Monthly Archives: October 2013

Frostbite by Nidadavolu Malathi

 I was on the terrace watching the clouds which were roaming freely westward–jet black clouds like big black boulders, like water buffalos trying to hide the sunset. The Sun like a mischievous child was spreading his rays from behind the clouds. Possibly, the lord Krishna, shining in his divine glory had the same brightness,… childlike Radha, looking from the ground, unable to reach such heights, was probably asking sadly, ”Should I be the one for you to pick on, the innocent victim of your divine pranks?”…

 …The woman, my imaginary Radha, standing between me and the chain of clouds—on the terrace across from me—moved slowly and vanished into the background. Her gait was like that of a stately princess, conscious and graceful.


 As far as I know, there is only one old lady living in that house, located back to back from ours. She owns it. The only evidence that the two houses were owned by the same person some three generations back, is the parapet wall, three-feet high, separating the two terraces. If one wants to reach the main entrance using the main streets, one has to walk hundred paces and turn round two corners.

I said to amma [mother] at dinnertime, “I saw somebody in that house, at the back of ours…”

“Yeah. He is that old lady’s grandson or something. Got married on the 10th last month. The bride is a doll. What’s the point? Some unknown disease. Won’t talk. Won’t eat. A gal who used to jump around like a dancing horse turned into a cadaver. Her family members are crying their hearts out.” I watched Amma amusingly as she explained with her hand gestures and expressions in tune with her words like a seasoned dancer. However, even more surprising to me was the gal who wouldn’t utter a single word, even after one week of the ceremony. Her silence was more confusing to me than the question how amma could have collected this much information about them in such a short time.

“May be she is dumb!” I said.

“You are too much…”

I looked at amma. Why not?

“It seems she sang an ashtapadi[1] when the groom’s party went to see her.[2] And were just enthralled by her music That’s how the marriage was agreed upon.”

“Ha! Whatever that song could be?” I asked with a laugh.

Dheera sameere…”[3]

I was dumbstruck. I know one girl who could sing that particular song with such enchanting melody. That was Vakula, my classmate in third grade in my school days in Guntur. Marrying Vakula after listening her to music is neither a big news nor a favor. Even snakes would dance to her tune. I remember the time when she was in a school play. It was Khadga Tikkana.[4] Vakula played the role of a messenger. It was a one-minute appearance on the stage, yet she made a permanent mark in the hearts of the audience with her sweet voice. Her role in the scene was to announce that Thikkana died in the battlefield and Chanamma(his wife) will be credited with the title veerapatni [a great warrior’s wife] as long as the moon and stars shine in the sky. When Vakula finished reciting her verse, the audience were awestruck by her voice and clamored ‘once more,’ poor Chanamma hadn’t had a chance to say so much as “Oh!” Obviously it is that Vakula I saw on the terrace earlier in the evening..

After our school was closed for summer, I was bored and came here to spend my vacation. There wasn’t much to do here either. Now I am glad that I found a friend after my heart. Then it occurred to me suddenly—don’t know whether she had lost her mind or heart or afflicted with some unknown disease or hurt. How could I expect her to talk to me, when she was not talking to her husband, not even to her parents? Am I better than they to her? Furthermore, our relationship goes way back, it wa so long ago!!

I showed my irritation on amma, ”this place is a jungle, no humans, not even to pick up a fight, let alone chatting. I told you I don’t want to come here. You wouldn’t listen.”


I didn’t see Vakula all thru in the daytime. She however came up on to the terrace just about the same time as yesterday, in the evening. The sky was cloudy. I was with amma helping her to pick up the mango pickles kept in the sun for drying[5]. Amma wanted to move the pickles to the room in case it rains at night.

I was about to call Vakula when a man, short and dark-complexioned, showed up. He said to her, “Nobody’s home. I am going out.” Vakula glanced at him briefly and turned away.

“Did you hear?” he said again. Vakula didn’t even look at him this time.

“Cha. What kind of a person! worthless for the  mother-in-law, unnecessary burden for the daughter-in-law[6], he left, murmuring.

Quite a charmer!! I couldn’t help wondering.

Vakula and I had a unique bond in our childhood days. We never played together. Can’t even say we ate off of the same plate and slept in the same bed[7]. But if Vakula felt bad about something, she’d just come and sit next to me. Further, we never felt a void even when we had nothing to chit-chat, no problems, and no solutions. Vakula was so sensitive, she could feel others’ pain as her own … and now, living a life so scornful that somebody could say cha? I couldn’t believe it. Something big must have happened. The question is what is that big thing? I have no illusions that she would tell her problem to me, the problem she would not discuss with her own mother. But to me, a writer of one or two stories, the reason for Vakula’s silence is like a puzzle sans clue. I thought it through all night yet couldn’t figure it out.

Next morning, I finished bathing and went on to the terrace with amma again. Vakula was drying wet clothes on their terrace. I mustered courage and called her. She looked up, startled, saw me for a second and went away.

“Ha!! You thought you are better than us?!!” said amma, referring to Vakula’s indifference to me.

“Whatever could be bothering her?” I said, talking to myself.

“What a botheration?!! A big game, if you ask me!!” said amma. I was taken aback. She was so concerned about Vakula until two days back, and now is so harsh?! What is the crime Vakula has committed within these two days?

Here is the story I finally got to learn from amma: On the previous evening, Vakula’s mother-in-law went to neighbor’s house to play a board game, and her husband Narahari went out after informing Vakula. I know. I was there, witnessing his departure. During that time, a passerby seized the opportunity, and walked away with the radio in the living room and a saree that was neatly pressed and ironed and sitting on a chair.

Vakula was sitting on the cot in the porch and watched him from the moment he entered the house to the minute he walked away with the radio and the saree. She sat there with the calmness that could put even Paramanandayya’s pupil[8] to shame.

“Really? Incredible!!” I said laughing.

“Is that a laughing matter for you? Aarani saree worth 150 rupees at the least,” said amma, as if that was her own saree.

Why shouldn’t I laugh? After all, the owner of the saree herself sat there and watched while it was being stolen? Amma says we should not laugh at the people who slip and fall. I would laugh even if it were my own saree under the circumstances.

“Coffee colored saree with orange border. They said it was such a beautiful one,” said amma again. That was a shock to me.

“Vakula saw that saree after they had finished all the wedding purchases and insisted on buying it.”

I lapsed into a reverie. A wise man once stated that most of the squabbles in marriages arise from the fact that, women are not as crazy about their husbands as they are about their sarees. This time I couldn’t laugh at amma’s words. The fact that Vakula lost “the saree she loved so much” without blinking an eye got my attention. I know her love of the orange colored border.

Every evening, we’ve gotten used to reaching on to our terraces at the same time. After three days, she looked at me for a second. I smiled as I saw a trace of recognition on her face. She turned back immediately and was gone. I came down and lay down on the cot. My short nap was disturbed by the conversation in the next room. The voice is familiar. That is Vakula’s mother, Varalakshmamma garu.

”Oh! Kalyani!! You have grown up, really!!” she exclaimed as she saw me. She came, after learning about the stolen saree. Even she couldn’t understand Vakula’s state of mind.

Vakula was being shown to a different doctor each day—having x-rays taken, consulting specialists, so on and on. What could any doctor do when the patient doesn’t tell what her problem is? Even the God doesn’t grant wishes without asking. They made a vow to offer niluvu dopidi [9] to the lord Venkateswara.

They even took her to a mental hospital, suspecting if she were demented. The doctor suggested to keep her in the clinic for two days for observation. Vakula’s husband, Narahari agreed and signed up for a room in the special ward. Vakula didn’t break her silence. In fact she has shown no signs of any other problem but for keeping silent. The doctor completed all the tests and said, “Whoever has called her crazy? That person must be crazy, if you ask me. She is deeply disturbed by something. Find out what she really was looking for!!”

You must be crazy to say that. If she were suffering only from some unfulfilled desire, why wouldn’t she say so? Why would she come to every doctor we are taking to?” said Vakula’s mother, Varalakshmamma garu.

The doctor laughed and said, “I will put it in writing, if you will. She has no medical problem. Even if you take her to England, you will get the same diagnosis. Probably she didn’t like this marriage.” Varalakshmamma garu returned home with Vakula.

Vakula didn’t dance with joy at the time of fixing this marriage but she had not shown any signs of disagreement or displeasure either. There was no indication that she was not happy with this marriage. Vakula was brought up by her grandmother–which rules out things like falling in love and/or hollering freedom of choice and such. … Furthermore, she took to silence after three days after her wedding!

Vakula was attending to all the household chores without any complaint or signs of unhappiness. She was managing her part very efficiently while her mother-in-law took care of the chores in the kitchen.

At last Narahari said, “What do you really want? You tell me and I will get it!”

Narahari took her to a psychologist. The shrink asked million questions—about the environment she was raised in, about her parents’ attitude, her hobbies, likes, dislikes … Narahari answered him as much as he could, but not up to the satisfaction of the psychologist. Narahari also mentioned that Vakula watches the sunset every day. The psychologist wanted to see her at that particular time. He came in the evening when both of us were standing on either side of the parapet wall.

I was about to turn around and leave, thinking it might be improper for me to stay. Vakula grabbed my hand and stopped me. I stood there sensing her thought in a strange way. I wasn’t sure whether she felt incapable of answering the endless questions of that doctor or did not want to answer them at all. Or, may be she wanted me to tell him to get lost—meaning he was there to destroy the only few pleasurable moments she was left with …

“Today, the sky is not beautiful,” he said. Vakula stared at him for a second, crossed over the short parapet wall and came into our house! In the next minute I and that psychologist were standing there facing each other!

“How long since you have known her?” he asked me.

“Not long. When I was in the fourth form [ninth grade] she was in the third form [eighth grade],” I answered. He asked me to tell everything I knew about her. I turned around to see what was she doing. She was lying on my cot with her eyes shut.

“Well, you are the psychologist and you are asking me. I’ll tell you whatever I know. This could be just my imagination. As far as I know, Vakula is delicate like a flower, innocent like a child. So childlike, she honestly thinks that things like deception, jealousy, and ill-will exist only in the books and not in real life. When I think of her, there is a passage that comes to my mind. Probably you have read it too. That was–if a woman had lost her mind, it means we have lost a great writer/poet; and, if a woman is roaming around in the jungle collecting herbs, probably we have a great mind wasted.[10] That is what comes to my mind when I see Vakula,” I said.

“You might be right. But, please, try to find out the incident that has changed her into who she is now. It is just as natural for a human being to go into a shock as to come out of it. We can think of a remedy only after knowing the reason.”

I didn’t have the courage to go near Vakula even after he was gone. I was still standing there. I didn’t notice when she came up to me and stood behind me. She was looking at the beauty of the evening sun she loved so much. I felt guilty on seeing her face.

I felt sorry for her mother. It was like asking a woman to choose between a son with a short life-span or a daughter accursed with widowhood[11]–a no win situation for any mother, and particularly a tough one for a mother who had the child in her late forties. Varalakshmamma garu decided to take her daughter back to her village. She didn’t see any point in leaving Vakula in a marriage that apparently was not her choice. Poor soul, she is so desperate!!

I remembered the confidence with which Vakula stood beside me. How can I ask her what is her mystery? Further how can I reveal that to others? All the names associated with treason, starting from Vibheeshana[12] came to my mind. If I had done that, there would be no punishment for my treason. On the other hand, how many people would be happy if Vakula becomes normal again! In that case, wouldn’t that be okay? I couldn’t make up my mind—what is right, what is wrong?


Next morning, I finished my coffee and said to amma, ”I am going to their home.”

“Not necessary,” she said. Then she told me that Vakula was suspected of being possessed. They called Parapsychic healer. He examined Vakula from head to toe, walked around her like in a ritual. “Dumb ghost,” he said. Made them pour down a heap of five hundred rupees and drew a circle around it. Uttered some strange sounds. “Speak” he said. Vakula didn’t speak. He beat her with neem sticks, sprinkled turmeric and kumkuma[13] all over the house. “Talk,” he said. She did not talk. After he had left, they all noticed a red scar on Vakula’s hand, from wrist to the ring finger. They were astounded. … God knows what the disease is or the extent of her suffering. All I could see is only the torture she is put through in the name of treatment.

“To hell with all these treatments? In all possibility, she might be hurting more from these treatments than from the real problem. Leave her alone for sometime. Things could resolve on their own,” I said.

“We are also thinking the same thing. Yesterday he started bashing us; said we cheated him and plunked a beast on to him. We are worried sick about our little darling’s life, a real gem. Our baby is in shambles and we have to put up with his snide remarks too?!! Whatever happens happens. We will take her back  with us. Will send her back only after she gets better,” said Vakula’s mother.

Vakula is the luckiest if she does not understand what is happening around her, I told myself.

That evening I went to see Vakula since she will be going back the next day. I entered the house. Narahari came in right behind me.

“What can you do for her in that village of yours? Let me take her with me. I have a friend, a specialist in this kind of things. Will show her to him,” he said.

He wants to take Vakula, innocent like a child, with him to a place nine hundred miles away. Varalakshmamma garu stared at him as if she couldn’t believe what she had heard.

“Yes, I will take her with me, I will arrange for her treatment.”

Till that moment, Vakula was there as if it didn’t concern her. For the first time, she turned her head and looked at her husband. Her glance was like the blazing third eye of Siva—the eye that opened on manmatha [cupid] when he tried to disturb Siva’s dhyana [meditation]. It was the glance of the divine Cobra that bedecked Shiva’s neck, and that could look up at Garuda [divine Eagle] in defiance. It was the glance of a woman who remained submissive and patient and took all the abuse of men for centuries and finally opened her eye and spoke. There was no ambiguity in her gaze. Narahari lowered his head, turned around and left.

It was hopelessly humid that night. I moved my cot on to the open terrace. Thoughts about Vakula crowded my head, I couldn’t sleep. There was no doubt that she did not like this marriage. It was almost like challenging the laws of our times and customs. He may not be handsome as cupid, but she was not pressured in to this marriage. Why didn’t she speak up?

The clock chimed two and I woke up to the sounds. I opened my eyes feeling that somebody was sitting on my cot. Vakula!!! I sat up. Moon was showing all his glory. Her eyes were sparkling in the moonlit night, like beautiful fish in water.

I wanted to speak something. Give her courage. But in that tranquil night —Vakula looked like a part of the nature, like Jada Bharata[14] in that still night. What can I tell her? I am not qualified to interpret the zodiac chart to the angels.


“Vakula!…” Vakula is speaking! My heart leapt to my throat. My head was spinning with hundred questions. Which one first? What next?…

Vakula quietly took my hand in to hers.

“Kalyani! He is impotent.”

The words, so helplessly uttered by Vakula sounded horrific in the thick of that dark night. There is nothing more to tell. There is no more mystery about her. She was like a tender flower crushed and thrown out, a frostbitten flower, wilted forever, with no chance of resurgence.

I don’t know when she has gone. English news was being broadcast by the time I woke up again. I was walking toward bathroom to brush my teeth.

“Vakula …” amma said.

I was about to say “yes” and stopped, watching amma’s face.

Vakula is dead.

The family members gathered around her dead body in the porch and were crying in anguish. I sighed involuntarily. Vakula developed a severe stomach ache in the middle of the night and died on the way to the hospital. Vakula is  freed from her suffering at last. Varalakshmamma garu was wailing in heartrending sobs. It seems Vakula’s grandmother predicted her own death, and the mother was thinking may be Vakula also knew the time of her death. I couldn’t stand there any more and watch them. I turned around to leave. Narahari stood at the gate, shedding crocodile tears. I wanted to slap him across his face with all the might.


Vakula’s life ended like that. Don’t ask me questions like–Why did Narahari marry? Why did he squander money like that? May be, there are people who could answer the question—those who lie just for fun, ruin the lives of others for no reason, donate two rupees and have engraved the names of three generations and many more of the sorts!!


Click on manchudebba to read the Telugu original.

(Translators note:  Marital abuse leaves sensitive woman numb to shock. It is effectively comparable to frostbite which leaves no visible bruises. Even today many women are frostbitten in more subtle ways and environments. The most pathetic thing is that they are going thru all this, with benumbed existence like Vakula, in trapped conditions. I wonder sometimes–it’s like entering in to a room where all possible doors of escape are closed shut after you have entered)

The Telugu original mancudebba published in mid-sixties in rachana.)

Translated by Sai Padma Murthy (Sai Padma Anand) and published on, March 2003.


[1] Ashtapadi are light classical music. The lyrics are written by Jayadeva in the 12th century, known as “Geetagovinda kavyam” are very popular in Andhra Pradesh.

[2] Traditional first step in arranged marriages. The groom and his parents visit the bride at her place.

[3] One of the Ashtapadis mentioned above in footnote 1.

[4] Khadga Tikkana is a famous war hero in the 13th century. According to the legend, Tikkana, came to be known as Khadga [sword] Tikkana, went to war and returned home fearing death. His wife Chanamma challenges his manhood. Thus provoked, Tikkana returns to the battlefield and dies a heroic death. Customarily, the wife of  a hero earns the eternal reputation as veerapatni, literally hero’s wife.

[5] In the coastal area, Andhra Pradesh, mango pickles are dried in the sun in summer time, for safekeeping year round.

[6] Aththa ki choopu chetu, kodaliki mopu chetunu!, a usage emphasizing she is useless and worth less!!

[7] Popular Telugu usage oka kanchamlo tini oka manchamlo padukunevaaLLam implies close friendship.

[8] A folklore. Paramanandayya was supposedly a teacher who had pupils that were classic examples of stupidity.

[9] A vow made to the God in exchange for granting the favor of good health to Vakula. The particular vow requires the family to present the Lord with one complete set of jewelry, head to toe, on behalf of the devotee [Vakula in this case].

[10] Author vaguely remembers these lines being taken from “A Room of One’s Own,” by Virginia Woolf.

[11]  The Telugu proverb arthaayushkudaina koDuka, aidothanam leni koothura is supposed to have been asked of a woman praying the Almighty Lord for a child.

[12] In the epic Ramayana, Vibheeshana was the brother of Ravana, the evil king. Vibheeshana was a devotee of Rama, and sold out his brother to Rama in the name of justice.  Although his act was justified in the name of protecting the innocent, the act in itself is still heinous at one level.

[13] Red powder used for the dot on the forehead by Hindus.

[14] Jada Bharata – A mythological character, known for his detachment. According to the legend, he was totally distanced from all worldly bonds. But at one time took pity on a baby deer that was hurt, took her in, nursed her and in the process became emotionally involved. He was required to be borne again in order to settle the debt. The story is usually told as an example to instill the value of detachment. In this context, the reference is to Vakula’s state of being unaware of the happenings around her.

All I Wanted was to Read by Nidadavolu Malathi

 Balaiah brought in the day’s mail, stamped the date on each piece, put them in the tray, and left.

 Kamala, a Telugu lecturer, from a local college, was in the chair, across from me. She came to borrow some books, from our library. I was going through the mail, Balaiah brought in.

“Wherever did you get this fellow,” Kamala said, watching him leave quietly.

“What do you mean?” I said, casually.

Balaiah started here a month ago. I didn’t find anything wrong with him, as far as I could see.

“Is he behaving?” Kamala threw in a second question, adding to the first.

I didn’t care to respond. During the course of my service, the one thing I have learned is – some people are careless at first, and then come around; then, there are others, who would start like fireworks and then dawdle away. Some people would listen to a few; and throw a tantrum in the presence of others.

Kamala continued, “He used to work for us, until he was twelve years old.”

“Then, what happened?” I asked, feeling obliged to say something.

“We threw him out; he was acting like a jerk.”

Kamala appeared to be more interested in belittling Balaiah than in the books she came for. Her rambling didn’t make much sense to me; but I managed to gather, that Balaiah started working for them, at the age of 8. At first, he was all fired up, would jump on it, even before, the line was finished. After a couple of years, however, he started playing hooky; was disappearing for a precious few hours, in the morning, and, again, in the mid-afternoon. He, never, had an explanation, for this fudging; it was as if the word accountability was not in his books. He wouldn’t change his habit, either…

“May be, he was looking for some fun. He was, just, a kid at the age of ten, you know,” I said, looking for an explanation myself.

“The fellow has no sense of responsibility, not interested in hard work; and that’s all there is to it,” Kamala said.

THAT was amusing to me. I couldn’t help, thinking about all the fanfare around her ‘walk to work’. Short of a palanquin, it was a royal parade–her walking to the college, just about two hundred yards– she, carrying a parasol, wearing sunglasses, her face glistening with Ponds cream, her father on her side, and a servant behind her, carrying her books… Whoever could be better qualified if not Kamala to comment on hard work?

“We hired him to help us, and it was more like we were attending on him. So, we let him go,” Kamala said, again.

We went to the stacks, Kamala picked up the books, she needed, and we returned to my office. Balaiah was waiting, with two cups of coffee. I gave him the books, and told him, to have them checked out in my name.

Kamala thanked me for the books and the coffee, and left.

I had better things to do than worry about Balaiah; I didn’t give much thought to Kamala’s comments. In the following few days, however, I couldn’t help myself; I was paying special attention to Balaiah; like, an involuntary reaction. A couple of times I went to his section. I was checking upon him.

One day, I caught him reading a book. “We didn’t hire you, to read books, you know,” I said. There was no need for me to be so harsh.

“Sorry, madam,” Balaiah said, looking down. After that incident, I went to his section several times, but never saw him, with a book, again.

I got busy, with new grants; and, I had no time, to check upon Balaiah; he could be reading, singing, or dancing, for all I knew.

Then, the trouble surfaced again. “Balaiah is not paying attention to work, madam,” his supervisor complained, one day.

“What happened?”

“He was sleeping, in the section, during working hours. I woke him up, and questioned. He says, he went to a late night show, and so, was a kind of dozed off.”

I told him to send Balaiah to me. The supervisor went away, and sent Balaiah to my office.

“Is it true, that you were sleeping in the section,” I asked him, straight.

“Nodded off, just for a second, madam,” he said.

“I am not asking you, whether you nodded, or, slept like a log. I am asking you, what were you doing, during library hours. You can watch all the three shows on the same day, for all I care. But, you must attend to the library work, during library hours,” I said.

“I didn’t go to the movies, madam,” Balaiah said.

I was ruffled. “That is beside the point. If, I hear a complaint, again, I will have to take action. Do you understand? Go back to work.”

Balaiah left, without a word. Something was telling me that I should believe him; what if he were telling the truth?

The supervisor, however, continued to complain. I talked to Balaiah, several times. He never talked back to me. The supervisor says Balaiah was rude to him.

How can I ask Balaiah, “Are you rude to your supervisor?” or,  “What are your reasons, for being rude to your supervisor?”

One day, Balaiah, took a day off, saying, he had a splitting headache. The supervisor said, Balaiah was lying and that, the real reason was, a new movie was released on that day.

“Mr. Rama Rao, remember the Pancatantra story[1]? The ever-suspecting person is never happy,” I mentioned, suggesting he should learn to be open-minded.

“Okay, madam,” he said, and left.

That evening, on my way to shopping, I saw Balaiah at the movie theater, in the line, for one-rupee tickets. Balaiah saw me, and looked away. My trust in Balaiah went down by a shade.

The medical college warden, Dr. Gopal, came to see me. He saw Balaiah, and said, “You’d better be careful, he is light-fingered.”

“Fill me in,” I said.

In my mind, we should not call a needle and a spike, by the same name, although, by nature, the two serve similar purpose.

“You didn’t notice anything missing, around here?”

“Not to my knowledge,” I said.

“How is his work?”

I did not like this line of questioning. To speak the truth, may be, there were some lapses in the smallest of things, but, I never found any grounds for complaint. He never refused any job assigned to him, not even when it wa beyond his call of duty; there were no indications, that he was expecting any cash rewards, either.

“So, how do you know him?” I asked Dr. Gopal.

It seems Balaiah was working in the medical college dorm, before joining our staff. At the dorm, he was hired to help the chef in the kitchen. Within a few days, they found out, that he was stealing rice, and so, fired him. Gopal said, he had seen, with his own eyes, the man, who saw, with his own eyes, Balaiah stealing rice! I couldn’t follow his logic. Gopal, himself, did not catch him in the act; he only saw the man, who claims to have seen…

Why would Balaiah steal rice? Did he steal anything else? Was there any other occasion to confirm such suspicions? No, Gopal didn’t think it was necessary to go into such minutiae…

I, however, wanted to discuss the matter, with the Principal, and ask him to transfer Balaiah to another department, if possible. I went to the Principal.

The Principal did not see it my way. He argued that, if Balaiah wanted to steal books, he could do so, while working in another department, as well; he also lectured to me, on the beauty of handing over, the keys to a thief. I couldn’t convince him of my reasons, and so I left. I never told the supervisor to keep an eye on Balaiah.

A few days later, I reassigned Balaiah, to my office. He was good; actually, was great, in getting a job done. He amazed me with his unusual skills. For example, at one time there was a kerosene shortage in town. Even the people in power, like the senior doctor and the district judge, could not get a liter of kerosene, for all the muscle, they could pull. Balaiah got me a whole tin, in a heartbeat; there was not a thing– sugar, rice, reservations in trains, permits from the city office, not a thing, Balaiah could not conjure up, if asked. At the same time, the things, I heard from the elite of our township, were anything, but pleasant.

“He has no respect for work.”

“He is a crook.”

“He is a loner; eats at a shelter, and sleeps on the sidewalk. Keep an eye on him.”

“I didn’t find anything wrong with him,” I’d try to argue with them, but to no avail. They all reminded me of another Pancatantra story, and said, “You know, the rice grits are not thrown around, without a good reason.”[2]

I was sure of one thing, Balaiah never expected a reward from me, wouldn’t take it, even when I offered it, on my own.

Summer vacation started. All the students went home.

It was two years, since I joined the college. We never conducted stock verification. I issued necessary instructions to the staff, and left for my hometown. I took a leave of absence for two weeks.

I returned after two weeks, and found out, that Balaiah was suspended. I was stunned.


Stock verification was completed; and twenty-five books were found missing. The Principal ordered Balaiah, to stay away from the library, until I returned, and submitted my report.

Balaiah never showed up, not even, after my return. I sent a couple of peons to look for him. They couldn’t find him, anywhere.

I couldn’t believe that Balaiah would steal twenty-five books, but what can I do without him to offer an explanation.

I took the list of missing books, and tried to locate them, one more time. We could find ten books. In addition, eight more books were accounted for. For a number of years, the Principal, the college correspondent, and the committee members, were in the habit of jotting down titles of books on slips of paper, with a request, to send the books to their homes; but they never cared to return them to the library. They could keep the books, for any length of time. Two more weeks passed, by the time, this much was clarified. No sign of Balaiah!

Since it was my duty, I prepared a report, and submitted to the Principal. Seven books were missing. My heart felt a jab, when I heard that the college committee reported it to the police; Balaiah was the prime suspect. There was no mention of the books, borrowed by the committee members. Nobody cared to raise questions, like, when was the last time a stock verification done? Is it possible, that some of the books were lost, long before Balaiah, and I started working, here? What can I say? This kind of reasoning is unhealthy for the likes of me.

The police acted upon the report from the committee members; did their duty, and located the little hut, in which Balaiah was living. It was on the outskirts, six miles away from the town. The police asked us, me and the Principal, to accompany him, to identify our property.

The thatched door fell, at the slightest touch. I looked around. There were very few items, in that little hut. An old lungi[3], a shirt, and a pair of pants, were hanging from a loosely tied rope; a clay pot, an aluminum tumbler, were kept in a corner; and near the door, on one side, there was a kerosene lamp, a few books, a pen.

“Will you, please, check the books, madam,” The Sub Inspector suggested.

I was feeling a bitter taste in my mouth. I sat down to look at the books. The Sub Inspector was explaining to the Principal, that, he had seen, during his service, any number of fellows “doing this kind of business”; he has seen them all, he said.

I was looking at the titles, one by one– “War and Peace”, “Crime and Punishment”, Krishnapaksham[4], Gonaganna Reddy[5], Allo Neredu[6], and Krishnatheeram.[7] For a few moments, I forgot about the question, how Balaiah got these books; I was so pleased with his taste! I was also feeling relieved, that none of the books carried our library stamp. I opened the notebook that was lying next to the books. My heart quivered, as I started reading the quotes, jotted down in the notebook…

aidu rekula deepakalikanu

  aarpa juchedarevvaru

 taarakaa nava taila binduvulaara nicchune brathuku divvenu?

 [Whoever would want to stifle the pentagonal luminary of life?

Would the bursting beams of celestial bodies permit the extinction of life’s glow?]

 vraatha vrasedu hasthammu vraasi

  kadali vraayuchunu povuchunda

 a vraathaloni pankti sagamaina

 mari raddu paracha levu 

 [The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,

Moves on; nor all your Piety nor Wit

Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line

Nor all your Tears ash out a Word of it – Rubayait of Omar Khayyam][8]

kanne evato chanipoyi

   mannu kaaga

  poochinadi summu

  aa mallepoovu sogasu

 [A little maid died and turned into dust; thus blossomed the elegance of this jasmine flower]

I could hardly contain my excitement. Is Balaiah a scholar of this caliber? Are these books, really, his?

“Yes, madam?” Sub Inspector, alerted me, about the job on hand.

“Yes,” I said, as I put down the notebook, and picked up the last one, “veyi paDagalu”[9] (Thousand Hooded Cobra). I opened the book. Suddenly, the page looked hazy; it carried our library stamp, and there was no indication that it was checked out. A small piece of paper was in the book, as a bookmark.

“Only, this one book, belongs to our library,” I said, as I got up.

I was hoping and praying that this would not happen, but it did. I was annoyed, God knows, at what. At a distance, somebody was slaughtering a pig, and, her harrowing cries were turning my stomach.

“I can’t take this anymore. Let’s go, please” I begged the Principal.

After returning home, from Balaiah’s hut, I couldn’t focus on anything for a couple of days. I kept thinking, and something else occurred to me. A couple of times, when I was looking for a specific book in the library, the book was not on the shelf, nor checked out; and, after one or two days, the book would, reappear, mysteriously, on the shelf. Nobody could explain such disappearance, and reappearance of books. Now, I found some quotes from those very books. There was one more angle to it; the list of missing books did not contain the title “veyi paDagalu”, we found in Balaiah’s hut. Is it possible, that Balaiah was “borrowing without authorization”, and returning them, after he finished reading? A tall order!

Apart from all this, one important question, the most intriguing part, was Balaiah’s scholarship and sophistication; could Balaiah read books like “veyi paDagalu”? And nobody knew about it?

The police could not find Balaiah. The college committee concluded that Balaiah stole all the twenty-five books; his current month’s paycheck was credited towards the cost of the books; and he was fired from his job.

I couldn’t dismiss my thoughts, that easily, however. I kept thinking about the books in his hut, and the quotes in his notebook, and wondering, what a great scholar he could have become, only if he had the opportunity?

I was convinced, eventually, that I would never see Balaiah, again, not until after three years.

I saw him in Madras, while I was looking for some rare and out-of-print books. In Madras, there is a place called Moore Market, a kind of flea market, where we can find all the things, we can’t find anywhere else.

I was strolling down the street, and saw Balaiah, walking towards me. Actually, he saw me, walked toward me, with a big smile, and said, “namaste,” raising one hand. Lately, it has become common to raise one hand and say, “namaste”, a hybrid variety of Western salutation and Eastern way of folding both hands. That amused me.

Balaiah, lifted one hand, and said, “namaste, madam”. I was thrilled to see him; it was like, finding a long-lost, little brother, after many years. I couldn’t speak for a few seconds.

“How are you?” I asked him, feeling, genuinely, happy.

“I am fine, madam,” he replied politely. Then, he showed me a second-hand bookstore round the corner, and said that he owned it.

Suddenly, I heard a thump in my heart. Almost involuntarily, the Sub Inspector’s words flashed across my mind.

Balaiah didn’t notice my waning enthusiasm.

“Please, come, madam, see my store,” he extended a warm invitation, zealously.

I followed him, making a desperate attempt, at some small talk.

I started browsing his collection. I must give it to him; his collection was impressive. I asked him for the price list.

“Take whatever you want, madam,” he said politely.

I continued to browse, and said, “How do you get all these books,” and then, I bit my tongue. I shouldn’t have said that.

Balaiah laughed. “They are not stolen, madam,” he said. His words lashed out in my face.

“No, Balaiah, I mean…” I fumbled for words.

“I am sorry, madam, I am not blaming you. I heard, what happened at the college after I left. But, I do want to assure you, that, contrary to the belief of you all, I did not steal those books…”

I noticed, for the first time, that, Balaiah was articulate; he was making a conscious effort to speak the language of the polite society.

I was listening.

He continued, “It’s true, I took that book, “veyi paDagalu”, without your permission, like several other books, I admit that; but, I did not steal it. I would have returned it, after I finished reading. To tell you the truth, that was my last resort; I wanted to read, so badly. I would have borrowed, if only, we, Class IV employees[10], also, had the borrowing privileges, like everybody else. I had to find a way; I wanted to read so badly. I was always interested in reading, as long as I could remember. Kamala [11]garu said I was ducking work. That was not true. A new branch library opened in our town, and I used to go to the library to read, during my spare time. I never really ducked work. I was going to the library, only after I finished all my chores; and, that was not good enough for them. At the medical college, I was not fired; I quit. I saw an opportunity in your library, and, I hoped, that a job at the library, would give me an opportunity to read…”

“And, I didn’t make it any easier for you, either,” I said.

Balaiah smiled, embarrassed a little. “No, madam. You were right; Like you said, you did not hire me for my reading pleasure. It was bad enough I could not borrow books because I was a Class IV employee. I tried asking others, to get the books checked out, in their name. Can you imagine what they would say? And, the way in which they say it? They would look at me, those funny looks, you know, and say, “You? Want to read? These books?” So, may be, I was wrong, but, couldn’t help myself. I did not steal any books. I took that one book, “veyi paDagalu”, without your knowledge, but, I did not steal it; I would have returned it, after I finished reading.”

I could feel his consuming desire to read. I could understand his method, his last resort, to satisfy his thirst for books. His plan did not work, not for long. So, he ran away to Madras, started out as an errand boy in a second-hand bookstore, became a partner, and, eventually, opened his own store. What an accomplishment!

“I am so glad for you, Balaiah! I am proud of you. Now, you are not accountable to anybody. You can read all you want,” I said, feeling genuinely, happy for him.

Balaiah laughed. “That is the funny part, madam. Now, the books are only commodity for me. I don’t feel like reading, not any more than a candy man enjoys his candy.”


(Author’s note:  System is a mark of civilization. We pride ourselves on creating rules, and following the system to the letter, while the very persons, for whose benefit the rules are created, pay the price–all in the name of the same game, called the system.

In 1960, late Abburi Ramakrishna Rao garu, a well-known poet, and ex-librarian, quipped about the literary pursuits of librarians. I owe my last line in the story, –comparing librarians to candy men– to Ramakrishna Rao garu.)

This story, was originally published in Andhra Jyoti Weekly, 10 April 1970, under the title trushna and was awarded a special prize in 1970 Telugu New Year Short Story Competition.

The translation by author has been published on, June 2002.)



[1] Pancatantra is a collection of fables in Sanskrit literature, dating back to 500 A.D.

[2] Pancatantra story. The Telugu line reads: “kaaraNamu leka nookalu callabaDavu kadaa!”

[3] See glossary under dhoti

[4] A popular book of poetry, by a well-known, romantic poet, Devulapalli Krishna Sastry.

[5] A historical fiction, by Adivi Bapiraju (1895-1952)

[6] A novel by Malladi Ramakrishna Sastry (1905-1965)

[7] A novel by Malladi Ramakrishna Sastry (1905-1965)

[8] Edward Fitzgerald’s translation. English rendering for other quotes mine.

[9] A famous novel, by eminent writer, Viswanatha Satyanarayana (1895-1976)

[10] Unskilled employees like peons and office boys fall under the category Class IV employees. They would not be promoted to higher level, unless they pass high school examination, and obtain the diploma.

[11] See glossary under garu.

P. Saraladevi (Review) by P. Satyavathi

A prominent bi-weekly magazine Telugu Swatantra magazine, run by Khasa Subba Rao in the nineteen fifties and sixties and later by Gora Sastry and Sridevi until its closure, used to welcome new writers amicably. Magazines in those days used to encourage young writers regardless of their repute.

Saraladevi who has won readers’ hearts even with her early stories, published many of her stories in Telugu Swatantra. She also wrote an essay, “oka prasasti” [one tribute] on the novel Kalaateeta vyaktulu by Dr. P. Sridevi. Saraladevi’s first story, “baava chuupina bratukubaata” has been published in Prajatantra in December 1955. Her first anthology, Kumkuma rekhalu, has been published in 1956. About seven or eight stories she had published previously in Telugu Swatantra are not included in the anthology Kumkuma rekhalu.

The stories included in Kumkuma rekhalu were originally broadcast on All India Radio in series. Her narrative technique and language are soft befitting her name (Sarala literally means soft). At the time Syamasundari, who had a sweet voice and an imitable modulation, lent her voice to the narration, making them even more fascinating. The stories were received very well.

The cover page of the second edition of Kumkuma rekhalu holds mirror to the ripeness the writer had achieved both as a writer and as a person.

Saraladevi started writing fiction in 1955 and wrote mostly in the sixties and seventies. In 1977, her second anthology of short stories was published. In 1979, her short novel Komma, bomma [A Woman, A Doll] was published in the monthly Yuva. Later, she published two novels—komma, bomma and an unpublished short novel Chiguru [Tender shoot] written in 2004 as one book. She also published Telugu samethalu, saanghika chitrana [Telugu proverbs, a portrayal of society] a critical study in 1986. Her poetry has been published in Telugu Swatantra and other magazines. She also collaborated with six female writers on two serial novels, Shanmukhapriya and Saptapadi.

The anthology Kumkuma rekhalu, includes eight stories and a preface by Gora Sastry, editor of Telugu swatantra. The second anthology Saraladevi kathalu contains ten stories.

In the story “Kumkuma rekhalu”, the life of a young woman named Hemalatha is illustrated as it develops from innocence and straightforwardness to acquiring worldly wisdom, understanding ways of the world and living without hurting herself or others in the process. The narration is realistic and facetious.

Hemalatha, who had grown up watching the financial circumstances in her natal home and the way they handled the funds, came to believe that after she had her own home and family she would be prudent with their money and would save. She believes that, if they save, they would not have to take out loans; she has been waiting for that day.  She is happy when her husband keeps a little pocket money and gives the rest of his salary to her and tells her to manage the household. Soon enough she realizes that saving in low-income families meant only managing without taking out a loan and stays focused on that. With her straightforward attitude she gets into troubles, and later learns that worldly wisdom is necessary to mingle with others, and to adopt the philosophy of avoiding hurting others or getting herself hurt. Finally, she gets her husband say, “you’re okay”.

Hemalatha was interested in taking the B.A. exam by private study. She had the habit of reading books. She was also used to keeping her books safe. Parthasarathi is the kind of husband who understands her mode of thinking. Therefore, she has no gender-related issues.

Almost all of the eighteen stories in the two anthologies by Saraladevi are woven around women’s lives, especially the middle and lower class women. Saraladevi began with the themes of thriftiness and living streetwise in her early stories. In her later stories, she puts to discussion some serious issues such as women’s sexuality, marital relationships, and some pleasures in life both men and women are losing because of the special qualifications and duties imposed by society.

Saraladevi started writing at a time when higher education for women just started. It was the time when the middle class families still believed that seeking jobs by women was dishonorable for the families; the time when girls barely eighteen were married because marriage was the only goal for women. This situation was not prevalent in all classes though. Among the wealthy families and the families inspired by various reform movements, interest in women’s education was shaping up. We can see this interest in the story Saraswatulanu cheyyabote” [While trying to make them goddesses of learning] by Saraladevi.

A young man with progressive views attempts to make his younger sister a doctor or marry her to a doctor. The younger sister disappoints him and chooses to marry a man with an ordinary job. The brother hopes to send at least her daughter to school but that girl also follows the same route as her mother. The story kuuthullu [Daughters] depicts the financial burdens the middle class families have to bear for daughters’ deliveries and highlights the need for daughters to act responsibly.

In “tirigina malupu” [Turning around], the author emphasizes the importance of space between husband and wife, regardless how close the two persons may be. Her description of the little jealousies amidst the familial affections among the family members is depicted realistically.

We see a clear-cut progress in the stories from the first anthology to the second anthology. In the later stories, we see distinct clarity in the author’s views on life and the relationships between men and women.

We see Saraladevi’s gender-related understanding not only in the ten stories included in the second anthology Saraladevi kathalu (1977) but also in the stories published in Bhumika and in Nurella panta. The stories, “oka inti katha, “vaadi kommulu”, “bhinnatvamlo ekatvam”, “pechi”, “marri needalo”, reflect Saraladevi’s philosophy of life  and perception of the world.

In the story “oka inti katha” the mother, who lives by the traditional shatkarmayukta principles and manages the household, tells her daughter that that is the dharma for a woman. The daughter is surprised; she asks, “Is one person such a burden to another, mother?” meaning her mother may have carried the weight of those shatkarma tenets but she cannot. This story helps us understand the mode of changes and the mentality of questioning which started developing in young women during that period. In “stri”, the parents, because of poverty, arrange Santha’s marriage with Govindu who is deaf and uneducated. Her relatives give her signals suggesting she should satisfy her physical desires and even ask her directly to give herself in to them. Santha understands her situation, tells them that deafness does not come in her way to live with her husband, sets up a tailoring shop by way of supplemental income for her husband’s bicycle shop, bears two children and raises them well. However, when her son marries a girl from a rich family and leaves home, she is hurt as if he has died. Santha is a woman who abides by the decision her adults had made for her future, accepts their decision silently, and makes her place where she ended up livable.

Vaadi kommulu” holds mirror for Saraladevi’s opinions on man-woman relationship. In the past, mothers-in-law used to quote the saying mundocchina chevula kante venakocchina kommulu vaadi, [The horns which grew later are sharper than the ears which came first]. This refers to a touch of jealousy the the mother suffers from when a son shows affection for his wife. The young man in this story explains the logic and says, “Yes, that is true. They are sharper.”  He says, “Probably only in India we have this question—who is more important in a man’s life—mother or wife? Several books and movies raised the question—whether husband is preferable to son in a woman’s life, and proclaimed that choosing husbands as opposed to sons is the philosophy of an ideal woman. We saw that and clapped. Following the same logic, why don’t they clap when man chooses wife to be more important in his life?” He says further, “Uncle, can you imagine a husband-wife relationship filled with friendship? I know you can’t. In it, there is no question of more or less feeling, no question of heads or tails. I wish it is like home is heaven. The horns which grow later are sharp for sure, whether you accept it or not.” He suggests that a man should make his life pleasurable by loving and respecting his life-partner, without ignoring his duty towards his parents and should set aside their overzealous wishes at the same time.

bhinnatvamlo ekatvam” is about two women who refuse to leave their husbands, even when they are being ill-treated by them. One woman is an uneducated rustic woman. The second woman has more opportunities than anybody could ever provide for her. Yet she would not divorce her husband. The ending lines Saraladevi gives for this story are: If women who provoke their wicked husbands, can we say they are wicked too? What do they accomplish by this kind of decision? It feels like a terrible truth is obvious, only vaguely though. If that is true, where are they heading?

In the same story, her uncle tells to the second woman, “Maybe the world would not appreciate when a woman divorces and remarries but history appreciates it. Is it not better to burn up as a splinter in a healthy fight rather than burning vainly?”

In “pechi”, the father is unable to pay dowry. He learns that his daughter and a young man Harikishan are friends. Father, being unable to ask Harikishan to marry his daughter, spreads rumors about them and manages to perform their wedding on the sly. The son-in-law learns about this ploy and prohibits his wife from visiting her natal home ever again. The point is women have no right to make any decisions. The persons who have made decisions and played with the daughter/wife’s life are both men. “marri chettu” depicts the story of the only son/younger brother who feels suffocated by the affection poured on him by his mother and older sisters. He comes to realize that as long as he is stuck in their possessiveness in the name of excessive love, he has no shot at a real happy life with his wife and applies for transfer at his workplace.

Two novelettes or long stories of Saraladevi also depict the turmoil in two women’s lives. Both the women in both the novelettes belong to lower middle class.

In “chiguru”, Vimala, due to their poor circumstances, is married to a much older man, Ramapathi. He has been married twice before and father of five. Even at the time of pelli chupulu [initial meeting for arranging the wedding], he has made clear that he was marrying only for the sake of children. To that end, he leaves the five children to her lot and washes his hands off of them. He does not even look at her. Ramapathi has a peculiar temperament. He never tells directly what he wants to say but creates a huge scene. The others in the home just have to understand his mind and behave accordingly. His eldest son Hari, who is about Vimala’s age, is the only one who understands her. He is Ramapathi’s first wife’s son. The other children were born to his second wife. The second wife had put up with all his trashy occupations and managed the household effectively. Vimala’s mother, Ramanamma, learns that Vimala has turned into a cook and nanny for the children. She also believes that unfulfilled physical desires in a woman are a huge flaw and that Vimala has been deceived; she dies brokenhearted, dwelling on her daughter’s fate. Ramanamma was a child widow. A Young man named Ranga Rao sympathized with her situation. Ramanamma was attracted to him. With the help of friends, they got married in another town. Ramanamma believed (author believed) that the physical needs are not different for women from men and the nature exercises the same kind of sway on both but the tradition has tightened the harness only on women. For that reason, she tormented over the fact that they (she and the other adults in the family) had done injustice to Vimala. Ramapathi’s son Hari guesses his father’s intent correctly. His father needs a woman physically but does not know how to get it. He does not even know how to treat his wife properly. He is incapable of reaching out to her directly, befriending her gently, enticing her sweetly, and capturing her attention happily. Society has killed that skill in men. It has killed that skill in men by according the rights to them on a woman in the name of marriage, providing several venues, and by strapping woman in the name of pativratyam [ritualistic devotion to husband]. The author states in the words of Hari how the rights acquired through patriarchal system distanced men from the feelings natural to human beings.

In the novelette, Komma bomma¸ father arranges Manga’s wedding while she is still in school. The husband runs away on the wedding night. Mother-in-law blames Manga for the incident. Manga, without understanding what “first night” meant or why her husband ran away, takes the accusations quietly. Her mother agonizes over the injustice done to her daughter and dies. Father is ruined financially. Manga, with the help of a friend’s mother Kamalamma, finishes school, becomes a school teacher. She also shoulders the responsibility of raising her sister’s children after sister’s death. Eventually, she decides to marry Ananda Rao, co-teacher in the same school. In that inopportune moment, a stupid young man shows up with his grandmother and claims he is her husband that ran away previously. The neighbors band together and pass judgments on her. They preach women’s dharma to her and suggest she should take him back. They stress the need of man’s support for a woman. Nobody really knows whether that man is real or fake. Earlier, her sister’s husband tried to assault her and when she refused, threatened her, “Watch what I can do to you.” Manga is tormented with the thoughts, “Who gave these people the right to come on to my porch and pass judgments on my life? My life is slipping away through my fingers constantly and ending up in someone else’s hands. I have to live on the goodwill of how many people?” At the end, Manga breathes freely after the two persons (the stranger and his grandmother) absconded secretively.

Saraladevi tells how much turmoil the institution of marriage is creating in women’s lives, and how even the educated women with earning power also are entangled in this system. The male characters—Hari in chiguru, Ananda Rao, Gopi, and Ranga Rao in komma, bomma are men with conscience. Ramanamma, Kamalamma, and Rama are astute women.                    

Saraladevi, who understood women’s internal struggles, slowed her writing activity in the seventies. Had she continued, the gender awareness in women which developed in the eighties might have helped her to write more good stories. As Mrunalini states in her preface to the novelettes of Saraladevi, “Saraladevi is a writer who should be writing even more.”

Saraladevi is older sister of Seela Subhadradevi (poet) and a friend of Dr. Sridevi (fiction writer).

Saraladevi was born in 1937 and died in 2007.


(The original article in Telugu has been published in, October 2010.)

(Translated by Nidadavolu Malathi and published on, March 2011.)

The Long Awaited Moment (story) by P. Saraladevi

Durga just started being aware of the world, and started entertaining new hopes. She was hoping she also could wear a printed frock like Padma, tie her braids with red satin ribbons, buy beautiful dolls and tease the other girls in her class, and take her books and slate in a brand new bag …

She heard her sister mentioning earlier that she would be turning six the next day. Durga went into the kitchen, and kept pulling her mother’s sari palloo. Durga was nagging her mother that she wanted a new frock with printed flowers for her birthday.

Mother got vexed and yelled at her, “We’ll see. You can tell Nanna after he came home. Now, go out.”

Durga ran out, looked up and down the street for Nanna, and went back to the kitchen. “When will Nanna come home?”

“He’ll be home for food for sure, if not anything else.”

“When will that be?” Durga asked, a little scared of mother’s reaction.

“Aren’t you going to ever stop this fussing? Just go, or else. Kantam, get your sister,” Her mother called out for her older daughter.

Durga was scared of her mother’s anger, left the scene quickly, went, and sat down on the front porch.

In her tender heart, several hopes were forming around the printed frock. I need to get a frock, much nicer than Padma’s. She teased me yesterday since I didn’t have one like hers. Why should I keep quiet? I told her I had two such frocks. I’ll get up first thing in the morning, go to the store with Nanna and buy a frock, a gorgeous one!

Durga fell asleep right there on the porch, dreaming about her new frock. Mother came out and tried to wake her up but couldn’t. She picked her up and took her to the bedroom.

Durga woke up in the morning, went straight to her sister and asked, “Where is Nanna?”

“He’s not home yet,” akka replied.

Durga went to her mother and asked, “Amma, my frock.”

“What frock, you and your stupid frock. You’re chewing me up,” she yelled.

Durga went away to her room, crying. Just then, father walked in, ranting, “abbha, what a nuisance. Children are scuffling around, no sign of peace in the house.”

Durga rushed to him, wound around his legs and said, “Nanna, won’t you buy me a printed frock?”

“Stop fussing! Just go, you need a frock, hum. Nasty place, hell’s better. Nobody seems to think that I need to have peace of mind; man of the house needs some peace and quiet after a hard day’s work. The children are let loose like a herd of bulls to attack me,” he said harshly.

With that, mother snapped. “You brought home nothing, and yet you say you’re tired! Yeah, tired of what? Playing cards? The woman is expected to treat her husband royally, even it meant go begging. What a miserable life!”

This had been quite common at their house for as long as she, Durga could remember. So she did not pay attention to the brawl. All she needed was a frock. She went to her father and started crying. Father slapped her. She wound up in a corner and went on sobbing.

Mother whined, “You’ll have any sum to squander on gambling but not for us. Stupid life, can’t even buy a dress for our little child; poor thing she had to ask and even then there is no hope.”

Durga could not control herself. She wanted a printed frock. She would never ask for anything else ever again, not even for a second frock. Just for this once … a frock with floral prints. She would even give away the color box, she was so fond of, and all the slate pencils she had been collecting for years. She would pick the guava fruits from the tree in their backyard and give them to whoever wanted them. Just one frock, that’s all she longed for.

Durga went on crying. Akka came and talked to her. Annayya came and tried to talk some sense into her. Durga did not stop crying. He spanked her. Mother came and tried to coax her. Still Durga did not budge from her place. “All right. I will use one of my saris, and have a frock made for you,” mother said, as a last resort to calm her down.

“Go away, I don’t want it. I’ll never ask for it again. I don’t want anything. I will not go to school, will not eat food, I don’t want anything,” she said, gasping for breath.

“Go to hell, you stubborn idiot,” mother snarled and spanked her.

Durga never cried again. And she never expressed such a wish again. As she grew older, she understood her predicament better.

Father had gotten used to gambling all his earnings and returning home empty-handed. Mother kept fighting with father, and managing the household with the little change, which father would throw at her occasionally. Akka was growing up but lacking in decorum; she was running around shabbily for want of better food and clothing. Annayya was roaming around in town and returning home only to eat. Her younger sister knew nothing except to cry when she was hungry; or else, falling asleep. Durga was growing up amidst this array of people.

Occasionally, she would want to ask mother for something, but could not bring herself up to it. Her classmates talked about so many things, and what they had got as gifts at somebody’s wedding. She would stare at them, trying to swallow the bad feeling in her mouth. What if somebody gave her a present like that? What if somebody pulled her closer and said that he or she would buy a dress for our Durga just once?

Even the simple thought was exhilarating for her. Is it possible that at the time of akka’s wedding they possibly could have a dress made for her? Would they say this is for our Durga? Hope! Durga kept dreaming about her sister’s wedding just for that one reason.

One day her mother told ten-year old Durga, “Tomorrow akka is getting married.”

Durga wanted to say, “what about new clothes,” but she couldn’t.

The following day, they all went to the temple, wearing clean, washed clothes. The wedding was finished in thirty minutes. Durga could not understand what happened there. There was nothing–no new clothes, no wedding band, no eating laddu, and jilebi, and no paan.

After a week or so, Nanna yelled at annayya, and annayya ran away from home. Durga’s hopes returned to normal. She was sure that they somehow would manage to get new clothes for her. That did not happen. She thought, maybe, annayya would get a job, make money and buy new clothes for her. That did not happen either.

Durga started wearing saris now. It was her final year of high school. She would never ask anybody for anything. She would not open her mouth, no matter how much she needed something, not even when it was important. Never a word came up from her heart to her mouth. She would not let it happen. If at all, if it were a dire need, she would approach her mother furtively, and mumble, “amma, my saris are falling apart.” In that moment, tears would fill her eyes.

She never got anything unless she had asked for it. There was not a single person, who would come to her and say, “Durga, I bought this for you.” Whether she was alive or not, her father couldn’t care less. She did not know whether her brother was alive or not. Mother had been managing everything all by herself. It was the mother, who went around begging people and got help for her education. Mother wanted Durga to have a better life. What else could she ask for? She was not lucky enough to receive a gift given to her, with a few kind words such as, “I brought this for you.” There was not a single person on the entire planet who would say that to her.

Durga wanted to cry. Sometimes her friends would ask her if she had new clothes on a festive occasion; and she would say she did not buy any, hiding her hurt. She would gape desperately, when her friends approached her, wearing a new sari, new bangles, and new ribbons, and told her that her brother had brought the sari from Bangalore, or sister had brought it from Delhi, or an aunt had got it from Calcutta. On such occasions, Durga would wonder if ever in her life such a day would come. If not a sari, a piece of ribbon at least! Would there ever be a moment when she could hear the sweet words, “I brought this for you”? Could she ever be that fortunate? Sometimes, she would just imagine the moment somebody had brought something for her, and would go into raptures. Her eyes and heart would inundate with hope.

Durga finished high school. Mother and father wrangled over it, and agreed to send her for teacher training. Each day had been a struggle for Durga. Her unusual hope was growing bigger and bigger. She was feeling crushed under the wait.

After she was done with the teacher training, she took up a job. She had hopes about herself, about her income, and her own life. She received her first paycheck, and came home. Her mother said, the money was needed for her younger sister’s education, to pay off the outstanding loans, and to meet the household expenses. Crushed, she handed her entire salary to her mother. Durga understood her responsibility.

Life went on. The family’s situation was improving. Durga’s little sister was growing up. Mother’s problems were waning. Yet, Durga’s hope remained the same.

She was getting salary each month. Festive occasions were showing up in their natural course. For each festival, Durga was buying new clothes for father, mother, and little sister with her money.

Her colleague, Sakuntala asked her, “How come, you buy clothes for all of them, but not for yourself?”

Durga said, “How can I buy for myself? You tell me. Nobody says, ‘you get one for yourself.’ How could I buy clothes for myself?”

Sakuntala did not know whether to pity her or reprimand her. She would just stare at Durga.

Durga brought new clothes, gave them to all of them. She watched them and wondered if any one would ask her? At least, the little sister ask, “Why didn’t you buy for yourself”; Or, the mother ask, “How come you did not buy anything for yourself?”

No, nobody said that. Nobody cared about her. She was not fortunate enough to hear the simple words, “This is for you.” So be it. Why couldn’t they say at least, “You get a sari for yourself”? On the other hand, she overheard her mother say to her neighbor, “I don’t have to tell her. She goes out, and if she finds something that she likes, she can buy herself. Only we are stuck at home, and so rely on her mercy.”

True, she could buy for herself. She in fact had been buying things for herself. She waited and waited, hoping somebody would suggest that she buy for herself, and got tired of it. Also, her saris were worn out and she had to buy for herself.

But her little sister would not let her enjoy that either. “Your saris are nicer than mine,” she would say. That watered down whatever pleasure she could have had. Then she would not feel like wearing them anymore.

One of her colleagues showed interest in marrying Durga. He approached Durga’s father. Her father said, “We have no objection if you want to marry and take her with you. We cannot pay any dowry or anything. Also, her little sister’s education is her responsibility.”

Both the parties agreed to foot their own bills, and the wedding was performed in a temple. Durga knew only too well her father’s attitude, but she hoped that her husband might buy her a sari. After they had set up the family, her hope started sprouting again. Did he not marry her because he wanted to? The man, who had married her on his own accord, wouldn’t he bring something for her? Wouldn’t he look into her eyes lovingly and tell her he had brought something for her? Just for once, if he had done that, she would cherish it for the rest of her life. It’s enough if somebody brought her a rare, unique gift—whatever that is—but meant specifically for her, a gift that acknowledged her existence, something meant for her, and because that would make her happy … if somebody had given her that experience just once in her lifetime, she would cherish it forever. She would worship that thing with flowers for the rest of her life.

Each day, she watched her husband, his hands, and face, for that special object, specifically meant for her, for the one thing that identified as an individual in this world. Her heart would beat faster as he approached her. With a bright face, and bubbling with excitement, she would shiver head to foot. She wondered how she was going to contain herself.

Without noticing her excitement, her husband would walk past her, and change clothes and sit next to her to help her in cooking. It took one half hour for her to collect herself.

As days went by, Durga was losing even that hope. Her husband had no such thought. His activities were limited to sending money to his parents, using Durga’s income to managing the household expenses, and spending time with his friends.

Durga hoped in the early days that he would bring her flowers at least. In an attempt to alert him, she bought sandals for him once. And on another occasion, she bought him clothes. He took them and kept quiet.

Durga felt like crying. Whatever sins she might have committed in the past lifetime? What a wretched life! Not one person would think of spending not one paisa on her. Dismal penury is better compared to this life! \

Sakuntala was wearing a new sari every month. She would say that her husband bought it for her. She looked very happy and beautiful in that moment. Next-door neighbor showed her a sari; she said her mother gave it to her when she went to visit her.

“That’s nice,” Durga said. It was okay even if it were not nice. It might not be nice, but it was brought specifically, exclusively for her; isn’t that enough to feel blessed? If anybody had done that for her, she would accept the gift, no matter what, and carry it on her head.

Sometimes she would go to the flower shop to buy flower. But she would return home without flowers; she could not bring herself to watch all the men gathered around at the shop. She would be speechless whenever a neighbor showed her bangles and said her husband had brought them for her. Sometimes she would run into a colleague at some store, and he would ask her, “You are here anyway. Please, help me select a sari for my wife.” She would make some excuse and leave the place quickly.

Years passed by. Now Durga was being referred to as Durgamma. She had two sons and one daughter. By the time her son starting walking, holding on to her little finger, her hair started graying. She gained weight, and her pace slowed down.

Durgamma used to lie down on a cot in the open yard, hugging children and telling them stories. She was feeling elated as the children surrounded her, calling her amma. Their love for her gave her immense joy. As soon as she got her salary each month, first thing she would do was to attend to the children’s needs. Then only, she would turn to her other business. She was sure her children would take care of her after they had grown up. They would fulfill her wish. They would recognize her as their mother and give her gifts … so on and on.

Durgamma did not forget her one wish. One day Sakuntala showed her hairpins and said, “My daughter said that she went shopping and saw these pins, and immediately she thought of me. Aren’t they smooth and nice?” Durgamma heard it and told herself, “My daughter also will bring hairpins for me. She will.” She was excited at heart for that charming moment. “My son also will bring me something. He’s so fond of me,” she pondered joyously. She could barely wait for that moment.

Durgamma’s eldest son, Prasad, got a job in another town and left, leaving his mother behind. Her daughter got married, and even before Prasad. Now only the youngest son was living with her.

Ever since Prasad left for his job, Durgamma was waiting for him to send something for her. Would he send money? Or clothes? Maybe something unique that is available only in his town! What a long wait for that fortune to smile on her! He loves her very much. He would do anything for her, would bring whatever she wanted.

A month passed by. Durgamma received a letter from her eldest son. “I got my first paycheck. I have to pay the hotel charges, and other debts. I also need better clothes to wear. There are also a few other expenses. For all these reasons, I am not in a position to send you money for a few months. I hope you’ll understand. I am looking for a room to rent.” The letter went on these lines.

Durgamma was devastated. Is this all there is to her life? Is this her luck? Not even children could understand for who she is; could not recognize her yearning. Can’t she get anything without asking for it, specifically? Can’t she get anything unless she went herself and got it?

A huge wave of sorrow soared in her heart. Why does she have to have this desire? Why this particular desire, which she could not confide in others? Why could this little wish from her childhood days not be fulfilled even after she had grown so old? Why didn’t the wish die at least? Each and every person could have this smallest wish fulfilled but not her, why? All other desires became insignificant and disappeared but this one desire became the strongest and rooted deepest, why?

Durgamma was going around as if she were out of her wits. After months, the forty-year old Durgamma was bedridden. In just ten days, her situation took a turn for the worse. Somebody sent telegrams to her son and daughter. Her husband sat by her bedside and did not leave for a minute.

“Amma, amma, I came. See, I am here,” her son said in a choked voice.

“Amma, amma, I am Lakshmi,” her daughter was crying.

Durgamma opened her eyes with difficulty. Even then, her eyes flashed with hope.

“Durga, Durga,” her husband called her in a shivering voice. Durgamma looked at them pitiably. She looked at her son and daughter yearningly. And she closed her eyes, disappointed.

They all broke into sobs. After a half hour or so, somebody said, “The dead body must be covered with a new sari. Bring one.”

Her eldest son got up and said, “I will bring it.”

“I will bring a new saree for my mother,” he muttered to himself, pulling out his hard-earned money from his pocket.


(The Telugu original, eduru chuusina muhurtam, was published in Telugu swatantra, October 1960.

Translated by Nidadavolu Malathi and published on, July 2005.)

A Triangle by Seela Veerraju

(Narrator, talking to himself:)

Suseela is writing stories. Let her write, what do I care? But then again, should I tell myself so and keep quiet? Her stories are getting published too, you know. Just yesterday, she started writing and now she beat me to it! What are they thinking? Are they in their right mind? She showed her stories to me a few days back. Not one was good, to tell the truth. Even she didn’t know where the story was heading. No grip, no style, nothing. More like she scribbled away whatever came to her mind. And they’re getting published! A stroke of luck, I suppose. After all, a woman’s writing, who wouldn’t publish them?

Okay, she is writing fiction. And let’s say they’re indulging her ’cause she’s a woman. Darn it. Why give her the first prize in the contest? It’s not even a page and a half long. Alright, let’s say that’s okay too. I think I’ve seen it somewhere, I remember now, vaguely. I’m not going to discuss whether it is hackneyed or not. That’s not my business, I admit that. Who says two people cannot entertain the same thought.

Come to think of it, the story was not all that bad. I say it’s not a good story, maybe because I am jealous. To speak the truth, she may do very well, if she puts a little more effort into it. Let’s take the story she showed to me earlier. It’s not bad, not bad at all. The real question is how do you think she could achieve that level? She saw my writings and then she started too. At first, she did not have as many published as I did. Within a year, she was on par with me, and I pretty sure she will outdo me soon. As is, I’m afraid of getting my story rejected, and now this additional fear.

Let’s say I use a female pseudonym, but then, how would Suseela know that I wrote that story? Maybe I can tell her that it’s mine. No, that’s not going to work. I have to have at least one story published under one name and then only I can think of another name, right?

Now I don’t feel like meeting Suseela anymore, not like I used to in the past. Her story got published and that’s gotten to her head. She barely spoke three words to me the other day. She mumbled something, hardly audible, as if she had no time to talk to me. She said, “See you later. Got to go home and finish the story tonight.” She didn’t even care that a gentleman was standing next to me. Shouldn’t she have some decency? Yes, she is a writer, so what! How dare she walk away like that? Not even a writer produced ten times more would do that. She’s still raw, that’s what it is. Seeing her name in print pushed her eyes up to the sky, I guess.[1] The only way I can bring her down to the reality is to have a few of my stories published. That will stop her, she will never pick up the pen again, I am positive. Probably nobody wants my stories. I spent four days mulling over a story,  struggled two days to finish it and finally sent it to the contest. It was rejected as totally worthless.

That’s the problem. Had I not stopped writing, I’d have ten to twelve stories on my desk by now. What can I do? It’s my work at the office. I can no way get out of the office unless I worked my tail off each day. After such a hard slog, I am so beat up, how can I think of writing anything. Suseela, on the other hand, has the entire day free, from dawn to dusk. No matter how you slice it, she can easily scribble away a story a day. If I had so many facilities, not just one, I would have produced a hundred a day. I too would’ve been a notable writer by now. Then, Suseela would have come to me with her stories for my advice. Is she above the rest of the others like Ramani and Varalakshmi? How? Didn’t they all send out their stories only after I had corrected them first? Haven’t they all been published? Forget all that. Take the story she’d sent recently. Haven’t I discussed the theme and suggested a different format?

The other day she asked me to go to her house to discuss the story she was working on. I went there, read her story and gave my comments and returned home. In those days she was not like this, so conceited. And today, I ran into her in the bazaar; she barely spoke three words to me and walked away, how dare she? Let’s say she really was in the middle of a story and was in a hurry to go home and finish it. What about the next day? I went to her home for a chat. Barely I walked in, she stood up and said, “Kumari and I are on our way to the movies. You want to come?” She knew full well that I would not watch the movies. Couldn’t she go to the movies some other day? You would think that they had plans already, but that’s not the case either. Suseela said she would go to Kumari’s house, pick her up and then go to the movies. Who wouldn’t be upset under the circumstances? I was disgusted with her, after learning the whole story. I returned home, boiling inside. It chewed me up, why can’t she come to me later and offer some kind of an explanation at the least?

I couldn’t hold myself anymore. Two days back, I went and asked her, “My friends have started sahiti samiti [literary circle], Suseela, you can join too!” Despite any apprehensions she may have, she should have said yes because I asked. But, no. She gave me some lame excuse. That ticked me off. I decided not to talk to her again. Once I made up my mind, that’s the kind of person I am. Right now, I can sit down and write a story an hour, if I want to. In general, I am an easy-going person. But once I set my mind to it, that’s it, I am not the same self anymore. She’ll know soon enough what I am capable of. She’ll have to break into tears when I am done. She may be thinking she is the greatest writer on earth. I’ve seen them all, not one but thousands. Well, she put herself through hell, and managed to get one prize. I’m sure she got it ’cause she’s a woman. Just watch me, by this time next year, I’ll throw some twenty published stories of mine in her face.

(Talking to Suseela:)

Who’s that? You, Suseela? What, lost your way and ended up here? You’ve forgotten me, haven’t you? You are a great [woman] writer. How can you find time for folks like me? Probably don’t even remember me. You need all the time for your writing–to come up with a theme, to stretch it with all the twists and turns like kondaveeti rope[2], fair copy it, and then mail it–that’s a lot. How could you have time for me? You have no life beyond you and your stories, I suppose. Will you ever get out of the bounds of those four walls? Even if you stepped out, probably some friend of yours would come and snatch you away to a movie or something. No question of seeing me, right? If you ever find some free time and think of me, then again, you’d say “not now” and pass it up. If I swallow my pride and come to you, even then, you’d speak barely a word or two and walk away quickly. I must admit, I’m surprised to see you here now. Maybe you’re running some errand and stopped here for a second. Maybe you thought it would not be nice not to see me, having come all this way; or, just thought, “might as well …”?

Okay, for whatever reason, you’re here. Like a monkey grabbing a coconut,[3] I have no choice but ask you to sit down. Unlike you, I don’t have any friends to drag me to a movie or something. So, sit down and talk away as long as you like. I am all ears, and have the time to while away. These Sundays you know, I am so totally free, from the moment I got up to the moment I am back in bed. I can fill the time with writing but then again I would rather rest, after six long days of toiling in the office. You, on the other hand, have all the 364 days in a year at your disposal. You can write just to kill the time. How is it possible that for me? A gem needs polish to shine. You keep on writing and your style improves. People like me write once in a blue moon, where is the room for improvement? Anyway, I wrestle with it for a few days, fair copy it and send it to some magazine, and guess what, I’ll wait for two more months before I knew it’s fate. All I can do is to wait like for the Derby results. And then I get the rejection letter, and start working on it just as hard again, and send it to another magazine. The second one publishes it, maybe out of pity, maybe I just luck out. How can a person like me handle that kind of delays. One gets excited only when his or her story is published and feels like writing more. In your case, you send out ten. Let’s say five of them get rejected, there’re still five more that got published.

So, you’re writing fiction nowadays, I suppose. Keep writing. The publishers are dying to get your stuff. Since you’ve all the “facilities”, you should continue to write; giving up is no good. I’ve read your two stories recently published. They’re okay. Take your prize story for instance. It is short but good. If you continue to write in the same style, that helps. It is a huge improvement over the stories you’d shown me in the past. I am not saying this to please you. I’m telling you the way it is. There is a lot of difference between your previous stories and the current ones. You’ve gotten far ahead of most of us. If you keep it up, you’re sure to become one of the great writers. After you became a big writer, I can brag to my friends that “That great writer is my friend.” If somebody writes your biography, my name will be in it too. Or, better still, I ac undertake writing your biography myself. At the moment, Andhra Pradesh is short of famous female writers. If you don’t mind, you put yourself to work and you can reach that level.

There is one more thing. One of my friends commented on your prize story. He said he vaguely remembered reading it somewhere sometime back. Don’t worry, I gave it to him. I told him, “Let’s say all the students in a class were asked to write an essay on a topic of their choice. Each one of them may choose a different topic, but then, a couple of them could choose  the same topic. Based on that, we can’t blame them of plagiarism. Each one will have his or her own style. In other words, we just cannot accuse her [you] of copying a previously published story.” Served him right, he shut up and went away, murmuring, “maybe, that is possible.”

I’m telling you. Whenever a story is published, you’ll hear all kind of comments. Some may say “It’s good”, and others may say, “shove it.” And then there are also the middle-ground folks. “Well, she wrote something.” No matter what the comments are, we are not going to stop writing, right? You know the old adage, the stray dogs bark as the royal elephant walks by on the royal road. The elephant is not going to quit because the dogs are barking. We can survive even for a few years only as long as we’re willing to put up with this kind of obstacles. We should have the courage to take a stand, if we made a mistake.

It’s going to be hard until we’ve achieved certain standard in our writing. We work so hard, write a story and send it a magazine; it hurts when it gets rejected, no doubt. That’s also the time we should show our grit. They say women have better forbearance. So, if one story gets rejected, you should send another. If the same thing happens again, send yet another story. There is nothing to be ashamed of in it. All those great writers of today underwent the same process. Whatever happens, it is going to be so only for a couple of years. After that, they will shower heaps of flowers on you. Requests for your stories come pouring in from every nook and corner. You will even get to a point, where you’ll have to tell them that you don’t time to write for them. You can laugh all you want now. The day is sure to come when you’ll admit, “Today that man’s words have turned out to be true.” That is when you’ll remember me. You may even have a soft spot for me and drop a note saying, “You’re right. Things happened the same way you had predicted.” Or, you may put a stop to that train of thought and dismiss me forever.

By the way, what do you think of the story I sent to the contest. Remember I’d read it to you the other day. Well, maybe it was not that good. If it were good, I would have got the prize. I  wrote it in thirty minutes, while sitting around, having nothing else. Then I saw the announcement and thought “might as well send it”. I fair copied and sent it right away. Frankly, I wasn’t thinking about the prize at all. How can I get any prize while writers like you are around? When I showed the story, you went into raptures over it, maybe as a matter of courtesy. You said, “you’re sure to win.” I knew right then it was not a prize story. That’s the reason I said at the time, “If that were the case, why would I rot in this clerical job? I would move to Madras and spend my time writing scripts.” Let it be. At least one of us got the prize, not some outsider. I am just as happy to be your friend as you are for winning.

Don’t think that I am all praise for you because your story had won, and would have called it a stupid story, if, by some mishap, had not won. Maybe you’ll think so but not me. But then again, am I qualified to comment on your story? You have landed a spot in the rank and file of writers. There is that much difference between the two of us. It must be embarrassing for you even to speak with people like me. Whatever the reason, you’re talking to me, maybe out of kindness or respect for me, and I am happy for that. As for me, I am beginning to be scared of even talking to you. Like I said, you belong in the ranks of big writers. I am afraid that you might catch even the smallest mistake in my language and highlight it. Oh, no, don’t say you’re not a big writer. Isn’t that why you did not join our literary circle? Our literary circle is formed with a group of small time writers. Why would a big writer join our little circle? Disgraceful, right? Anyway, what’s the point? I’m blabbering away nonsense. Don’t get me wrong. About your stories, take my advice, do as I said. By this time next year, you will be a great writer, or else, call me a liar.

(Talking behind her back:)

Are you talking about Suseela’s story? Yes, I have seen it too. Stupid stuff. One day, I was bored and had nothing better to do, so, I opened the magazine and read her story. Stupid story. I must admit, how could they award prize for that story? It’s so short yet contained the styles of four or five other writers. She shouldn’t have written if she couldn’t. Why steal others’ styles? The story has no storyline, no theme to begin with. It looks like she jotted down whatever came to her mind, like the erratic winds. I’ve told her so many times not to imitate the styles of others, she wouldn’t listen. It looks okay at the outset but what is the use at the end of the day? Well, she got a small prize, is that all? To be frank, is there a life for a person with self-respect nowadays?

Never mind that. Let’s discuss the story in question. They have published such stories in the past, three or four times a year. Just three months back, I saw a story, very much like this one. Suseela took it, made a few minor changes and produced a patchwork story. Aren’t you surprised that got prize? Anyway, we can’t blame them either for awarding the prize. Poor people, what can they do? How would they know the hackneyed entries from the original stories? They trusted the individuals who sent them in. Had they expected it, they would never have organized the contest. I’m telling you, all we need nowadays is lies and cheating. You can play the game anyway you like, as long as you’re good at it. Take my story for instance. A great story, written in excellent style and contained beautiful theme. Yet it did not win the prize, why do you think it is so? I knew why and for the same reason I didn’t even want to enter in the contest. My friends, they all insisted that I should send it. I did say no at first. And then, Suseela came and asked, “Have you sent your story to the contest?” I said no once again but she kept insisting that I should send. So, I fair copied it even as she was waiting and sent it in. If I were seriously interested in entering the contest, wouldn’t I sit down, think up an excellent plot in extraordinary detail and produce a great story?

Anyway, it was written on the spot and Suseela commended it. She said I was sure to get the prize. After I read my story, she said her story was no good and changed her mind about sending it in. Then, I persuaded her and made her mail it in. Not just me, even Suseela was surprised when she learned that her story received the prize. Didn’t she say just two days back that she did not think even in her dream that her story would win.

The real reason is she got the prize because she’s a woman. Nowadays women are being given special treatment everywhere. Wherever you go, ladies first and then only the others get their turn. I can accept it in all other areas, but in contests too? If that is the case, how can you call it a contest? If they are so stuck on women, why can’t they conduct separate contests for women only?

A few days back, I went to Suseela’s home. She read her stories aloud to me, and asked me, “What do you think?” What can I say? Will she accept if I say the way it is, “They are no good.”? At the same time, how can I say, “They’re the best I’d ever seen”, knowing full well that they are the worst of their kind. That’s why I said, “They are okay,” somewhat evasively. She got it, I believe. “No, you’re being evasive. There are mistakes, I think, show me.” I took the bunch home, made corrections–deleted some parts, added a few more lines in some places, gave them a form–almost wrote entirely anew and returned them to her. Suseela sent them out and a couple of them got published too.

I have done so much for her, she has no gratitude. She clung to my feet as long as she needed me and then went for my hair.[4] I wish I’d known her type in the beginning itself. She should have come and told me as soon as the story was published. No, she wouldn’t until I saw her on the street and confronted her. She didn’t even broach the subject until I started it. Huh, talk about gratitude? Would a dog, seated on a royal throne, change his old ways? Here I am, accepting her as my friend and trying to push her up the ladder, and she is acting like, “What do I care?” Would I ever help her again as long as I live. That’s why people say, “Never help a friend.” Strangers would show gratitude at least. To speak the truth, those stories would not have gotten published but for me. How can she let this get to her head this way? She should have the sense to think on these lines. No point trying to help people of her sorts.

The more I think about it the more I’m convinced she did not get the prize because of her abilities. Just so happened, she just lucked out. That being the case, how can we call her a great writer? How can we call the story, plagiarized from four other stories, good writing?

Listen, I’m telling you. The truth will come out tomorrow, if not today. Then, writers like her will be washed away. Never mind all that. If I had only set my mind to it, can’t I write a critique on her story and send it some magazine? Why do you think I did not do so? Simply because she is one of us, I am keeping quiet, willing to ignore her mistakes, stealing from others and all that. Would anybody else keep quiet like that? Shouldn’t she be thinking about it if she’d cared even in the least bit? Had she showed some respect for me, I would not be blabbering about her on and on like this, would I? I can look away and forget everything. I’d have accepted that she is behaving like this because she is stupid. But she is acting like this knowing full well what I am thinking. Or else, why would she dodge me and walk away when we ran into each other in the bazaar the other day? After that, when I went to see her at her home, how could she go away to the movies? Let’s say, all these things are small matters and I should ignore them. Why could she not come to me and tell me herself that her story has been published?

I’m telling you, success has gotten to her head lately. Believe it or not, Suseela is not the same person she used to be, she’s different in thousand ways. A handful of her stories are published, and, she thinks there’s no writer greater than herself, I suppose. To tell you the truth, her stories are no comparison to mine. No, I’m not bigheaded. I am just speaking the truth. To be frank, I’m only quoting the comments I’ve gathered from friends like you, some half-dozen said so. Know what Suseela said? She said, “My stories are nothing compared to yours.”

In fact, it’s no surprise Suseela is writing stories. Think of the time she has on her hands. Take away the hours she sleeps, rest of the day is totally free time for her, right? Men would go to the bazaar, park, or some other place, when they have nothing else to do. Can women do the same? No, they can’t. That’s why they sit at home and write fiction to kill time. Thus all the conditions being in her favor, it is no big feat she writes. If I had that kind of free time, I would’ve written god knows how many. I would have produced tons of them, pile them up to the hilt. I do want write but where is the time? I get up early in the morning, go to work, and hustle the files until dark. After that, don’t I need to unwind a little? So, I go for a walk, return home by about 7 or 8, eat and relax a bit. By then, it is nine. What can I write then? Even if I try to put myself to work at that ungodly hour, and start to write, my eyelids would shut up in thirty minutes. I would think I might make mistakes if I continue under the circumstances, and stop for the day, hoping to return to it the next day … the same story each day. Where do I have the time? If, like Suseela, I had the time to sit around all day, with nothing else to do, wouldn’t I produce stories by the hour?

Forget it. I am saying all this only to show the kind of person she is. Two days back, I swallowed my pride and went to her house and said, “Suseela, I am signing you up for sahiti samiti [literary guild].” She said, “Don’t. I don’t have the time to attend those meetings. I’m always on the move you know, here today and gone tomorrow.” Did you see her impudence, like she’s the only writer around and rest of us are a bunch of idiots. If I set my mind to it, I can make one hundred others writers like her. Usually, I am not concerned about anything. But, once I am on it, I will not stop until I am finished. Just watch me, you’ll see for yourself what I am going to be by this time next year!


Translator’s Note: The story illustrates three perspectives on a social condition–women’s writing in the sixties. The narrator, a male writer, highlights a particular type of behavior in Andhra Pradesh at a time when the women’s writing was at its peak. –

Translated by Nidadavolu Malathi and published on, October 2006.

(Telugu original, trikonam, is included in the anthology, hlaadini and other stories, by the author, published by Jayabharat book depot, 1962.)






[1] A popular proverb, kallu nettikekku, literally eyes shifted to the head, meaning something go to his/head.

[2] A popular phrase, kondaveeti chemtaadu, refers to the fact that in the village, Kondaveedu, the wells are very deep, and thus need a very long rope to draw water from. Anything unusually lengthy.

[3] A proverb, kotiki kobbarikaaya dorikinatte, meaning “something out of the ordinary” happening.

[4] The actual proverb in Telugu is, andite juttu, andakapote kaallu, meaning seize the hair if you can reach, or go for one’ feet, meaning bash the person if you can, or get down on your knees and beg. In this context, the author slightly changed to mean that Suseela was an opportunist.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I must settle it! And settle it with interest.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 “Where can I get it?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How much dowry?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mother wants you come into the living room.”

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

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

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

“Your …your father …”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Translated by Nidadavolu Malathi and publish

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

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

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