Monthly Archives: April 2013

A Piece of Ribbon by Beenadevi.

 The evening was stretching sluggishly. The sun was tired and left in a hurry but the moon took his sweet time to show up. The breeze was singing softly. The tiny grass blades were waving their heads like esteemed artists.

That was a huge mansion. The lawn surrounding the mansion was filled with several beautiful flower plants. The doctor was sitting on the lawn and watching, entranced, the flowers around him and the gliding clouds in the sky. There were chairs on the lawn but the doctor always enjoyed stretching on the lawn and enjoy the setting. He looked like he was pondering over something but hard to say what it was about. It could be the friends who had not showed up yet. It was past their usual time and getting dark. Or, it could be about the baby he struggled to bring into this world a while ago. Probably none of the above; he was just immersed in appreciating the beauty of the flowers dancing on the tips of the plants at a distance.

Viswam, one of his friends, entered the scene disturbing his reverie, “What’s the matter? Doctor garu is sitting alone, lost in thought?” and added, “I thought I’d be late but I see I’m the first to show up, after all. Anyway, what’s the matter? You lay down here like Sita under the Asoka tree?”[1] Viswam sat down next to the doctor. He believes that he talks humorously. He always boasts of the award he has received for his performance as a comic character in a school play. He speak always things he thinks funny, that’s built into his nature.

Doctor chuckled softly. Viswam said, “What’s it, you are smiling about, doctor garu? Did I disrupt your solitude? If so, I’d go away and leave you alone.” He got up to leave but the doctor stopped him, “No, please, sit down.”

“It’s getting dark so soon now. Where is everybody? This stupid winter, gets dark so soon. By the time we leave office and get home, it’s already time to light up the lamps,” Viswam said again.

The doctor responded only with a chuckle again.

“How come you are so interested in the flower plants? Trust me, even the local parks don’t have this many varieties of plants,” Viswam complimented, watching the plants around.

Siraj, an engineer, came and joined them, apologizing for his delay, “Sorry I’m late. Held up by some stupid contract work.” He crashed next to Viswam. Siraj is well over six feet tall and appears like he is far superior to others, both physically and ethically.

Doctor said, “Oh no. You too are settling down on the ground? We don’t mind, you can sit on the chair. I like to sit on the grass and I’m used to this and like it too.”

“That’s all right. After all, haven’t we been sitting in chairs all day? Let’s relax on the green grass for a while,” Siraj replied, leaning on one of the chairs.

“It seems doctor garu didn’t have much work today. Stretching on the lawn idly,” Viswam commented. Doctor was lying on his stomach and counting the blades of grass. Before he could respond, his wife, Visala, entered like a whirlwind and started talking tensely, “Why wouldn’t he sit there idly? After dumping all his work on me, why not ? No consideration at all! Why can’t he see that the workload is breaking my back? Why can’t he think of helping me out?” She sat down in the chair next to the doctor. She’s used to giving it straight whether it’s right or wrong. The husband and the wife, doctor and Visala, have a very genial marital relationship, despite their contradictory natures.

“You are looking tired,” Siraj said to Visala with concern.

“Tired? I’m nearly dead. Especially these delivery cases, no sense of timing at all. I wish they had a set season or schedule for childbirths,” Visala replied, annoyed.

“Like Gireesam[2] said, maybe you would have less work if we had more child widows,” Viswam said, showing off as usual the sense of humor he never had in the first place.

“Even then, where is the guarantee?” replied Visala.

Doctor and Viswam burst into a big laugh. Before Viswam could understand why doctor laughed, Visala spoke again taunting her husband who was lying at her feet and pleating her saree frills. She said to him, “What’s this, babu! As is, everybody is getting on my case, saying I am chewing you up, treating you like a slave. Please, move away from my feet.”

Doctor ignored her comments and was busy enjoying the jari butterflies cleverly woven into the border of her white handloom saree. “Visala, this saree is really very beautiful. The man who wove this saree must be a poet,” he said with admiration.

“Ha! Don’t I know your crooked mind! How could you see the workmanship of this saree border in this darkness? Don’t you try to flatter me. I know you do whatever you please,” Visala retorted teasingly. Siraj was listening to their chitchat, sitting down with his legs stretched and pulling the blades of grass. Viswam tried to offer his moral support to the doctor, “Isn’t it true that you used to paint in the old days?” Visala cut in, “That’s what I am fretting about, too. You see what it has come down to—he was painting before but stopped after our marriage? Wouldn’t it look like I bungled with his painting career?” Before she could finish, the bald-headed judge garu came rolling in like a ball, and asked, “I heard you say something about painting. What about painting?”

Judge garu and lecturer, Sankar Rao, who came with him, settled down on the ground.

Visala said, “Oh, no. You all are sitting on the ground and here I am sitting in the high chair. I think I should move to the ground too,” but the judge garu did not let her. “Never mind us, amma, please don’t get up. We all were sitting on chairs until our backs nearly broke You, on the other hand, don’t have a chance to sit at all. You do all your work standing on your feet. Besides, we are no strangers,” he persuaded her to sit on the chair.

“It’s so dark, how did you manage to work in that courtroom?” Siraj asked the judge.

“Tell me about it! The whole world is brimming with injustice. The work in the courts equals the volume of injustice in the world. As the sin is mounting so also the work in the courts,” judge said. The judge spent most of his time in the courts yet he could not stand the unfairness. He sees something horrible and new each day.

“Are you saying all you have in your courts are only sin and injustice?” Viswam asked satirically.

“Injustice does not come alone. Fairness and Justice always follow the injustice on its heels. Anytime one person walks in with injustice on his hands the other side brings in justice,” Judge retorted.

Doctor let go of Visala’s saree pleats and started watching her feet from various angles. He asked the judge, “So, judge garu, who do you think is worst hit by injustice?”

“Me,” Visala said abruptly. “Wouldn’t you say marrying a person like doctor garu is an injustice squashed on me?” she asked.

“No, come on, seriously. I think the worst injustice has been done to Rama[1], if you ask me,” Siraj said.

Judge broke into a big laugh, “If you start adoring Rama and Vibhishana,[3] all your people will excommunicate you.” The reference was to Siraj’s religious upbringing which is muslim.

“What else can he do? Here we are highly educated and yet forgetting that it is unfair to attach race and religion to gods,” Visala commented.

“You still haven’t answered my question,” doctor said.

Judge replied, “What do you want me to say? There is injustice everywhere and every action is unjust. Let’s take the case I handled today, for instance. The complainant, about 25-years old and poor; her looks were not bad either. She was educated too, maybe minimally. She was married quite young. After the marriage, her husband never invited her to his house, for whatever reason. She waited and waited until she was tired of waiting. How long could she wait around? Now, after ten years, she filed for a divorce,  demanding alimony.”

“What’s wrong with that idiot of a husband to leave the poor woman like that?” Siraj expressed his concern for the woman, stretching next to the doctor.

“Maybe she has a questionable past,” Viswam commented, showing off that he has made a clever observation.

“That woman must be from ancient times. If I were she, I would have seen the end of him right away,” Visala said angrily.

“That’s not true. Her husband says her uncle did injustice to him.[4] That’s the mentality of some people, I guess. We don’t always need big reasons to call it unjust or unethical. Sometimes what we consider a tiny incident could cause tremendous pain to someone else. We don’t have to hit somebody or even use swear words. Our rude behavior could make a sensitive person suffer,” judge said.

The doctor cut in, “You’re right, every word of it. That reminds me of an episode that happened long time ago.”

“Well, let’s hear it,” Viswam asked.

Visala remarked, “Doctor garu has always stories to tell. I am not even sure why he went into medicine; maybe to hassle me. I think he should be sitting in some corner writing poetry or painting pictures. He can’t even stand it when a patient suffers or his family weeps. He would cry along with them. Luckily, he became a government doctor and gets his paycheck regularly no matter what. Had he gone into private practice, we would be having grass for supper.[5]

“Doctor has a kind heart. He must have done plenty of good deeds in his past life to be born so kind,” the judge said.

“Tell us the story,” Siraj asked anxiously.

“All of you may not like this story,” doctor sounded apologetic.

“Is that meant for me?” Viswam muttered.

“He didn’t say that,” Siraj said crossly.

The doctor began telling his story, “This happened long time ago. I remember the details only vaguely but there is a part in my mind that is indelible.” The doctor stopped for a second and then continued, “I was in my fourth year at the medical college. I always liked solitude and so did not want to live in the dormitory like other students. I rented a room in town. After a while I had to vacate the room, I don’t remember why. Then I started hunting day and night for another room.”

“Probably, that’s the reason you failed one course,” Visala interrupted him.

“No, Visala. That’s not true. My health was not good at the time and so I could not put in enough time into my studies. That was the reason I failed. Do I have to remind you the housing conditions in Visakhapatnam?[6] For want of space, people lived even in garages. I managed to find a room somehow on the second floor of a house. The landlord, a bank representative in some local bank, occupied the ground floor. I hardly felt his presence. God knows when he was in and when out. I saw his wife a lot and his daughter occasionally. The daughter was their first child, and they also had three sons. I never really paid attention to those kids. Very often they’d go out and got beat up; or, stayed home and enjoyed the same pleasure from their mother. The nicknames the mother gave her three sons were: the first idiot, the second donkey, and the little idiot. She did not learn to love her children until after her latter years, I believe. I must say she must have been beautiful in her day, she was fair-complexioned.

“Had she worked on her demeanor and etiquette, probably she would have looked graceful but did not seem like she was bothered about such things ever. She would fix her hair once in the evening and would go around like that until the next day, as if that was not her hair. She looked worried about something or other constantly, always had a dirty dish or a broom in her hand, always on pins and needles, either yelling at the maid or the bank peon. If you hear her voice, all you could think of was the huge drums or the cymbals you would hear normally during sankranti festival. I am not saying she was a bad woman, not any worse than any other woman I’d known. Girl, did you wash the young idiot’s face? Viranna, wake up the first idiot; getting late for school. You, little idiot, don’t touch the milk pan. It’s burning hot; Viranna, go to the market now; otherwise,  you’ll find only rotten vegetables … That was the music I heard everyday for my wake up song as well as for my lullaby at night. I never tried to get involved in their family matters. My only connection to their family was the maid, Rajamma. She used to clean my room.

“It went on for a while; two seasons had changed without any memorable event I could recall or think of. Then ill-health overtook me. Although it was not the kind I should be worried about, it did force me to stay in bed for two weeks. There was no diet problem but a different issue came to the fore. I needed a person to bring coffee and meals from the hotel, and fruits and cigarettes from the store. Rajamma finished the chores in the landlord’s house and my room in about one hour in the morning and one hour in the evening. At her own home she had to cook for her husband, a rickshaw-puller. Thus she was in no position to attend to my needs. So, I asked her to find someone else to help me out with my newly developed necessities. She said, “No problem, babu, I will send my little girl.” The next day the little girl, Lakshmi, came. She was dark-skinned but had a bright face befitting her name. An inexplicable beauty in her face and innocence in her eyes added to her charm. She must not be older than ten at the most, I thought.

“Lakshmi was confused a little on the first day, not knowing what chore first and what next. But she had picked up quickly on the second day and there was no need for me to tell her anything after that. She never showed any signs of weariness or frustration for anything. She would finish any and every chore given to her; she was always up and running zealously. Sometimes I would give her a fruit or something to eat; she would take it but leave it behind when I was not looking. I told her to take the leftover food after I was done eating. She took it home instead of eating it herself. For a while, I thought she was shy to eat in front of me and then it occurred to me that she might be taking it home for others in her family. Then I felt guilty which I would not have if she were not that young. I couldn’t help thinking other children of that age in our families. Our children can’t even feed themselves. What was the sin she has committed to deserve that? She was waiting hand and foot on me for the little cash I paid, why? This sort of thoughts pulled me down, although I was feeling better physically.

“In course of time Laxmi became a source of worry for me, a serious problem. Her good nature pierced me through like a shaft. I prayed to thousand gods, wanted her to make some mistake, display some mean trait that is common for all humans. I would’ve felt elated if she had accepted the food I gave her or took it from my container and ate it. I was hurt and it soon turned into a strange and vicious desire to drag her down into a sinful act. Probably the sickly atmosphere in my room was to be blamed. One day, I left some change out in the open where she could see and went onto the terrace hoping she would steal it. She did not touch even one paisa. Assuming that she did not see it, I did the same the following day, put some change on the window sill. She simply moved it to another place on the sill while cleaning the windows. On another day I gave her money and told her to go to a movie. She said she would take it when a good movie came to town.

“I accepted my defeat gladly. I was pleased that the sin of causing her to commit a sin did not touch me. After that, I could not treat her like a stranger anymore. I accepted her as a friend close to my heart and recognized the divinity in her character.

“Days went by like ripples in water. Laxmi was employed by me but the landlady was making full use of her services. In return all that Lakshmi would get was only yelling and cursing from her. I recovered completely but continued to get meals from the hotel, maybe because I was still feeling a little weak or maybe because I wanted to continue paying her whatever little I could. Then came the sankranti festival. I decided to go to my village for the holidays.

“Before I left, the landlady’s daughter showed up along with Laxmi. The landlady’s daughter was all dressed up like a fully-blossomed marigold. She came to show me her new outfit she got for the festival—a bright green skirt and a red blouse. I looked at her and the first thing I noticed was a piece of light blue ribbon in her hair, nicely folded like a butterfly, and visible from both sides. The ribbon also has small bugs with wings on it. I told her that her outfit was beautiful. She left feeling elated.

“After she left I looked at Laxmi, standing there in her tattered frock and shabby hair and I could not forgive myself. That poor child possessed qualities most of us are sadly lacking. She brought my carrier meals from the hotel as usual. I told her I was leaving town and she could take the food. We two went onto the terrace. It was seven in the evening. The night was driving away the evening. The people on the street were roaring like an ocean. While I was locking the doors, Laxmi stood leaning on the wall. I noticed an unusual anxiety and despair in her eyes. I never felt this bad, not even when I left my hometown, leaving my kid sister behind. For a second my heart missed its regular beat. I was even annoyed with myself for leaving my cozy, comfy attitude and getting into this mess. And then my pity for her doubled by way of  reparation for my annoyance. I could not hold back anymore. I stroked her cheeks gently, although the cheeks were smeared with dirt.

“What do you want, Laxmi?” I asked her.

“She looked me with her sad eyes and asked for one half rupee. It felt like I’ve got the heaven in my palm, like the moonlight spreading blindly on the terrace acquired a fine aroma, and that I was blessed. I quickly pulled out one half rupee from my pocket and gave it to her. She clutched it tight in her fist. I walked towards the stairs silently. I was overtaken by the fear that she might spend that money on her younger brothers but my curiosity got the better of me. “What are you going to do with that money?” I asked her as gently as I could. She replied meekly that she would buy a piece of ribbon, like the one the landlady’s daughter had. I felt relieved. I was proud of myself that I could help her to fulfill her only wish. I told her I would be back on the following Monday and that she should bring carrier meals for me that evening. She shook her head, looking very grateful. I thought about her in the train. She did not ask for silk outfit or gold jewelry. All she wanted was a piece of ribbon. I can never forget the ribbon pieces and half-rupee coins I saw in my dream that night.

Sankranti festival came in colorful galore. My entire family was very excited. But I was down as if I lost something valuable. Each time I saw a young girl in new clothes, Laxmi kept coming to my mind. On Monday morning I was getting ready to leave. My mother insisted that I stay one more day since my visits were not that frequent. I left in the evening and for the first time in my life I felt good about leaving home. There were also other things that bothered me as well. Vadina who treated me like her own brother came to the railway station; and, my brother reminded me affectionately that I should come for the christening ceremony of their soon-to-be born child. They were going to have their first baby after ten years of marital bliss. I was touched.

“The train arrived two hours late. By the time I reached my room it was past 8:30. I was climbing the stairs wondering whether my brother and sister-in-law would have a boy or girl. I saw Laxmi sitting next to the parapet wall, curled up; my heart stopped beating for a second. The street lights were shimmering on the stainless steel container next to her. It was biting cold. She was trying to pull together her worn out frock desperately protecting herself from the cold. It never occurred to me that she could sit there waiting for me. I opened the door and asked her why couldn’t she wait downstairs on the porch. She did not reply. I told her that she could wash the dishes the next day and sent her home.

“After that, I got very busy with several functions at our college and so I did not think much about my room. I was totally immersed in the college plays, directing duties, and sports events. I couldn’t help noticing a change in Laxmi’s behavior though. Her eyes were filled with despair and sadness in place of the usual glimmer; the smile on her lips vanished; and she was dragging her feet heavily. It took me four days to realize completely the extent of the change in her. I asked her why she was down and she said there was nothing to talk about.

“Three more days went by. Then I remembered the ribbon Laxmi wanted so badly. “Did you buy the ribbon for yourself” I asked her hoping for the best. She shook her head meaning yes. “Why aren’t you wearing it” I asked her. In response, two drops of tears rolled down her cheeks. “What happened Laxmi?” I asked her coaxingly.

“Laxmi said that her mother was not well on the sankranti day and so she went to the landlady’s house to do the chores. After finishing the chores, she sat down on the front porch and wore her new ribbon in her hair. The landlady saw that, claimed it was her daughter’s and snatched it away from Laxmi’s hands; she called the girl a thief, and even commented that that was the mentality of all low class people. Laxmi tried to tell her that she bought it herself, and the landlady’s daughter was wearing hers which could be verified after the daughter returned home. But the landlady would not hear a word of it.

“I wanted to tell Laxmi, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll get you another piece of ribbon,’ but my college friends showed up out of nowhere like a herd of goats before I could say it. I’ve promised them earlier that I would stay with them in the dorms for the next three days to help out with the college functions. So, I told Laxmi I would not be needing carrier meals for that night and the next three nights, packed some of my clothes and left.

“Look at that! Wouldn’t you say that it was gross injustice? In what way, Laxmi was inferior to the children in our families? Our children cry for chocolate and biscuits and she wanted a piece of ribbon, worth a paltry half rupee. God gave her even the opportunity to fulfill her desire through me. Her wish was granted but she was denied the pleasure of enjoying it. The landlady appeared as Kali and snatched it away like a piece of sacrificial offering. Probably the landlady did not think of it on those lines. Probably, it is only a small, a very ordinary, incident for you all. For a person who earns one thousand rupees a month, one half of a rupee is worth a broken shell. But for Laxmi? Can you say in good conscience that an irreparable damage has not been done to her? I can’t imagine how much mental agony this apparently small incident could have caused her. But can anyone of you say that her trust in humanity has not been killed forever? Wasn’t the action of the landlady unfair? Can we forgive her? Didn’t she have a responsibility to verify Laxmi’s claim before snatching away her ribbon? Even if she had acted rather rashly, shouldn’t she have returned the ribbon to Laxmi after realizing her mistake? Wasn’t her action the same as robbery? Isn’t that unjust and unfair or not? What would you all say?” the doctor stopped, feeling heavy at heart.

Nobody could respond right away. The darkness spread thick. Suddenly a strong wind blew and the telegraph lines at a distance made harsh sounds. An owl on the tamarind tree nearby screeched and flew away batting her wings.

“That’s a strange story,” Viswam expressed his opinion.

“Looks like there is a second part to this story,” Siraj said.

“You have it if you want it, or else, no. Personally I wish this story had ended there,” the doctor said and continued his narration, “On the surface, I was acting very excited, singing and dancing for the next three days but the thoughts about Laxmi kept bothering me. I was anxious to fix the wrong that has been done to her. I would’ve bought another piece of ribbon and ran to Laxmi but I was afraid that my roommates would laugh at me. The dorm felt like a jail cell and my roommates jailors. Finally the day came when I was freed from that jail. I left the dorms, bought a ribbon on my way and came to my room. That day Rajamma came instead of Laxmi. She said Laxmi has been ill for the past three days and assured me that she would bring my meals from the hotel herself. I told her I could eat at the dorms until Laxmi recovered. After she cleaned my room, I gave her the ribbon and told her to give it to Laxmi. She looked out the door for a second, turned to me again and asked me harshly, “Did she ask you to get it for her?” I was taken by surprise, a totally unexpected turn of events. I was scared that she might hurt Laxmi and that made me lie to her. I told her that Laxmi was totally unaware and that I wanted to give something to her.

“Two more days went by. I kept asking Rajamma everyday and getting the same reply—the fever did not go down. I asked her about medication. Rajamma said that the fever was caused by some sort of scare and so she had the soda shop owner recite a mantra.[7] I could treat her but at the time my knowledge of medicine was minimal. I was convinced that if Laxmi had fallen sick out of fear, the entire sin must be accredited to the landlady. What else could I think when she attacked a little, innocent child and called her a thief for no reason.

“But it never occurred to me that Laxmi’s situation could take a turn for the worse. Not until the third day. Rajamma knocked on my door at two in the morning and woke me up. She seized my two hands and started crying. “I’m lost, my world is crumbling down, Laxmi’s condition is getting worse. Please help me, save her,” she said between sobs. I could not move for a few seconds. I did not expect things to go wrong this bad in such a short time. I knew very little about treating patients, plus I had no tools even if I wanted to. I told Rajamma to wait, ran to the next street and got hold of a house-surgeon [resident]. He was a nice person. He immediately followed me with whatever medications he had.

“We two followed Rajamma to her house. After I became a doctor, on innumerable occasions, I ran to save patients who were dangling between life and death but the pain I suffered on the way on that particular day was beyond words. All the roads stretched out dark and endless like adiseshu.[8] Each furlong felt like a mile and my watch seemed to be moving too fast. I cursed my feet for not being able to walk faster. For the first time, I’ve realized that this city had too many narrow paths and they all were very dirty. The streets were empty and quiet like graveyards but for a couple of donkeys standing like statues and representing the patience of the animal world. But this was not the time to describe the surroundings. Laxmi’s house was just one room located next to a sewer. I could not tell where the sewer ended and her house started.

“Two children lay in the mud on the floor like pigs. Laxmi lay on a saggy, jute-rope cot in a corner. She was covered with a tattered blanket. Although she was covered, I could see her two eyes, peeking through the blanket, emaciated and staring at the ceiling with frightened looks. Her face turned crimson and the fever-stricken eyes took over her entire face. They looked like a torch that would start the fire soon and turn her into ashes. She could not keep her eyes on any one spot steadily. The two red eyes were like a swing rocking back and forth between life and death. The dim lamp in the corner was casting ominous shadows. It felt like death was hiding in that dark corner.

“Within a few minutes of our arrival there, Laxmi’s temperature went up further and she started shivering. Although my medical knowledge was limited, I could understand her symptoms. Her two hands and feet were jiggling as if the god of death was dragging her but she was refusing to give in. I hid my face in my two hands and closed my eyes tight. It was like the death grabbed my shoulder and was challenging me that there was nothing I could do, death was waiting for me there. For once, I got so close to death and experienced what our philosophers and intellectuals preach. I came out of myself in that moment and looked at myself the way others and God would look at me.

“Despite all my flagrant display of sympathy for Laxmi, what have I done for her, really? In what way I was better than my landlady? The only difference was she called her names and I did not. Is that a virtue? Didn’t I have a higher responsibility towards the girl’s health and welfare? If I had, did I do my duty? I paid her a few rupees and had her wait on me hand and foot while she was still a child! Was I not accountable for her poverty and despair? How many Laxmis are starving and sacrificing their lives so that I and people like me could enjoy a comfortable life? This is not a matter about Laxmi alone. This is a problem without solution and relating to millions of innocent Laxmis in this destitute world, and to numerous inept people like me who are convinced that they are in fact kind and generous, and women like our landlady who could not recognize the innocence of young hearts. Who knows how many Laxmis need to be ruined before this problem is resolved.

“While I was pondering over the subject, the resident doctor continued to examine Laxmi’s condition. Laxmi’s mother was weeping quietly. An old woman from next door, with one leg in the graveyard, was consoling her. The resident doctor finished examining Laxmi, gave her a shot and told me that we should wait for a half hour and see. At the end of half hour there was no change in her condition. Then he suggested that we must take her to the hospital, there was nothing more we could do here. Laxmi’s father went out to get a rickshaw. I could not control my distress. The next door neighbor brought his rickshaw also.

“After the rickshaws arrived, Rajamma removed the blanket and picked up Laxmi, overcome with pain and sadness. Laxmi’s hands were hanging flaccidly over Rajamma’s shoulder. As I saw the hands my head started spinning and the earth shook under my feet. The ribbon I gave her was hanging down from her hand like the noose of Yama.[9] Poor Laxmi, the only wish of hers—she  got a chance to have it fulfilled, lost it and got it again but never had the satisfaction of wearing it. That piece of ribbon was like a crumpled wick. But she held the ribbon tight as if she was afraid that the landlady would come and take it away from her again.

The two rickshaws started out for the clinic. Laxmi’s father was pedaling the rickshaw and the mother sat inside holding the child. It looked like the God planned it that way—that the two persons who brought her into this world were also instrumental in returning her to Him. The resident doctor and I followed them in the other rickshaw. Normally I don’t believe in omens but my heart flinched when I heard a tituvu bird[10] chirped as we set out to leave.

“The entire world was in deep sleep. A few persons with injured noses and crushed faces were making fire with their fingerless hands[11] to protect themselves from cold. We could bring Laxmi to the hospital soon enough. The physicians and nurses in the emergency room did all they could to help Laxmi through out the night. It was time for the sun to rise. The physician said he could not say anything for certain for another twelve hours at the least. There was nothing I could do. It was not in the hands of the humans anymore, only God could save Laxmi. I returned home at about 8:30 in the morning. Rajamma’s husband was overwhelmed with gratitude and offered to take me home in his rickshaw. I declined politely and rented another rickshaw.

***

Up until now the doctor was smoking. Unwittingly he swallowed a puff of smoke and choked.

“Oh, Lord Rama! Probably that girl had died! Please, tell us the rest of the story,” said Siraj.

Pch! I wish there was no second part to this story,” the judge passed his judgment.

“I don’t know. I wish there was no story at all, a story of this sort, if you ask me,” Visala said. Although her words sounded satirical, the doctor understood her sensitive thought underneath her comment and stroked on her knee gently but nobody noticed it in that darkness. Actually the reason for their harmonious relationship, despite their apparently conflicting mentalities, was the sensitivity in Visala’s humor and the doctor’s good nature which is appreciative of her humor.

“There’s nothing more to tell,” the doctor continued, “My only thought on my way back to my room was to avenge the injustice done to Laxmi. I had several thoughts like skipping payments of rent for six-months or setting fire to the landlady’s house but couldn’t come up with any plausible plan. As I opened the gate and entered the premises, I saw that the landlady was talking to somebody in a voice filled with kindness I never heard before. She was saying, “Come on, you silly, come. I warmed the milk for you and kept it in the kitchen. Go, have the milk. I was waiting for you.” I wondered who she was addressing, turned around and saw a stray dog. The dog was at the gate, saw the landlady, and walked away with her tail between her legs.

“With that incident, my abhorrence for my landlady rose to a new height. I always hated, even from my childhood days, the women who would talk to dogs and crows. I went into my room and got busy with rearranging my stuff. The landlady’s daughter came in with a magazine she’s borrowed earlier. She was wearing two ribbons in her hair like two butterflies. I could see right away that one of them was Laxmi’s. At once a thought occurred to me like lightning—an opportunity to settle the score. I must seize the ribbon that belonged to Laxmi. Although I believed Laxmi’s story completely, I also wanted to verify the truth on my own. “The ribbons are nice. Did you buy them yourself?” I asked her. “My mother bought one and I bought the other myself,” she said.

“When did your mother buy?” I asked her again. “On sankranti festival day,” she replied.

“I was in a dilemma whether I should grab the ribbon or not. My landlady settled it for me. I heard her shouting, “Viranna! That bitch Rajamma is ‘no show’ today too. She goes on saying that her child was sick and ducks the work here. Stupid child wouldn’t die and the mother wouldn’t come to work. Come on, you clean the dishes.” I was enraged by her language regarding a child who was fighting for her life. I decided to take the ribbon.

“Come here, let me see the ribbons. They are really nice. I want to hold them in my hands,” I said smoothly. She gave them to me without hesitation. “Which one was bought by your mother?” I asked her. She laughed at my stupidity and shrugged, “I don’t know.” Probably she thought I was crazy and ran away.

“I stood there for a couple of minutes wondering whether I should be happy or sorry for what I did. I never gave in to my frustration to that extent, never before and never again. I lost totally my sense of right and wrong. I couldn’t tell what I was doing and what will I do next. In the meantime, the landlady walked in dragging her daughter, like a sacrificial lamb to the temple. I saw her coming and went to the terrace. She said with a smile, “How can you play games with a child? Never mind. Return the ribbons to her.”

“I wasn’t playing games. I took them for real,” I said. “Why did you do that?” she asked.

“You tell me politely which one is Laxmi’s and I will return the second one,” I said. “Are you stealing my child’s ribbons?” she shouted. “How could you steal Laxmi’s ribbon?” I said. “Are you calling me a thief?” she said with her eyes popped out.. “Not just a thief. You’re a highway robber,” I said.

“The landlady’s voice was heard in the entire neighborhood and all the neighbors gathered on our terrace. She saw them and became even more belligerent. We both exchanged strong language. “I shouldn’t have rented the place to a mean thief like you,” she said, with her face turning red. “I shouldn’t have rented a room in the house of a mean thief like you,” I said. “Watch out. I will make you pay for this,” she said. “We’ll worry about it later. If anything happens to Laxmi, I will crush your head for sure,” I replied.

“My landlady got scared by my words. She called out for her husband for support. Up until now I didn’t believe that he could get angry ever. He came upstairs, stood on the last step and said, without raising his voice, nonetheless harshly, “You fool! Swearing at women?” I jumped like a cobra, “And you’re a man? you worthless idiot.” The neighbors held back until then but could not control themselves anymore, I believe. They burst into a big laugh as if a bunch of porcelain cups and saucers flew into the air and fell on the floor. “You don’t know anything. You shut up,” he ordered his wife for the first time in his life. She took his orders for the last time in her life.

“Both of them went downstairs along with their daughter. Our neighbors extended the same kind of support the audience would extend to a stunt hero in Telugu movies and left the scene somewhat unwillingly. I went into my room regretting my unwarranted action. Then came the landlord’s servant. Even amidst all that commotion, I could not help wondering if the landlord thought I was crazy and I chuckled. The servant had a hard time conveying the message from the landlord but the gist of it was I should vacate the premises in three days.

“Why would I stay three more days in this wretched room? Get me two rickshaws now,” I said. He ran out of the room like a race horse. As soon as the rickshaws came, I put all my luggage into the rickshaws, threw the rent I owed them to-date at the servant and moved to a friend’s apartment. From the moment I started walking down the stairs until I got into the rickshaw, I kept waving the two ribbons as a sign of my victory and causing the landlady’s eyes turn red. Leaving that house was like having a refreshing shower. Laxmi also recovered by the grace of god in about a week and went back to her house.” The doctor stopped the story.

“Forget the story. You’ve created a lambadi[12] scene here,” Siraj commented.

“The comic ending is interesting,” the judge said, joining the rest of the crowd in their laughter.

“I knew even from the start that this is how it’s going to end,” said omniscient Viswam.

The doctor was annoyed and said, “Then tell me what happened next.”

“What’d you mean? Is there a fourth part for this story? It’s like the Republic Productions’ 24-part full-length serial movie,” Viswam ducked the challenge.

“Okay, you tell us what happened next,” the judge asked the doctor.

“This part has nothing to do with Laxmi,” the doctor said as he proceeded with the story, “After about 15 or 20 days after I moved to my friend’s room, I was getting ready to leave for school. A young police officer showed up at the door and saluted me. I wondered whatever I could have done to warrant his appearance. He handed me the summons and asked me to sign on a piece of paper acknowledging receipt. He explained that the delay in delivering the papers was due to tracing my whereabouts and the case was scheduled for that very day. He also told me that the magistrate was very strict in enforcing the law and that I should be present at the court at 11:00 a.m. sharp. I asked him what the case about was about. He said that the bank representative and his wife filed a case against me claiming I used abusing language and stole their daughter’s ribbons.

“I was really upset. She called me names and so did I. She took Laxmi’s ribbons unjustly and I took their ribbons openly. The account has been settled right then and there. I was disgusted with their attitude and appeared in court. It was nearly 11:00 by the time I reached there. The court looked like a house after a dead body was removed. The magistrate just learned that he did not get the promotion as expected. His staff and the lawyers were disheartened for him. I stood outside on the verandah, worried that my case should come up at that ill-fated hour. Some police constables stood under the tree smoking cigarettes. Some felons were also there. A couple of old felons were smoking bidis[13] with a greater flair than the police constables. The younger felons looked scared and apprehensive. I did not realize until then that women also were brought to the courts. Some of the female felons were dressed up as if they were on their way to the movies or beach, chewing paan and fooling around with the police constables. The smell of liquor at the court was unbearable and I started feeling sick in my stomach.

“Suddenly, the police constables threw away their cigarettes and the felons their bidis. The women spat out their paans. Everybody turned towards the gate. The magistrate entered like royalty. The peon in front told everybody to make way for the magistrate. An older peon walked behind him carrying a heavy box, and without looking on either side but watching only the magistrate. The magistrate kept walking and waving his hand up and down. I saw the way he was getting respect and I wished I had the job myself.

“The magistrate took his seat as soon as he entered the court. He looked calm and collected. The fact that he did not get the promotion was not showing on his face. The court clerk called out the cases one after another and mine came up after one half hour. The court clerk handed the papers to the magistrate. He looked at the papers, then at me for a second and said, “I am postponing your case to tomorrow. You can bring a lawyer if you want.” I told him that I was going to tell my story the way it happened and therefore there was no reason for a lawyer. After that, I posted bail and got out for the day. I tried to read the court papers but couldn’t understand a single word of it. They must have used a carbon paper that was in use for the past six months. I couldn’t even tell in which language it was written.

“The next day also I went to the court in time like a good boy. My case was called out. The complaint stated that I used swear words with reference to the bank representative and his wife and stole their daughter’s ribbons. The  magistrate asked me, ‘Did you commit the felony? What’d you say?’ I thought I was supposed to give straight answers and so told him, ‘Yes. It was true that I called them names and took their daughter’s ribbon.’ I was waiting for him to ask more questions so I could narrate the entire story. The magistrate looked down and kept scribbling something. After a few minutes, I started getting worried about the sentence I could be handed. I did not know what to do. “That’s not correct, sir. It’s true I took the two ribbons but one of them was not theirs,” I said.

“Then a man in khaki pants and black coat came in, that was the assistant public prosecutor, I was told. He said, “You’ve agreed that one of the ribbons was theirs. That’s enough.” It was like I gave him something. The magistrate delivered his ruling. He stated that I was found guilty under section so and so; this however being my first felony, I was freed on one year probation; and during that one year I must not commit anymore felonies but behave myself.

“Thus ended the story. Does this mean after the probationary period is over, I could go around committing any number of felonies, or even murders and that would not be considered illegal? I wondered. I found a bailer and got him sign my release papers,” the doctor wrapped up the story.

“Are you saying you too had the experience of the heat from our department?” the judge said, laughing.

“So Laxmi escaped death but you lost an eye,[14]” Sankar who was quiet all this while said.

“Can we sing janaganamana[15] now or is there more to it?” Viswam asked as he got up to leave.

————

(The Telugu original, Ribbanu mukka was published in Jyoti monthly in 1965 and received Rachakonda Viswanatha Sastry award in 1999.

Translated by © Nidadavolu Malathi and published on thulika.net, September 2003)



[1] The epic hero of Ramayanam..



[1] Female protagonist in the famous epic, ramayanam. The episode under reference is Sita was abducted by the evil king Ravana, and held her captive under the Asoka tree.

[2] A famous character from a Telugu play, “Kanyasulkam.”

[3] Rama was the protagonist in the famous epic, ramayanam. Vibhishana was the younger brother of Ravana, the anti-hero in the same epic, and a devotee of Rama.

[4] The narration is not clear here. My understanding is the uncle under reference is his father-in-law and the woman’s father who probably arranged the marriage against his will.

[5] Eating grass, gaDDi tintaam in Telugu, is a common adage, meaning nothing to eat.

[6] A city on the east coast of Andhra Pradesh. The medical college in Visakhapatnam provided the setting for many stories in Telugu.

[7] Like being possessed by a devil, all kinds of irrational arguments are offered and a mantra is a kind of recital invoking the ruling gods and praying to fix it.

[8]  The thousand-hooded cobra from Hindu epics.

[9] Yama was the god of death in Hindu mythology.

[10] A common belief among our people, the teetivu bird’s chirping brings bad luck.

[11] Possibly lepers.

[12] Lambadi people are nomads, who go around performing on the streets.

[13] Tobacco rolled in a kind of ebony leaf.

[14] A popular proverb, chaavu tappi kannu lotta poyindi, meaning escaped death but lost an eye, normally with reference to the same person. Here the speaker stretched it to include two people, Laxmi and doctor.

[15] India’s national anthem.

So ended the Story by Kodavatiganti Kutumba Rao

Gopalam is a well-known story writer. His stories have stuff. But not many seem to have noticed the fact. As for myself, I would read anything and just say “This is good and that is bad”. I am unable to explain why I like or dislike anything I read. I had tried to analyse as to what should have been done to improve the story but my attempts never really took off.

This was because whenever I read Edgar Allan Poe, stories about impossible events seemed be the best ones. Sherlock Holmes stories would make me believe detective fiction was the thing. At other times, romantic stories appealed to me. Jacobs’ stories attracted me to maritime themes. On occasion short stories would interest me and at other times, I felt that stories should be at least forty pages long! With my opinions changing constantly according to the situation, it became impossible for me to come to any conclusion.

Meanwhile our short-tempered friend “Durvasa” met me one day and asked me to introduce him to Gopalam.

“What on earth for?” I asked.

“I have some work with him” said he.

“What kind of work?” I was curious, naturally.

He began to hem and haw.

“No, nothing really…To tell you the truth…Not that I can become a writer overnight…Once you get the knack of it…Gradually one can practise…If you know what I mean…” he dithered.

“No, I don’t” I said bluntly.

At last he came out with it. He too wants to write stories. If only Gopalam could lend a hand, he is confident he can get on with it successfully.

“Oh my dear Durvasa” I exclaimed.

“Don’t you call me names” he said with anger. The poor fellow had never shown temper until he got the nickname. That’s life for you. There is no justice!

There was no escape. We both found a convenient time and went to meet Gopalam. To avoid blame I forewarned him that Gopalam was no ordinary fellow and could land him in trouble

Gopalam lost no time in getting my friend to prattle.

“Sir, I find it devilishly difficult to describe anything in my writings, be it a person or a house” said Durvasa.

Gopalam said, “Please don’t bother. Just go ahead without any description. I too find it a difficult task. So I try to manage without it”.

“Really?” said Durvasa in surprise.

“Please believe me” said Gopalam.

Durvasa was visibly happy.

“There is another thing. For the life of me I can’t find a theme. I tried twice or thrice but it all boiled down to events in my family and my in-laws’. Can’t think of a theme” said he.

“My problem exactly! Neither can I put together a good theme. Perhaps you might have noticed. I just pick up events that I observe here and there and cook up a story”.

“You don’t say?” said Durvasa with a smile.

“Trust me” said Gopalam with a straight face.

By now Durvasa lost all his nervousness. He started believing that he had joined the ranks of story-writers. Only in one respect was Gopalam different. Gopalam has already written some stories while he will be doing so shortly. Imagining himself to be one of the tribe, Durvasa started talking as if he was on par with writers like Gopalam. Having thus encouraged my friend initially, Gopalam started deflating him gradually. Being a fool, my friend could not notice.

“You see, the whole problem lies in the fact that if you take up someone’s life story, you cannot narrate it from the beginning to the end. Life is full of stories that keep happening. The story may end within the day or may continue over a period of ten years. It is not possible to include all that happened during the time in our story. A writer must have the skill to find it out for himself” said Gopalam.

“What was that again? What did you say?” asked Durvasa.

“The writer should know where to start, and what to avoid. Then there are improvements here and there, we could call them changes”.

“Yeah. If we don’t change names and things we may get into trouble”

“You are right. One should also know thoroughly what to change and even how to end the narrative”

“Absolutely” said Durvasa.

“It is more difficult to end a story than to begin it. Some beginners ask me ‘Sir, should we end it when the leading lady gets pregnant or after a son is born and everyone is happy?’ I tell them ‘Why bother about all that, just fade it out even as the hero and heroine start kissing each other’ ”

“That was a very good suggestion”

“Comes with a little experience. Ninety-nine per cent of the readers can tell when the story has ended. In the movies, even the lower class audience starts leaving well before The End title appears”

“That may be true but as for myself, I always feel the movie has ended too soon”

“Never mind that”

“So you think I too can write stories?”

“No doubt. Since you have taken the trouble of coming here all the way, why waste time? Let me show you how stories are embedded in our lives. Just keep prompting me to continue. As soon as the story ends you will simply stop doing that. My story can also serve as a sample”

“Please go on” said Durvasa.

Gopalam started the narration and my friend started responding.

“I had a school-mate named Sankaram. A well-to-do chap. He didn’t really need formal education, or employment. So he stopped with matriculation. His family was dominated by women and he was influenced by that. As you know, our society is riddled with both the masculine and feminine culture.

“As time went by he got married and his wife came to live with him. Sankaram had never read any romantic classics. Forget the romance; he wasn’t even capable of being friendly with his wife. We don’t know about his bedroom manners, but otherwise he used to treat her like a stranger. Wouldn’t allow her to touch his clothes, his things, suitcases etc.  But the lady was fond of teasing him. Having noticed his reluctance, she would frequently indulge in pranks, just to irritate him. If for some reason he stepped into her room during daytime, she would follow him and bolt the door. What would people think?”

Durvasa turned to me “That’s characterization for you. He has already established the fact that the fellow came from a family dominated by women. Please sir, go on”

“What made the girl most suspicious was the fact that this Sankaram fellow would never allow her to open his suitcases. Could some women be writing letters to him secretly? With that thought, her mischievousness turned to grim resolve. One day, in his absence, she opened his most prized box and what did she find in it? The photograph of a good-looking woman.

“All hell broke loose. She was angry and unhappy too. She wanted to tear up the photo at first but, on second thoughts, wouldn’t she relish her husband’s consternation when she confronted him with it suddenly. She put back the photo carefully and repacked the suitcase.

“The same night she dropped the bomb-shell. Sankaram saw the photograph and was totally ill at ease. That confirmed his wife’s worst fears. She started crying; scolded herself, berated him, was herself completely confused and confused him too. In the confusion Sankaram forgot to find fault with her.

“That was their first quarrel. From then on, there was bad blood between them. There was no point now in blaming his wife for having opened the suitcase without his permission. He was aware that she was suffering for no reason. But he wouldn’t dare explain to her about the photo or how it came into his possession. He was scared of sharing that little secret lest she should lose all her respect for him for ever. So he kept mum for a few days.

“Then he had a bright idea. He told his wife it was his sister’s photograph. But she knew he had no sister. He said to her defiantly, ‘You can see the resemblance’. She couldn’t deny that either.

“His wife was really flummoxed. She was ready for compromise; but on one condition. He should tell the truth about the girl in the photograph. But the stupid fellow refused to oblige.

“Well friends, I happened to visit them at that moment. I asked him in his wife’s presence ‘Hello Sankaram, will you play the female lead for our Anniversary or have you lost your old enthusiasm?’ His wife responded at once ‘Oh my dear, won’t you let me watch you in a female role?’ ”

Durvasa was all ears and started prompting Gopalam “Hm, hmmm…”

Gopalam placed a cigarette between his lips and began to fumble in his shirt-pocket for a match-box.

I said quietly “The story has ended. Shall we make a move?”

(End)

Telugu original published in Andhra Jyoti, Dec 1935.

[Translator’s comments: It is exactly 25 years since my father passed away in Madras on 17th August. He was about 26 when he wrote this story.
My father’s Telugu stories first made their appearance in 1931-32 when he was about 22. He was barely 26 when he wrote this story. No doubt that resulted in the easy readability and smooth flow of words and ideas. He belonged to a generation that had lapped up the humourous writings of many Telugu stalwarts and English classic writers as well.
As in most of his early stories, technique seems to come to the fore here. Also, the brevity that marked most of his writings shows the influence of British authors like Conan Doyle, Wells et al. The narrator ofthe story is himself reportedly familiar with several British and American authors which indicates the easy availability of good foreign literature in the smaller towns in Andhra region those days.
The main point in this story seems to be the fundamental principle that as any tale is narrated, the listener responds with a sound like Umm which would prompt the story-teller to go ahead. As soon as the story ends, so too does the prompting. That is the most natural way the story would end but it would require proper story-telling and proper understanding on the part of the listener. – Kodavatiganti Rohiniprasad.]

(Originally published on thulika.net, July 2005)

Futile life by Kodavatiganti Kutumba Rao.

Twenty-five years ago Markandeyulu and I studied together. I knew him very well since then. He is intelligent and a good person at heart. In fact, he has nearly everything one needs in life. But he seems to lack something necessary for living happily. All his childhood, everyone gave him the same advice, “why don’t you mind your own business?”. That was one thing he never learnt.

Don’t think he interfered in everyone’s affairs always! He was really not interested in others’ lives and affairs. He only put his head on roll when he felt there was some injustice going on.

When we were both in seventh class in our village school, our school head-master’s son, Nageswaram was in the same class with us. All the teachers gave him marks generously since he was the head master’s son. Telugu teacher lovingly gave him the first mark in the whole class! But the fact was that Srirammurthy was the cleverest boy in the whole class who deserved to be the first in class. (He is now a lecturer in a college!). He and Nageswaram were quite friendly. Once however in the half-yearly tests Nageswaram stood first in Telugu while Srirammurthy scored lower. Srirammurthy was very offended at this. He took Nageswaram’s answer book and compared with his own. There was no comparison between the two! He showed both the answer books to everyone among the friends and we all sympathized with him and left it at that. But Markandeyulu went to the head master with both the papers and complained “Just because Nageswaram is your son, Telugu teacher gave him the first mark while there was someone else who deserved it.” The head master did not bother to see the answer books and instead gave a sound thrashing to Markandeyulu with a warning “don’t interfere in the affairs that are not yours!”

The other outcome of this incident was that Nageswaram and Srirammurthy continued to be good friends and jointly avoided Markandeyulu!

***

What I don’t understand is Markandeyulu’s utter abhorrence to injustice. He must have inherited that attitude from either of his parents. As far as I know, people remain happy and peaceful if they ignore the injustice that goes on around them.

There is no proof required to say that he did not prosper in life. What is more difficult to know is whether he was happy! I never saw him regret his attitude or his scuffles with people. So, perhaps even if he was not happy and comfortable, he must have been ignorant of that fact.

All through his student life he clashed with fellow students and teachers. One of the principals gave him a transfer certificate and threw him out of the college.

His fight for justice troubled him in several ways. All the people around him not only avoided him, they poked fun at him. If he ever felt the mistake was his, he always apologized sincerely. Just as he could not stand others’ follies, he was equally scrupulous with his own behavior. This also made him the butt of many jokes.

Markandeyulu was not from a rich family, so he had to look for a job as soon as he got out of the college. In profession and work place too he had the same problem. He could not stick to any job for a long time. Slowly over the time he also started fighting for peoples’ rights. He understood the close, subtle relationship between justice and rights and as a result he was always clashing with different people for his rights and those of others.

 ***

Markandeyulu got married, eventually. His wife came to live with him as soon as he was out of college. His parents-in-law were not extremely rich but were certainly better placed than him financially. They helped him often as he moved from one job to another, His wife’s uncle worked as a sub-inspector in the police. He one day asked Markandeyulu to attend selection process for the post of sub-inspector in the police force. Markandeyulu critised the entire British raj and the police and finally concluded that he wouldn’t attend the selection process.

“My uncle works for the police. What do you mean by such criticism? What would he think of you?” his wife protested.

“What would he think, indeed? Why, he would think that I hate the police. What else?” replied Markandeyulu naively.

“How can you insult the elderly man who is only trying to help us?”

“”When did I insult him? Do I have to praise the police to show my respect for him?”

“Oh no! You should show your respect to him by critising his job, I guess.”

“Please don’t think that you are the only sensible person in this world. I would not have spoken about the police if he had not advised me to join the force. I believe that police force today is very inhuman. He wouldn’t be working there if he had the same belief. I am just trying to tell him something, which he didn’t seem to know. Why does he have to do such a mean job and expect everybody to appreciate him?”

“He did not boast about his job!”

“Then why did he ask me to get into the police force?”

“What is your problem? You could have just refused without argument..”

“Then he would ask me for my reasons.”

“You could have just said that you do not like it.”

“Then what if he asks me why I hate the police?”

“He wouldn’t ask like that.”

“He would, if he were a real well-wisher.”

“Oh come on! Why should he care about your opinions?”

“I thought he did care and so he was thinking about my job. It looks like he just wanted to get a good name among the relatives. In that case, it doesn’t matter even if I have hurt him.”

“You will argue to any extent just to prove that what you’ve done is right!”

“Perhaps you would be happy if I meekly agreed with you, without any discussion! Tell me, do I never own up if I ever did a mistake?”

During such endless arguments, his wife would stop the discussion out of sheer frustration.

***

It is very difficult to gauge Markandeyulu’s love for his wife. Certainly, he is not somebody incapable of love. The issue is how far his wife loved him! Indeed, only really loving can be loved. But it is rather difficult to love a person who seems to love abstract principles. Hence the very great artists and people who love principles go about without being loved. There would be nothing surprising if his wife could not love him. It seems he never even felt that she understood him completely, leave alone loving him. The lack of children only widened the emotional gulf between them.

The five and odd years of the war (1939-1945) were really difficult for Markandeyulu. His parents-in-law’s family, however seemed to prosper during this time. His brother-in-law earned heaps of money with their uncle’s help.

Six months after the war Markandeyulu was his usual jobless self. In the past six years he managed to save one hundred rupees, which disappeared quite fast.

One fine day his eldest brother-in-law came to his home and discussed about their future.

“Why do you struggle with these jobs? Come to our home. Help us with our business. You will be well off. Of course, Swamiji is there to enlighten our minds. He is so detached from the world. He never visits anyone’s home. But he comes to our home at least once in ten days.”

Markandeyulu never had a chance to meet this particular Swamiji but he heard a lot about him.

A few years ago on the Krishna-Ashtam[i]i this Swamiji proclaimed himself to be the Lord Krishna and indulged in the “Rasa leela”. As the devotees were deeply intoxicated with devotional singing, he insisted that all the ladies present disrobe themselves like the cowherdesses. Luckily few people had their sense about them and they managed to politely drive him out of the village. Being a Swamiji, he escaped a thrashing from the villagers.

“I believe neither in black marketeering nor in Swamiji. Just leave me alone to live my life my way””, he replied to his brother-in-law curtly. He refused to look at his wife during this conversation. Instinctively he could feel the horrified look on her face.

“Oh, yeah! We know how principled and straightforward you are. Unfortunately you are not alone in your life. My sister happens to be tied to it. I guess you don’t remember that.”

“In our wretched society a woman cannot do anything other than mutely taking part in her husband’s life,” he replied philosophically.

“Exactly! And you are taking advantage of that without doing your duty towards her!.”

“So you want me to discharge my duties by involving in black marketing and cheating!”

“You are calling it as black marketing, but.”

“What would you say about your business?”

“What I would say is why should my sister who can lead a relaxed life at my home should suffer in your home? Your pig headed ness is going to ruin her!”

“You seem to be thinking that I am wallowing in poverty just for the sole pleasure of starving your sister! She is free to go away from here on the day she feels her life as unbearable. I might have not given her physical comforts but I never denied her personal space and rights.”

“That day too is not very far off!” grumbled his brother-in-law

***

Within a week after the Mahatma’s assassination, Markandeyulu and his wife moved to her parents’ home. A fortnight earlier he had lost another job. Being in that depressed state, he did not protest about moving to their home.

Swamiji also seemed to be living at his parents-in-law’s home. The house was a like a thoroughfare with people coming in to see the Swamiji. Most of the devotees were well employed, well educated and rich. The entire show with Swamiji, his discourses, and the devotees turned Markandeyulu’s stomach. He felt the entire atmosphere revolting. He found the Swamiji’s discourses absurd and ridiculous.

Swamiji would speak only on few issues, and for any length of time. One of them was his super natural power! He said he could reduce anyone to ashes, if he wished to. He declared in front of all the Government officials that it was indeed he who decided that the Mahatma should be assassinated. The other issue he loved to talk about was about the heaps of gold he made with his occult powers. He declared that since he had no need for the gold, anyone who wanted it was most welcome to take it. Strangely, he never seemed to tell where exactly the heaps of gold were and no one ever seemed to ask about them.

But his most favorite topic was women. He could speak untiringly about women, childbirth, breast-feeding and their menstrual periods!

He seemed to think of himself as omni potent who could get the devotees jobs, promotions, money and difficulties if the devotees proved to be less faithful!

First time when Markandeyulu heard Swamiji’s discourse, he wondered if Swamiji though all the people around him are fools! After an hour the doubt disappeared. Indeed, all the people listening to the Swamiji, and believing it without a question were fools, he decided. Whatever Swamiji would blabber, they would receive it, believe it.

“How can people be so ignorant? What happens to their thinking faculties?” He wondered.

After a few sessions he got the answers to his questions. People who go to Swamiji are not going as seekers of knowledge or truth. They have taken leave of their senses and they go for the very worldly possessions of prosperity, fame, etc. Their intellectual faculties are slaves of Swamiji and so they cannot question, criticize or rebel against Swamiji’s commands. Swamiji was a clever man who realized that society has been crumbling, man’s social conscience is decaying and individual selfishness is all set to rule the world. The monk seemed to have understood the reality better than any politician. He has them all in his grip now.

“I am going home. Would you like to go with me?” Markandeyulu asked his wife.

“But we arrived here only today morning. Why leave so early?”

“We can take the night train. If you don’t go with me, I shall leave alone.”

“Tell my brothers about it.”

He did so, adding his opinion of the Swamiji.

“Why don’t you take Swamiji’s permission before leaving?” his brother-in-law suggested.

“How can you believe in such trash?”

“Of course I believe in Swamiji! I have seen his divine powers with my eyes.”

“I don’t need his permission. He is not my guardian.” He replied vehemently.

“He is the guardian of the God Himself! I shall ask his permission for you, if you don’t,” the brother-in-law said and left to ask Swamiji on his behalf.

“Your sister doesn’t have my permission to leave. Soulless bodies may leave if they want to,” replied Swamiji gravely.

“Ï am leaving. What about you? Markandeyulu asked his wife.

“Oh no! I am scared” she replied. Markandeyulu left by train the same evening. On the way to the station he was pelted with stones, which missed him. He was amused to see that Swamiji had enough power to throw stones at him, but lacked the power to make the stones hit the mark!

***

Markandeyulu’s wife stayed at her parents’home after that. A year ago she delivered a child. His brother-in-law says Markandeyulu came to their home ten months earlier and stayed for a night. He demanded for some money, which Swamiji has given him kindly. Swamiji seemed to have given lot of jewelry to Markandeyulu’s wife.

On the day he came to know about the delivery Markandeyulu came to my home. He told me about all the events in his life, in detail. He borrowed some money and left the next day morning without telling me his destination. Nobody knows where he is now. He did not drop a letter to me. I have no hopes about him. I consider his life as a closed chapter.

“Why does life end up like this?” his question echoes in my ears as long as I live. I wonder if he was thinking about himself when he asked that question.

***

(Translator’s note: This story titled Vyartha Jeevitam appeared in Andhra Jyothi in May 1950.

What is amazing about this story is it seems to be pertinent even today. Even today we see courageous people who struggle to live their lives according to what they believe is justice while others around them and the life itself are doing their best to pull them down.

Thanks to Sri Rohini Prasad gAru, on behalf of the author, for his kind consent to translate this story from Telugu and publish on Thulika. – Sharada)

 

(The story has been translated by © Sharada, Australia, and published on March 2005,  thulika.net.



[i] The day Lord Krishna was born.

Nonduality by Puranam Subrahmanya Sarma

 Life is a necessary ingredient for story; meaning, a writer must possess a sense of discernment about life. We will know an author’s potential when we pose the question: Did he write the story with a thorough understanding of life or not? That is the easiest way to decide whether a story is functional or not.

A second question a prospective writer must ask is: What is the writer’s role in writing a story? After reading a story, we must be able to establish whether the writer took a stand on behalf of the subject and was pleading its case or hid himself in the background and causing the story to move on, like God. Then we will know whether the author stayed outside the story or submerged himself in it. In some cases, it would appear as if the author put the story in a stroller, like a baby, took it for a walk, and brought it back carefully. Some stories appear to have grown up on their own.

Another important question is whether the story has captured the reader’s attention at the outset or is boring. A reader must have a good feeling after finished reading a story. If a story cannot capture reader’s attention at the outset, there is no question of good feeling. Without proper diction, style and narrative technique, the story fails despite its excellen theme.

We need to figure out for whom the author is writing, is it for himself or the public? Could he resonate the world through himself or is he just using the medium to rub his personal woes on the world? Readers resent the writer who writes to show off how difficult it is to write a story and how smart he is.

A good story must be able to send the reader into a rapture. He must experience bliss. A story must have a purpose and a goal. After reading the story, a reader must be provoked into reflecting on things such as how things should be; should it be like or that?

A good story develops only when imagination and reality go together hand-in-hand like two horses of a cart. Writing a story based on the superficial behavior of the characters is the old method. A story cannot be called “modern” unless it has also psychological insights and portrayal of human psyche. There is one more characteristic without which a good story cannot stand on its own—that is the native spirit. If a reader cannot feel that this is a Telugu story, and that only a Telugu person could write like this, then the ego of the entire race gets hurt.

However, one must be deluded to expect that a story should contain all these qualities. If one of the characteristics is predominantly presented, other characteristics fall into place equitably.

Fiction-writing also is like a great alchemy. A kind of chemical reaction takes place when one writes a story and again when it is read.  Some commentators stated that a story must have nothing but the story. However if we examine carefully, we will notice that other characteristics of other genre do seep into the story. Some stories run like the strands of a top-rated lyric. In some stories, dramatization shows strikingly. A potent story erases all the demarcations and stands out on its own with its own peculiarities. A human being bound by the limitations, morals and tenets created by himself also breaks them occasionally. So also a story surpasses its own code.

 

Writing a story is a kind of social responsibility. We take the raw material along with inspiration from society and then return the same it back to the society through a literary genre as a finished product. That means the author paid his debt to the society through his writings.

In Recently times, a group of new writers started using the story as a powerful weapon to confront and fight back the injustices and atrocities in our society. Raavi Sastry said youth must seize swords, if not, sword-like pens. Literature has the power of not only desiring a change but also bringing about a change. Why not? A piece of paper, with an imprint of the government has the power to rule the world; that being the case, why can’t the writers, holding sword-like pens, have the power to fight the government and create a new system. Today’s young writers have recognized that the story has a responsibility of not just entertaining the readers but several other duties as well.

This anthology, under the editorship of Nidadavolu Malathi garu, contains eleven stories. All the important elements discussed above can be found in the stories in this anthology. Even as all the children of the same mother are not equally fortunate at all levels, all the stories in any anthology do not evince the same level of competency. Angara Venkata Krishna Rao garu depicted the naked exploitation in great graphic detail in his story “chettu kinda” [Uunder the Tree]. After reading this story and realizing that the person who bought a house was forced to sell the same house, we suffer a host of emotions—fear, pity, resentment, and anger—all at the same time, after reading the story and realizing that the man who bought a house was to become a seller, which was humiliating to him.

The story, “muudu kotulu” [Three Monkeys], reviewed from the perspective of Freudian theory of dreams, comes out as a writing which used psychoanalysis as a shield and tore apart human behavior and human relationships. There is enough satire in the story that could provoke a reader to go out and slap every human being on both the cheeks. In this anthology this one story stands out independently like a flagpole. This is a good story inspired by the movie, “Liberation of L.T. Jones.”

In the story, “Madhura Minakshi,” R. S. Sudarsanam garu states through the central character, “[at the sight of Goddess Minakshi], some unique feeling filled [my] heart as if time froze; as if I drowned into the depths of the ocean of time; as if I went back to some point in history.” He, the protagonist, met Minakshi, philosophy lecturer, at the Minakshi temple in Madhurai. Why the two statures cannot be one and the same? Dissociation means having no preference, that is maintaining an equitable view. Change is one characteristic of creation. Advaitam preaches that we must supersede this change and experience unity. The protagonist in this story came to visit the Goddess Minakshi in the temple and met with another Minakshi in person. This human Minakshi handed him the message—to experience unification of his feelings. She died the same night in a fire accident. In her death, she illustrated the variance between the permanent and transient. But the author states that the humans can attain unity of the permanent and the transient only through what is transient in this world. There is a danger of this story being ridiculed. Some readers might feel that sermonizing after meeting a woman in a temple and enjoying the pleasure of her company is ridiculous.

In Rajaram’s story, “Anamakudu,” [Unnamed person], the expectations of the readers and the characters in the story are baffled by an expected turn of events. The surprising end first brings up a laugh and then pity in the readers.

The story, “manchu debba” [frostbite] is a sad story of a childhood friend who sang the beautiful song dheerasameere at school and later wilted away by a frostbite. One would like to ask why women like Vakula should die? Why not elope with somebody? This story showcases how badly we are treating women and their abilities; and, how we are wasting them away. We need a change that stops murdering women like Vakula. After reading Malathi’s story, my afterthoughts were that our society is rotten and our institutions of family and marriage are screaming for repair.

Among the other stories, “akali”[hunger] by Kolakaluri Enoch stands out as one of the best stories. This one line is sufficient to demonstrate the author’s skill: “Money like a flag that illustrates the superiority of the ‘haves’ and inferiority of the ‘have-nots.” The author displays razor-sharp vengeance in this story. This is a “small” hunger story. In the entire anthology the three stories that maintained a uniform style are “chettu kinda” [Under the Tree], “muudu kothulu” [Three Monkeys] and “akali”[Hunger]. The other stories seem to show that authors’ individual voice and style are not developed yet.

Pulikanti Krishna Reddy’s story, “guudu kosam guvvalu” [Birds for their Nest] depicts the conflicts in the lives of Gurappa thatha who predicts future with the help of a parrot, the parrot, Ramudu, her cage and the son-in-law Rangadu. Krishna Reddy garu deserves compliments on his effort in weaving the meticulous details, local dialect, and his style which is filled with native flavor in his story.

Malathi garu called this anthology nithya jivithamlo vyasa ghattaalu. I must admit that at first vyasa ghaTTam sounded silly to me, like snanaghaTTam. Later, I found out that ‘hard-to-comprehend’ places in a book or a story are referred to as vyasa ghattaalu. Hard-to-comprehend items cause pain. Pain is a synonym for poetry. All activities—from giving birth to writing a piece—are painful. I believe that writing a story causes only pain, not pleasure. Therefore, I think there is a justification in giving this anthology a name that translates as “stories and sufferings.”

There is one more thing I would like to add. Usually we say, “Thus ended the story.” But, to speak the truth, no story really ends. Even when we think that the story is completed, it still leaves a lot more for us to think about. Just like life, stories are also incomplete. Life and fiction are equally unfinished. Each person has a story and that is never ending. Whether one writes or not, stories keep springing up. The unwritten stories are unborn children.

No matter who writes in which language and in what country, all stories contain an element of universality. Each story reminds us that there are no boundaries for literature. I can ascertain without hesitation and full conviction that people who say, “What can literature do? Who wants fiction and such nonsense?” are fools, no doubt.

– Puranam Subrahmya Sarma.

Vijayawada –10

June 25, 1973.

[End]

A brief note about this article: In the early seventies, I tried to put together an anthology of short stories and requested Puranam Subrahmanya Sarma, a noted journalist, to write preface for my book. The book never materialized but several authors whom I had contacted during that period kept asking me about the anthology for a long time.

The reasons for my failure are not relevant at this point. However, the preface is still relevant even today and may be helpful to our writers. Therefore, I decided to publish the preface here.

Puranam Subrahmanya Sarma (1894-1979) was one of the progressive editors who were supportive of women writing during the 1960’s and 1970’s. Sarma’s editorial practices were a mix of contradictions. On one hand, he encouraged women writers to write and submit to his magazine, and at the same time, published cartoons ridiculing women writers in the same magazine side by side. He also made statements that seem to contradict his position on women’s writing. Probably the only way one may justify this contradiction is to turn to our cultural values. Humor is an integral part of our daily lives. In our culture, friends and family members tease each other every which way all the time. No offense intended, none taken.

Title: I am not sure why Sarma garu called this preface advaitam. In Hinduism, advaitam is a branch of philosophy that professes unity of soul and god as opposed to dvaitam which differentiates the two. Possibly, Sarma garu meant the same kind of identification between the writer or his voice and the story. I am open to other interpretations.

It was written thirty years back. Thirty years is a long time and some of the references are not clear to me anymore. Therefore I presented only a few paragraphs that made sense to me.

I also need to mention that I am not sure either why I wanted to give the said title to the anthology. Probably, I just learned that word at the time and got carried away.

 

( Translated by © Nidadavolu Malathi and first published on thulika.net, September 2003).

 

He Is I by Malladi Ramakrishna Sastry.

The young man was aboard the train heading east. The train was moving slowly and gracefully like the Karnataka damsel of Srinatha.[i] The train left the depot the day before. It kept stopping at each and every station, hardly a few miles away from each other, and people were getting on and off. The young man could not get a wink of sleep through the entire night for all the commotion of the passengers.

At one station, a Swamiji got on board with his luggage. He looked like Bala Gandharva, the Maharashtra musician, in appearance. He sat down in a tribanghi[ii] posture like Yadavalli[iii] in the role of King Dushyanta.[iv] It was the posture when King Dushyanta was leaning forward curiously and listening to the story of Sakuntala’s birth. Swamiji looked at the young man. The young man stood up, tied his upper garment around his waist as is the custom, gave a brief account of his lineage, touched Swamiji’s feet reverently, and beseeched him to visit their village and bless his home. Swamiji laughed like Madhavapeddi[v] playing the role of Duryodhana. He cast sidelong looks at the young man and spoke, “Look, young man! No need for this fuss. I will gladly come to your home, not just for a visit but for a full meal. I am not any swamiji, just a sanyasi. This saffron-colored outfit is only for a show. I wear them as the occasion calls for it. You know the saying—the mind runs wild while  the heart is stuck on the wife. I am not lying! Don’t you get it? You seem to be a good man. Have any children? Not married yet? Aah! Does not matter, not really one way or the other. Nothing wrong if you are married and no big deal if you are not either. Being alone is a good thing if you ask me, nobody to bother you at home. If you go home in the middle of the night or even later, nobody is going to pester you with questions, pressing for details. Tired of cooking? You can always find a hotel to eat in and a nook to doze off. You can live like a prince wandering around like a jolly good fellow. Tell me, am I right or not?

Young man, don’t think that this old man with a big beard is blabbering some ancient philosophy. I am neither crazy nor stuck on any dogma. I am not saying this to tease you or give you a hard time. This is the real truth. Let me explain why I became like this and then you will understand it yourself. You will have all your doubts cleared. I used to have a house, family and all that in our village. I had a wife, my uncle’s daughter, who was superb in managing the house. She was perfect looking like the famous actor, Avadhanla Purushottam, in a female role. She had a good heart and was gorgeous even without jewelry. She had such an impeccable honesty, the neighbors would bow to her in reverence. You won’t find a woman like that, not one in a million.

Our relationship was exemplary. The entire village admired it. My job was only to stay home and enjoy the wonderful life. Unlike others I did not have to go to the farm nor return home late. I was not the type to meddle in others’ lives and was not interested in any chitchat. I was practically nonexistent in my village and that was fine with me. But the others in the village couldn’t take it. That was especially true of Bapamma vadina. Who’s Bapamma? Well, she was the grandchild of one of my grandfathers, thrice removed. She was married when she was three-years old and became a widow within three months. Her husband died in the floods. As far as I could remember, I saw her only in her widow’s outfit—draped in white sari and her head covered, as was the custom in those days. She kept herself busy ordering people around always. Not a thing escaped her notice. Her mouth was never shut and her legs never stayed steadily in one place. I am not saying  that she was asking for trouble. She was just that kind of person. She could not help it, she had to keep looking for problems. Are you asking me why I was talking so much about some widow? Well, you would not understand without this lengthy introduction.

Bapamma, the widow, came to our house one day while I was cooking my supper. My name is the same then and now—Chidanandam. I changed the last syllable making it Chidanandudu. I thought  ‘am’-ending sounded too much like a  family-type. Anyway, she came and said, “Look! Alludaa! I asked the other little boys but nobody would come to help me. Could you come in for a few minutes and pick some leaves for me?”

I couldn’t say ‘no’ and so I went to her house. She made me pull the entire cluster of leaves from the tree and then started cajoling me, “Look, I am old enough to tell you and you are young enough to listen. You used to pour me water wearing barely a loin cloth. Now you have grown this mop of curls and became a big man. You have grown big all right but not word comes out of that mouth. You stay home and follow your wife holding on to her sari frills, how come? Are all your peers living like this? Good god! Do you think you are the only one who loves his wife? Aren’t other men having a good family life? People are laughing at you for sticking around like this! You keep this up and soon you will be reduced to nothing in your wife’opinion. And that is so unbecoming in our families! Take your thatha for instance. He was never at home, not even for a second. Think of the villages he was trotting through—Kapramapalem today, tomorrow to Kauthavaram. The following day he would be in Kunderu and then he’d show up in Valluru and move on to Vanukur. Your thatha was always on the move, each time moving on to another farm in another village. That does not mean that he was wanting for anything. He was never worried about returning to his own home. He was not turning cold on his own wife either. He had four girls and six boys. Tell me, my boy, how come you did not inherit his ways?

Let’s forget thatha for a second. What about your father? Your father may not be a match for your thatha but was not bad either. Wherever your father had ten-acres of land, he went there and made himself comfortable, without of course anybody noticing it. Don’t get me wrong. Your father was a gentleman to the core at home, no comparison in the entire world. You know the old adage, a woman’s life is ruined if she goes out and a man’s life is ruined if he does not. Look, my boy! Don’t think that I am asking you to take to evil ways. All I am saying is if you want to be happy in the years to come, this is not the way. In a few years nobody is going to feel this free to talk to you in this manner. You had better start thinking for yourself. If you stay where you are, like a smear on the door frame, how could your wife have her fantasies fulfilled?

You might think that you know how a woman’s mind works. You and I may think that a woman mulls over things like, “My man left two days back and is not home yet. Usually he returns home by the time the evening lamps are lit, no matter how busy he is. It’s three days since he has left. He did not return the same day, not yesterday, and not even today. He would not stay out unless it was a matter of life and death. I have seen them all. I have had him tied at my sari end.” You might think like that. The truth is any woman would want to break her heart mulling over a man who went out, wonder what her man is capable of—which woman might have caught his eye. … And after he returns, she would want to jump on him like a hungry lion, let her hair down,  spill some fake tears, do some song and dance, threaten to starve herself, make him squirm for a while, force him to beg with her chin in his palm, make him promise a  silk sari for the next festival … At the end, she would want to tuck jasmine flowers in her hair, come down gradually, step by step, and surrender to him after midnight—that is what any woman would crave for, don’t you think?

   What’d you say? You can’t go out and prove you’re a man? All right. At least watch the others and learn something from them. The reason I am telling you this is because you and your wife shouldn’t sit across from each other for the rest of your lives and get sick of each other. Go, my boy, go out and be a man …”

She kept badgering me on and on. I was upset and also amused. If I said “no way,” she would come back at me with renewed vigor. It was clear to me that I could not escape from her grip for the evening. I nodded, “okay,” and managed to walk away after a while.

I got away from that place all right but I was beset with an internal strife that was beyond my comprehension. She was not crazy, not the kind of person that would go against the grain. Actually I think she meant well; was only interested in my well-being. She has no grudge against me. I kept reflecting on what she has said. Several quotes from the classics came to my mind. Some scholars have stated swabhaaryaayaam ca yauvanam.[vi] Others, Kalidasa for instance, stated yauvane vishaishinaam.[vii] Not only Krishna but Rama also had the same reputation. Even Vatsayana had made a special note of paaradaarikam.[viii] Considering all these opinions expressed by great scholars I have come to believe that there was some truth to Bapamma’s words. I debated further in my head and concluded that I must follow her advice. But that was something I was not used to. Where do I start? In general, I was shy and nervous. Each time I put my foot forward my heart was pulling me back.

Still struggling, I decided to check it out and went towards the lake one evening. Fearing that somebody might recognize me, I wrapped my uttareeyam around my head, pulled up my dhoti frills and tucked at the waist. As I was walking I saw somebody come toward me, carrying a bale of straw. I squinted my eyes to take a good look and noticed that that person was a woman. She came closer, looking like Sanjeeva Rao’s Chitrangi[ix] in that dim light. I managed to say, “You, girl!” She stopped there, looked around and giggled. I picked up my courage and approached her. She looked at me and said, “Sir, you?! Are you lost in the dark? Come with me, sir. I will walk you home.” I started trembling. I mumbled hastily, “You go, just go, go away,” and I ran across the fields in a rush. I heard her laugh behind me, which was even more distressing. I wandered around for a long time, I don’t know for how long, and finally returned home.

My wife was standing at the door with a big smile! As I was about to enter the house with my head lowered she stopped me. “Emandi![x] If you feel like going out for a walk or something, why didn’t you start out early? Why do you have to run across the fields? Why get stuck in the darkness? The woman you saw in the fields was our Lakshmaya’s daughter. She told me about you and advised me that next time I should send somebody along with you and with a lantern. Silly girl! I was about to send Bapamma but then you showed up …” she said in a coaxing tone. I asked her quickly, “What did Bapamma say?” I was shivering in my shoes.

“It doesn’t matter what she said. Never mind that. If you are really so disposed, why don’t you go to the next village and try. There are women like Rambha and Urvasi[xi] there. If you think you are that good you should go there and save the reputation of your ancestors. That would be a great amusement for me too,” she said, laughing.

She was getting under my skin. “Don’t you think that I am not capable of it. I can take the entire village if I had a mind to. I am just trying to be civil,” I replied.

“Who asked you to be civil? Go as you please. I will pull out the best dhoti with contrasting borders and hand it to you. Put it on and also take a couple of hundred rupees. Remember! When that woman offers to apply perfume, don’t tell her that you are not used to it. If she sprinkles perfumed water, don’t say you will catch cold. Don’t hold back a few rupees from the amount you took with you. Don’t dicker with them. You might even want to give them a little extra. If you don’t have enough cash, just send word to me. If you find someone very interesting, don’t hesitate to bring her here. I will also have some entertainment. What’d you say? Why waste time?” She went on like this and got to me like never before in all my life. I said, “Okay, bring it.” She brought the dhoti and money. I left for the village. I went to the same village my wife had mentioned. I have heard sometime back that there was a woman by the name Rakenduvadana in that village. I went straight to her house. I went there all right but I was not sure how to start the conversation.

“Sir, what’s new? Why are you here?” she asked.

Not a word came out of my mouth. I pulled out the stash of bills I had tucked at the waist and put it in front of her. “I will stay here for the night,” I managed to say.

She looked at me for a second and laughed. “What’s the matter? Upset with your wife? Is this your first time? I can see that very clearly.”

I sat there totally lost.

“What is it, babu? who tutored you on this one? I am asking since I am not seeing any sign of this conduct in your blood. Come, tell me.” She came closer and sat down next to me, taking my chin into her palm. She threw me off completely. I told her the entire story. She listened to me and advised me, “Foolish boy!  Any  parrot talks only the language of her habitat.[xii] This is not something that comes with practice but has got to be in your blood. Let’s see about what you’ve said. Did the great sage Vatsayana go around the country looking for the experience so he could record it in his book? No. He could envision the entire science because he was an intellectual. If Rama had the makings of a romantic hero, why would the poet Valmiki spend so many chapters describing only Rama’s grief? It is senseless to assume that there is no happiness at home. It is idiotic to think that there are women as gorgeous as Rambha in our neighborhood. It is foolish for persons like you to resort to a display of prowess in this manner. Please, get on the return train and go home.” She finished her speech, shoved my money back into my palm, threw in an extra rupee and sent me away with some fellow named Ankaalu.

I boarded the train all right but was worried about showing my face at home. But then, where else can I go? Should I go to another village and knock on another door? Well, what if I have to hear the same song and dance—all the eighteen chapters on good behavior—one more time from one more woman?

I went home straight. I must be really an idiot; I told my wife the whole story. She laughed again. “Your face is such that even a prostitute would take pity on you. You keep this up and go around the country, you will soon turn them all into worthless sanyasis. Maybe that is what your horoscope is saying! Womanizing is not recorded in your chart. You might as well behave from now on.”

Oh, Lord Srihari! I am reduced to nothing even in my wife’s view. And I’ve been living with her for so long! Even she is treating me like a child. I tried to be nice and this is what it I get in return? I was ticked off and told my wife, “I will not live here any more.”

“What else can you do? Where else can you go? No matter where you go, you are looking at nothing but a dead-end,” she replied and laughed again. Don’t ask me how I felt. I reiterated, “I am  leaving.” She nodded, still smiling. She looked at me as if she were saying, “Don’t I know you?” I was scared a little but walked out, gritting my teeth. I walked out all right. And then what? Given the kind of person I am, what can I do? I cannot sleep except at home. I can’t relish food unless she served it. Evidently, I need to straighten out these things first. Whenever I was hungry, I ate fruits, bread and butter, and milk. At night I started watching two movies, one after another. Are you wondering where I got the money for all these? I took care of it before leaving home. Anyway, I got my craving for home under control eventually. My desire for revenge on my wife also softened a little. I felt annoyed with myself at times though. I had everything one could ask for. Why did I get into this mess? Should I just go home, holding my head high or low? No I couldn’t, my pride was still lingering around. I know I was avenging myself on my wife. But what about that clan of prostitutes who drove me to this point? I could neither declare war on them nor could I be a romantic hero in this life. My only alternative was to go one step further and teach them a lesson.

Here’s what I did. I went around, town after town, village after village, city after city and confronted the prostitutes. I lectured to them, “God bless you all. You’ve got to save your reputation. Guru Bharatacharya[xiii] was your mentor. He made you perform “samudra mathanam[xiv] at the court of Lord Devendra in ancient times. Isn’t it true that, if there were no prostitutes, Rushyasrunga[xv] would never have got married? Pleasing male population has been your heritage for centuries. That was your talent, exclusively and predominantly. Haven’t we heard that our rulers got resorts of romance built for travelers? And that is only because they had realized that the males with experience with prostitutes would have good familial relationships. Our present government, knowingly or unknowingly, may have told you to throw away your ankle-bells, get married and get stuck in a corner like respectable housewives. Is that a vedic prescription? How could you take that word and forget your duty to the public? In fact, all women, then and now, even the women in the royal families, have been learning the teachings of your ancient guru Bharata. So what? Could they be as talented and fearless as you are in their expression and physical movements? Could they be available as readily as you are? Your well-being is in your hands. The country’s well-being is in your hands and under your control. Take my word, trust God, and save the world as has been your custom. Some pundit may create pointless havoc in the name of “eradication of prostitution” and belittle you in the process but how could you keep quiet? Don’t you see that the same people are also calling it “honoring the fine arts,” an d begging you to go to the felicitation meetings? You’d better see the crooked game they are playing and make the best of your lives. I stormed them with my speeches, like the floods of the Ganges. They all listened and  said they would agree but not one person came forward openly.

Then I went around and contacted a conscientious government official. I threatened him that I’d go on fasting unto death if he refused to find a way out for these women. He heard the entire story and laughed. He said, “Mister, I have no time to be concerned with such things now. I am not in a mood to listen to this. You come back after the elections. Take your time. Write down briefly whatever you want to say. I will submit it to the members here and then forward it to the higher authorities. We will see what they’ve got to say. Are you asking me what happens in the meantime? You don’t want to wait? All right. You can go straight to the central government and worry about it yourself. If they say, “yes,” we will not say “no.” Even if we say “no” and they will take our “no” for an answer, then again we will have no choice but agree. This is All India. The states have no power in any matter. Besides, it looks like you didn’t understand the word, democracy. Unanimity means the chairman tells something and all others raise their hands indicating their assent. How long do you thing this rule lasts if every one screams personal freedom and expresses his personal opinions? Look, you can do anything you want as long as it is not illegal. We don’t feel a thing, not so much as an antbite. We may come to know about it but we don’t care. If you cross the line, you are bound to be punished. Understand?”

“Yes,” I said.

   It was obvious I could not get this done by running after them. The only way was to chop it from the other side as the saying goes. I had to take this to the legislative assembly. For that, I needed to find the right person. Do you remember the woman, Rakenduvadana? Well, now she is known as Rattamma. Never mind that. She is the right person for this job. I decided to find an auspicious day and go to her and tell her, “Amma Rattamma! You must run for a seat in the legislative assembly, get elected and go to the center. You must pound on the table with all your might and express your concerns. That is the only way to save your race.”

Swamiji stopped for a second and asked the young man, “What do you think?”

What could the young man say? He said, “If you are talking about the woman, Rattamma, no need to go to her village. She will be coming to our village. We have arranged to honor her in our village. It would be great if you could preside over the function. Of course, there is also an about-to-become minister attending the meeting. He would say a few words first for the sake of formality. But the presence of a swamiji like you is important. Besides that strengthens your movement too.”

Swamiji replied, “Excellent. I will be there for sure.”

“Young man, no reason to hide this from you. The truth is I am tired of this drifting. I am convinced that I’ve done whatever I could. Ask me what did I accomplish after all this traveling. Nothing, to speak the truth. The more I think about it, who am I after all to save others? People have to take care of themselves. How long can we keep pushing them? As I said, I would go to that village one more time, and shift the entire responsibility to Rattamma, and wash my hands of it. She is a super achiever, I am telling you. By the way, who went to invite her? Did you go? Are you coming from there now? How did she receive you? Did she wait on you, you know what I mean, really? Young man, you don’t have to hide it from me. Come, tell me.”

The young man described his visit with Rattamma in great detail. Swamiji nearly jumped with joy and screamed, “Oh, my, you are incredible! Lady Luck smiled on you. You look very naive but obviously you have a way with words. You played your part and she pretended to believe you and served the best way she knew … Aah! I must say you were born fortunate. So be it. How else can you have your desires satisfied? Young man! after listening to your story, I know now how deluded I was all these years. What am I doing, going around like this? Nothing. Actually, I was planning to go home straight this time, I mean, after visiting Rattamma. Yes. I must go home.”

The train stopped at the next station. The passangers inquired and found out that another train was coming from the opposite direction and their train had to move on to the other set of the tracks. Swamiji thought, “If I hop on that train, I will be home by eight this evening.” The other train came on time.The passangers watched as the other train arrived. As soon as the train went past them, Swamiji looked up with a jerk. He pulled out a dhoti and his uttareeyam from his bag hastily and changed his clothing. He took some money and left the rest of the things right there.

“The train stops here for about ten minutes, right?” he asked and continued, “Here, keep my baggage with you. I will take them when I come to visit you. It does not matter even if they are lost. There is some money in the bag. Use it anyway you please. I am going back. My wife is on that train. She is returning from her mother’s home, I believe. My father-in-law is also on that train.” He laughed and jumped out of the train.

The young man felt happy for Swamiji. The other train left. So also the train the young man was on .

                                                                                                                        [End]

Translator’s note:

This is a peculiar story with two narrators, besides the author. The author used, for the first narrator, a third person reflexive pronoun ‘taanu,’ for which there is no equivalent in English. Normally the use of ‘taanu’ implies that the story is narrated from the perspective of that person. In the current story, the first narrator appears as taanu only in a few places. I replaced ‘taanu’ with ‘young man’ for the purpose of clarification. Most of the story is told in the first person by Swamiji also known as Chidanandam.

Translated by © Nidadavolu Malathi.

(The Telugu original, soham was published in the anthology, Malladi Ramakrishna Sastry kathalu – 2 published by Navodaya Publishers, 1986)

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[i] Srinatha was a 11th century poet, known for his amorous depiction of female characters.

[ii] A dance posture.

[iii] A famous actor known for his extraordinary performance in the role of King Dushyanta.

[iv] King Dushyanta and Sakuntala were the parents of Bharata, whose name India inherited.

[v] A famous actor known for playing the role of Duryodhana, the Kaurava king in maha bharatam.

[vi]Lit. Enjoying physical pleasures with one’s own wife during youth is appropriate.

[vii] From a famous kavyam of Kalidasa, “raghu vamsam,” the story of Rama’s geneology. Kalidasa seem to imply that enjoying physical pleasures during one’s youth is acceptable, not necessarily limited to marital bliss.

[viii] Reference to a chapter on the extra marital relationships in Vatsayana’s “kama sutram.”

[ix] Sanjeeva Rao was famous for his role as Chitrangi, a female character.

[x] In some families, wives do not address husbands by name as a mark of respect. For want of a better term, they just say some thing like ‘hello’ inviting their attention before starting a conversation.

[xi] Rambha and Urvasi are divine damsels, known for their extraordinary beauty.

[xii] A popular Telugu proverb, e guuti chilaka aa guuti paluke palukutundi meaning the ideas expressed denote usually one’s upbringing.

[xiii] Bharata or Bharatacharya was the first exponent of the Indian classical dance, bharatanatyam.

[xiv] An episode from the famous epic, maha bhagavatham, the story of Lord Vishnu. The story refers to the churning of the ocean by the gods and demons in pursuit of finding the devine nectar.

[xv] A sage in the epic Ramayanam

Elements of Oral Tradition in Telugu fiction by Nidadavolu Malathi

In the case of an oral narrative, the audience gather at a specific place, away from other distractions, and are presumably in a receptive mood. The narrator addresses live audience. He has an opportunity to use visual tools like gestures, draw on local and from immediate occurrences for props. In print most of these details are replaced by other kinds of illumination.

In Andhra Pradesh, like in other parts of India, print became a medium for fiction just about a century ago. Custom dies hard in any walk of life and storytelling is no exception. While numerous experiments are introduced in rendering fiction in print, some traits of the traditional narrative style lingered on.

I am not sure exactly when Telugu critics embraced the western literary critiquing tools as the standard and began to evaluate Telugu fiction accordingly. Currently, it has become the rule. Our  critics quote western fiction writers to as the benchmark for a good story. Consequently, our writers make a conscious effort to follow the same criteria in writing fiction. Workshops and seminar are being held to teach story-writing technique on the same lines. In the process however, the elements peculiar to centuries-old fiction, that are specific to Telugu, are ignored.

The story A Piece of Ribbon (Beenadevi) opens with a small group of individuals from affluent section of our society, who gathered on the lawn of a rich doctor to spend a leisurely evening. The main theme, a story of a poor girl’s longing for a piece of ribbon, as is evident from the title, comes up during their chitchat. The opening scene with a lighthearted exchange of teasing comments by the doctor’s wife and friends is consistent with typical Telugu chitchat among a group of friends. After a few minutes, the main theme is brought up with a typical line, “Oh, that reminds me …” This is very similar to a preamble in our harikatha in oral tradition. The casualness with which the main story has been opened belies the profundity of the central theme—a  poor girl badly wanting to have a piece of ribbon to put in her hair. The tribulations of the doctor at the turn of events, first his satisfaction of being the benefactor, and later his failure, his insatiable thirst for revenge and, at the end, the punishment he was handed down for his mindless action were delineated in great detail.

Examined from the standpoint mentioned above, the criteria of the the western storytelling technique, this story lacks unity and compactness if it were to be read as a story of a little girl and her disappointments/hardships. On the other hand, judged by the stamp approval of Telugu readers on this story, we have to assume that Telugu readers and critics accepted this flaw[?] and appreciated the story as much for its traditional elements as for the core message which is the point of the title. That is evident from the award the story received in 1999. The story was originally published in 1965, and received Ravi Sastry award after 35 years of its publication.

Readers who are familiar with oral tradition are accustomed to ignoring embellishments and going straight to the core thought. For a majority of Telugu readers, this is a story of a poor girl who could not afford a piece of ribbon. I would read this story as an ego trip of the doctor (a prototype of our social reformers?) who was riding high on his generous nature rather than the poor child’s pathetic economic conditions. Against the backdrop of his self-indulgent journey into his past, the little girl’s agony fails to measure up.

Elements like humor (wife teasing husband) and irreverent comments by friends are all part of our daily lives, intended to establish the environment—again, something irrelevant to the little girl’s story.

One of the significant features in live performance is the delivery of dialogue. In a live performance, the narrator is a ventriloquist as well. He performs the characters on the stage and the audience will have no problem identifying which dialogue was spoken by which character. In The Ants, (Nayani Krishnakumari), the story was narrated as a reflection of the protagonist in his head; not only reflections of the past events but also his present responses to the past events. In print, in the Telugu original, the sentences were put in double quotes. In such instances, in English italics are used but Telugu language has no such feature. If this story were narrated in the presence of a live audience, the audience would recognize at once that the protagonist was addressing the other characters only in  his mind. In translation this needed further elucidation.

Another important element is the use of metaphor. The story revolves around the main character’s ego, or, rather his inability to take charge of his own life. Ant is a metaphor for a small, insignificant life on one hand and a symbol of  communal strength on the other. This story actually draws on both the angles. On one hand, the ants as a group could drag a piece of meat bigger than themselves into their hole. On the other, the protagonist sees them as his antagonists, the people who dragged him down, and so he crushed them under his foot, a symbolic victory for him. In translation, this again needed verbal clarification.

Long-winded sentences with adjectival phrases and nonfinite verbs are very common in Telugu fiction, particularly in older stories. This is interesting in the context of recent trends—courses being taught in short story workshops (Ramulu, pp.20-21). Here is a classic examples of traditional writing in the opening paragraph of Meaningless Union. (Puranam Subrahmanya Sarma). The first sentence runs to 14 lines. The original text, broken into individual phrases, reads roughly like this:

When Srihari got down at Howrah station with a suitcase full of suffocating ideals; when he saw buses running in all directions like rows of ants; as he walked with a renewed enthusiasm at the thought that this is my country, this is our wealth; as he saw the pure, cool, ennobling Ganga river flowing through the heart of the city peacefully; which was shimmering with a touch of the golden rays of the sun; the same Srihari who walked ostentatiously; after going around the offices in Garden Reach; as he was worn out after realizing the worthlessness of his recommendation letters; gritting his teeth; ate puffed peas and drank water; while trying to fret away the night; caught by the police and beaten with their canes; cursed the system; underwent hardships; went around dragging his suitcase; accepted the “Calcutta jute mills’ invitation”; the city that inhales people in the morning and exhales live corpses in the evening; Srihari moved on cursing the country.

In my translation, I moved the last part to the beginning of the paragraph for the purpose of lucidity and also broke the paragraph into several shorter sentences. Once again, like in the case of Piece of Ribbon, this long sentence was never a problem for Telugu readers.

Unlike adjectival phrases, a long sentence with several non-finite verbs like chuusi (after seeing  or having seen), adigi (after asking or having asked) imply a list of sequential actions and could be used to bring about a specific effect. I used a similar long sentence in Madras to Tirupati to register the impatience of the travelers in a bus. The travelers were waiting for the driver to start the bus. Instead,

…the driver opened the door, got off the bus, closed the door, walked straight to the tea stall, took out the wallet from his pocket, took some money, put the wallet back in his pocket, drank coffee, returned the cup, walked back to the bus, took out a matchbox from his pocket, took a beedi, lit the beedi, held it tightly between his teeth, opened the bus door, sat in his seat, checked the door one more time whether it was closed tight or not, and started the engine. The passengers in the bus were waiting for that moment. They all heaved a long sigh of relief in unison as if it was pre-planned.

Additionally we must note that each of these phrases have only 2 to 3 words in Telugu as opposed 2 to 8 words in translation. That again contributes to the growing impatience of the passengers. Unlike in the earlier instance, I kept the last line to the last to create that sense of impatience in the passengers. I did not see any need to change the order in the latter case.

Flow of thought in Telugu stories is not always as consistent as in English. It could be confusing if translated as is. For instance, a passage from “non-duality” (Puranam Subrahmanya Sarma) ascertains my point.

Writing the story for whom, himself or the public? Could he vibrate the world through his writing or is [he] just using [it] to rub his personal woes on the world? Does he understand how strenuous writing a story is? If an author tries only to show off his brains to the world, readers resent him. Readers lose themselves in a good story, get carried away. A story must have a purpose. After finishing the story, a reader must be prodded into thinking—this should be like this or that.

In this passage, several views are stated, sounding disjointed at times. At the risk of repeating myself, I must add that the views are very clear for a person who is knowledgeable in our culture. For others, the translator need to reword/reorganize the structure.

Yet another aspect of sentence structure is the use of nonspecific subject. Generalization in Telugu is achieved by using a verb form like chuudaali [must see], cheppaali [must say] without specifically stating the subject. In such sentences, an all-inclusive ‘we’ is implied. Use of pronouns inconsistently also are in the nature of narrating a story in the presence of a live audience. When a narrator uses ‘he’ or ‘she’, or, totally ignores the subject, it does not bother the live audience. They place themselves mentally in the moment and visualize the setting. In print, the story loses part of this ability to carry the audience into the moment unless the author is very skillful and the reader is knowledgeable in the culture. For a foreign reader, it becomes that much harder to transpose himself /herself into the setting. For a reader who is willing to pick up on the nuance, it is educational.

In the story, He is I, [Malladi Ramakrishna Sastry], the author’s use of pronouns are not consistent. The story opens with one person, taanu, as the narrator. The pronoun, a reflexive, indefinite, third person, singular, and non-gender specific, is peculiar to Telugu language. After Swamiji is introduced, most of the story is narrated by Swamiji using the first person singular, nenu[I]. Towards the end, Swamiji says, “We [memu] were waiting for the other train to arrive.” Telugu has two forms of third person plural, manam [all-inclusive] and memu [excludes listener]. Significantly, in the story, the second term, memu is used. Thus implicitly the pronoun “we” includes the listener, the young man [taanu], and, puts the reader/audience in the shoes of a listener.

Usually figures of speech, proverbs and references to epics and mythology are built into a story as props. And Telugu fiction is no exception. Here are some examples of how they are manifested in Telugu fiction.

Proverbs are sometimes do not contribute enormously to the story in that the story moves on without the proverbs. However, they do reaffirm the author’s point. At other times, they just are introduced since they sound beautiful. For instance, notice the rhyme in atta meeda kopam dutta meeda chuupinaTTu. Atta and dutta rhyme. Translation closest to the phrase reads like “You are angry with your mother-in-law and taking it out on the bull.” To make it readable, I had to keep the term atta, which is used in the story Yearning [Kalipatnam Rama Rao] several times. I translated it as “Upset with attamma  and so beat up the bull?” The original proverb is a rhetorical statement. In translation, I had to change it to a question in order to bring about the original spirit.

In short, there is a vast amount of cultural nuance in our language which requires special attention and care in transporting it to the translation. This article barely scratches the surface. Readers, writers and translators need to examine this area carefully.

[End]

(Published by Nidadavolu Malathi as editorial, September 2003 on thulika.net.)

REFERENCES:

Ramulu, B.S. kathala badi. Jagatyal, Andhra Pradesh: Vishala Sahita Academy, 1998

Venkatasubbaiah, Vallampati. Katha silpam. Hyderabad: Visalandhra Publishing House, 1995

Narayana, Singamaneni, Comp. Telugu kathakulu, kathana reethulu. V.3. Hyderabad: Visalandhra Publishing House, 2001.

Venugopal, N. katha sandarbham. Hyderabad: Swetcha Sahiti, 2000