for all practical purposes. How many times can I key in my stories? Even PDF files I had created at the time, some of them at least, are not readable on some of the computers anymore.

Samdraalu’s words are ringing in my ears like the bells in the Rama temple. “Nothing stays forever,” she said with conviction. After all these years, it seemed to make sense for me, finally.

I opened the book I was supposed to digitalize and started typing away vigorously.



The Telugu original, aksharam paramam padam, by Nidadavolu Malathi has been published on, and later on The translation has been published on, December 2008.





R. Vasundhara Devi

Mother Deified by R. Vasundhara Devi

I received a telegram informing me that mother was on death bed. At once, I took leave of absence from my college in Hyderabad and left for my hometown. Later however I began to wonder why I went; could not figure out why I went at all. As soon as I had received the news, I felt a kind of inexplicable restlessness and turmoil at heart; it was not grief though. In that mood of restlessness and without much thinking, I headed home. It was true mother was on death bed. She had been dying for a long time and now she got much closer to the moment of death. She would be dead in a day or two for sure.

My younger sister Kamala was living in a town not too far from mother. Therefore, she was able to arrive at our hometown with her husband Ranga and children right away. After they had arrived there, Ranga had sent the telegram to me. I set out at once but I also felt that my trip was unnecessary. From the beginning, there had never been a close relationship between my mother and me. I never had a mother to speak the truth. For mother, Kamala was the only daughter. Then, the question is why did I start right away? I know showing up at the time of her death ritual would be sufficient to please the public.

I arrived at my home. People were scrambling around in a flurry. The house was shrouded in a thin veil of death. Mother lay in the bed. She looked as if she was worlds away; her eyes were half-shut.

Ever since I arrived here, I was feeling cramped. I could not think straight. An inexplicable restiveness took over; it would not let me sit in one place calmly even for a second. The sun was down. I could not stay in the home any more. I told them I was going to the mango grove and left.

“At this time of day? Why?” Ranga asked me in a chiding tone and throwing a strange look at me.

“I’m bored. Why did you ask me to come so soon?” I asked him.

“Why? Well, mother said where’s Sarada? That’s why,” he said.

“Oh!” I said indifferently.

On my way to the grove, I started feeling impatient again; being edgy pointlessly. Then saw Chukkamma, a woman I have known since childhood.

“How’s mother?” she asked. She was ready to break down.

“The same,” I said.

“You’ll be here for how long?” she asked.

“One week,” I said, walking. I know she would not stop. She could go on for any length of time.

“Going to the grove? For what? What are you going to do there?” she called out from behind.

I kept walking, pretending not to hear her, and thinking what would I do? I had done nothing ever since the day I had been born. I just could do nothing!

There was a burial ground next to the grove. It belonged to our family exclusively. It was called Papadi bondalu. For several generations, my family members had been buried in that ground. Father had ended there and mother would end up there as well.

I did not go to the grove to see the place where mother might end up. As a matter of habit, I visited this place often to see where father was buried. In this deserted place, amidst the wild bushes, that pious man had been burnt to ashes. It was over in just one hour, I recalled. I sat there under a mango tree and stared at the cemetery, desperately searching for my father. The thoughts in my heart froze in that moment. It was soothing as if father was present in front of me and there was no dearth for anything in life.

Father had died suddenly. I was not nearby at the time. By the time I came from Hyderabad, he had been consumed by the funeral pyre. It seems, Mamayya, Kamala’s father-in-law, said, “He (father) lived a pious life. It would not be proper to hold his body overnight and let it go stale.”

The words ripped my heart apart, almost. I cried nonstop for one week. I was angry with all those people; they did not let me see my father for the last time. I was so angry; I was afraid I could go crazy. It took three years to convince myself that I would not go crazy. In those three years, I had done lot of things to attain peace of mind. I saw a psychiatrist. I visited a few Swamijis. There was no counting how many general doctors I had visited—all that to no avail.

They all said lots of things but all that was empty talk—tedious, irrelevant, quack philosophy. How could “unrelated” people help? I must be deluded to hope that they could help me, I concluded.

The only person in this world who had loved me was “father”, regardless of who said what. It made no sense to me. How could they cremate father before I saw him for the last time? Nobody had the right to do so, except perhaps mother and she did nothing. Frankly, I was his primary heir. Kamala was not to be counted since she had been married. Maybe, mother did it out of revenge. Then, I remembered that she had not even had the vengeance in her for me. I calmed down.

As far as I could remember, mother and I had never any relationship between us. There was neither love nor hatred. She showered all her affection only on Kamala. I’m not saying she was unjust towards me knowingly. I would say she even tried to be fair and impartial, it’s possible. But, from my perspective, who would want justice without bonding?

She invoked only a feeling of antagonism in me. Maybe it was the egotism in her that was responsible for that. I was not sure if I was to be blamed for that, partly at least. Whatever the reason, the net result was the relationship between mother and I was gone. Like I said, I might be partly responsible:  Even as a little child, I was not prepared to kill my self-esteem in order to win her love and concern. I might have inherited her egotism, come to think of it. As far as I could remember, I never worked to win her affection and praise, although I always looked for them; I never found them.

Mother never shared my pleasure or pain. One time, I fell and was hurt. She sent me to the doctor at once and made sure that the wound was treated. It hurt and I cried. She said, standing a little away from me and without regard for my pain, “Well, you have to bear the pain since you got hurt all by yourself”. Yet another time, I was down with typhoid. She gave me the medicines, milk and soup regularly and carefully. No nurse would have done more to anybody yet there was no empathy. She performed her duty loyally. It was the same when I came first in my class. She said, sounding more like a directive, “Don’t think that coming first once is enough. You must keep it up always. Study hard.” I saw it; no way I could touch her and dropped the idea in course of time completely.

Father was not like that. When I suffered, he suffered. He rejoiced when I got high marks. I am sure he would not have reprimanded me, had I received low marks. He was God. At some point, I was not sure how it happened but I felt that mother was ignoring him; she was not taking care of him. There was really no reason for me to come to that conclusion. Nevertheless, I shouldered the responsibility of pleasing father on my own. Since father had no sons, I decided to fill that dearth. I studied hard as if I was a son. I imagined the job openings I might be eligible for and possible opportunities for promotions, and the government loan I could obtain for the house I might build in Hyderabad; I hoped for them and felt happy about them. Eventually, I took a job—all that because I knew father would be happy about them. I never entertained the thought of marriage, not at all. I told my people unambiguously that I would not get married. How could father have a son, had married and gone? That is how now I became a thirty-three-years old Miss Sarada and vice principal of a college in Hyderabad.

My parents performed Kamala’s wedding with our maternal cousin, Ranganatham. They had three children. He had completed his Ph.D. in America and become professor at the university in Tirupati even at that early age. He was one year younger than I. Next to father, Ranga was the only person who would wish me well in this world. From the start, there had been a brother-sister relationship, innate and empathetic, between us. I was very happy that my sister had got such a fine man for husband. Sometimes however I felt that Kamala was not appreciating her husband’s merit, and that he was being subjected to some kind of injustice.


It was getting dark. I returned home. There was no sign of wailing from inside the house. That meant mother was not dead yet.

“What are you doing alone in the grove so long?” Kamala asked.

“There could be snakes in the dark, you know,” Ranga said with a smile.

“What would snakes do to me?” I said.

Kamala was annoyed. She left the room to feed the kids.

“Shouldn’t you get married?” said Ranga.

He had been giving this advice from time to time. I was amused.

“Isn’t that wrong … I mean is it proper for us to talk about my marriage while mother is on her deathbed? What do people say if they heard it?” I said, laughing and added, “There is one Subba Rao in the Secretariat in Hyderabad. You too know him. He also gave me the same advice sometime back. And he asked me to marry him.” I laughed aloud.

Ranga did not laugh. He thought about it for a few minutes and said, “Who could that be?”  Then he remembered him. He said, sounding anxious “Is that Subba Rao? He had a half a dozen children too. For heaven’s sake, please. Are you thinking of marrying him, seriously? He is a very self-centered fellow.”

I was amused by Ranga’s anxiety. “I am so old where could I find an unmarried man? I know Subba Rao talked about marriage only for my income,” I said.

“Sarada! Please, don’t even think of it,” Ranga said.

In reality, I was not thinking of marriage. I did not pay attention to Subba Rao.

“Have I ever done anything just for my own sake? Just to please myself? Now, I have one opportunity to settle in life and you are saying no. Aren’t you selfish?” I said.

Ranga left without saying anything.

Atta called out from the porch where mother was lying. She called in a low voice, “Girls, Sarada, Kamala, come here.”

I went in. Mother was breathing heavily; it was a struggle for her. She was staring into the vacuum.

Kamala was crying.

I could not cry. I went back into the house.


When I thought about mother, the first thing that came to my mind was: The fact that even in my childhood, she thought I had not needed her advice because I was older of the two, although I was only two years older than Kamala. I never understood her reason for doing so. The other reason was a strange one. It was a surprise even to me that it had set on my mind so firmly. What happened was, during on one summer day:

The school was closed for summer. We sat down after supper one evening. In our family, children were not used to eating paan. For some reason, that I had it. My tongue turned red. I looked in the mirror. It was bright orange color.

Mother was not pleased. She looked at me and said, “With those bright red teeth, you’re looking like a rustic, Tamil girl. why did eat paan after I said no?”

I was humiliated. I looked in the mirror. True, I was looking like a rustic Tamilian with red-colored teeth, resulting from eating paan. But I was hurt by her attitude more than by the words. After that, I never touched paan again.

That incident left an indelible mark on me. When my father suggested a marriage proposal, the first thing that came to my mind was this paan incident. I told him right away that I would never marry. As a matter of habit, he never pressed the issue or forced his opinion on others. He would mention just once and leave it at that. It was the same with the marriage proposal too. After I told my people so, nobody ever again brought up the issue of marriage with me.

After father passed away, my life began to appear meaningless, futile and without support. Now, as I reminisced those events, I was beset with a strange desire to eat paan again. I called Sitayya and told him to go to the store and bring a paan for me. I felt relaxed as I chewed on it. I could hear the people inside crying in a low pitch. I wondered why I could not eat paan all these years. I enjoyed no pleasure of any kind, why? I could do nothing to have good time, on my own, why? – I kept asking myself. Suddenly, a devil possessed me. I wanted to do something bad just to please myself. Subba Rao came to mind. He was past forty yet looked handsome, fair-skinned, and commanding. I wondered what would happen if I accepted his proposal him. “Sarada! Please, don’t marry him,” said Ranga. I wanted to write to Subba Rao at once. If I don’t write now, probably I would never be able to write to him. I wrote to him right away that I was willing to marry him.

I knew that Subba Rao was prepared to marry me only because of my job and money. So what? If it comes to that, who does not want money? I remembered when I mentioned to Kamala that, after father’s death, I might inherit the small strip of land he owned! You should see her face. I felt like laughing. Kamala turned livid. She said, “Why bother? You have no family, no children. And you have good job. Isn’t that enough for you? Why do you care about property?” She was mother’s favorite child and for that reason, I am sure she would inherit the two hundred thousand rupees, saved in mother’s name; Kamala was aware of that. I was upset that she was greedy even for this little property. Yet I told her, “Don’t you worry. We both will share it equally.” Her husband Ranga was on my mind at the time.

Mother said, “Why don’t you buy a nice house in Hyderabad?”

“I am not that blessed. Where would I get that kind of money? My father is a pauper you know,” I said.

I said that probably to hurt her. She was quiet. Maybe, she thought she would have to advance some money, had she spoken.

I folded the letter to Subba Rao and put it in an envelope. Just then, Ranga came. “Come, quick. Your mother is dying and here you’re sitting laid-back and chewing paan. What kind of a woman are you? Up, up, come,” he yelled.

I went into the verandah. Somebody had shifted mother from the cot to the straw-mat on the floor. They gave her a sip of Tulasi water and whispered Lord Narayana’s name in her ear. Mother’s life breath merged into the eternal ether.

Amidst all their wailing, something rose within me—a turmoil that was inexplicable and different from shedding tears.

After the death ritual was over, they showed me the will created by mother. One half of her property was allocated to Kamala and the other half to me specifically to buy a house in Hyderabad, it said.

I was stunned as I heard it. I felt weak as if the entire life force slipped away from me. Why did she do that? Why? I asked myself. I was distressed. It felt like I was cheated and robbed of my property. My life breath froze. Only the stains from yesterday’s paan remained on my teeth.

Feeling weak, I tore up the letter I had written to Subba Rao. I shut the door and sat in my room. An inexplicable fit of sadness broke the barriers and flowed in the form of tears.

Mother died.

… … …

Life started all over again!


(The Telugu original, ‌matru devo bhava, has been published in the author’s anthology, R. Vasundhara Devi kathalu, Author, 2004. Translated by Nidadavolu Malathi and published on, August 2010.)

Pawning the Sacred Thread by Dr. Kolakaluri Enoch

The caste differences did not stop Sastry and Obilesu from becoming good friends. Sastry was a
Brahmin and Obilesu an untouchable. They had been friends since their childhood. They went to
the same school, and started working in the same junior college; both were confirmed in their jobs.
Sastry was teaching Telugu and Obilesu teaching English.

Obilesu was confused when Sastry asked him for a loan of ten thousand rupees. He did not look up
to see Sastry’s face; did not say yes or no. Sastry went to his class. Obilesu sat down in the staff
room without budging an inch.

Taking loans had been Sastry’s habit, not paying them back was common for him, dodging the
creditors his destiny, and forgetting his debts his rule.

Sastry had no bad habits, never smoked a cigarette or a beedi, never played cards, or gambled on
anything for that matter. He did not bet on horses, and never cheated on his wife; had been an
avowed monogamist all his life. He had only a couple of children and he did not have to incur huge
expenses on their education either.

Yet he could not live within his means. Nobody knew except Obilesu why Sastry was borrowing
money and what he was doing with it.

Obilesu was aware of Sastry’s habit of borrowing a ten or twenty and forgetting it. One thing for
sure, there had been times when Sastry asked for a hundred or two, but never thousands. He knew
that Sastry would ask for new loans without settling the old ones. And he kept borrowing from
whomsoever he could. Sometimes the creditors would remind him of the loan; then only he would
have a recollection of it, and he would assure them that he would get back to them on it.
Eventually, it became harder for Sastry to raise new loans. The pressure from his creditors to settle
the old debts was increasing. The loans taken in the past five years added up close to ten
thousand rupees. Obilesu wondered if Sastry wanted a new loan to pay off the old ones.
Sastry and Obilesu were drawing the same salary. Yet Obilesu could save some money from his
income whereas Sastry fell short always. The entire income of Obilesu’s wife went into savings. In
the past twenty-five years, each time a lecturer’s position opened up, Obilesu said that Sastry’s wife
should apply for the job.

In response, Sastry would go into a fit of rambling, “Work is slavery. I come from a highly esteemed
ancestry. I had no choice but degrade myself with this low life. Do I have to put my wife also through
this humiliation? In our families, women don’t go out to work; they don’t even step outside the front
door. For what anyways? To rule the country?”

Sastry and his wife Sarada had been classmates in the M.A. class. Sarada got first class and Sastry
finished in second class. Theirs was love marriage. It was performed like an arranged marriage
nevertheless. The horoscopes were checked, and the dowry and other gifts were paid per custom.
“Our ways matched,” Sastry said.

“Your mentalities should match,” Obilesu said. There was no change in Sastry’s family set up.
Sarada turned into a woman consigned to the kitchen and the delivery room odors as if God had
created her only for that purpose.

One day, Sastry invited Obilesu and his wife to dinner to his place. Sastry wanted to show off his
epicure. Obilesu felt sad as he noticed Sarada’s worn out sari and the sumptuous food served.

“Why so many items? For whom?” Obilesu said.

“Who else? For us only,” Sastry said.

“Tomato chutney and yogurt are enough to make me happy. Why so many items?”

“There is plenty to eat but I can’t.”

“Why not?”

“Digestion problem.”

“How come?”

“In my childhood days, we didn’t have enough to eat. And so gotten used to not eating much.”

“And now?”

“Now I have plenty but just can’t eat.”

“That’s hard, isn’t it?”

“We don’t need to eat this much to live.”

“I need them.”


“Yes, each and every day.”

“So many items, just for one person?”


“Isn’t that too much?”

“Just about enough.”

True it is a blessing to be able to eat so much. Obileseu understood the reasons underlying
Sarada’s filthy sari and Sastry’s borrowing spree.

Sastry wanted to show off his love of food. His wife took the day off from her sewing class, stayed
home, and spent the entire day in the kitchen making all these items—several varieties of sweet
and spicy dishes.

“Is that all?” Sastry belched loudly and asked his wife.

Obilesu was not surprised but Sarada was baffled. “I thought it would be nice to cut down for one
day,” she said.

Sastry gave Obilesu and his wife new clothes per tradition and sent them home.

After this experience, Obilesu could not decide whether we live to eat or eat to live. On his way to
the bank, he recalled the comments his fellow lecturers had made about Sastry. They would say,
“Sastry is a good eater; we can go to his house any day and have a feast.”

Next day, Obilesu was on his way to his class. Sastry stopped him and asked, “Where’s the money?”
Obilesu gave him one hundred rupee bill. Sastry did not take it.

“Ten thousand.”

“What for?”

:”To settle an old debt.”

“What about this debt?”

“I’ll take care of this too.”



Sastry came to realize that he could not raise new loans any more. His creditors started squeezing
him for the outstanding debts. Obilesu was the only one not to do so. For that reason, Sastry
approached him again.

“Money,” Sastry said.

“That’s a big sum,” Obilesu said.


“How do you think you’d pay off?”

“From my salary, on installments.”

“You know you don’t make enough.”

“I’ll manage.”

Obilesu was surprised and elated. “I’ll give you ten thousand rupees, if you pawn something.”


“Yes, you.”



“I can give you an IOU.”

“I don’t want an IOU.”

“What do I have to pawn?”

“Think of something.”

Sastry had nothing worth pawning either on his person or at home. Whatever little he had, had
been burned away in the kitchen.

“What do I have worth pawning?”

“Whatever you have.”

“I’m telling you, I have nothing to pawn. Just say you won’t give me the money.”

“I will give you money.”

“What do you suggest I can pawn?”

“Your sacred thread.”

“The sacred thread?” Sastry was stunned, fingering the thread on his shoulder. He glared into his
friend’s face. He was excited that he did have something to pawn.

“Really? My sacred thread?”


“What value this thread has?”

“Maybe nothing.”

“What’ll you do with it?”

“”Keep it as collateral.”

“What if I renege?”

“I’ll have your jandhyam.

“That’s a just thread, worth ten paise.”


“What do you think you can do with it? You’re not going to realize even the interest on the loan with


Sastry gaped at his friend, Is he out of his mind? The thread was sanctified with mantra. It was a
symbol of his status as twice-born, and that he had been through the ritual, upanayanam; it was a
reminder of his duty to protect the vedic traditon and secured by gayantri mantra; it was supposed
to bring about his nirvana, and help destroy his enemies. The more he thought about it, the worse
the turmoil he found himself in.

Obilesu sat there without uttering a word.

“What’s this for?” Sastry asked again.

“I need collateral.”

“What for?”

“I want something that you have and I don’t have, and the thing that is standing in the way of our

“You don’t need this.”

“This sacred thread—either we both have it or both don’t have it. It is preventing us from being
brothers, and creating a disparity between the two of us. We’re not on par because of this thread.
It’s separating us.”

“If I remove it and give it to you, will you wear it?”

“No, I won’t wear it.”

“So, what do you do with it?”

“I’ll keep it with me”

“And what do get out of it?”

“Neither of us will be wearing the sacred thread. That makes us equal; we can be brothers. That
makes us even and helps us to unite. No more conflicts between us, discrepancies, no social order,
or the inequalities.”

Sastry was quiet for a few seconds. Obilesu did not speak either. Suddenly Sastry said, “I can’t
pawn my sacred thread.”

“That’s up to you.”

“I can’t remove it.”

“That’s up to you.”

“Removing it throws away my status as a Brahmin into the Ganges.”

“No, that’s a sin.”

“No, that’s redemption.”

“No, it’s a fall out.”



“That’s up to you,” Obilesu said.

They both sat silently for a while. Sastry broke the silence, “Do you have the money with you?”

“I do.”

“Got it from where?”

“From the bank.”

“To give it to me?”


“Then, give it to me.”

“Give me the collateral.”

“I can’t.”

“That’s up to you.”

Sastry looked around. It was past three and most of his colleagues had left. They had understood
that Sastry was asking Obilesu for a loan, and Obilesu was not willing to do so. Some of them left,
preempting any attempt by Sastry to approach them. And a few others left on other errands. They
all were scared of being caught in an unsavory situation. The remaining few did not notice Sastry
and Obilesu.
Sastry asked again, “This’s just a cotton thread. What’d you want to do with it?”

“Not just a thread, it’s jandhyam..”

“So, you’ll not give me the money until I pawn it?”

“Correct, I won’t give you the money.”

“You won’t return my jandhyam to me until I paid the entire amount and the interest?”


Sastry started thinking, Is it proper to remove the sacred thread, which he was required to wear until
his death? He did not remove it. But he needed the money, and for that reason, he must take it out.
… it was sanctified with mantra; he must not remove. While it was on his body, it might just be a
sacred thread. If he removed it, it would be worth ten thousand rupees. The thread had that kind of
value. The thread had its own value as jandhyam. While worn, the man had gotten such a
commanding value. If he removed it, it got cash value. And he needed cash.

“What if I give you my sacred thread as collateral, and buy another thread to wear?”

“That won’t be the same as the jandhyam pawned.”

“What if I do so without your knowledge?”

“You can’t.”

“They’re only a bunch of threads. I can get new ones.”

“You can’t find a jandhyam. I’ll have your it. No matter how many threads you get, they’re not going
to be the same. You’ll not wear them.”

“How can you be so sure?”

“I have faith in you.”

Sastry was happy about his friend and the trust he had in him. And, also about the cash he was
going to get. The only problem was the sacred thread; it hurt him to think that he had to pawn it.
“Do you believe that I’ll pay you back?”

“I believe so”


“I trust your word.”

“What if I don’t pay you back?”

“You will.”

“What if I don’t?”

“You won’t get back your sacred thread.”

“What if I don’t get it back?”

“You won’t have a jandhyam for the rest of your life.”


“You won’t have the Brahmin status?”


“Then you’re like me, just another person.”

“What do you mean?”

“You’ll be my brother.”


“A Brahmin.”


“A friend.”


“Not a brother.”

“We’re unequal.”

“There’s no unity, no brotherhood.”

Sastry was quiet. Obilesu did not move. He did not pull out the money from his pocket, did not give
the money to Sastry.

You give me the money, and I’ll give you my sacred thread.”

“You put it down first, and then I’ll give you the money.”

“Wait here. I’ll get it,” Sastry said and stood up.

Obilesu also got up. Both of them proceeded towards the lavatory.

“Will you tell others that I pawned my sacred thread?”

“I won’t.”


“Nobody will know except you and me.”

“Where’s the guarantee?”

“The sacred thread itself.”

There was no water in the lavatory, the stench was unbearable. Obilesu covered his nose but not
Sastry. Sastry removed his shirt. The stink. The toilet was not flushed for want of water. But people
didn’t care, they all were using it one after another; the choking stench did not stop them. … Sastry
removed his shirt and handed it to Obilesu. … the smell … no breeze … the smell would not go away
… no water … The people who came in would not go without stirring up more stench. … The bad
smell pervaded like a swarm of honeybees. They stung the nostrils, skewed their faces.
Sastry and Obilesu came into the lavatory for a reason; it had nothing to do with the lavatory. The
purpose for which they came there was not accomplished. … It was getting delayed because
Sastry’s hand was shaking. Jandhyam. … his hand shook. The odor was getting worse, spreading
all over. Nine threads. Nine was an absolute number, three times three, three-fold universe, three
million gods, three supreme deities—all pointing to the significance of the nine threads in the
sacred thread. Sastry’s hand shook.

Obilesu did not rush him but the odors were. His trust permitted Sastry to dilly-dally. People always
take off the sacred thread and put it back, but not like this, and not here … not for this reason.
History in the making. … Sastry’s hand was shaking. A person, who had not had the ritual of
upanayanam, and worn no sacred thread, would not be eligible to perform the vedic rituals. Should
he reject the vedic tradition or honor it? Sastry was shaking all over, from head to foot.
It is demeaning to pawn the sacred thread, and buy a piece of thread to wear from a store, a thread
that will be used for all kinds of things. He would not break his promise. But then, the times
changed. The practice of spinning the thread for making the sacred thread using takilil had gone.
dharma had strayed away. Everything had been changing rapidly. Only man had not changed. The
hunger he would have had not changed but on the rise.

Sastry held the sacred thread in his hand. He shut his eyes, with tears rolling down his face. His
hand shook; he moved it to the other hand. Still shaking, he leaned against the wall. … dirty smell.
Revolting walls. Sastry’s bare back propped up against the wall of the lavatory.

Tears fell on his bare stomach; did not roll down all the way but made the stomach wet. The sacred
thread rolled in his tears as he slowly removed it. The thread that had been accustomed to his
sweat until now embraced the tears. It slid all over his stomach, rolled on it, and bid a final farewell
from its native place. The sacred thread, which was a flower in his crown, an incense stick in the
puja room, a flag flying high on his stomach, traded places.

The sacred thread that had come in handy to scratch his back was being torn from his back and the
itch. The jandhyam that was a symbol of his Brahminical tradition now turned him in to an ordinary
human. The thing shifted its position from his shoulder to his palm.

A piece of thread that had not cost him even ten paise had the power to earn ten thousand rupees.
Sastry was surprised. He crammed it into his fist, picked up his shirt, and put it on.

“Here,” he said. No shivering, no tears. As he said it, there was a little quiver in his tone, and the
hand seemed to have shaken slightly.

“Keep it.”


“I’ll tell you.”

They both returned to the staff room. It was nearly empty. A couple of staff members sat there in
the room with their legs stretched on to the tables in front of them.

“Take it,” Sastry said.

“I will.”

“Give me the cash.”

“I will.”

Obilesu did not give him the money nor did he take the sacred thread.

“Take it,” Sastry said again.

“I don’t want it”


“I’ll not touch it.”


“It’s untouchable for me. I will not touch it.”

Sastry was shocked.

Obilesu said, “Nobody touches you or your sacred thread. That’s untouchable. I’ll not touch it.”
“But we two hang around, have always been together, aren’t we?”

“That’s true. But not with the sacred thread.”

Sastry was hurt. “Did I ever say that you’re an untouchable?” he said.

“You didn’t say that.”


“I’m saying it.”

“Saying what?”

“That it should not be touched.”

“Who should not touch it—you or me?”



“That’s untouchable.”

“I never said you’re an untouchable.”

“No, you did not. I came to your home.”


“I ate in your home.”

“I invited you to my home.”


“Then, why can’t you touch this?”

“For your sake.”

“For my sake? You mean to save my sanctity and the sanctity of this sacred thread?”


“So, you’re keeping me at a distance in the name of sanctity.”

“That’s not it.”

“Then, why don’t you take it?”

“That’s dirty.”

“Dirty how?”

“Because of your body.”
“The sacred thread did not become dirty because of my body; it was sanctified. An ordinary thread
turns into a jandhyam when I wear it. The thread is sanctified. That’s the reason you valued it so

“Your jandhyam may be sacred and valuable but to me it is a dirty piece.”

“In what way?”

“Think about it. You change your shirt and underwear regularly. But you never change that sacred
thread, except on rare occasions.”

“”So what?”

“Look at that; smelling of sweat and soil.”

“What do you mean?”

“Probably it was like jasmine flower when you first put it on but now it looks like a worn out rag.”

Sastry did not reply.

Obilesu said again, “Smell it, the smell of urine.”

“That’s because I removed it there.”

“It’s the same wherever you remove it.”

Obilesu told him to put it in an envelope and seal it. Sastry did so.

“Sign it.” Sastry did so. It felt like an encore for his brahmin existence. He put the envelope on the
table in front of him. The tears in his eyes dried up and his vision was foggy.

The envelope with the money was sitting on the envelope with his sacred thread. If the envelopes
were removed, money on top and the sacred thread below. Sacred thread was the thing pawned off
and the stack of cash was the cash for the thread.

“Take it,” said Obilesu. His voice was calm, tender, and amiable.

Sastry picked up the envelope containing the cash.

“Check it” Obilesu said.

“Not necessary,” Sastry put the envelope in his pocket.

Obilesu pushed the other envelope toward Sastry and said, “Take it.”

“I won’t.”

Obilesu said, speaking clearly, “Why not?”

“I don’t want it.”

“You keep it with you.”


“Because that’s yours.”

“But I put it down as collateral.”


“Shouldn’t you be keeping the item as security?”

“What difference does it make whether I keep it or you keep it?”

“Are you asking me to keep the sacred thread with me?”


“Can I wear it?”

“No, you must not wear it.”

“Why not?”

“Because that’s a pawned item.”

“But I have it with me.”

“Yes, you have it.”

“What if I wear it?”

“You won’t.”

“For how long?”

“Until the debt has been paid off.”

“What if I never paid it”

“You’ll never wear it.”

They left the staff room and walked towards the crossroads. As they approached the junction where
they were going to go their separate ways.

The tower clock as his witness, Obilesu said, “Sastry, I will not be distressed even if you don’t pay
back the loan.” He stopped for a second, and said, speaking clearly, “I’ll be happy still.”


Translated by Nidadavolu Malathi and published on, July 2006.

(The Telugu original taakatu was published in an anthology entitled Asprusyaganga. 1999.)

Lamps on a dark night by Madhurantakam Rajaram

Sivaramayya had been waiting for the city bus for the past half-an-hour in that bus stop near “Arundhati Finance Corporation”. His slippers, though well worn out, still protected his feet from the heated pavement loyally, on that swelteringly hot afternoon. However, since he did not carry any towel or an umbrella with him, his bald head was completely exposed to the heat. Anyway, he arrived long ago at the philosophical conclusion that God has given us a body just for torturing us. To show his full concurrence with the conclusion, he refused to wipe the sweat on his forehead and was staring at the end of the street for the bus.

On enquiry he found that 12E has left just five minutes ago. The arrival of the next bus is entirely dependent on the luck of the person waiting!

With lorries coming like demons, cars flying past, cycles, rickshaws, people crossing the road, the road looked like a turbulent sea that afternoon.

Well-fed people coming out of  “Everest Hotel” did not mind the afternoon heat and felt it as pleasant as moonlight.

Children were running back to school after lunch recess.

On the roadside, small bunks, textile shops, every where business was going on, as usual.

In all that commotion, his life was the only immovable vehicle like a car that broke down in heavy traffic, thought Sivaramayya, bitterly. All his efforts to push it forward are yielding no result.

In a few minutes a 17 numbered bus went. Chasing it went a 11C. Close on its heels were a 6, a 21 and a 33D. Many more buses came and went. But 12E was nowhere in sight.

The road went quiet for a few minutes, suddenly. A motorbike came zooming in the gap. A young man was seated on it confidently, as if he alone knew that trick to conquer both time and distance. When the motor bike approached him, Sivaramayya was startled. A beautiful face shone from behind the shoulders of the young man.

The motorbike passed him by. The girl sitting on the pillion seat turned to look at Sivaramayya. Her eyes fluttered for a second. Sivaramayya gritted his teeth. The girl bit her lip. Sivaramayya’s eyes turned red. He turned his face away.

A bus glided to stop in front of him. It was a 12E. He got into the bus.

He was rather disturber from morning, and the sight on the road made him all the more agitated.

So this rogue had a motorbike, he thought. Or it would have come for repair and he is posing on it. Shameless guy! And this girl! Where is her sense gone? Instead of being ashamed at what she has done, she is roaming with him on his bike!

With his thoughts running along these lines, it would be right to say it was his feet that took him home, out of habit.

Paravati gave him a glass of water. She was confused at his absent-mindedness and asked hesitantly ” Is the job done?”

He stared into her face absently for a while and then replied, “Job? Oh yes, it is done!” Parvati was oblivious to the discouraging tone of his answer. She seemed to be relieved, saying, “Thank God, it is done”.

Sivaramayya glanced around the house to confirm that his daughter Sarvani was not there and continued bitterly, “Do you think it was easy? They have taken a house worth twenty five thousand as mortgage and gave me fifteen thousand rupees, at the rate of 1.5%. It amounts to a hundred rupees per month. We can happily spend the rest of our lives paying that interest. If we stop in between, they shall simply sell our house, take their money and will throw the remaining crumbs at us…”

“Please don’t talk like that. If the children hear it they will be disturbed.”

Sivaramayya felt too tired after an untimely lunch. He dozed off in the armchair. When he woke up he saw that Sarvani returned from typewriting institute and was talking to her mother. She got coffee for her father.

He looked at his daughter. No doubt, Sarvani is a beautiful girl, and is a good girl too! He stopped her from studying further, but otherwise she would have been well qualified too. What is the use? In the marriage market, without dowry and other expenses, a girl is not even a girl. In such a world what is the point in girls being well qualified or talented?

He finished his coffee and went to the reading room. He returned late in the evening. It was almost dark. The atmosphere in the home seemed to have changed.

Sujata too seemed to have returned from college. Her books were lying on the table. Sarvani’s shorthand notebook too was lying on the table. Mother and daughters seemed to be talking in low voices in the kitchen.

He waited for a while and inquired what the matter was.

“What is the matter Parvati? Why can’t you share the secret with me?”

She came into the room hesitantly. Like a bird scared in a cyclone, she clung to the wall and asked him

“Did you see Srilekha on the road, today?”

Sivaramayya’s face turned red in rage. His fragile body could not withstand the intense anger and started shaking.

“Parvati, don’t ask me idiotic questions. I see many people on the road. So what? I told you million times that I have just two daughters. Don’t talk of her in front of me again. This is the last warning.”

“Of course, I will not talk about her. You asked me what the matter was!” Her eyes were brimming with tears. It is not that her daughter was living in some far off place. She was living in the same city and she has not seen her for the past four years. A father was considering his happily living daughter as dead! She felt it extremely cruel and in the emotional pressure continued further.

“You can do it, cut off all parental love and call a living daughter as dead! That poor girl went to Sujata’s college today. “Why is father looking so weak?” she asked. She saw you in the afternoon hot sun. You were sweating with your head unprotected and she felt concerned about it. She went straight from her office to college. Hereafter I shall not take her name in this house…”

He knew that Parvati would starve herself for the night. When she was deeply hurt by something, she starved herself.

He too ate half-heartedly and went to bed though it was not nine p.m. The atmosphere and weather seemed stifling. He could control his body, but his mind refused to obey him. He heard the sea roaring in his mind.

He wished Parvati had picked up a huge quarrel with him instead of torturing him with her silence. The topic that she vowed she would not start again with him started eating his brain.


Srilekha came to him with her S.S.C results and surprised him with “my number is in first division, father”. When he further knew that she topped the school with her marks, he was really terrified. He realized that he need not spend any money on her education since she won a scholarship. She completed her graduation in due course.

The next stage in a young girl’s life is of course marriage. That was when he knew of the sharks that infest the marriage market.

A simple graduate expects ten thousand rupees as dowry. A lecturer’s rate is fifteen thousand, an engineer demands twenty five thousand and a doctor commands fifty thousand rupees!

He was nevertheless making attempts to get some decent alliance. But she somehow seemed to trust the employment exchange. She managed to get a job and started working. Meanwhile he looked harder for a suitable groom for his daughter.

Many proposals almost materialized but slipped out of hand in the last moment.

She suddenly gave him a shock.

Srilekha, a rank holder in B.Sc., married an illiterate motor mechanic. That too in a civil marriage (as good as eloping!)! His only qualification being- no expectation of dowry!

He seemed to be related to them and was visiting once in a while.

He felt he has been gravely insulted among his relatives and friends.

But Parvathi saw it from a different perspective.

“To get her married as you wished meant an expense of fifteen thousand rupees at least, We would have no doubt borrowed that money. Now she has saved us from being caught in a debt trap. I can’t understand what harm she has done to us!”

His close friend Ranganatham, went a step ahead and said Srilekha showed a way to the young generation.

“Come on Sivaramayya! Don’t be ridiculous. Times and traditions are changing. This is twentieth century. Now if we see someone marrying a five-year-old girl to a twenty five-year-old boy, we no longer keep quite. We came this far because of social reformers like Veereshalingam. The thorn bushes of tradition cannot be just wished away. To clear them we need people with courage and vision. We all know that dowry system is sucking blood of our families. What is the point in talking about it in meetings and lecturing? We need to walk the talk. Your daughter indeed, has taken a very wise decision. She considered the dowry-demanding highly educated boys as cheats and preferred a labourer who did not expect dowry. We do accept intellectual men to have illiterate wives, don’t we? So what is wrong with what she has done?”

But still, no amount of convincing and reasoning could assuage his hurt feelings.

Clock struck ten. Immediately there was a knock on the door.

Sujata came into the hall and switched the light on. “Who is it?” she called.

Again there was a knock on the door.

“Open the door and see who it is” said Sivaramayya.

“Why don’t you say who you are” grumbled Sujata as she opened the door.

“Who is that at the door?” Parvati woke up.

Srilekha entered the house silently. Parvati could not believe her eyes. With effort she could open her dried lips.

“How long it has been, child! At last you remembered you have mother alive!” All the sorrow in her heart burst breaking a dam.

Sarvani too woke up at the commotion, and hugged her sister.

“Why did you come alone, sister? Where is your husband?”

“Come on Sarvani! Whether you accept it or not, he is the son-in-law of this house and he won’t come uninvited. He is waiting for me at the end of the street, near the park.”

“Will he wait for you till you go back?” Sujata asked innocently.

“I too will leave quickly, mother. I came to tell you something. I know father has retired. I saw him near the Finance Corporation in the afternoon and felt very disturbed. If you mortgage this house, how will you manage in your old age? It is a joint decision from both of us. I have ten thousand rupees. Please take it from me. You can give me back whenever you can. Please don’t borrow money for Sarvani’s wedding now.” She pleaded with her mother.

Parvati did not know how to respond to this proposal.

“Mother, why don’t you say something?” Sujata reminded.

“What can I say in this house? Who cares for what I say?” Parvati declared!

Sivaramayya was still motionless in his room.

Sarvani suddenly clung to her sister, “I will jump into the well to die, but will not agree to give dowry. Akka, can you help me to get a job? I will clear the type writing examinations in March.”


Translator’s note: The characters that live and are having on the stage of live have a right to chart their lives according to circumstances. It would have been ideal if we could end this story with a note that the above fact at last shone in Sivaramayya’s mind like a lamp on a dark night. However, it suffices to say that the fact remains valid and undisputed, in spite of his ignorance about it.

The Telugu original entitled cheekatlo chiru divvel has been translated by © Sharada (Australia), and published on, December 2002.

My Song by P. Sathyavathi

I checked my appearance in the mirror and felt satisfied. The sweet face that looked back at me was indeed, enticing. I was about to embark on a journey on to the other bank of the river.I was inexplicably happy that day, perhaps due to my youthful energy, or due to an imaginative mind that always desired for the moon. Armed with a confidence that I could get that moon if I wanted to, I was on the clouds. I picked up my colourful bags, three of them, made with coloured beads, bright flowers and colourful threads. Of course, I wouldn’t leave my friend behind, the ever present song on my lips, would I? In fact, I cunningly extracted a promise from the song, never to leave my lips.

Thus equipped to face the life, I stood on the bank of the river, watching the sun rise, awe struck. A small boat came along. It looked a pretty sight, swaying in the mighty, dignified river. There was a man in the boat.  He had a smile fixed on his lips and looked very handsome, indeed.

“Do you want to jump in?” he asked.
“Now, what are those bags?” he enquired further.
“These bags? My friendships, my memories, my ambitions, my likes, my talents and many things that define me,” I replied.
“I see! Ok, jump in. Don’t forget all those bags. You might bring that song on your lips too. Do you need to hold my hand to get into the boat?”
“Of course not! I can get into the boat all by myself, thank you. In fact, I know how to row the boat, as well. By the way, where are you off to?”
“Nowhere in particular. I will row as long as I can and stop when I feel tired. You can get down
where ever you want to get down,” he replied flippantly.
The idea appealed to me and I jumped into the boat.
“Welcome aboard,” he said as he looked into my eyes with a smile. I saw the light in his eyes and felt an inexplicable thrill.

The river flowed silently, displaying all her moods and colours. The blue hills along the banks, the greenery in the fields, the clear sky above, my song on my lips, the lively whistle of my friend, his witty talk, everything made me blissful. He told me about all his dreams, opinions and desires Lulled into a drowsy sleep with his songs accompanied by the ripple of the river, I hoped the journey would go on forever! In that happy, carefree moment I invited the young man into my thoughts and my heart. I shared everything with him, all that I called mine. I felt richer by the experience. I sang in ecstatic abandon. We vowed under the beautiful moon that we shall travel together always.

Up to that moment we had been taking turns in rowing the boat. But then he said, “Darling, you look tired. Your bright eyes are drooping with sleep. Why don’t you take a rest while I do the rowing?” I was proud of the love I inspired in him.

I closed my eyes listening to one of the songs he composed for me. Then he disappeared. I woke up in fright. My song on my lips called him loudly. He returned panting.

“Where did you disappear?” I asked in fright.
“My dear! I realised we have a long way to row before we settle down. It is going to be a tiring, boring job. I am trying to make a machine that will row this boat automatically.” He replied earnestly.
“Oh yeah? What will you do if the boat is going all by it self? Look into my eyes all the time, I suppose!” I teased him.
“My poor baby! We are young now. Do you want to spend the entire life rowing the boat? Don’t we need to settle down? Don’t we need to live happily ever after, like kings? I can’t have you rowing this stupid boat for ever! That is why I am slogging now, so that we can reach the other bank quickly, then build a nice big house and settle down comfortably.”

“What is this comfortable living?” I asked curiously.
“We will discuss that later, but now get me some food.” He became impatient.
“Did you not bring anything to eat with you?”
“No, I am going to be busy for a while with that machine. Here after it is your business to organize food for both of us.” He declared.
I got up yawning. I plunged into work. My friend, the song got bored. It said, “Hey, you seem to be too busy to notice me. I am going for a walk in the woods.” So saying it left me to go for a stroll.
“Don’t leave me now. I find it easier to work when you are with me,” I begged. “Don’t be silly. I will be back,” it replied hurrying out.

Eventually my lover found that he had no time to listen to my song. Nor did he have time to adore me.  When I stopped the boat near the bank to cook food, he searched in the nearby bushes to gather some material and filled the boat.  He demanded that I organize all that material and clean the boat to make it look nice. He began hoarding material.

His focus and hard work got to me. I admired his determination and strength. He is so strong and loving, I thought happily. I decided to make him happy and keep him free of worries, at all times and by all means. I cooked for him with more devotion; I shared his work to give him some free time and relaxation. I insisted on taking turns with rowing. I did all this with love and sincerity.

The boat started to get filled with different kinds of things. Just for the sake of reaching the other bank and settle down to live happily ever after he accumulated lot of material. The boat also started to be filled with different kinds of noises. Hammering, sawing, drilling nails and all kinds of mechanical jobs made peculiar, unfamiliar noises in the boat.

One day, I was startled when I remembered that my song had left me long ago. “Where did it go for such a long time? How could I stay for such a long time without my best friend?” I wondered. I called my song loudly. It came after a long time, reluctantly. I missed the affection in its voice which was always there.

“Where were you all these days? I had to call you loudly, to bring you here,” I complained. “What else could I do? I couldn’t bear the noises in this boat any more. In the beginning I found some rhythm in his hammering, sawing and drilling. I tried to join them. But slowly I started hating that sound, so I left. I cannot stay in this cacophony. I will come and visit you once in a while, if you want me to,” the song said defiantly. I did not know what to say. “Come on, let’s go for a small walk in the trees,” my song invited me.

“I can only come once in a while to comfort you. I cannot live on your lips any more, I am sorry!” so saying my song left me.

I lost the man who invited me into the boat with brightly shining eyes, the man who offered to help me into the boat, and the man whose face seemed to be fixed with a smile. I saw him only at meal times. All that laughter, that chattering, those songs, that love, everything disappeared. He seem to spend all his time and energy filling the boat with material and machines. I saw him working at something new one day. I asked him about it. He said that it was a weapon to protect us with.

I felt restless. I thought I will open my bags and look at my friendships, memories and my belongings. But I could not find my bags. I searched everywhere on the boat. Looking under the bricks, inside the tool box, under the hammers and every other inch of the boat yielded no result.

“My bags! I have lost them. My talents, my memories, my experiences, everything is lost. Where are they? How could I have lost them?” I wept inconsolably. Did I forget myself in my love for him? Have I lost everything that belonged to me?

He took my grief very lightly. “Oh, don’t make such a big fuss. We must have chucked it out of the boat some day while cleaning. But, first come and see what I have got for you.” He led me into his work shop. “At last, I have finished what I had started. This machine will run the boat automatically. You need not work hard any more. Take rest, here after. Look at yourself. Your hair started to turn grey. Your skin lost its lustre. You can leave the rowing and spend time looking after yourself. Make yourself beautiful as before. I still have some more things to finish. I don’t know if I have accumulated enough things to live happily ever after. Here, press this button. Throw those miserable oars into the river. I am making many more machines like this to make life easy for you. All that you’ve to do is to press the buttons.”

I pressed a button. The boat sped up. I sat down. I lost my song. I lost my beaded bag with flowers. I hardly see my beloved. Now I don’t even have the job of rowing the boat. What do I do with myself?

“What shall I do now? I lost all my talents. Can I work with you in the work shop?” I asked him eagerly one day.

“Oh no!  You take it easy and look after your beautiful figure. Cook for me. Look after me. That will be sufficient.”

I looked at my reflection in water. My lips looked dried after the song left them. The innocent sweet face with which I jumped into the boat looked jaded and tired. The boat went speeding, cutting the river. It suddenly seemed to be getting heavier.

I did not know what all things he filled the boat with, for us to live like kings, for a future full of riches. Strangely, right from child hood I hated riches and kings. To live like kings we need to feel superior over others, which I disliked. I detested equally riches and treasures. What can we do with all the treasure in the world, except buying more and more meaningless stuff, I used to think.  My beloved harped on those two words which began to annoy me.

My best friends and my song left me and never returned. I lost my man whom I loved above everything else. Why did I stat this journey and where am I going now, I wondered. What is my destiny? Why did I fall in love with him as soon as I saw him? Why did I jump into this boat upon his invitation? I lost all that I shared with him. He mesmerised me with his eyes, with his smiles and with his love. He threw away all my belongings when they annoyed him. He promised to make a beautiful world for me. I surrendered my heart and my soul to him. Where has he disappeared?

I heard a small groan. I was surprised and got up to look. In this boat it is only both of us living. Then whose voice was that? The boat was still running. Whenever the boat complained of increasing burden, he threw away old stuff. He threw away old memories, old habits and everything else he felt useless. Only the machines remained.

Then I heard somebody laugh. I was more surprised. Who groaned and who laughed? “Yes of course, it is me who laughed. Could you figure out who groaned?” asked the rowing machine.  It paused for a while and said, “I think it is time for you to jump out of this boat. I cannot stand your weight any more.”

“First let us call him. Both of us will jump out of this wretched boat together. Or even better, we will kill you and row the boat with our oars as before,” I replied angrily.
“Call him? He won’t be able to come. He is stuck among those machines that he made and those he plans to make. He is never going to make his way out of those desires in his mind,” the machine laughed cruelly.

“Oh no! That is not going to happen. I am going to free him from those monstrous machines. All these days I was in a kind of trance. He always managed to convince me into obeying him. Why did I listen to him? Why did I not convince him? Why did I not save him from these meaningless desires? Why did I not hold on to my bags? How did I loose all my belongings? How could I be so careless? I want all those back, I also want my man,” I lamented.

“He is beyond your help now. You lost your song too. Who will help you in getting him out? Forget about him and jump out of the boat. Otherwise I am going to sink under all this weight.” The boat warned me.

Who cares about this miserable little boat, I thought. But I am not the one to give up like that. I raised my voice and called my song. I put my heart and soul into it. Of course, the song was my best friend. It came rushing to my aid. It settled on my lips as always. Together we set out. To get him back, with the things that he loved.

To get back my man who invited me into this boat, to make new beaded bags, to throw away all the rubbish we accumulated in this journey, to keep only what we needed and liked, to live a life fully with some work, some creativity, some imagination, lot of love and to spare some thought for others, to fill my beaded bags with values, I set out with the help of my song. With my best friend on my lips, I was confident of a victory.

(The Telugu original, nenostunnaanu, was published in Andhra jyoti.

Translated by Sharada, Australia, and published on, August 2008.)

A Fleck of Cloud by Kalyanasundari Jagannath

At a distance, a tiny fleck of cloud appeared over the farmland.

Bhagyam put the water pot on the floor near the front door. She is feeling a shower of nectar at her
heart. At once, she shuddered. What if he had misunderstood her? The idiot I am! What’s come over
me? Why did laugh so loud? What was I thinking? I should have stopped myself, should have kept my
calm. She recalled the incident at the lake that has happened ten minutes back. She is standing at the door, lost in thought.
At the lake, she filled the pot, pulled it up to her knee and looked up. There, Seshayya was standing on the road, at the fork-split. She had known him since her childhood days; they used to play together. So many times, his friends and her friends had fought for the green mung bean sprouts on the farms. But, after her marriage, Bhagyam cut him off. That’s why she could not understand why he stopped on the street? It looked like he wanted to talk to her. Why? Bhagyam had turned away; and lifted the water pot to her shoulder.
“Peddiraju is coming,” he said. Bhagyam’s face blossomed like a lotus. She couldn’t speak for a second. She kept staring at him. She burst into a big laugh. Then again, she collected herself, calmed down.Seshayya was puzzled, for a second, she was being silly; he held back his smile and moved on. He walked a few steps, and said again, “I saw him at the Ramavarappadu bus stop. He came to see off his boss; I heard him say I’ll go home this evening. I called out for him but he couldn’t hear me, with all the buses roaring. He didn’t even look at me. Here I saw you and felt like telling you.” Then he walked away.
Bhagyam took a few seconds; collected herself and whisked the pot and set it on her shoulder, the pot is light today. She hurried home to cook and clean, need to the entire house; he is coming from the city! The house has to be spic and span! Or else, Bava would feel let down. Bhagyam was walking, mulling over; he heart is bustling with joy. The same stupid joy that had made her to lose her cool in front of Seshayya.Bhagyam went in, lit the stove; she poured rice into the winnow to clean. She could hear the jingling bells from the bulls’ necks next door and the yelling of the farmhands. The farm animals must be
crunching fodder cheerfully. Bhagyam is tidying up, singing softly.
            A fleck of cloud hung over Mangalagiri
Down came the rain on Tirupati hills
Attayya used to sing that song in Bhagyam’s childhood. She is trying to recall the other lines.Heavy rain’s pouring down the pillars Silver seat of Venkanna is soaked wet Golden patio of Mangamma is soaked wet Subbulu, the Munsif’s daughter, came from the city to visit her mother briefly. She heard Bhagyam singing. Craning her neck over the fence, asked, “Akka, what’s new, singing? Is Bava coming?”
Bhagyam bent down her head, hiding a tiny smile.
“So, it’s true. Why didn’t you tell me?” Subbulu asked again. Bhagyam looked up but said nothing.
“Why? You’re looking so skinny!” Subbulu said, opening he eyes big, and added, laughing, “Well, you know what they say—some women are gorgeous even when they’re skinny, and dainty fabric is fine even when it’s filthy.”
Bhagyam wondered. Has Bava lost weight too? Who’s there to feed him in the city? And he is not the kind to ask for this or that. He’s his own cook! Then, she thought of the saree; she has been thinking of a lightweight saree; that has been on her mind ever since she had seen Subbulu wearing them. She was especially taken by that black handloom saree with moon prints. Bava said he would get one for her.She’s busy with cooking; her entire past flashed in her mind—her marital bliss, loss of parents first, and then of Attayya—they all came to her mind vividly.It was that year—the rains came down pouring heavily as soon as the farm started sprouting. But the family survived somehow. And then, the same thing had happened the following year too. Then there had been floods for two years in a row. In fact, they all had been aware of the floods; it had become a part of their lives. Even Bhagyam had known about it They all had known about the floods well in advance.
Just before the first sprinkles, they all had gone to a neighboring village to visit their relatives. On their way back, they had noticed that the lake had dried up; there were a few small patches of water here and there. The plantation had grown up full-length. Peddiraju said, ‘look. The cranes had their coops built amidst the plantation.’ Peddiraju kept staring at them, ‘Floods are going to wash away the yield this year,’ he said. Bhagyam was depressed. “Well, that’s the problem with the lowlands; there’s no escape,” the man standing next to her said.Now that’s all coming to mind. It was the same Seshayya who’d said that. They went to visit him; and he followed to see them off. Bava stared at him, as if he’d been lost for words. That’s when she’d come to understand that Bava hated her talking with Seshayya. The truth is she never really talked with him. She vaguely remembered something, happened long time ago; she’d said something impish; and
Seshayya burst into a laugh; he thought he had Bava’s support. Bava was very upset, but held back.
Nobody said anything after that. Seshayya accompanied them up to the big lake on the outskirts of their village, told them to go safely, and went back to his home. The truth is Bava never liked her talking with anybody. He’s strange. In all other matters, he is none other than god himself.
Another episode flashed through her mind.One day Bava had gone to the village fair. Just in case … She warmed up a glass of milk and kept on the ledge. Munsif’s wife gave her a bunch of marigolds; she tucked them in her hair. For Peddiraju, things did not happen the way he’d expected. He returned the same evening; he went bonkers as soon as he saw the milk and flowers. Bhagyam was confused at first; she was crushed. Then she started explaining; the rooster crowed by the time she’d done explaining. Peddiraju was ashamed of his stupid suspicions. He was mortified.
Bhagyam had understood his ways. “So be it. Who’s there to snap at, but for me. No need to feel bad,” she had comforted him. Sometimes she would snap at him too. But all this has got to stop. No matter however suspicious he gets, I’ve got to be patient. I’ll tell him as soon as he gets here.Bhagyam’s parents died while she was still a child and Attayya, Peddiraju’s mother, had taken her under her wing. Eventually, she had performed their wedding. Peddiraju has been very fond her; always on the alert, as if she were a bubble in his palm. He made sure that she never felt loss of her parents, not even for a second.
One time the munsif’s wife had given her a couple of lotus fruit. Bhagyam mentioned to her, “I like these a lot.” Bava was there, pretended as if he had not heard her words. And the very next day, he brought a whole bunch of them. He is so thoughtful! Bhagyam was nearly on the brink of tears. She remembered about what Attayya had said; that large body of water is a menace for Bava, that’s what his horoscope says.

All these stories kept coming back to her. The cow next door bellowed from their backyard. Peddiraju had to let go of the cow too. It’s not just one thing; one after another had gone;  they’d been through so many hardships. The crops failed year after year and landed them in huge debts. Peddiraju was forced to accept day labor in the city. He went to the city, since he couldn’t get down to it: selling wood in the town where he’d sold flowers. In addition, he also hoped that he might make more money in the city and pay off his debts. That’s all he had hoped for. After that, he was sure to sweat and produce gold on his land.
Several years had gone by. Heavy rains poured big. The lake was bursting with Lotuses and tulips. The farmers made little puddles of water for their farms. Peddiraju felt free enough, and asked the munsif to harvest his farm; he trusted him. The he went away to the city.
Bhagyam could still see in her mind, as if it happened yesterday. The day he had made his decision. Peddiraju had been acting strange all day; looked as if something was bothering him. Her stomach turns every time she recalls that moment. That day, he was eating supper. Suddenly, he blurted out, “Can you stay here alone?”
“I’ll go with you,” she’d replied. Peddiraju’s eyes had shot blood red. “We can’t trust the city. No, not you there,” he said. She had not understood him. What about Subbulu and others? Haven’t they all gone to the city? Well, he would not like it, that’s all there is to it. Then he had added, “Remember, if you do anything stupid here, I’ll just go away, god knows here.” Bhagyam’s heart was in a flurry. “What do you mean?” she had asked, worried sick.
Peddiraju had brought up a smile on his lips, “Don’t worry. I am cranky, you know.”
Bhagyam’s heart sank. For the rest of the day, neither of them had spoken a word. That evening, Bhagyam had managed to smile and tell him, “You’d be in the city by this time tomorrow, Bava! Will you remember this village and us here?”
Peddiraju had been folding his dhotis. “I’ll bring you a gold-threaded, black saree, don’t you worry,” he had replied, almost in a screechy tone.
A few seconds passed by. He softened his tone and said, barely audible, “Who do you think all this is for, all this struggling? I want you to be happy, this is for your sake. You can never tell you know, how can we tell we’ll always be like this forever? Don’t we have to save something for our children?”
Bhagyam’s heart melted like ice. That’s how Bava is, she told herself.

The next day, before daybreak on the eastern horizon, Bava hit the road to catch the bus. Munsif followed him to the outskirts, waving his cane.
Peddiraju had told her, “You’d better go home. Take care.”
“You go back.  I’ll go with him a little farther,” munsif said.
Bhagyam stood fixed to the ground at the end of the street. Not a word came out of her mouth. It felt like somebody had gouged out her heart. After the men were almost out of sight, she mumbled, ”Have a safe trip, and be back with a bounty.” Only the last star on the sky had heard that blessing.
Ever since that day, Bhagyam’s life has been a drag. Each day, she it’s a struggle to bring herself to cook even a morsel; “Why bother”, the phrase keeps coming up again and again. Each day, she would cook, since she had to calm down the gripe in her stomach; thoughts about her husband beset her: Did he eat? Is he starving? How is he? Who’s there he could ask when he is hungry? He is not even the type; he won’t ask! –the questions would worry her even more; and tears fill her eyes.
The harvesting had been completed. The land was barren to start with. After sifting the chaff, they had barely enough for subsistence. The munsif kept it in a silo at his place.
Days passed by. But the weight in Bhagyam’s heart did not get any lighter. The sun has been rising on the east and going down on the west, as always. For Bhagyam, there is no difference between yesterday and today.
The silk cotton tree in the backyard bloomed. It is still summer. She did not care if they had no income or the farm for that matter. All she wanted was she should be able to live with her husband under the same roof. She thought of asking the munsif several times to write a postcard to Peddiraju. But Peddiraju was not the kind; he is not quick to take others’ advice. His first priority is to pay off debts; keeping the outstanding debts is humiliating; he would not go for it. He cares for her. He had even sent some money, in installments, to the munsif. That was for her expenses, she was told. It was time for tilling the land. Munsif included Peddiraju’s farm also when he  started tilling his own.Now, Peddiraju is coming home today, rather unexpectedly. Basking in the news, Bhagyam finished cooking. Sprinkles started outside. Bugs swarmed around the lantern, which she just lit up. Next door, in the munsif’s backyard, they started fire; the smoke crammed her entire house. Bhagyam washed two plates and set them on the floor in the kitchen; and also two glasses of water and sitting planks. They can serve themselves and eat while he tells her all about city life. She was surprised at her own courage. They had never sat down together, not in their entire life. Maybe, on the wedding day and the next, that was about it. But Subbulu had told her that that’s way it is in the city; she and her husband would eat like that all the time.Bhagyam kept the paan leaves and crushed betel nut by the bed. They two could dab calcium paste, while. What if Bava suspects again? Then again, she laughed at her own fears. Also, she wanted to amuse him a little. She changed blouses twice, just to make sure.There is something else. Bava would like to chew a piece of jaggery after his meals. No jaggery at home. She can get it from the store round the corner. She’d never been to the store by herself. And also, it is raining outside. But then, I don’t have it at home, what can I do now? She opened the window and kept the lantern on the ledge. That way, Bava can see the path leading to the house. She closed the door and left for the store in the rain. She is getting slightly wet.
The store-owner’s wife saw and said, pleasantly, “What’s new? You came, drenched in the rain?” She noticed Bhagyam’s make up, and kept badgering until she had gotten the news. She gave her jaggery, and kumkuma and sent her little son with her to keep company. The sprinkles turned into showers. As soon as she opened the door, the wind from outside blew hard and put out the flame in the lantern.She sat down, leaning on the front door, watching the bus route. She turned around and looked into the room. It seems the sprinkles were blown into the room through the open window. Inside the room, close to the wall by the window, she saw something dark. Still, she does not want to close the window; if she closed it, Bava will not be able to see the path.
The rain is getting worse and worse; the wind is blowing harder too. Each time lightning struck, she could see the bus route for a split second. She kept watching the street; she does not want to move from the door. She is not sleeping at all.
It is past midnight. The winds outside are very loud. Bhagyam is scared. It didn’t look like Bava is coming tonight. It has to be tomorrow; that’s okay too. Why take risk in this frightening rain, and why get soaked to the skin? What is there so urgent here, anyway? The sprinkles are shooting through the window into the room, almost to the kitchen. Bhagyam got up and went to close the window. In the shades of the window, she felt something soft under her foot. Bhagyam jumped a step back.
That’s what she had noticed earlier too. It is a bundle, not a puddle. It looked like a puddle because of dim light. She brought the lamp closer and looked at the bundle. It is a small bag. She picked it up, with some hesitation. She felt the soft clothes wrapped up in the blue shirt that belonged to Bava. That meant Bava was here. Where is he? Did he go to the munsif’s home, because I was not home? He must have come when I went to the store. But then, what is he doing, for so long, in their house? She went to the door, and took a peek into the neighbor’s house. All the doors were closed. There were no sign of lights anywhere. They all were sleeping quietly.
Bhagyam could not think straight. Thoughts are swarming around in her head. She jumped back into her room again and stared at the bundle. She opened it slowly. She found the clothes Bava had taken with him first time he had left, and also a new black saree. In the lantern light, the gold threaded design glistened. It is the black saree with the gold-thread moon design, he had brought for her. What a memory! Bava remembered. But then, why did he leave it on the wet floor? Why didn’t he put it on the cot? Bhagyam went crazy for a second; her head spun like a top. She squatted down on the floor.
Next minute she noticed something else in the kitchen, where the plates were set. The place was a mess. She found Bava’s purse at her foot; it is heavy. She noticed a bus ticket, a receipt and a small pencil on the floor. It occurred to her in that moment. Bava threw them all through the window, no doubt, furiously. But why? And then, where did he go? It felt like her head would split into two.

Outside the window, rain was pouring down the spouts incessantly. The wind was whistling. The rain was getting heavier; as if pots full of water were being dumped.Sprinkles were falling on her back. She did not move. She looked blank. Shadows and streaks of light—all looked the same. Tears sprang to her eyes In the next second, a lightning struck, behind her. The plates in front of her shone. Showers outside.


(The Telugu original, madanta mabbu, has been published probably in sixties. Translated by Translated by © Malathi Nidadavolu and published on, April 2005.)

Three Million Rupee Bet by Arudra

The seasons for childhood games are distinct. Each one – Tops, kites, stump and stick – has its own season. It is easier to count the sides of a circle than to list the properties of all these seasons. Once it happened in my childhood in Visakhapatnam that a new season was born – that is the game of cigarette boxes.

It is difficult to find out who invented this great game. It’s even more difficult to say with any certainty that it was invented in our town. There is some chance for the probability that the game was imported from Vijayanagram or Anakapalle. I feel the tremendous responsibility to explain first how this game is played – so, here we go.

There are two faces to a cigarette box. The sides are torn away to leave these faces like Rupee notes. Values are assigned to these notes, sort of like playing cards, based on the brand of cigarettes –  Wills is 1000, Players is 1000, Scissors is 500, Passing show is 100, Bears is 50, Charminar is 5 – like this. I can only recall approximate values – I don’t remember the actual values.

Every player must first accumulate some of these notes. The players draw a large circle in the earth and place their bets within it. Oh, I forgot – another important piece of the game is the Bettu – this is a flat stone some 4- 6 inches in diameter, typically a piece of raw granite. Once the bets are placed, the first player stands on the edge of the circle and throws his bettu parallel to the ground straight away from him. The other players take turns to throw their own bettus from the circle, aiming for the first player’s. Whoever can hit the first player’s bettu wins the bet. If the second fellow can not hit the first player’s bettu, his own bettu stays on the ground, and the third fellow has the choice of aiming for either one. So on it proceeds till all the players in the game get a chance. If no one can hit the first player’s bettu, then the game proceeds into the second stage.

The first player stands where his bettu was and now aims it on the money pile in the center of the circle. If his bettu touches the pile of money, he wins the pot. If he does not, each player tries his luck – one wins whatever money one can knock out of the circle. The game proceeds till the last note is knocked out of the circle.

While we were playing a game like this in Ukam Street one day, Prasadam came by and showed us a new kind of cigarette box rupees. We never saw such a thing before in our lives. He declared that it is valued at 100,000 in Bombay. We didn’t object. He also said that his elder brother brought it from the military. Since it was a military cigarette box, we unanimously decided that it can be valued at 100,000.

We humbly petitioned Prasadam that he distribute one to each of us. He did not oblige. He had 30 of those. Therefore, we all condemned his miserliness in not sharing his wealth with us. But would he listen?

Finally, he made a proposal – we get one chance to win all of his 3 million in one game. Of course, we didn’t agree. Even if we pooled all our resources, it did not amount to 3 million. So, we suggested that bets be placed in multiple steps, like 250,000 or so at a time. He didn’t agree to this. Just then, Garuda Nannaya let it out that Wills is valued at 10,000 in Chinnam Street. Our currency values go up and down, depending on the need of the moment. Prasadam objected that this was unfair, but Wills was instantaneously elevated to the exalted value of 10,000 based on the approval by the rest of us.

Even with this new valuation, our combined pool came to only 2.5 million. We chose Prakasam to play against Prasadam in this big bet. He is the acknowledged expert of the game. He has many tricks literally at his finger tips in both throwing the bettu and in the knack of knocking the notes out of the circle. Prakasam agreed. But there was credit crunch – the needed capital was in short supply.

We humbly petitioned Prasadam to loan us half a million. We were confident that Prakasam would win. However, Prasadam was adamant, and refused point blank. Okay, we said, let’s keep the bet at 2.5 million. He said my way or the highway, much like Jinnah in his heyday.

Left with no options, we sent emissaries to neighboring territories for financial help. The news spread to Chinnam Street and Pappula street. The greatest players from both streets were present on the occasion to witness this mega contest. Chinnam street people agreed to give the loan on one condition. If Prakasam wins, they get ten of the new 100,000 notes. If he loses, we have to repay them a total of 1.5 million within three days. We all pledged ourselves to this agreement – our word was as good as our signature.

At last, when the bet amounts were placed inside the crease circle, Prasadam inquired the Nagulakonda boy from the Chinnam street as to the value of Wills in their street. When the fellow replied that it usually went for a 1000, Prasadam threw a tantrum that we were cheating (by counting Wills as 10,000). The external witnesses also expressed the opinion that Wills is worth only a thousand.

Feeling that it’s a waste to call off such an exciting game at this stage, Panuparti Venkat Rao from Pappula Street came forward to fill up the shortfall, if we let him play. Of course, we did not agree – why? Because the fellow doesn’t have any skill at all. So, he said he won’t give even a lousy Charminar. He also prevented anyone from the Pappula Street coming forward to give.

Meanwhile, Nannaya accused Prasadam of cheating us ‘cause his Bombay cigarette box is not worth 100,000. We could not digest this truth. We too agreed with Prasadam on how a Bombay military cigarette box could not be less than 100,000.

Somehow, at last, Prasadam agreed to let the game proceed with only the capital we had. The game started. In excitement, Prasadam through the stone first. We were hoping that Prakasam could hit it quite easily, and win the game. Prakasam didn’t hit it. In the second play, Prasadam was able to hit the pile of currency in the crease, thus winning the game and the bet.

In that joy, he twirled his (non-existent) mustache, slapped his thigh and sang an insulting nonsense rhyme at us. Prakasam was incensed at this and he jumped on Prasadam. We too jumped on him. We tore up all the cash in his hands. We threw him down and tore his shirt. The witnesses, Nagulakonda from Chinnam Street and Panuparti from Pappula Street joined us with their gangs and put an end to the fight.

With his face flushed beet red, Prasadam shouted, “My name is not Rambhotla Prasadam, if I don’t shoot you with my soldier brother’s gun,” and limped away. His shirt was all torn and his body was full of bruises.

That was the end of the season for the cigarette box game in our town for that year.


Translated by © S. Narayanaswamy and published on, June 2008.

(The Telugu original, mupphai lakshala pandem, was published in the anthology, Arudra kathalu, 1958.

Chaganti Somayajulu

Choices by Chaganti Somayajulu (Chaso)

It was a great day for Kunti[i]. He earned a bagful of rice; that is almost two pounds. For him, it is a special holiday; the bag, filled with two pounds of rice, was hanging heavily from his shoulder and rubbing against his thigh. His face glowed with content. He would not have to worry about food for the next ten days.

Kunti went to the mango grove on the outskirts, hopping with his crippled legs. He gathered a few dried sticks for fire. He also had three mangoes, stolen earlier. He returned to the shelter, and set three stones for a make-shift stove. He pulled the clay pot from his bag and started cooking.

The red flames surged and enveloped the pot. His body, cold and curled up until now, started to unwind. He lit up a tobacco roll; the smoke filled his heart. He felt the heavy rice bag against his thigh to his heart’s content. The rice on the stove was simmering.

“Erry!” he called out.

Erry and her dad, a leper,  made their home at the other end of the patio. Erry heard his voice and came to him.

“Bring your soup dish, please?”

“What kind of soup? Ho, ho!” said Erry, with bright face.

“What kind? Mango and nelli leaf.”

Erry noticed the heavy rice bag sitting nicely by his side. Hopes filled her head, “Seems like you’ve made a bundle today. Must have seen some lucky face this morning!”[ii] she said.

“Somebody lit up campfire early in the morning. The first thing I saw in that light was your bright face,” he replied.

“Couldn’t you think of something better even the day you can afford? Stupid nelli leaf. Get some fish at least. I would have bought meat, you know,” she said teasingly, staring at the item in the pot.

“Oh, no. The entire bag of rice would be gone in a snap. I want this rice to get me through for a couple of weeks.”

“Why? Won’t you go out tomorrow again? How big a stomach you have anyways? Three cups are plenty. Come on, get some fish,” she said. With that, Erry summed up the entire philosophy of the beggars community—the fundamentals of their economics. All that a beggar needs is three cups of rice to get by on any given day; and any beggar can get that much, if he or she could find one or two generous women on their route. That thought gives a lot of strength to the people in their community.

Kunti got up, and hopped his way to the old woman’s store.

The old woman sells groceries, vegetables, and firewood to the beggars. She gives him some dried fish and other spices for the soup in exchange for a cup of rice.

Erry brought her soup dish.

“Hey, can I ask you something?” she said.

“I know what you are going to ask,” he replied.



“Dad is sick. He could not go out for over three days now.”

“No. I will not.”

“I am not asking you for free. Let me borrow the rice today. Next time you are short, you can take from us.”

“No. I will not.”

“Hey, come on.”

“You go and ask that horse-cart driver. You like him.”

“You idiot! The horse-cart driver has left me.”

“Go away. He lets you sit in his cart, and wields his whip with tussles; you like that. Go to him.”

“He is married now.”

“Then, go to the other bum. I am no good; you think even that bum is better than I. An, you ask me for rice?”

“Do you know what the bum had done? One day, at midnight he got drunk, and came on to me. ‘What would you say?’ he asked me. ‘Give me a rupee,” I said. ‘Do I look like I have a rupee on me?’ he said. Then, I told him to go and get more drunk. He looked around furtively, like he was being vigilant, and then pulled out a rupee. The bums are crooks, you know. They have a lot of money. You tell me, is there anything you had ever given me?”

“What do I have to give you?”

“Whatever you have …”

“If I have …”

“What are going to do with all that rice?”

“Okay, take it. I am telling you, you must keep your word, though.”

That night Kunti begged Erry in any number of ways; he wanted to marry her desperately. He promised her that he would move in with them, and stay with them, if only she agreed to marry him and cook for him. Erry was touched.

The next day, Erry and Kunti cooked their meals together, and sat down to eat. Erry cooked fish soup again. All the other beggars in the shelter relished the fine aroma from her soup. The old man was down with fever; he also was woken by the smell.

“Who is he?” he asked Erry.

“Right from here, you know Kunti,” she replied.

“Why is he here?”

“We did the cooking together.”


“Yes, Maama[iii]. We are together,” Kunti replied.

The old man looked at him, gruffly. “You dirty rogue, get out of my sight,” he shouted.

“Why are you mad? I am not all that bad, you know,” Kunti said.

“I know alright. Get out of my face, you low life.”

Kunti was ruffled. “Are you calling me a low life? I am a Kapu boy[iv]; probably you don’t know. Ha! You are talking like your girl is a princess. She slept with that horse-cart driver. That driver is a Mala boy,” Kunti yells back with a gruff.

The old man stood and and kicked the soup bowl. It turned into a big brawl. The other beggars intervened and calmed them down. Kunti left, hopping away.

“Couldn’t you find a better guy than that idiot? I am going to find a man, the right one for you,” the old man guffawed and left.

Kunti returned. “Did you hear what your dad had said?” he asked her.

“What can I do?” Erry said, weakly.

“You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do.”

“What are you suggesting?”

“Come with me.”

“To where?”

“What do you mean where? Anywhere. We have all the way up to Rameswaram[v], our world has no bounds.”

“What about the old man?”

“He is not your problem.”

“What do you mean?”

“Let him take care of himself.”

“Gosh, you scoundrel! You want me to leave the sick man, and fool around with you?”

“Only, if you like.”

“Go, go away,” she screamed.

Kunti curled up in a corner, lay down like a caterpillar, and covered himself with a gunnysack.

Erry poured the soup in a bowl, picked up a couple of peppers as a side dish, and went to Kunti, and woke him up.

“Here, you had better eat it, before my dad came back. I can’t take his hollering.”

“Go away, I don’t want your food,” Kunti said. He did not get up. Erry kept imploring, but he would not listen.

The old man returned, with Guddi[vi] and called out, “Erry, come here.

“Cook for three people, today. Guddi is here; remember him?”

Erry knew him. Long time ago, they all went to Srikurmam on a pilgrimage.

“How are you?” Guddi said.

“What can I say? The old man is sick,” Erry replied.

“Well, he is getting old,” Guddi said, in a matter-of-fact tone.

“Yeah, that is true,” Erry said.

“Erry, starting today, we three are family. Cook for all the three of us,” the old man said.

Erry was ticked off; she was beside herself. She was aware that the old man had brought her into this world, and has been taking care of her; now, he is suggesting her marriage with the blind man; the old man is unable to see that Kunti is a fine man, and that he is crazy about her. The fact that the old man pushing away Kunti annoyed her. She failed to see her dad’s logic. What is the point? She cannot say ‘no’; she has to go along with dad’s proposition. He raised her.

At the other end of the patio, Kunti curled up like a rolled straw mat. He did not eat. She cooked his rice and the thought was killing him.

“Erry, you are really stupid[vii]. I am telling you, you don’t understand, you really are stupid,” the old man said.

Erry was ready to break down.

“You, come here,” the old man took her to a side, and asked her, “Did you see Guddi, I mean, did you take a good look at him?”

Of course, she saw him. She had known him for a long time. His body was dark like a boulder; and he covered his forehead with a huge smack of white paste; his eyeballs, popped up like cotton balls, and hung from his eye sockets; she was scared of his looks.

“Yes. I have seen him,” Erry replied, scratching her thigh.

“You are stuck on Kunti,” the old man said, teasingly.

“I am not stuck on anybody,” she replied.

“Come on, tell the truth. Tell me, really.”

“I don’t know.”

“You want Kunti.”

“Whatever you say…”

“Now, we are talking. That is good; that’s how the world sees it, you know. Listen to me,” the old man said.

Of course, she would listen. What other choice she has? If he says jump, she has to jump; he says take him, she has to take him. She is not free to say ‘no’, even when her heart is set elsewhere. She has no strength to rebel; it is not in her nature. Where is he getting his strength from? An old man, rotting with leprosy and on the verge of death, yet powerful enough to dictate terms to her. The parents who raise children will earn that power over their children. The children show kind of respect toward parents.

“Did I say no?” Erry said.

“You tell me the difference between the two men,” he asked her.

“Kunti is brawny; Guddi looks scary.”

“Don’t I look scary with all these sores? How come you are not scared of me? You have no problem feeding me?”

“You are my dad!”

“I am okay ‘cause I am your dad; well, he will be okay too after you are married to him. You start living with him, and he turns out to be okay. Kunti is no good for you.”

“Why not?” she asked dad.

“What do you mean?”

“I mean is he not good enough to bring home three cups of rice a day?”

“That is exactly my point. Listen to me,” the old man said, and delivered a long sermon, encapsulating the entire philosophy of the panhandlers community in that brief speech:

“I don’t want you to blame me later and say I did not take care of you while I was alive. You will not be happy if you go with Kunti. Listen carefully, and mark my words now. Check them again after a decade or so. When a cripple goes out for begging, people shut the door in his face. Nobody is kind to a cripple. He will be living off of you; he will sell you to other men. On the had, the blind man is a charmer, a prince without eyes. That is the biggest plus in his favor. Everybody will be kind to him. Women are kind to blind men; they will gladly give rice to a blind man. Besides, he is a great singer. He knows so many lyrics. You take him to some street corner, spread a sheet in front of him, and you wander away as you please. When he starts thumping his cymbals and singing, I am telling you, he will make a rupee a day, at the least. That is your proof. You see his body? He is strong like a shovel; he is not like me, you know, no diseases, no problems, not so much as a sneeze. He will have no problem earning enough for both of you. And also, he will be counting on you for help, he has to; and so, he will live by your rules. He will not bother you; no matter where you go, what you do. You can do anything you want, and he could not care less… Do you see what I mean? Wouldn’t you agree?”

“What can I say?” Erry mumbled.

“Just listen to me. Don’t let go of him.”

“Okay, I won’t.”

“Nobody really knows this big secret. All the beggar girls must go around looking for blind men, and marry only blind men, if you ask me.”

“Let’s go.”

Erry and her dad returned to the shelter.

“Hey, Guddi! Erry has agreed. I am sure she will not change her mind,” the old man told Guddi jubilantly. Guddi was ecstatic. For a man like him, to have a woman like Erry is a blessing!

He went to Erry, pulled out the stash he kept tied to his waist, and said, “Erry, here is my bag. Take this money and buy yourself anklets.”

It was a huge bag, filled with loose change. Erry’s eyes dazzled as she looked at the hoard. She did not expect Guddi to be that rich.

“I want red beads necklace,” she said. She had been dreaming about a red bead necklace for a long time.

“Then, you buy the red bead necklace and also silver anklets. That is what makes a woman a woman—her anklets, you know. Anklets adds to a woman’s beauty very much,” he said. The sounds of anklets probably awaken sweet thoughts in a blind man!

“Alright. Let’s go, have something to eat,” the old man said.

Erry served food for all the three, and handed Guddi his bowl.

“That’s my girl. Feed him well, and serve some for me too. You two together, make my day. I am telling you, Erry, do not let go of the blind man. Then, you make me happy as long as I live,” the old man said.




[The Telugu Original, Empu was first published in Arasam special issue in September 1945 and  included in the anthology, Chaso kathalu, 1968. Translated by Nidadasvolu Malathi and published on, June 2002.]

Translator’s note: The story shows us the economic philosophy underlying the beggars’ lifestyle, the choices they make, and their rationalization–a mode of thinking that is normally attributed to the middle class in our society. The author underscores the universality of this theme—the parent’s anxiety about a daughter’s welfare and the inherent desire for a better life in general, present in all human beings regardless of their economic status.

The one sentence in the story, “The old man’s speech is Upanishad for the beggar community: upanyaasam mushTi lokaaniki upanishattu ” sums up author’s perception of their reality.

[i] Literally, a crippled person. The physical disabilities are used as proper nouns in this story.

[ii] A common belief that the first face a person sees in the morning could affect one’s luck for the day. In Telugu: mukha visesham, or, evarimoham chusaano/choosaavo.

[iii] Kunti uses relational term maama, suggestive of proposed marriage.

[iv] Kapu and Mala are subcastes. The speaker is referring to the hierarchy, high and low, within the lower castes.

[v] A temple town in South India.

[vi] Literally Guddi means a blind person. Like Kunti, Guddi is used as a proper noun.

[vii] Erry literally means stupid.

Moments before boarding the plane by Sripada Subrahmanya Sastry


Mallamma stood up and took two steps toward Chelikani Venkaya. Venkaya walked in slowly, feeling crushed by the weight of his task. Mallamma was waiting for him. She was fully aware of his mission.

“Yes, thalli[1]?”

“What is the verdict?”

“Here is the dagger.” He quickly pulled the daggar from the sheath and held it up to her.

“To rip up the royal heart[2]?” she asked taking the daggar from his hand.

“How is that possible?”

“How? Am I not a Velama[3] child?”

“That is a man’s job, thalli!”

“Are you saying the Velama females are incompetent?”

Thalli, aren’t the Velama females asuryampasya[4]!”


“Meaning?!” Venkaya was stunned. Her words sounded like a protest to him.

“What do you mean? Chellamma![5] You are speaking strangely today. You know the protocol. Are you asking me to spell it for you?”

“I am asking you what is your position now?”

“Now or later, any time, there is only one meaning. You should never step outside.”

“That’s great. What happens if I step out?”

“Where is the Velama pride for men, if their women are seen by other men?”

“What a grim life! Women in all other castes, right from brahmins down to mala (untouchable) and madigaa (tanner), they all walk around freely. How come only we, the women in the royal families, are vulnerable?”

“Hasn’t that been the way always, a custom held for centuries?”

“Do we have to stick to that even when the circumstances are screaming for action?”

“How could you talk about circumstances? Where is the room for action, when we are acting with abandon?”

“That is my point exactly. Don’t I have to act with abandon?”

“In fact, it is imminent.”


“In order to carry out the job I am assigned to perform.”

“You mean strangling my throat. Right?”

The spirit in her question nearly choked him.

His head drooped as if in shame.

“Is that right?”

He lifted his head looking sideways.

“Come on, speak up.”

“What do you want me to say, thalli?”

“What would you say? What CAN you say? What a misery! The enemy is at the door, the circumstances are clearly out of men’s control, and you have nothing to say …”

“What are you saying, thalli? What is ‘out of men’s control’ for Velama heroes?” As he spoke his eyes pierced through like a javalin.

“What did you say? Ha?”

“Think I won’t?”

“So, what is your reason for showing up here now?”

“My orders, thalli.”

“I understand that. My question is what is his reason?”

“Fear of defiling your honor.”

“What? … For whom? … For Velama women?” Mallamma’s voice resounded like a thunder. Venkaya was awestruck.

“Had we been to the war zone, do you think the enemy could come up with any words worse than yours?”

“Is this the time for debate, thalli?”

“That’s precisely my point. That Velama women should not step outside is a norm. But when the circumstances get out of control, what is wrong in them stepping in?”

“Has it ever happened in the past? Any woman ever held a sword in any battle fought by Velama kings?”

“At a time when the depravity of the enemies is about to prevail, and the outsiders have the gall to tell us to leave our fort …”

“How can you compare one with the other?”

“Then, let us stop bickering. Who knows why the Velama women in the past did not go to war?”

Venkaya had no answer.

“Besides, where is the proof that the Velama women in the past were confronted with the same situation we are today, that they did not participate in wars, but committed suicide in the palace, that they stabbed themselves or burnt to ashes by their own choice. Who could corroborate all or any of this? Not only that. Possibly they all were hero-mothers (veeramaata,mother of a hero) and hero-wives (veerapatni, wife of a hero). It is also possible that they were not really anxious to be labeled heroic women (veeranganalu). Now, we don’t belong in that category. All the women in the palace are excited and asking, “why not we go out and stab Vijayaramudu?[6] What is going to happen to our bravado (if we don’t act on that)? I am in a mood to pick up the sword myself. At the moment I  have no way of knowing whether I am a hero-mother or not, since my child is still a baby. What else can I do? I have earned the reputation even in my childhood that ‘Mallamma counts for one’ (ennika ayinadi). I have proved myself a match for your king. Now don’t have to prove myself the mahishasuramardani[7]?”.

Her words pierced through his eardrums.

“What would you say, Venkaya?”

He wanted to say something but no sound came out of his mouth.

“After all the efforts of Velama kings have failed … The bravery of Velama kings has been used up, …”

THALLI! What did you say?” His voice reverberated the entire pride he had been cherishing to this moment.

“Don’t be upset. You might as well remember your reason to show up here and then speak. I am referring to a specific moment. When the Bobbili heroes’ bravery is dulled …”

“Please, thalli, I can not take this anymore. If you don’t put an end to this line of argument, my blood boils and …” He clutched his daggar.

“Blood boils? When? So, at the moment it is ice-cold, right?”

“Hara Hara Mahadeva[8]! Chellamma!” He screamed, gritting his teeth, weilding his daggar and looking up as he shouted the battle cry. His body writhed head to foot like a lightning, freeing the entire spirit of royal lineage dormant in him. Then appeared Ranga Rao’s ferocious face in front of his eyes, admonishing him, “What did I tell you to do, and what are you doing?”

His anger was snipped in a split second. His face fell. The teeth stopped gritting gradually. He kept repeating, “thalli, thalli, …” and switched to a series of sighs.

His hand wilted like a stalk of spinach.

Mallamma was disgusted with his sudden outburst and quick cooling off.

“Do you think the enemy would give in for your empty words? You had to thow in the towel in one day, where is the room for the pride of Velama kings? Had the Bobbili kings shown their valor, could the enemy have a chance to enjoy his boot? What a shameful time we have come to!”

Because we are thrown into bad times, the king’s command turned out to be like this.”

“That is not correct. Because it is bad time, the women should pick up the sword. Bobbili king is a hero of heroes and has a handful of gem-like heroes on his side, yet sought the help of the French. He didn’t have the courage to attack us alone. Can’t you see the reason behind his action? Why can’t the Velama kings see that? Why can’t they accept that there is nothing embarrassing in taking the women’s help?”

Venkaya was about to say something. But …

“Besides, this is not about men asking women to help them. It is about women coming forward and offering their help. Can you see the difference?”

“The result, however, …”

“The result? You idiot! The fact that Vijayaramaraju could not fight alone proves that he is effeminate. And guess how beautiful it could be when the Bobbili women take him.”


“Look, child! It is a proven fact that I am the dutiful wife (dharmapatni) of the Bobbili King, Rangarao. Don’t I also have to prove that I am also his sahadharmacharini (equal partner in discharging his familial and social obligations)

“Where is the contradiction?”

“What is left for me? my child! Vijayaramaraju offered three townships as mundabharanam (alimony for a widow). He (Vijayaramaraju) lives on to enjoy his life and I commit suicide.Don’t you see that that would be the worst kind of dishonor for me?”

The term “mundabharanam” slit through Venkaya’s heart. He was irate for the king’s words and for Mallamma repeating them. Several thoughts rose and fell in his head, and the emotional turmoil rendered him speechless. He could neither express them nor contain them. Struggling with his emotions, he did not respond to her query.

“Where is your king?”

“In front of the palace, among the other Velama cheifs. He is preparing for …”

“You go and tell him.”

“I have no orders, thalli!”

“All right. I will go. Who can stop me?”

“Who can stop you, thalli? Whoever has the nerve to stop you? But then, first stab me here,” he said, pushing forward his chest and tapping on the target with his index finger.

“What are you saying? Is that you think of this Mallamma? That is beautiful. If I pick up the dagger I would use it to prod the entrails of the enemy. I will never show my prowess on my own people. Is that clear?”

Her words thrust him like a javelin. He was silent.

“Dear child, did you think that Mallamma is a straightforward, all words-no-action-female hero of sorts, without a sense of discernment? You think I make no distinction between friends and enemies?”

Venkaya’s face turned toward her but his looks were still glued to the carpet.


“So, Venkaya, is it confirmed that I would not see the king again?”

By now Venkaya collected himself. All the education he has received through the years came to his rescue. He said, “After you leave this mean human body, you will reach the much coveted nirvana, thalli!”

“Don’t dish out that dim-witted philosophy to me. It is only this mean human body that carries the revenge and outrage.”

“Is this human body permanent?”

“Is your Velama pride permanent?”

He lowered his head.

“What about the king who came to tear down Bobbili? Didn’t he know that the human body is transient?”

“Only if we don’t crush his body on this soil.”

“Isn’t that what I am saying too? I would finish it?”

He had no argument there. “Could you please stop arguing with me?” he begged her coaxingly.

“You know the stories- the Bobbili business women confused the Golconda businessmen with their measuring weights, and the Bobbili working women crushed the Vijayanagaram chieftains with their pestles. Tell me don’t we, the Bobbili queens, count as much?”

“The king is waiting for me to return, thalli.”

“Why? He won’t attack the king wihout you by his side? And you can’t get excited until you stab your own mothers, sisters and children?”

Venkaya felt like she was pulling out his entrails. He closed his eyes heaving deep sighs.

“What a wretched time we have come to. Satyabhama tucked in her saree tight, picked up the bow and arrow and caused Narakasura[9] to fall. The enemy troops shattered when Rudramma weilded her sword in Orugallu, and Nagamma in Palnadu. Don’t you think the world has to see what happens when Mallamma exerts her daggar?”

“What is the point of conjecture, thalli?”

Mallamma sprang like a cobra, steppedon[10], and spoke, “What? Conjecture?”

“Who knows what happens…”

“Same old line, again? Are those the right words for a Velama warrior to speak?”


“Is the land of Bobbili gone to dogs?”


“If only Tandra Paparayani varu[11] were around …”

“I am not sure if Paparayani varu has heard of the situation here, or how he is holding down his fort.”

“True we don’t know whether Paparayani varu has heard of this or not. So be it. What about Bobbili fort? Do we have to let this go?”


“Paparayani varu is not here. What about others? Venkatarayani varu spoke big but where is the action? Venkatarayani garu is no good. That much is clear. What about the other kings, Rao Chinnarayani garu, Inaganti Narasa Rayani garu, Kakarlapudi Venkataramaraju garu, Vantena Bucchanna garu, …. Where are they all? Not one of them is man enough to come here and convey the message about the King’s sad demise??


“You won’t talk. Of course. What can you say? You came rushing in to the queen’s quarters, wielding your sword. What a great assignment for you! But, my child, let us, the Bobbili Velama ladies have the opportunity at least to stab ourselves, if not the enemies.”


“You know we the women from one hundred Velama families are like whetted swords. All this skill, that should have been put to use in time of need, is wasted like the moonlight in the woods[12]. Does anybody have any idea how deeply distressed these women are about the plight of Bobbili, and how anxious they are to skin the enemy?

Listen, Venkaya, if we are not interested, we would not live even if we had won the battle. You go and get the permission from your king for us–either to kill ourselves or to jump into the battlefield.”

Thalli, I do not have any responses for you. You know that we all respect you as much as we respect Rangarayani garu.”

“Then let us go to the battle.’

“That is defying the king’s command, thalli.”

“Then why this smooth-talk?”

“I am only a servant of the king. How can I defy his command?”

“If that is the command of the king, this is the command of the queen. You go and bring the King here.”

Thalli, I don’t have the permission to show up in his presence, without finishing my task.”

“That’s it. … No matter how much I try to convince you, you give the same song. The world goes on even after we are dead. The world will make a note that the Bobbili Velama heroes could neither kill the king who had committed inhuman acts, nor allow the women to finish the job, when women offered …”



“Yes, thalli.”

“What would you say?”

“We are just wasting time, I would say. There is no point in playing for time, I would say.”

“Of course, that is what you would say. You are a match for your king. I am glad you stuck to your guns at least in this regard. My child, whatever time is lost is lost. You might as well remember this. You go and tell your king that ‘Your wife told me to ask you, ‘how could you turn the sword on your wife, the sword that should have been used to pluck the heart of the enemy?’ Also tell him that I asked, ‘you are so anxious to protect our honor now, why didn’t you didn’t you think of that when the authorities sent you the message?’


“The life-breath hardly fits in a fist. Yet we are wrestling for this very life-breath. In a split second the life-breath disappears and the world will still go on as always. Who could tell how many times this life went through these revolving doors?

Yet I am certain that there has never been and never will be a predicament worse than this. What a shame! The enemy spoke ill words and my husband did nothing. My blood is boiling. Physical abuse is much better, if you ask me.”


“What is the point of mulling over now? What is the point of getting at you? How can I talk about others when unspeakable insults are poured on the wife of a great king like Rangarayani garu. If I, the Bobbili queen, choose to stay alive, Vijayaramudu is offering alimony.”


“What is it, my child? Is Mallamma standing in your way for the display of your valor? Here, I am sending her away. I have been blabbering nonsense all along. And all you see is me blabbering. Nothing more. It is confirmed that I will die without avenging myself on the enemy. Nothing is accomplished by my talking alone. I spoke a lot out of frustration. Please, Annaya[13], forgive me. Please tell your bava[14] garu that Mallamma is capable of discerning the good from the bad, and sought his forgiveness also.”


“Lord Srirama! the Gods Sun and Moon! Here is my last namaskaram to you. Here are my last respects. This is my last prayer. Please, keep an eye on my baby son. I am begging you. Transfer all my remaining lifespan to him. Let the geneology of Bobbili kings continue through him. Credit him with all the valor that is dormant in the Velama heroes who are facing untimely death today. Let him finish the job my husband should have done. That is all I ask of you. That is the blessing I beseech you. That is when I feel avenged. This dagger is sharp. That does not matter though. When one has the courage, even a piece of wet cloth is enough to do the job… Sri Hari! Sri Hari! Sri Ha ..ri…”

Just one stab! The body fell with one thump.

Venkaya’s eyes turned hazy. Everything around looked vacant. In one split second his hands emptied the queen’s palace.




(Published originally in Telugu entitled vimanam ekkabothu… in Bharati, February 1926.

This version, courtesy of Visalandhra Publishing House, is taken from their anthology, Sripada Subrahmanya Sastry kathalu-1. )

Translator’s note:  The story is woven around a famous battle called “Bobbili yuddham” fought in 1757 by prince Venkata Ranga Rao of Bobbili and prince Vijaya Rama Rao of Vijayanagaram, Andhra Pradesh, with military help from the French.. Prince Rangarao of Bobbili lost and sent his envoy, Venkaya to kill the queen by way of protecting her honor, per custom of the times.  The fully-charged questions queen Mallamma raises with the envoy reflect the pride and self-respect women evinced. The use contemporary imagery in the title, boarding the plane, appears to reposition the storyline to appeal to the modern day readers. In all probability Subrahmanya Sastry is raising the same questions as Mallamma on behalf of all the women.

Translated by Nidadavolu Malathi and published on, September 2002.)

[1] It is common practice to address the women in higher strata as amma or talli, meaning mother.

[2] The reference was to the enemy king.

[3] Velama is one of royal castes. They were rulers of Vijayanagaram Empire in the 16th century.

[4] A common phrase with reference to women in higher castes is meaning not seen by the sun, never left home.

[5] Venkaya addresses her as chellamma, younger sister which implies a shift in his position from an underling to protective figure. See Glossary for the intricacies of the interpersonal relationships in the heirarchy in India.

[6] Vijayarama raju, Vijajanagaram King defeated the Bobbili king, Ranga Rao in 1757. Mallamma was Bobbili queen.

[7] Mythology, the goddess Kali killed the demon named Mahishasura. Queen Mallamma implies that she would assume the form of Kali to end the King Vijayarama raju.

[8] Hara, and Mahadeva–epithets of Lord Siva, the God of Destruction. Also a phrase used as a battle cry.

[9] Satyabhama, wife of Krishna, went to war with Krishna. Krishna fainted while fighting, and Satyabhama killed the demon Narakasura.

[10] Telugu phrase: toka tokkina taachulaa... Lit. a viper whose tail is stepped on.

[11] A variant of garu. See glossary.

[12] Telugu proverb, adavi gachina vennela

[13] Older brother. See note 4. He has earlier established that he was older in age. She, in her final moment, accepted his status as older brother and protector.

[14] Brother-in-law. Building on the Annaya, Chellamma relationship, she is referring to the king, her husband as his brother-in-law.

Under the Glowing Moonlight by Dr. Poranki Dakshina Murthy

Suddenly, from out of nowhere, people started pouring into our town; not just a few small crowds, but a multitude of them.

Our shelter was flooded with folks day in and day out. Some had no room anywhere and they started cooking on the front porches of some of the houses. A few others set up tents near the village well. The entire place was a chaos.

 For the town’s storekeeper, it was a blessing. He buried his head in the cashbox and kept counting his earnings; he didn’t have time even to check which way the pin on the weighing scale was leaning.

 Children could not stay home; they went bustling around, looking important and busy. Of course,

how can they stay home while so many people swarmed the town; and were scurrying around, like at a wedding party, with hundreds of new faces, short braids, and tiny hairdos. The children went to receive them with great zeal. They were everywhere, like a shower of  pogaDa flowers, after the tree was shaken.

 For the past four or five days, people started pouring in as if it were a village fair. The town was small, I mean very small. In fact, it can not even be called a town. Originally, a few huts were built by the roadside. And then, during the reign of the Vijayanagar empire,[i] two wells were dug and a few more families found their homes, hoping that the wells would provide water for their subsistence. Then they settled down and started farming the land in the area. That’s how it became a township. Nobody cared to give it a name. The people never needed it. The Revenue department however registered that land under the name of a neighborhood village. The town has one specific advantage though. Since it was located by the roadside. Other villagers, on their way to the city, found it a handy place for stopping briefly and resting.

 On that day, Sivanna, a farm hand, had no time even to breathe. Normally, he was not a sweaty type of man, no matter how hard he worked; and so, he never looked tired. He was busy working, with his head down. He had no time to think. Still, a thing or two kept surfacing in his mind off and on, giving him a jab at his heart. Whoever could have expected that such a huge catastrophe would occur in their town?

 No, nobody could’ve expected it; it is not unusual though, for the Rayala seema[ii] area. There are some dim-wits who’d call it ratanaala seema [diamond ore] but, it’s a rock bed to speak the truth. There are no canals to bring in water for farming in the area; and so, the farmers have to draw water from the wells, breaking their backs. Sometimes, they would have no rains for four or five years at a stretch, causing drought; the wells dry up, and the people have to struggle even for a morsel of food. Often the poor families are forced to leave the land, which they had trusted for centuries. They would go away to distant lands, in the hope of staying alive. That’s when families go away in huge clusters, leaving behind the gloomy townships. That is not unusual. But the people in this particular town never faced it, not until now.

 By the end of the day, the commotion died down. Sivanna finished packing all the stuff that belonged to his landlord in boxes.

He went home and lit up the stove. The splinters caught fire and the flames shot up. He put a pot of water on the stove, added the maize grits and covered it with a lid. Then, he sat in front of the stove, watching the flames. He watched, without batting an eyelid, as the splinters blazed and the flames enveloped the pot. Vapors started oozing out from under the lid; the maize was cooking, hissing softly. He picked up the ladle and stirred the maize a few times, covered it again, and lowered the flames.

While he was sitting there, he made up his mind; he pushed away all the thoughts that were hovering in his head. No matter however much he suffered loneliness in that hut, unlike all others, he would not leave town. His landlord was leaving with his family; he did not ask Sivanna to go with him, not  in so many  words; but his wife said something to that effect. At the time, for some odd reason, he thought it would be nice if he went with them. He waited for his landlord to say the same thing but that did not happen. He was disappointed a little but did not suggest it himself. Then he considered going to some other place by himself, if not with his landlord, and making a new life for himself, as a day laborer or something. After all, he was just one person; couldn’t he manage somehow? He was at the prime of youth and hard-working. Then again, the other thoughts took over—the thought of leaving the native soil, however worthless it was, depressed him. What kind of relationship he has with this soil? Can’t tell! He could not explain it. He never shed a tear in his twenty-years of life; yet, today the thought of leaving this place was agonizing.

 Sivanna told himself, “I am not going anywhere; I will not. The entire townspeople can go away; the town can be deserted totally and all the houses abandoned, but I am not leaving my home.” He convinced himself that all this was great—lighting up the stove by himself, washing and pouring the maize in the cooking pot, and after it was cooked, emptying it into the plate, and sitting down with his food and a slice of pickle, all by himself, and sitting for hours on end like that—all that seemed interesting and pleasurable for him; it even felt like a custom he must not sidestep ever.

 Sivanna finished eating, spread a mat in the open on the front yard, and lay down with his hands tucked under his head. He kept staring into the sky. The moonlight spread sparsely on his face. He dozed off.

 A little after midnight, the commotion stirred up again. Sivanna could hear the noises from the wheels of the moving carts and the jingling bells around the necks of the bulls. He got up quickly, washed up and went to the landlord’s house. By then, the carts were already there, lined up. Sivanna loaded  the boxes in one cart, single-handedly. The landlord’s family got on the other two carts. Sivanna followed the carts to the outskirts of the town, to bid farewell. The landlady said to her husband, “I was hoping Sivanna would go with us.”

“Yes, that would’ve been nice. But I don’t think he would want to leave this place,” he replied, sounding casual.

Sivanna heard their conversation. He knew that those words were not spoken wholeheartedly; he would have felt hurt under different circumstances but he was not worried this time. He told himself again, “That’s true. I can not leave this town and walk away.” The carts went past the boundary line The landlord told Sivanna to turn around; he stuffed a ten-rupee bill in Sivanna’s hand. Sivanna didn’t want to accept it. He pulled back; the landlord called out for him. She said, “Look, Sivanna, this is our pleasure. Don’t say no. I know this is nowhere near all the things you’ve done for us. Yet, please, don’t refuse it. Ayya garu would be hurt. I know you don’t need this money. But sometime later you might want to go somewhere and then you’ll need it. Save it for that purpose. One more thing. Keep an eye on our house.” Sivanna nodded politely.

 The carts moved on. Sivanna stood there for a long time and after the carts were out of sight, turned around and went home. After his landlord left town, Sivanna did not step outside his hut for a couple of days. In the meantime, almost all the houses in town were vacated. Even other villagers who were passing by stopped only for a few hours or a day and moved on. Some were on carts, some on foot, and a few older persons were carried by other men in dolis[iii]; and their animals followed behind them.

 Sivanna came out of his hut on the third day; the sun was going down. He went to the village meeting place—the concrete patio—where people used to gather. He saw the three grimy stones, set to serve as a stove for the passersby. He went farther; he found nothing but a few rags and used papers; all the houses were filthy for want of care. Some of the streets were like dark tunnels; no smell from the animal sheds; no sight of greenery to be found anywhere, not even for sample. Sivanna kept walking, recalling the persons in each house as he passed.

 As he approached the well, he saw something white; it was moving. He went closer.

A cow!

He was taken aback. Poor thing; probably, she escaped from the herd and returned home. “Hum, you are also like me; leaving home breaks our hearts, right?” he said.

The cow lifted her face and looked up. Sivanna patted on its back gently and started walking, with his hand on her neck. The cow, as she followed him, kept looking back towards the well.

“You, silly animal, looking for water? Let’s go to my place. I’ll give you all the water you can drink,” he said. Then something else occurred to him. Where could he get fodder for the cow?

The cow was walking slowly, nibbling on the blades of grass that dropped here and there from the carts that went by earlier. Sivanna chuckled.

 A faint layer of moonlight spread on the cow, and seemed to condense on her. Sivanna was amused that he should find this new life here where humans could not survive. There was no way to know whom that cow belonged to, or which village she came from.

Sivanna was walking, laughing to himself. The cow was walking behind him. Suddenly, some sound was heard from one of the side lanes. Sivanna did not hear it but the cow did and she stopped. She bellowed with pricked ears. Sivanna also stopped and then heard sobs coming softly from the side lane. He was taken aback.

The cow bellowed again.

Sivanna went into the lane. The houses on either side were very close to each other and the lane was too narrow; it was like a dark tunnel. He went farther and heard the cries of a little girl. He moved quickly and found the little girl. She, barely five-years old, wore a skirt and a blouse and standing alone. She saw him and stood there without moving.

 Sivanna’s heart moaned at the sight of her. He could not imagine whose child she was; who could have forgotten here, from which village—no way of knowing.

Sivanna was baffled as he thought of the series of events that were occurring in his life.

He picked up the child and held tight to his chest. He said, “Don’t cry, baby. Nothing to fear. We’ll go to our home. I’ll feed you, sing lullabies and put you to bed. Okay? You’ll not cry

anymore, yes? We don’t have to worry about anything. You, I and our cow—we three will be all right. Let’s not leave this town ever. This whole town is ours now. Let’s not go anywhere any time, ever again. Okay?”

 The child stopped crying but gasping for breath. The cow was walking ahead of them. Sivanna told himself, “It must be a blessing, the fruit of my good deeds of past several past lifetimes. How else can I account for this strange events—this little child coming into my life at a time when the entire country was hit with drought, the entire town starved for food, and deserted the place. I was the only one, alone and scared, to stay back; how could I explain these new relationships in my empty life?”

 He pulled the child’s face closer and kissed on her forehead. The little girl put her two hands around his neck and snuggled her face in his bosom.

The heavenly bliss he felt in his heart at that moment was beyond belief. Only the full-blown moon would know!


 (The Telugu original, vennela pandina vela [Even as the moonlight shone.] was published in Jwala. Translated by Nidadavolu Malathi and published on, July 204.)

[i] Famous empire in the 17th Century.

[ii] Far south region of Andhra Pradesh state.

[iii] A mode of transportation. A sheet hung to a pole and the pole would be carried by men on their shoulders.