Monthly Archives: November 2013

Friends Forever! By Nidadavolu Malathi

What is the secret of great friendship? What prompts one to become so fond of another is a question I could never find answer for, could never understand.


I saunter along the river, a tributary of the river Trinity, which runs by my apartment complex. I watch the tiny ripples weaving through the wind, taking clues from its direction. Occasionally a restless fish pops up into the air and dips back into the water creating ripples in circles. The loosely hanging branches of the weeping willows sway as if recording the wind speed. I stop for a few minutes and make a note of the items the stream is carrying–stray straws, foam cups, empty cans and what not to far off shores without thinking twice who has thrown them into its water or why, I suppose. It is like she has imbibed the preachings of Sankara and Patanjali–the tenet of detachment intuitively.

Little Muscovy ducks with white beaks, glistening like pieces of a broken china plate, float on the waves blissfully. Female mallards with their brood, wood ducks, wood storks are floating around  in the water. A mallard duck rises barely above the water, flies three yards splashing the water with its feet and settles down.

I tried to capture that moment so many times but could never get it right. But then again, it is one of those moments–so many of them have passed in  my life with some splash and no permanent record.

I thought of the question again – how one grows fond of another? I know there is one simple answer–she likes you, you’re a nice person, a good listener, she misses home and you fill in, a surrogate … One can even argue that we two like the same movies, the same authors, the same veggies. … Somehow I am not convinced that is all there is to it, that just is not enough for me. In the past sixty-five years so many people have come and gone in my life. Right from the high school days, there has always been at least one person who has avowed eternal friendship to me and disappeared in course of time, nothing lasted forever.

Lately, I am beginning to wonder if there is such thing as a “friend forever” at all. And, I must admit, it is confusing to me; the question never leaves me.


“Come on, let’s be honest. Who can tell why one likes another? All right, I don’t know, I give up. You tell me how it happens,” Veechika laughs.

A couple of minutes pass, she says again, “Uh, it is like the question of the giant Bhetala in the Bhatti Vikramarka stories. I am glad you didn’t say, your head would crack into thousand pieces if you knew the answer but refused to give it … ha, ha .. and probably I should be thankful for that. Well, I can ask you why on earth you’ve got this question in the first place. Um. Well, I don’t know and frankly don’t care, my dear Pinni. All I can say is right now I am fond of you because you are the nicest person on earth,” she says with a serious look on her face.

I smile vaguely. I have heard it all, one too many times.

She says, “I am kind of down lately, Pinni, feeling lost. It’s two months  since I’ve been here, right? All these itty- bitty social customs are beyond me, I can never get used to them. You can’t visit somebody without calling them first, never show up without notice–all these getting to me. I can’t, just can’t get used to the idea. Luckily, I’ve got you. I know you’re not all that excited about me. No, it’s okay, I understand, you don’t have to pretend you enjoy my company … yea, yea, okay, just kidding. I am sure you would’ve told me if you have other things to do. You’re a peach, Pinni, you’re for keeps. When I talk to you, it feels like I’m talking to my mom or big sister, it’s sooooo cool. Why, look at Jaggu, my uncle’s son. He lives in Houston, barely a four-hour drive. We grew up in the same neighborhood, went to the same school. I called him as soon as I got here. Can you believe it? He barely said two words and hung up. He said he’d call me later, uh, never heard from him again, not so much as a um from him. I know, I know, you are going to say I would do the same, chirp the same lingo after a few months, and that’s part of this culture. Uh, no, no way, I can never speak like that. You may you flog me but you can never make me repeat such stupid lingo. Let me ask this. Yes I am asking ’cause I am stupid, I admit. All our people change into a totally new species as soon as they set foot on this land, why? Where is the need to change our values and our mode of thinking? They can make some changes to get by in this country but why do they have to forget our family values, interpersonal relationships that are so natural in our close-knit families? Yeah, yeah, everybody talks the same cliché – you cannot live unless you jump into the mainstream headlong and swim along, isn’t that what you’ve come here for? Isn’t it to prove your brain? That is the main reason, isn’t it? … No, not for me, that doesn’t work for me. I don’t think that is all that matters to me. I want people. Our own people are standing at arm’s length as if I am an untouchable; that gives me creeps, you know!”


I remember the day she came to America. She called me the second day after she had arrived in America.

“Hello! Who’s this?”

“Me, Veechika, don’t you remember? It’s ten years since we’ve met, I think. You came to India for a brief visit. We met at my sister’s wedding. … Yes, I am in America now, came two days back. … No, I don’t like it here. … No, no, I am not crying. This water does not agree with me, I suppose, got sore throat. I am anxious to see you, there is a lot to talk about. Coming Saturday? Of course, I can. Yes, I can make it coming weekend. Let me check the flights. Oh, no, I can manage the ticket, don’t worry about the fare. In fact, it is not just about the money, you know. I will have to check my schedule. Probably, I can talk to my professor and skip the class for one day. I must admit, I am really confused though … I mean about their teaching methods. What are they for, if I know everything? Anytime I have a question, they ask me what I think, or  suggest I find out myself. If I can find out the answer, what are they getting paid for? … anyway, first I need to work on understanding their  method of teaching.”


I go for walks along the river every day. I saw a middle-aged woman about three months back I believe. She said her son, daughter-in-law and a seven-year-old granddaughter live here, she came to visit them. They live in the same complex, in the building across from mine. After that, I saw her almost every day, sometimes two or even three times a day.

It started out as meeting on the path by the river, soon became she visiting me in my apartment.

“Are you home? Silly question, ha ha. I knew you’d be home. I was hoping you’d be home. Actually, thought you might be waiting for me, ha, ha, what can I say! My day is not complete unless I bore you with my blabbering. … What, you’re not bored? Yeah, yeah, … What else you’d say? You’re not going to tell me that you’re bored by my chitchat, no, no, that’s not in your character.”

That is the usual opening. After a while I would hear about some thing or other happened in her home, to her grandchild, to her parents back home, … there is always a story to tell.

“Anyway, know what happened today? Well, today is my birthday. Didn’t I tell you? Oh, no? Okay, it is anyway. And, you know how my daughter-in-law is. Always makes lot of fuss for every little thing. Um, yes, she bought a sari for me. Guess how she handed it to me, no, you can’t imagine even in your wildest dream As the saying goes, graduated from college yet knows not how to clean the rice. I couldn’t believe she did not know even a simple thing like one should not give a sari without blouse piece to a married woman. She gave it to her daughter and the kid brought it to me and threw it in my lap? You tell me, is that the way to give a sari to a respectable woman?

“You may say, she was trying to teach our values to the child. For me, it is hard to think so. Had she really thought on those lines, she should have showed it by doing exactly the way we do it in our tradition. She should bring the sari, blouse piece, fruits, flowers, kumkum, turmeric, and paan, and all that give it to me, bow before me, and seek my blessings. That is the tradition. I would never have had a child throw a sari at another woman so casually. You can take it anyway you please, but to me, it was humiliating. I was so angry yet remained calm. After all, I am not going to stay here forever, why bother …”

In a strange way, that story got to me. I remember the times when I was trying to teach our values to my daughter, be good mother. At the time I did not realize the difference between our values and the values she is growing up with, the American values! Come to think of it, I was not doing it right either, maybe.

I have heard umpteen stories from her in the next few months. She would show up like clockwork, tell what happened on the night before, that morning, that afternoon … I started feeling like her ishtasakhi![i] Of course, there is reward for it too. All those gift–veggie dishes I did not relish, books I did not care for, and the prepaid phone cards with four minutes left on it. Every time I would tell her to stop bringing me those gifts, and she would give the same response , “Oh, no, it’s okay, you can use them. If you don’t take, it will go to waste.” That was a bit annoying to me–taking something because the other person could not use it. I told my daughter and she put it in a different perspective. She said they (meaning we Indians) think I am protesting ’cause it is polite to do so. I have a feeling she might even consider it funny. Anyway, the gifts started tapering off even as her visits became fewer.

After her husband joined her in the States, her visits became few and far between. Whenever she called or stopped by, it was only to tell me how busy she had become mostly because of her husband, who needed her all the time for every little thing. I heard no complaints in her voice though and that’s good, I thought.

As the day of her departure approached, she kept insisting that I was her “lifetime friend”, would call me from India, write to me, keep in touch with me.

On the day of her departure, she swore one more time that I was the best friend she ever had and left. As you may guess, I never heard from her again. I do not know where she is and what she is doing. For all I know, she might be repeating the same stories to someone else in some other town. Ha, the mysterious world of being a “friend forever”! Amazing.

I keep thinking about her for a different reason though. Her stories about her daughter’s missing our values make me think about my way of teaching our values to my daughter, who is being raised in a different culture. I must admit, I have to  thank her for playing “friend forever!” routine. Friend for a reason, as my daughter would say! It helped to learn about myself.


“What!! Six months already since I called you? Wow, I didn’t even realize six months went so fast,” says Veechika on the other end. “Well, lot of things have happened during these six months. Actually, that’s the reason I couldn’t call you. Ha, ha, I know you will laugh but what do you know about life here? Oh, no. I didn’t mean it that way, I know you know how life is here like. What can I do, you tell me. You know for sure the kind of education in colleges here. These professors, they make us do their work and our work too. What do I mean? I’ll tell you what I mean. Whatever I ask, he says, what do you think? I tell him I don’t know, and he says, find out, try to find out and let me know. Go to the library, read …, search on the Internet …. that’s his teaching! I am telling you, I never saw this method of teaching. If I can find out everything for myself, why bother to attend his classes? And then he tells me how smart I am and that I only need to put in a bit of time, and I can find the answer myself. Uh. You may not believe this, with all this work and worry, I am down to half my size. These studies and the insipid  food are killing me. … I know you also believe that I am very smart and I only need a bit of push to show my mettle. … Okay, I have to go, have to write two papers by Monday. I will call you after I am done. … I promise, no, no more silly excuses. You know, who else is there for me to pour my heart out if not you. Only you are there for me, you’re a good listener and that’s what I like about you. …”

I swallow the words that come to my mind. I want to say I don’t always enjoy being at the receiving end, always listener, and never a talker. I want to say each time I try to say something, she cuts in and disrupts my line of thought. But … no, I couldn’t. For some reason, I do not even see any point in saying so.

“Anyway, I was going to tell you about my classmate, Ghosh. What? I didn’t tell you about him before, uh, I thought I did. Anyways, we’ve been seeing each other for a while, well not exactly seeing, we went to movies a couple of times, had lunch or dinner, … ha ha ha, yes, it sure looks like a date, isn’t it? Well, it is a date if you say so. …I know I should’ve told you. Here, listen, I want you to meet him. How about next weekend? Are you free? Well, I know you’re laughing, but you also know the way things are here. Back home, time for school means time for school and marriage only after education is completed; one after another in a sequence. Here, while you are in college, you also start planning for future–both home and job. … … ….

“Hello, Pinni, uh, … um … no, I’m not crying. I’m really upset, really really upset. You know that idiot Ghosh said I needed to grow up, uh, me grow up? I did not mention it to you, he is a wimp you know, always complaining he should have had this, had that, people don’t see he’s a genius, … you say it and he has got it, nothing misses his list of complaints …. … you know what, I think I am glad I dumped him. He thinks he dumped me but in fact he is the dumpee. … … … … …. … … … … ….   .. … …

“Hi Pinni, me again. I know, I know, I should’ve called you. Did I tell you about Helaku. He’s in my class. Do you know Helaku means Full of sun in the Native American language. I am so excited about learning all these things about them. I want you to meet him. But he wants to take me to Albuquerque for the upcoming weekend. He said it was a surprise for me. It seems it is a great place to learn about American Indians. There are lot of similarities between their culture and our culture. I thought I might as well take upon his offer, I’ve been always interested in their culture you know. … I will call you after I return from the trip. Yes, of course, I will send you pictures. … Oh, I forgot, don’t tell mom. She will freak out, don’t worry, I will tell her myself … yes, … soon, bye for now, I have to go … … … …. … …. …. … …. .. … …. .. … ….. … … …. … …. …

“Pinni, are you there? … Oh, you’re home, how come you didn’t pick up the phone. Ah, sleeping? Sorry, did I wake you up? ha, ha. Of course, you’re up now. Anyway, I am thinking of coming to visit you next weekend, if you’re free. I want to introduce Ram Singh to you. … um, … Yes, I broke up with Helaku. .. um … I don’t know … just … just didn’t work out, let’s say he is not my type … .. … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … …. … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … .. … … … … … … … … … “Oh my God, it is eight months since I called you. I am so so soooo sorry, Pinni. You know how things are here. I just finished the required courses, need to submit a PQ pretty soon.

… … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … …. … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … …. … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … …. … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … …


In course of time, the gaps between calls became longer and longer. A couple of times, I tried to point it out, even teased her, “What, you’ve forgotten me? Or, I am also one of those dumpees?”

“Oh, no, I will never do that to you. It’s just … just got so busy. I didn’t stop calling you suddenly. I thought I was doing it in a matter of fact way.”

“Well, probably it is in a matter of fact way. Okay, I know you do have to attend to your courses. After all, you’ve come to this country for studies, not for my entertainment, ha, ha.”

“You know I do care about you, care a lot.”

“Yes, okay, get to work. We can talk later. I am not going anywhere.”


I sit on the shore under a tree watching the ducklings floating in the river. A little away, a father is teaching how to catch fish to his little daughter, probably nine. It amuses me. For some reason, I thought fishing is only man’s sport. Come to think of it, I never considered fishing a sport. After all, what do you do? Let the line into the water and wait until some stupid fish takes the bait. Well, maybe that is not all there is to it. Some day I have to talk to one of those sportsmen and find out. I am glad that father is teaching his daughter though. There seems to be some social justice in that.

The water seems to have risen to a new level. That’s what I like about this river. If it is a lake, the water level rises only when it rains right here. But in the case of the river, it might rain one hundred miles away, and the water level rises here. On top of it, all the foam cups and the trash people throw into the river gets washed away to another shore. … Hum, people! I can’t believe how can they be so indifferent or even stupid. Last week I saw a sofa floating around in the water. For a couple of days, only its top edge showed at a distance, and to me, it looked like a dead body wrapped in a white sheet and tied to a plank. It is only after it got closer to my place, I could see that it was the back of a sofa. …

I squint and try to peek through into the bottom of the river, into its heart. What might she, if she had only voice? Would she be complaining about the garbage people throw into the crystal clear water?

“Why do you worry about the people that come and go into your life?”

I twitch and look around. Who spoke? Whose voice I just heard?

“That is me, I am talking to you,” the words reverberate from the bottom of the river or so it seems, “I know it bothers you that people who vowed eternal friendship to you left you and moved on. Well, that’s life. Nothing stays forever. You are just one piece in their lives, a piece on the chess board; you’ve played your role and that is all. Remember the royalty of olden days? The ishtasakhi  (bosom friend) of the princess, or in modern times the fifth grade teacher–we have any number of examples. They all have roles to play, willy-nilly. In the olden days, the bosom friend was arranged by the king for his daughter. Now, things just fall in place–neighbors, colleagues at work, distant relatives happen to move to the country you are in. … … Most of the time you play the role of a fifth-grade teacher, I suppose. For a young boy, that is the first time, he is exposed to the world and the teacher appears to be the most know-all of all the the people he had known in his short lifespan. Eventually, he gets to know other teachers, makes other friends and his fifth grade teacher is left behind as just one person he had known in the past. That is human nature. Look at all these dead leaves, broken branches floating away to far-off land in the river. You see these ducks, cranes and the turtles? Do you think they are the same you’ve seen yesterday? No, they are new arrivals, came today. They’ll be here for a few days and soon go on to find a new place. Look at that man, sitting on the shore with the fishing pole in the water. This is his first day here. Of course, he is not the first for me. You can’t even imagine how many people sat on that shore and poured their hearts out … He may not even remember this place and this water tomorrow, not even the fish he might catch and have it for supper tonight. Another day, another person sits there with pretty much the same routine. That is the way of life, way of the world!”

I remember all the young men and women who have contacted me as soon as they arrived here and then weaned slowly. It is interesting, it is seasonal!


“Ah, what an amazing … oh, no, I am sorry, so so sorry, did I disturb you? I am sorry, really. You seems to be immersed in your own thoughts. Or, maybe meditating?”

I turn around and see a young man, settling down next to me. I smile and assure him it is okay.

“It’s okay? You mean it? I think you’re saying just to please me. That’s your in your upbringing, I guess. You say it’s okay; somebody else would have yelled at me, called me stupid or something, and told me to leave her alone … You know we foreigners are often considered loutish. … Oh, yeah, been through all kinds of experiences. Anyway, what is it in your hand? I stopped because of that book only. Looks like a Telugu book. Who’s the author?”

“G.V. Krishna Rao?”

“Never heard of him. Probably new, an upstart … like Shakespeare … ha, ha. …”

“Oh, no, he is from previous generation, well, previous for me; for you, maybe two generations.”

“Two generations! Wow. Well, there is a lot I to learn, I suppose, might as well start right now, right here. Tell me all about him. What does he write about? Now I am beginning to feel like a fifth grader!”

I remember my daughter saying, “Mom, friendship may happen for a–reason, season or lifetime.”

I give him a sidelong look. What is he: Friend for a reason, season, or lifetime? What is he going to be?!


Click here for Telugu version,ishtasakhiAugust 14, 2012.

Translated by author and published on, August 2012.


[i]  In the olden days, kings used to employ young women to work as “bosom friend” to princesses, called ishtasakhi, (lit. a friend after one’s own heart). In modern times, especially in these times of one’s own space and isolation, friendships are formed for a wide variety of reasons, not necessarily “after one’s own heart”. For prince, the term is veduka chelikaadu.)

My Little Friend by Nidadavolu Malathi

Neela sat down with her laptop to surf the net for Telugu stories and poems. Her father had given it to her as she had started Computer Science classes in college the previous year.


Her mother never liked it though. Up until that time, Neela and her mother had been friends, always talking, laughing, bickering for little things and making up. They’d been more like two teenagers rather than mother and daughter until now. Ever since Neela got the laptop, things changed dramatically; she was sitting there ogling on the screen and enjoying her own private moments, actually hours on end, all by herself. For her mother, the room turned frighteningly quiet.

“I’m going to auntie’s next door. Viswam uncle may come to visit us. Talk to him. I’ll be back soon,” her mother said.

“What can I talk to him? He is twice my age,” Neela said.

“He is a human being unlike that sruti box,” her mother said. That’s what she called the laptop, a drone.


Neela shook her head briskly and turned to the story on the screen. She was a habitual reader and the net offered her a wide range of selections to quench her thirst. She even wrote a couple of poems and posted them on the net.


The icon on the lower left corner chimed announcing new mail. She clicked on it.

“Your poem is beautiful. I enjoyed it a lot. I see you’re perceptive. – Radha”

Neela was happy to see the first mail of commendation on her writing.

“Thanks” she replied.

Within a few seconds, she received another mail. “I was wondering if you had written more poems. Are they available on the web?”

Neela was surprised and amused. She replied, smiling, “Oh, no. Just started. Actually, this is the first that’s caught anybody’s eye. J”

“You’re talented. Keep it coming. J”

Neela replied “Okay” and signed off for the day.


A week later, she saw a poem on another site with similar theme as hers. She wondered if Radha had seen it. Radha seemed to be an avid reader like herself. Neela thought for a few seconds and then decided to give it a shot. She wanted to know what Radha thought about the poem.

“Did you see this?. What’d u think?” Neela included the link and clicked on ‘send’.

“Funny, I was thinking the same thing. What’d you think of the poem,” replied Radha.

“Dunno. Feels like there’s something to it, holl’rin at me. Then again, something is missing, I think. Or is it me -L?”

“I don’t think its u. =^D.”

Messages on the poem flew back and forth. Between the two, Neela started feeling like she was learning something new about poetry and Radha was elated that she found somebody to share her thoughts.

That was the beginning of their daily dialogue via LCD screen. Personally, they’d never met and known nothing about each other.


One day, Neela asked, “What are u doing? u also a CS student?”

“No.” The response was brief. Radha thought of asking what did CS meant but didn’t. She didn’t feel like writing that she was no student, CS or any other for that matter.

“I’m studying CS in Hyderabad, 2nd year,” Neela emailed again, hoping to get a reply on par with hers.

“Oh, I see. I am in America, and wondering about the same–what am I doing here? :p.”


Neela looked at the emoticon and smiled. For a second, she wondered if she was asking for  trouble, could this person be a net prowler or a wacko? Then she pondered over other possible scenarios: Radha said she had attended college for one year. Maybe while she was in her second year, she had one of those supersonic weddings. Lately it has become common for young Telugu men to come home on a two-week vacation, find a bride and marry right away. Traditionally, it could take months even years to arrange a marriage. But now, there is always a pundit who could find a super auspicious moment [sumuhurtum] per lunar calendar to perform the wedding within the same two weeks any time of the year .

Neela persuaded herself not to worry; her gut feeling told her so. After all, there was no denying that she’d been having interesting conversations with this person, regardless of who’s who.


“You’ve got mail,” the mailbox chimed.

“Did you read The Clear Day of Light?” Radha asked.

“Never heard of it. Who’s the author?” replied Neela.

“Anita Desai.”

“Again, nope, never heard o’er. I’m reading the Tipping Point. Awesome,” emailed Neela.

“:p. Never heard o’it.”

“u r talkin a lot about books b’fore my time. u should read some current ones too. -;p.”

“My grandmother was a voracious reader, got herself a huge personal library. ;p.”

“Ah, J,” said Neela and signed off.


“Today, I saw the movie “Chak de India”. Do u get Indian movies there?” said Neela.

“Of course, they show Hindi movies here. I’m not interested in them though. Me going to movies is very rare. Even then, I want to watch only Telugu movies. The last movie I watched was sagarasangamam, I think,” replied Radha.

“What? J). That was made before I was born :D”

“Yeah, ;).”


For a couple of weeks now they’d been exchanging emails. Radha sat in front of the computer and went over the emails again.

Books –dated and current,

Movies—old and new,

Songs—old and new,

Favorite movie stars—two generations apart ….

Yet, there seemed to be a connection …

Her eyes glowed. Clearly, Neela and she belonged to two different worlds, literally—from either side of  the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, and entrenched in two different worlds of books and movies. Radha remembered the game of four-poles she and her friends used to play in her village. Four kids stand holding on to four poles like the four bases in baseball, and run from pole to pole. A fifth kid tries to knock out one of them while running from one pole to the next. No two kids could hold on to the same pole at the same time.

Despite the differences, the emails continued. It had become an addiction for them. Both enjoyed and pursued this new wave of friendship fervently.


Neela had not received her daily email in two days. She sat there staring at the mailbox on the lower left corner of the screen. There was  mail but not the one she was waiting for. Finally, she decided to send one herself.

“Hello, what’re u doing?”

She waited for a few minutes. There was no response. She was getting restless. Was Radha busy with something important? Out of town? Left in a hurry? Fell ill? Couldn’t she send a line before leaving? ….


Somewhat disconcerted, she kept surfing the web. There was a story she knew Radha would enjoy very much. It was by one of her favorite writers.

Hesitantly she clicked on Compose. “Hey, Radha, I just finished reading “Under the Mango Tree” by Sankaran. Did u see that? What’d ya think?”

After an hour or so, the mailbox flashed.

Neela’s heart raced.

“Ammamma [grandmother] is sick.”

“I am sorry. What is it, fever? Did she go to the doctor?”

It was a while before Neela got another message. Then arrived another mail. “Ammamma likes you very much.”

It didn’t make sense. Who was sick, Radha or her grandmother?

“Are ya ok?”

“I’m worried.”

“Don’t worry, Ammamma will get well soon.”

“I‘ope so. She likes u a lot. She calls you ‘my little friend’.”


Now Neela was really confused. There is more to it than she had known or so it seemed. “What’d ya mean?” she emailed back.

“Ammamma ‘n u been writing to each other, aren’t u?”

Neela was dumbstruck. It started making sense, vaguely. She pulled herself together and asked, “I didn’t know she is your grandma.”

“I’m worried.”

Neela was going to type in “Don’t worry.”

The screen chimed again. One more mail. “Is it okay if I mail you? Ammamma tells me everything u two talk.”

Neela replied quickly, “Yes, of course, u can rite to me. Tell me how’s she doing. btw, what’s your name?”

“I will. I’m Rahul. I am nine and a half, in 5 grade.”

Neela burst into a big laugh. She was chatting with a boy not even half her age!

Rahul went off like a volley of tennis balls from a shooter, typing away how Ammamma had been afraid even to touch the keyboard and how he had showed her to log in. … He said he had given her his ID and showed her how to surf the web for Telugu stories, write comments, and send emails. At first, ammamma was shy since her English was not good. He told her that there are no grammar rules on the net, and showed her even to put the emoticons in her messages.

Neela began to mull over with a big grin: Why didn’t Radha garu[1] tell me that she was twice my age? Afraid that I might not want to talk to an older woman? How can I tell her I did not think she was old, not even for one second. But then again, maybe she may have gotten that impression when I mentioned about the little conversation I had with mother about Viswam uncle.

Neela decided to leave the things as they were. It is beautiful that Radha was enjoying their friendship. Suddenly something else crossed her mind. She quickly turned the computer on and emailed Rahul, “Don’t tell ammamma about this little conversation. Okay? It’s going to be our little secret.”

“Can I email you though?”

“Yes, of course. You are my new friend.” And then she added, “Now, you go and do your homework. Don’t worry, Ammamma will be okay.”


That night, Neela jotted down in her diary, “Today I found a new friend. I can say he is ‘my little friend’.”


Click here for Telugu version, neeli terala maatuna

(Published on the And reprinted on, January 2008.

Art by Rambabu Arle.


[1] Honorific suffix, used with reference to older adults.

Average Moon by Chaganti Sankar

 Some people can memorize the multiplication tables effortlessly. It’s as if the wind has unraveled the web in one’s mind and laid it out neatly. As a child, I never got the math right; it used to scare me like the devil himself. Algebra was puzzling and even the simple math problems were sordid. Life made me an ordinary man since I could not handle even ordinary, simple math. The country handed me down only average happiness. I understood, much later, that not all the people who could not handle simple math were living simple lives. Not just me, there is not a single political leader or social reformer who was good at even simple math. Nobody understands the commonplace life; nobody understands the sensitive side, the complexity of average life.

  Let’s see who are these people whom I am calling my family? Rajyam is not my wife who’s married to me and living with me for the past eight years. She’s the core of elegance that has been sharing my life with me. Kameswari is not my sister who is enjoying her marriage and two children; my father performed the ritual of giving away the bride but I was the one who had the satisfaction, I made it happen. Radha is not my younger sister who’s studying B.Sc. final year but my ever-increasing responsibility. About Gopi and Ramu? They are not my younger brothers but the last two cravings in the marital life of my parents. And then, the baby; she’s the outcome of a five-minute excitement, brought into this world despite all my efforts to prevent it. My mother and father are the two old adults passing through the stage of vanaprastham2 in this country where people are not allowed even to pick fruits or roots without paying a price. They’re the couple who awarded me a form and the world. Me? Nobody can describe who I am. I am a piece of meat that has been commuting between home and office for over ten years. I am the ego who is staring at my own form in the mirror! I’m the form that would turn around and say yes anytime called out, “Rajasekharam!” I am the man who thinks he is a man and feels numerous emotions like pain, pleasure, anger and love and many, many more.

Yesterday I came home with my heart bouncing, although I, as a person, was not bouncing. I parked the bicycle on the porch and went in. My father was yelling at Gopi, “You, idiot, can’t even learn the 13 times table?” Then he added, “In your brother’s time, finding job was no big problem. Now, if you don’t put yourself to work and pass the exam, you’ll end up begging on the streets.” Mother put on her reading glasses and was busy cleaning the rice. Radha was busy with her studies. Ramu was fixing the torchlight. He saw me and announced, “Annayya is here”. I opened the little box I brought in and put it on the table. I invited them all to gather and handed the box to amma.

“What’s the occasion?” nanna asked.

“I got bonus. They gave us after all the rumpus we’ve raised,” he said, biting a piece of kova.3

“We were so worried that they might give us the slip, in the name of inflation,” he added.

Rajyam took a piece of kova and went into the kitchen, with a little smile, which spoke volumes.

“What’s the total amount you’ve got?” amma asked.

“Two thousand, five hundred rupees.”

“That’s good, very good. Radha is lucky, I must say,” amma said, watching Radha.


Radha, shyly, picked up a book. I looked at her and felt a lump in my throat. It’s barely four years since I’ve paid for the expenses in regard to Kameswari’s marriage and two of her deliveries. I just recovered; seem like only yesterday, I was done with the recurring expenses Kameswari had been adding up. Today I got bonus. Now, the younger one, Radha is blushing! My wife, who is a goldmine as far as I’m concerned, never asked me for gold. Radha wears all the good sarees I bought for Rajyam. Rajyam says, “I told her myself, to wear them. She goes to college. What does it matter how I look; I stay home all day, scrubbing floors.” Only once, on the day after our marriage, she told me of her only wish. That wish is eight-years old now. That wish got to me, growing stronger by the minute and is refusing to listen to me. I promised myself that I would fulfill her wish for sure after I received my bonus money. That’s the reason I came home with a bouncing heart. After hearing amma’s comment, I wasn’t sure how to respond. It’s true that her logic is tenable. I have now part of it, at the least. I could take out a loan for the rest of the money and arrange for Radha’s marriage. But, what about Rajyam?


That night, I was getting ready to turn in. Rajyam said, “Do as attagaru said. She said the right thing. That’s fair. Save the money for Radha’s marriage. We can have the marriage performed as soon as the rest of the money comes through.”

“This amount is not enough, right? We’ll have to take out a loan anyways. We might as well borrow the entire amount when it the time comes. For now, let’s stick to our original plan,” I said, although I didn’t mean it wholeheartedly.

“It may not be enough but reduces the loan amount. Take your mother’s suggestion. Forget the other thought, for now?” Rajyam said. She said it all right, but she didn’t mean it wholeheartedly either. There was a trace of tears barely visible in her eyes.   Her eyes managed to retract them.

“Are you hurt?”

“No, I’m not hurt. That’s what it’s all about, family!”


  That was yesterday. Today I’m feeling bogged down. Suddenly, I came to a decision. One idiotic thought washed me up to the shoreline. My legs walked me home as if they had eyes, knew their way on their own. I sat down on the bed and announced so mother and father could hear as well, “Rajyam and I will be going to Simhachalam tomorrow morning.”

“I’ll also go with you,” Radha said.

“Don’t you have exams?”

Radha heard me. The expression on her face responded, right, I can’t go.

“Why this sudden trip? What’s this all about?” amma asked.

“I took a vow that I’d pay a visit to the Simhachalam Lord if and when I got the bonus money. That’s all.”

“Good thought, after all! Good, take baby also with you,” amma said.

“She has cold. The cold weather uphill is not good for her.”

Rajyam kept quiet. Probably she was wondering, “Why Simhachalam?” Nanna remained neutral, as always. My two younger brothers wanted to go but were afraid to ask. The long and short of it, Rajyam and I left the following morning on our trip.

“If we run into Madhava Rao, he is sure to insist on us spending the night at his place. It’s possible we won’t be back tonight. Don’t cook for us unless we are back.”

“That’s fine. If you happen to stay there for the night, make sure you’re back by dinner time tomorrow,” amma said.

“Yes, yes.”

“Bring prasadam for all of us,” Radha said.

“We’ll. I wrote the permission letter and left it on the table. Send it to my office with Gopi first thing in the morning,” I said as I left with Rajyam.


As soon as I set foot on the street, I felt like I broke loose of all ties and started walking freely; felt like the sky was lifted off my head. I was flying away with Rajyam. She said, “I am not able to see what’s this all about? Last night I asked you so many times but you would not answer my question. Why Simhachalam now?”

“You’ll understand soon enough. We are not going to Simhachalam. We are going to Vizag,” I said, looking straight into her eyes.

“Vizag? What for?” she asked.

“Every dog has his day! Today is mine. I decided that today I’d do whatever I please. And I want to go to Vizag. So, I am going to Vizag.”

“Why go to Vizag without any specific reason? Why now?” Rajyam said again.

“Where did it say that we have to have a reason to go to Vizag? I know only too well how much you like the beach, 70 mm Movie Theater, and the scuttle of the crowds!”


On our way, in the bus, Rajyam slept like a baby. I felt a wave of sympathy as I watched her. I kept her jailed for eight years. She lived in one jam-packed room for eight years. I squashed all her hopes and dreams.

After we reached Vizag, I rented a double room in a hotel. The room has no A/C but is fairly decent.

I jumped on to the bed, whistling happily. “This is way over my head,” Rajyam said.

“There is nothing to worry. I brought you here to the city so you and I can be alone, without anybody or anything else present in the vicinity of our hearts. If you make fun of me or let me down, I’d be very upset,” I said, and opened my briefcase. I pulled out a saree with printed flowers, white pants, and white shirt. I handed her shampoo, soap and towel and said to her, “Take a shower and wear this saree.”

“Crazy you,” she said as she walked toward bathroom.

I rang bell and ordered two coffees and a pack of Wills cigarettes, started humming a tune exuberantly. Rajyam came out of the bathroom, dabbing her wet hair with the towel. Along with her, came a whiff of the shampoo and soap. “Ah! Beautiful!” I said.


“The aroma,” I said, smelling her hair that’s dripping water drops. “I’ll also take a shower,” I said and I went into the bathroom. I played with the water spray for over twenty minutes. I came out of the bathroom. Rajyam wore the new saree and was drying her hair.

“The flowers on your saree are looking as if they’ve bloomed right on your body.”

“They did not bloom on my body. It must be something with your vision. You’re pining for it, I think” Rajyam laughed.

I saw flowers in that laugh too. “You’re right, I am pining for you,” I replied, tucking in my white shirt in my pants.

Suddenly Rajyam noticed the keys, “Oh, no. I brought the entire bunch of keys—the key for milk cabinet and all other boxes. I saw the cat come in this morning and I locked up the milk cabinet. What are we supposed to do now? What would they do? What about the milk for the baby?”

“They’ll think up of something,” I said, slipping the key-bunch into my pocket. “How do I look?” I asked Rajyam, fixing my shirt folds.

“Like an overripe ear of corn,” Rajyam laughed.

“I told you not to make fun of me.”

“I am not saying it for fun. That is the truth. You are an eyeful after you washed your hair—partly gray and partly black. Wait until your hair is dried. Then I’ll show you.”

No wonder it hurts when truth is spoken.

“Don’t you worry about the hair. You’ve said several times that I look handsome when I wore white shirt and tucked it in white pants. That’s why I searched for it in the middle of the night, found it and packed it in my briefcase. See what you’re saying now!”

“Sorry. You’re looking good. I’m not saying you’re not looking good. We can’t hide our age. Can I hide the wrinkles on my stomach? Can I lose a few pounds around my waist? I lost my dainty figure; I am big now. You lost your youth and started aging. That’s the way it is. What can we do?”

“That’s not right. You are looking good and so am I. You must learn to see things the way I do. Then you’ll see me the way I see you.”

“All right. We both are looking good. You seem to be imagining things and worrying about it.”

“My worry is only about one thing. I’ve been holding a job for ten years; yet I could not fulfill your wish. Is it my fault, you tell me? I had to arrange for my sisters’ weddings and send my brothers to college. Is it my sin that I was born the eldest in the family? Is it a sin to be a good person?” I asked in a fit of outburst.

Hotel boy brought coffee. Rajyam stopped talking and took the coffee cup. I drank my coffee, lit a cigarette and blew a puff. After we finished coffee, we went out, wandered on the streets for about one half hour, ate special meals in an A/C. room, and watched a movie, chewing paan.

“Look at the people in the hotels and movie theaters. It makes me feel like there is not a single problem in the world. They all look so happy and frolicking. One would wonder if there is really poverty in our country,” I commented.

“People go to the movies and hotels only to forget their miseries. Just the way you brought me here today,” Rajyam replied.

We enjoyed the movie and went to the beach in an auto-rickshaw. The moon is already there at the beach even before we arrived. We went to a private spot and I jumped with joy until I am exhausted. I picked up Rajyam in my arms and went into the water. The waves are digging out the sand under my feet; Rajyam is getting heavier and I feared for her. I returned to the shore and threw her down on the sand. Rajyam screamed, “abbha!” nursing her waist, and added, “My back’s broken. I’m not young, you know. This could confine me to bed, and then, only God would know your fate.”

“This is how it’s going to be for today. There’s no question of ‘no’s on your part, no matter what I do.”

“That’s cute but crazy. I can’t stop thinking about them at home; they must be scrambling for the keys,” Rajyam said.

Something hit me as she said the same thing one more time. I was beside myself. I pulled out the keys from my pocket and threw them into the sea with all might.

“Oh, no! What did you do? How could you throw away the keys like that? chha! You’re really crazy.”

“What else can I do? You’re so stuck on milk cabinet, the yogurt, and the cockroaches; instead of the sea and the moon that are right in front of you!”

Rajyam turned away and sat there quietly. She is upset while there are so many things in front of her to be happy about—the sea, the cool breeze, the moonlight which is looking like squash flowers, the brilliant moon, the lighthouse, and red streaks of street lamps.

I hugged her and said, “Forget the keys. Look at the sea. Isn’t that beautiful?” The waves in the sea are breaking the moonbeams into tiny bits in much the same way my heart is crushed by my thoughts. Rajyam has been dreaming about this engaging moon and for a moment, free of troubles, of lovemaking under the moon. Wouldn’t she—like everybody else—want to roll in a bed filled with lots of jasmine flowers, and after that, go out, both wearing matching outfits, sing romantic songs by waterfalls, on the open fields and in mountain caves? Wouldn’t she want to visit spectacular sites and want to watch them along with me? All her life, she lived in a narrow room with a zero-watt bulb but never had a chance see the world. I wanted to ask Rajyam only one question, “Can you forgive me? We can never have a honeymoon again.”

“Forget about the honeymoon. Everybody says you’re a successful man since you’ve gotten your sisters married. Aren’t happy with that thought? The sky is not going to fall because we did not have a honeymoon. We are here today. Doesn’t that count for something?”

It’s true we’ve come to Vizag today. That is a two-hour trip we took together during a period of eight years. The moon churned the sea with his beams, causing the foam to rise like butter. I wanted to gather it into my hands and take it to our home. Rajyam and me—the struggle in my heart, the sea and its roars—when I leave all this behind and walk into the street, I will be facing again the same high and low, the pain and the duties. Human being is a social being yet cannot lead an ordinary life in the same society. Each person puts on a color for survival and strives constantly to make sure that that color is not washed out and gets worn out in the process. He protects that color even if it meant burning his dreams and hopes.

I blockaded my thoughts; we two lay down on the sand. I returned to the present and looked into her eyes. I know the sunrays create moonlight; now, that moonlight reflected in the eyes of Rajyam, turned into a soothing light and gave me an enormous peace of mind. We both, lying under that moonlight, felt embarrassed. How can explain this feeling—a desire that has been fulfilled in this manner, after eight-years of marriage? I saw the white saree with printed flowers and Rajyam noticed the pair of white shirt and pants. We both had hearty laugh!

“What’s that?” Rajyam pointed to something white and shiny and asked.

“We found a treasure,” I said, watching the shiny thing under the moonlight

We both walked close to it.

“Not any treasure. It’s the key-bunch you’d thrown away earlier,” Rajyam picked it up, elated, and shaking off the sand.

“That’s not it. That’s the responsibility that will not leave us even after we, the average people, throw it away.”




(The Telugu original, “sagatu candrudu” was published in Andhra Prabha, 23 April 1980, and later included in the anthology, “Sankar Kathalu” published by Chaso Sphurti Trust, Vizianagaram, 1995.


Translated by Nidadavolu Malathi and published on, March 2005)


1 Giving away daughter in marriage.

2 Hinduim prescribes four stages of life— brahmacaryam [time for education], gruhastha [family life], vanaprastha [retirement in preparation of detachment], and sanyasi stage, which means moving to the forest in pursuit of nirvana.

3 Sweet item made of milk and sugar.


The Native Element in Telugu stories By Nidadavolu Malathi.

We read stories—Russian, Chinese, Japanese, African—and learn about their culture. Some stories tell us we are not different. Their customs, habits, perceptions, social consciousness, family values and ethics appear to be so close to ours. They cry in the same way as we do, and be happy the same way as we, and aspire for better life in much the same way as we do. Then there are other stories that distinguish us from them. That is because each culture evolves in its own environment. Russian winter is unimaginable in Andhra Pradesh. The effects of the vast expanse of land in America is inconceivable in our country. Their interpersonal relationships are defined by their environment. They cannot imagine our lives during summer months. Possibly the extended family, so common in South Asian countries, is totally enimagmatic to Westerners. The stories from other cultures are fascinating for this reason—they tell us how people live under varying and/or similar circumstances.

The stories of writers like Chekhov, Maupassant, and Mark Twain appeal to us because they all are deep-rooted in their culture; they do not embrace the lifestyles of other cultures or create a pseudo-foreign atmosphere in their stories. This should tell us something, meaning, we the readers suspend our disbelief willingly, as Coleridge put it, and acquiesce to the other environment, and explore the other culture. That is and must be one of the primary principles for translation into another language, especially for international audiences. For that reason, when we select a story for translation, we need to keep the target audience in mind constantly.
Sometime back, a reader asked me how would I know who reads the translation. Of course, the translator cannot predict who would read the story. Once a translation is published, the translator has no control over the readership. However, he or she can still keep certain target readers in mind, and select a story that hopefully captures the attention of that audience. Others may read, and even enjoy the story. Nevertheless, one thing I would like to emphasise is, the readers, especially the native speakers, (Telugu readers, in this case) must remember that native flavor cannot be transported into the translation one hundred percent ever. When we read a translation from another language, more likely than not, we do not know if the story had carried its native flavor into the original. We can only see whether the translated version appealed to us or not.

When I select stories for translation, I attempt to find stories that illustrate the Telugu homes, Telugu environment, family values, interpersonal relationships as reflected in our relational terminology, our customs, beliefs, the games our children play and the food our mothers cook. It is important that they include as many minute details as possible. For the same reason, I stay away from stories filled with descriptions of modern homes with imported goods and ideas. I want stories that provide our age-old values, beliefs, customs, lifestyles, and perceptions we have cherished. One great example would be the arranged marriages in our families. Unfortunately, very often our stories cater to the stereotypical, preconceived notions of the westerners; but make no effort to explain the complexities inherent in the system; for instance, the underlying philosophy of the extended families, which includes the support the couples would receive in times of crisis.

Second, I would look for a style peculiar to the writer. It is common knowledge that every writer has or develops his own technique for telling a story. No two persons talk alike, and no two writers tell the same story using exactly the same vocabulary. There is no verbatim report, even when a story is retold by the same writer. That also explains why we have so many stories on any given topic. Each writer presents a new perspective, and adds to the commonality of global  understanding. Similarly, no two readers appreciate the same story and/or perceive the same message from a given story precisely in the same manner.

Against this background, I have attempted to present my rationale for selecting stories for translation for foreign readers, who are not familiar with our culture and traditions. Basically, I find three angles to this thought: 1. the stories that depict our religious, philosophical beliefs, and customs; 2. stories that describe various activities in our daily lives; and, 3. reflect unique perspectives and lifestyles in our society.

Let’s review a few Telugu stories in translation. In the story The Soul Wills It by Viswanatha Satyanarayana, man-woman relationship is explored within the context of Hindu beliefs. The story presents, in a larger context, man and woman not as two entities but, as one entity, complementary in nature. Thus, the pain suffered by the woman is experienced by the man. Similarly, the woman carries the man’s wish, not as a duty but, as a replication of the man’s pain. In terms of technique, the author used several forms. It started out with a description of the location and the main characters. In some parts, it was presented in the form of a direct report; and, in one instance, a dialogue, as in a play, was introduced. Is this acceptable as a storytelling technique in modern times? I am not sure. As I said at the outset, the author has the freedom to present his story in a manner that is befitting to his mode of thinking.

The Drama of Life (Madhurantakam Rajaram) depicts the absurdity in a presentation of Bharata yajnam, a narrative of Mahabharata in harikatha, style and the monetary reward the narrator receives at the end. The underlying philosophy of celebrating Bharata yajnam is to point out the appalling effects of gambling on a family. The storyteller learns, much to his dismay, that his payment has come from the income at the gambling stalls set up for the enjoyment of the audience. The storyline in itself is not something we can be proud of, yet, the umpteen details woven into the rendering are enlightening.

In the story, He is I, (Malladi Ramakrishna Sastry), the author depicts prostitutes as connoisseurs of fine arts and conjugal bliss. At one period, in our culture, they are supposed to initiate young men into the life of marital bliss. Into this complex issue, the author weaves a mystical perception “He is I”, the message being God resides in our bodies and respecting our bodies implies respecting God. As I mentioned earlier, the philosophical connotation leaves plenty to the readers’ imagination.

Another angle in this story is the use of pronouns peculiar to Telugu language, thanu or thaanu which is a gender-free reflexive, roughly meaning oneself. In a complete sentence, the verb suffix corresponds to the person’s gender though. The story He is I opens with one person, taanu, as the narrator. The pronoun, a reflexive, indefinite, third person, singular, and non-gender specific, is peculiar to Telugu language. After Swamiji is introduced, most of the story is narrated by Swamiji using the first person singular, nenu[I]. Towards the end, Swamiji says, “We [memu] were waiting for the other train to arrive.” Telugu has two forms of third person plural, manam [all-inclusive] and memu [excludes listener]. Significantly, in the story, the second term, memu is used. Thus implicitly the pronoun “we” includes the listener, the young man [taanu], and, puts the reader/audience in the shoes of a listener. Confusing as it is for foreigners, it is also quite illuminating. That is one of the reasons, I chose this story despite the difficulty in translating it.

Relational terminology is another aspect that pervade our stories. Just recently I read that Native Americans use relational terms for people not related by blood in much the same way we Telugu people do. In our culture the terms are indicative of not only the relationship between two individuals but also how each perceives the other. The discussion of relational terminology is beyond the scope of this paper but the point I am trying to make is our stories provide an additional layer to understand the conversations between two persons.

The Wedding Garments by Ravuru Satyanarayana Rao is a heartwarming story, perfect for holiday season. The madhuparkaalu are a set of garments offered by the bride’s parents to the groom along with a drink made of honey and milk  as he arrives for the ceremony. Puttanna, the protoganist, is a weaver by profession. He customarily makes the garments and presents free of charge to the family who performs a wedding in the village. The story illustrates the spirit with which Puttanna cherishes his family tradition. He refuses to make an exception even when chips are down and he is struggling. He would rather sell his cow, which he needs not only for his own subsistence but other families to whom he supplies milk. The story walks us through not only his struggles but the remarkable sense of dharma the groom avows. This is a moving story highlighting the human values that go beyond the call of one’s duty.

Currently in our society, caste is dismissed as reprehensible. There is however another angle to this caste or community spirit, which is welcome because it aims at the common good. Puttanna belongs to weavers community. For him it is a custom to weave madhuparkaalu (new set of clothes for the bride and groom) in any family in his village free of cost. The reader also learns what life was like for weavers community in those days. It tells us of a lifestyle that is fast disappearing.

Another story that gives elaborate description of a wedding ceremony in Telugu homes is two pawns lost by Poosapati Krishnamraju. This story oozes authentic Telugu flavor and provides  a peek into the process of wedding ceremony in our families as it unfolds.

The story Cottage Goddess by Kanuparti Varalakshmamma, published in Andhra Patrika Ugadi issue, 1924, depicts the ruination of cottage industries and the struggles of families caught up in the aftermath of the great Depression following the World War I. The author gives us the harsh realities of the early forties in middle class families and the woman’s struggle to raise her two little children. The amount of details in the struggles of the protagonist’s (Ramalakshmi’s) is quite an education. Sad as it may sound, that has been the reality in India. The small farmer, the small business, the mom-and-pop store round the corner took a downward turn and never recovered as India kept moving towards modernization. Once again, the details of everyday life during the period in question are well-recorded in these stories. 

The story, Headmaster by Palagummi Padmaraju, depicts the extraordinary, lifelong influence a mentor has on a student. In our tradition, the teacher has the same place as mother and father in the life of an individual. The lessons children receive from their teachers go beyond textbooks.

In the story Three million rupees bet (Arudra), we learn about the games children played prior to modernization has taken over and in the process about the creative ways they spend their time. The story introduces the reader to a game that is not prevalent anymore even in India. In these days of plastic toys and computer games only money can buy, it is hard to imagine children had just as much fun with the side panels of discarded cigarette boxes. It effectively illustrates not only children’s psyche but also how they imbibe the complex monetary values early in life.

Some of our feminist critics perceived the story The Escaped Parrot (Achanta Saradadevi) as a feminist story, since the female protagonist feels suffocated in their home. I however think that story goes beyond a woman feeling confined. The story illustrates powerfully the lack of communication between husband and wife. What Kamakshamma missed in her life is not freedom but closeness with her husband. In the absence of that closeness with her husband, she befriends a parrot, short-lived nevertheless. Thus in her life the true tragedy is not the house turning into a cage but her husband ignoring her existence. The one-word conversations between husband and wife, the husband constantly trying to convince her that life away from the city is peaceful are authentically depicted. That was the state of affairs in most of the Telugu homes in the fifties.

The story Lord Siva Commands by Nidadavolu Malathi, while depicting the newly acquired concept of privacy in Indian homes, the interpersonal relationships between two unrelated individuals belonging to two different generations are highlighted. In this story, the young woman rooted in Indian values and traditions happens to meet after two decades the elderly lady whom she respects as mentor. The story features several layers – two women from two generations developing closeness, the changing attitudes of the young woman after coming to America, her discomfort with the older woman’s probing questions on one hand and remembering the sweet memories from her past, and at the end realizing where the older woman has come from and how natural it is for her to speak the way she has spoken.

I included this story here because of the comments from current generation readers. The story illustrates the issue of privacy. In the past, in our country, the concept of privacy is not understood in the same manner as in the west. However, the perception among the current generation has been changing fast and it is evident from some of the comments I have received. Most of the current generation Telugu youth would consider the elderly woman “intrusive” and “insensitive,” to put it mildly. The letter at the end of the story, which she would have written had she known how to write, explains where she was coming from. Readers need to delve deeper into this kind of psyche.

That humor is hard to translate is common knowledge. Nevertheless, it is important we expose the foreign readers to that aspect of our culture. One of the ways I found is to introduce the story by way of review. I translated janatha express by Mullapudi Venkataramana as Middle Class Complex. This story has been relatively easy to translate since there is a noticeable storyline. On the other hand, another story Radha’s debt (Radhamma bakee) by the same author is hard to translate since there is plenty of witticism and little of storyline. For that reason, I presented in the form a review. The entire story is provided with explanations why a particular line is considered humorous for us. It allows us to explain the parts, which we consider humorous, but may not be perceived as such by foreign readers.

For each of these stories, it is a different time and different place. Usually, readers from other cultures read these stories in order to identify those differences. And, that is also the criterion for our translators in their selection of stories for translation.

I must admit that all the stories on this site meet these criteria. Nevertheless, ideally though, that is what I aim to accomplish—introduce our culture in its multifarious perceptions and our values to the non-native speakers.


(Author’s note: All the stories referred in this article are available on this site. This article has been modified from the original, how to read a Telugu story, published on, January 2005.)

© Nidadavolu Malathi.




The Soul Wills It by Viswanatha Satyanarayana.

There was an island on the ocean in a far-flung corner. It was located in a remote area. A few people from an advanced country set out on their ships to find it. Even after an intensive search, they could not find it. Actually, it took several thousands of years for them even to realize that the island had been in existence. They came to know about it only after they were convinced that they had occupied every island on the ocean. As soon as they found the island, they transported all the components of their culture—their religion, commerce, and guns—to that island. It became a part of their world.
The people on the island had been enjoying freedom for thousands of years; they had been enjoying it much better than all the others who had surrendered to the civilized world. Therefore, they could not accept slavery that easily. Like in other places, rebellions, machine guns and fierce fight took place on that island also.
A military chief from one of the civilized nations was appointed the ruler of that island. He was a bachelor, meaning he was not married yet. The island was located in the arctic region and therefore the people there were of fair complexion. They were just like any other barbaric race, which meant they had been living thus for millions of years. They believed that there was a divine power in trees, hills, the sun and the clouds, and so, worshipped them. They were singing the praise of the lightning and stayed away from the fireflies. They had great respect for the human spirit or life force(Jivudu). They never stepped on a living organism on the ground; never stomped on it. They never treated gold as currency; they thought it was a metal with unique powers and worshipped it. They were cooking their food in clay pots, being unaware that using metal pots was a mark of civilization. They wore clothes just enough to cover the vital parts but not the entire body. Now, the time had come for these barbaric people to become civilized. Their island was found by the enlightened race.
The military chief saw a woman. Her beauty caught his eye. The same evening, he sent word to her husband, asking him to send the woman to his mansion. That poor soul of a husband, the Jivudu! What could he do? For some time now, he was aware of the atrocities that were being committed on their island. Yet, it was in his nature to fight back. Therefore, he replied that the request was unfair, and that he would not let go of his wife, even if it meant losing his own life.
The Chief was furious. He went to Jivudu’s house along with ten armed men. Jivudu knew they were coming. He pulled out two pieces of firewood; he held one stick himself and gave the other stick to his son. They both stood in front of their house with their sticks.
The Chief looked at their weapons—the sticks—and laughed.
“Why are you laughing?” Jivudu asked him.The Chief replied, “You, idiot! Did you really think that your sticks are a match for our guns?”
Jivudu said, “I know these sticks are no good against your guns. I am doing this only to register my stance against yours but for no other purpose.”
The chief was enraged. He swung his sword and slashed their heads in one blow. Then, he went into the hutment and seized the woman. There were four children with her—from a six-year-old boy to a breastfed baby. They all were crying. The woman could not leave them alone and go away with the military chief. She threw herself on the dead bodies of her husband and son and kept wailing.
Soldiers took away the corpses and threw them into the sea. The woman hugged her remaining children and kept lamenting.
The chief ordered the soldiers to take away those children as well. The soldiers took the three older children and thrashed them on the floor several times. The children sustained several injuries and died of weariness. The mother went with the chief, taking her little baby with her.
Five years passed by. The little baby turned five. The woman and the little girl were living in the chief’s mansion.
One day, the chief came to visit her. He said, “You’re not living with me as appropriate for a woman; probably you will not until after that child also was gone.”The woman replied, “There is no despot worse than you. You are not a human being. Do you want to kill this little child too?”

He said, “She was a little baby when I brought you here, but not anymore. Have I not snatched away the other children of yours from you in the past? They were of the same age as she is now; and her fate is going to be the same now.”
After living with him for five years, the woman has gotten used to his words; now she could understand the meaning of each word of his. She picked up the child, handed her to him, and said, “Here, take her and kill her. As long as she is alive, I cannot let go of her.”
He hacked the little girl into two in front of the mother.
The mother went away, crying.
For a few nights, she thought of hanging herself but did not.
For a few more nights, she thought of drowning herself in the ocean but did not.
And on some nights, she considered dousing herself in kerosene and set herself on fire but did not do that either.
She went on entertaining similar thoughts s for several nights.
After a few days, one day the chief got drunk and came into her room.
She looked as if she was the personification of grief.
He said to her, “Your husband and children are dead for ten years now; and your little baby is dead for five years.”
“It is twenty-five years since my country had lost its independence.”
The chief laughed hideously and said, “How long are you going to mourn them?”
“As long as this body exists.”
“You are wanting for nothing. You are wearing better clothes now than before; living in a better house, and eating better food than before. I love you. My race is superior to yours; and I am a greater man than your husband.”
“You are not a greater than my husband.”
Chief (angrily); Am I not the greater of the two? Tell me in what respect?Woman: You have rifles. You have swords. Yet my husband stood up to you holding a stick in an attempt to save my children and me. He was aware that he would not be able to protect us, yet he performed his duty. He did not let go of me, not until after he was dead. If I were your wife, and if somebody stronger than yourself came along, you would have run away. You are a coward.
Chief (screaming): I am not a coward.
Woman: I knew it even on the first day, that you were a coward. If you were brave, you would have fought my husband with another stick. Why did you bring so many soldiers?
Chief (laughing): Do you think I could not fight that feeble idiot with a stick?
Woman: He is dead. How can you prove it now? You cannot prove your valor to me now. If you were really a brave man, you would not have acted the way you did on that day.
Chief: It is not that I was not brave. I just did not have this cleverness then.
Woman: For us, the people of my race, there is no difference between courage and cleverness. For us, justice is cleverness; and cleverness is courage.
Chief: Then, why are living with me, knowing the kind of person I am?”
Woman: I am not living with you.
Chief: Anybody, who has heard your words, would think you are an idiot.”
Woman: I will consider him an idiot.Chief: So, you are saying you do not like to live with me.
Woman: I am telling you for the one hundred and thousandth time; no, I do not like to live with you.
Chief: I know you do not love me. I should have earned your love in a gentler way. Then, you would have loved me.
“I’ll love you after your entire race has been eradicated”.
“I will kill you.”
“I’ve been waiting for over ten years for you to do the same.”
“You love death that much?”
“Beyond measure.”
“Are not there other ways to die?”
“Yes, there are.”
“Then, why did you not kill yourself? You can jump into the ocean or hang yourself.”
“I do not like to die in that manner.”
“How do you like to die?”
“I want to goad you on and be killed by you.”
“It only shows that you love me that much.”
“Yes, I love you, and I’ll tell you what kind of love mine is for you. I wish to die by the same hand that had killed my husband and children.”
“Never mind all that talk. The truth is you do not want to die.”
“You are mistaken. I do want to die. But there are two kinds of death. The first is the death that comes of its own accord. And the second is the kind that happens when somebody kills. I like the second kind.”
“That means you do like living with me.”
“I have known you for over ten years now. You are a beast. All your sophistication lies only in your liquor, the clothes you wear and the ammunition you hold in your hand. But it is not in your heart, not in your culture and certainly not in your creativity. I do not love you. You are not a human being. You are surprised that I continue to live.
“My Jivudu will not want me to kill myself by hanging or by jumping into the ocean. My Jivudu
is hanging on to this body. He would never quit on his own. This Jivudu wishes that I squirm and shrivel while pining for my dead husband and children, and smolder in the great flames of their loss. This is a unique experience for Jivudu. This Jivudu will not die on his own; he will not like it. That is not because he wants to enjoy life. He believes that both pleasure and pain must be experienced in conjunction with this body. There is a constant connection between this body and Jivudu. He will experience whatever pleasure he wants by means of this body.
“You might think that Jivudu must be enjoying the fact that I am in this body and am living with you. That is not true. I just do not want to kill myself. I like to die very much when you kill me. Also, I would like it even more if death came on its own. It is the same with Jivudu. He prefers to enjoy the pleasures of life as he pleased through the use of this body. The joys imposed on him by others are not pleasurable for him. He would like it just the same if it were pain.”
“If that is the case, I do not want you.”
>”I did not ask for you.”
“I will kill you.”
“Why keep saying the same thing over and again?”
The Chief killed her. A happy smile flashed on her lips as she fell to the ground. While breathing her last, she said, “In your life, this is the only good deed you have done. Now I am dying. What will you do after I am dead?”
“I will get another woman.”
“The words are befitting to you! Your race can never understand what Jivudu wishes for.”
Telugu original, Jivudi ishtam was published in Andhra Patrika Weekly in 1941.
Translated by Nidadavolu Malathi and published on, March 20)
The term means the life-force or human spirit, and is used as a proper noun in the story.

Middle-class Complex by Mullapudi Venkataramana

 Raamakumaree mee illa undaa?

Ratnakumaaree mee illa undaa?

Peruperulatalli mee illa undaa?

Peddappa dorasaani mee iLLa unddaa?

Iis Ratnakumaree in your home?

My princess of many titles is she in your home?

The big father’s princess is she in your home?] 

Narasamma was singing as she went around peeking through the neighbors’ doors. The women in the other dwellings replied as usual, ‘No, we didn’t see her.’

illullu tirigeti pillalakodi

alladugo chuudave tellavaarenu

meluko, meluko O Sundarammaa!

melukove inka bangaarubomma. 

[There is the mother hen ambling round  with her brood

Look there the dawn

Wake up, Sundaramma! Wake up

Time to wake up, my golden doll!]

Narasamma’s music woke up Chakravarti and he started his own tune. His poetry frightens his wife, Sundaramma. She jumped out of the bed, scribbled “Sri” in her palm[1], lit up the stove and went to the neighbor’s house to borrow coffee. The neighbor-aunty just returned with sugar she borrowed from Janaki. Janaki, also known as Janakamma, is a school teacher. She works in the same school Sundaramma’s husband works. For that reason Sundaramma does not like to borrow from Janakamma. To be specific, Sundaramma borrows from nobody else except neighbor-aunty. They both share expensive desires. Therefore they are a good match, as the phrase goes, in all respects, either in fighting or befriending.[2] Sundaramma believes that she and the neighbor-aunty got stuck in this middle-class complex only because of some temporary setbacks, and also, because the neighbor-aunty could not find a bigger house.

Sundaramma is entertaining a strong desire to buy a brand new Jaguar. Neighbor-aunty has similar thoughts about a mansion for the present. She would eventually have a huge house built, fully equipped with a phone, radio and a shaggy dog. She has already bought the cloth for the table cover, stitched embroidery on it and kept it ready for the table on which she was going to put the radio. She bought a beautiful collar and a chain for the cute dog she was going to have. She has mastered the code of conduct that is proper when one rides in classy cars. She has found out about those things by reading and observing others with big cars—things like waiting until the driver comes around and opens the door—things like putting one foot out elegantly while getting out of the car, letting one sandal loosely hang on her foot, making sure that there is at least a 60-degree angle between her toe and the insole of the sandal, stylishly let the sari end get stuck in the car door, and then chime a charming exclamatory note like ‘OOH’ in English and act out an impressive and astounding scare … Stunningly beautiful Sundaramma has practiced all these techniques when she went to the movies in a taxicab.

“Aunty, yesterday I saw a beautiful, beautiful black car, you won’t believe it. It was soooooo beautiful! It was so dark, just like my black Hyderabad sari,” Sundaramma said to neighbor-aunty.

“Which one? You mean the one that passes by every day at about ten thirty on our street? Is that it? … I saw it near our boss’s building. By the way, did you see the new building they bought? That is exactly the one I had in mind. Trust me, for a second it felt like they stole my plan. The only difference is the compound wall. It’s a kind of short,” neighbor-aunty said.

Chakravarti was still in bed on the other side of the matted partition and was listening to their conversation. He is fully aware that, if he lets this chatting continue, he will end up with coffee at dinner time, and dinner at bedtime. “Sundari…” he shouted crossly.

“Oh, I almost forgot. I ran out of coffee…”

“I am afraid I am short, too,” neighbor-aunty replied, starting to show signs of displeasure.

Sundaramma realized her mistake, she bit her tongue.

“Just a little, just for this morning, just one Nagpur[3] cupful measured with your Nagpur cup,” she said.

Neighbor-aunty felt like she had bought the building of her dreams. “Of course, here, as you please,” she said in a sweet tone.

As soon as Sundaramma left, Narasamma came to say hi to neighbor-aunty. “Is my little one here?” she asked gently.

“No…” said neighbor-aunty, maintaining her distance.

“Hum, strange! She loves you so much. She always talks about you, keeps chiming, aunty, aunty, wouldn’t quit for a second. She likes it here… your house is spacious, you know. She really likes it here,” Narasamma said.

“Ah, what space.. I am choking. The more I wish for a bigger house the farther it is getting it seems.”

Narasamma changed the subject, “Anyway, can I borrow some rice? That is only if you can spare, I mean.”

“Of course, if I don’t have it, how can I loan you. Frankly, we are never short for anything. No such word as ‘don’t have’ in our house…”

“It is not that, really. I went to eight homes so far in this complex. All of them said no.. I am telling you this only because you are my friend,” Sundaramma remarked.

“So be it. Sure a day will come when they’ll have to account for their lies.[4] Here. Take as much rice as you need. Why only half a pound, take a quarter more. Did you bring a container or would you rather take it in the palloo of your sari?”

“Let me have it in your Culcutta silver dish,” Narasamma said. Neighbor-aunty gave her the rice, some eggplants and a slice of squash, additionally.

Narasamma went home and opened the door. All the four children rushed out in a flurry screaming, ‘I want rice,’ ‘I want snacks,’ ‘money’ ‘clothes’ and so on. Narasamma s gave them two each as usual and told them to get lost.

In the next five minutes, all the eleven families in that complex heard Narasamma’s children’s clamor which meant the day dawned. They all woke up.


Here is how the complex came into existence:

Some thousands of years ago, the noise that woke up people in that terrain did not come from children but from crows and roosters. In those days, a little daughter of a sage, whose ancestral background included Kanva, Viswamitra and Vasishta[5], performed a marriage of dolls. All the other sages wanted to have a beautiful ceremony and so created a garden with flower beds and shrubs. They also built a home in the middle of the garden as a temporary residence for the bridegroom’s party and several huts on either side. Several centuries passed by, and then years and finally the twentieth century had set in.

Eventually civilization caught on and there evolved a township. The landlord who bought the huts removed the thatched roofing and replaced it with tiles and old tin sheets. In place of the old bamboo partitions, he had walls built with clay and brick. He demolished the main hut at the heart of the area and raised a house with a flat roof at first and then added a room upstairs.

In course of time, these tenements or dwellings changed hands but not the tenants. Now several families live there in the outlying one-and-a-half rooms paying ten rupees rent each. The centrally located house is divided into two portions. One gentleman and his family are renting one portion. Subbarao, his wife and the wife’s father, Maavagaru[6] occupied the second portion. The other small dwellings in the area are occupied by tenants like the charming couple, Chakravarti and Sundaramma, and Narasamma, the mother goose with her brood and also the target of Chakravarti’s unbearable poetic exuberances.

Amidst these families there is a woman named Janaki or Janakamma renting one of the dwellings. She is a 5th grade teacher, unmarried and a doll of gold for looks.

Veerraju, the landlord, lives in the upstairs room of the house in the middle of this complex. He lives alone. He possesses some of the heroic qualities of the main character in the novels of Sarat Babu.[7] Has no relatives of any significance. Any relatives he may have are living far away. Veerraju has no great magnetic personality and as such in no way could claim the tenants as his family.

Veerraju is not crazy about living amidst this crowd and hardly pays attention to the rumpus in the area. However his curiosity got the better of him as the neighbors started stopping by and telling on each other. He would sit in his room upstairs like the Captain of the sea, and watch while all the people in the apartments get into a brawl, scuffle, squeal, or shriek and what not. He, however, has a soft corner for them and that is evident from the rents they owed him.

Sometimes their defaulting gets to him, especially, when he was short for cash. He watches them go to the movies while defaulting on rent, and that gets under his skin.

On one such Sunday, Veerraju stopped Subbarao as he was on his way to a movie. “Please, pardon me, sir. Could you please adjust this month’s rent at least…”

Subbarao was surprised. “Haven’t I paid you on the first of this month? What do you mean ‘at least’? I never defaulted on rent!”

“I haven’t received the rent for the past five months,” Veerraju replied.

“You must be mistaken. I was sending the rent each month the day after I received my paycheck.”

“But I did not receive it, sir.”

Subbarao was irritated by Veerraju’s tone. He rushed in to the house which meant ‘I am going to settle this right now.’ He questioned his wife in the strongest terms, and she replied, “What’s got to him? What do you mean we are not paying rent? We are paying each month regularly.”

“All right, you tell him that,” Subbarao told her.

“Great! You are telling me to confront that gentleman and tell him that we had been paying rent regularly! Let’s wait until my father returns. He was the one who’s depositing the cash,” she said.

Subbarao’s fervor slowed down as he heard that Maavagaru was depositing it. He cooled down. Maavagaru went for a walk. He usually returns home after taking care of his princely errands.

Subbarao couldn’t think of the words he could say to Veerraju. He was down. His suspicion was increasing by the minute. He looked out the window. The tenants in the three other apartments were lined up and watching the scene like the audience at a circus performance. Only Janaki stayed in the kitchen, busy with her cooking. Subbarao swallowed his pride and went back to Veerraju. He said, “Let’s talk about this later tonight,” and went away.

  It was eight at night. Subbarao was reading newspaper.

“You’ve come home early today?” Maavagaru entered and asked him, zealously.

“Change first. Let’s eat,” Subbarao said.

Maavagaru pulled up his shirt to remove. He was half way in the process, his head was still in the shirt, half covered. In that specific moment, Subbarao said, “Veerraju says we defaulted on rent.”

Maavagaru did not finish removing the shirt, nor did he pull it down. He hid his face behind the shirt, and said, “What rent?”

“What do you mean what rent? The rent for my head? I am talking about house rent,” Subbarao snarled.

Maavagaru slid down his shirt and peeked through. He said, “Look, Subbarao! Tell me this. If we can’t even default on rent for this dungeon of a house, why should we stay here at all?”

“Not one, not two but five months’ rent! Five times thirty, that is one hundred and fifty! That is what you defaulted in rent,” Subbarao said.

  Maavagaru quickly pulled his shirt up and hid his head again in it. “Who told you that? I don’t think it is five months; may be three months or four months tops.”

Subbarao asked him impatiently, “Maavagaru, why are you doing this to me? Is it fair to make my life miserable like this?”

  Maavagaru did not remove his shirt. Luckily, one of Subbarao’s friends, who usually approaches him with a ‘hello’[8] walked in and said, ‘hello!’ He asked for a loan. He announced that he was planning to repay the entire amount he had borrowed on various occasions—a five, a ten, and a ten plus two that is twelve….

“What is new?” Subbarao growled, mixing a shade of sarcasm.

“I will receive a Money Order today.”

“That’s great. You could have waited until you had it in your hand and then come to pay me. Why this announcement now?”

“No reason. If you give me another eight now, I am hoping to repay the entire twenty.”

“Your idea is good, but I don’t have the money. Even if I had, I will not give you,” replied Subbarao, annoyed.

Maavagaru pulled down his shirt to its normal state and kept watching this show.

“Okay, give me just three. Let’s make it fifteen total,” the friend said, hopefully.

Subbarao smiled and said, “My dear friend, sit down. I will explain to you,” and continued solemnly, “I know of two jobs in the government. How about taking one of them?”

“Oh, no sir. I would not work for the government.”

“No? You just want to live pestering people like me?” Subbarao asked.

“Okay, tell me. Let’s see what you’ve got?”

“These jobs are independent contracts. No monthly paychecks. Your income depends on your ability.”

“Tell me about it.”

“The first one is in the Postal department. Light work. See those small post offices? You go there with a small bottle of ink and pen. People come there to write letters. Your job is to lend your ink bottle and the pen and lean forward so he can use your back for a desk. After that, your second job is to stick out your tongue like an automatic machine and let him moisten the stamp and then retract it. After that, you lend again your back for his use to affix the stamp on his envelope. You can charge one half of an anna[9] per envelope. Imagine your income per day at this rate,” Subbarao said quickly and zealously.

  The friend was speechless. Maavagaru pulled his shirt up again pretending to remove it and hid his face in his shirt. Subbarao pretended not to notice any of this, and continued, “If you don’t like this job, there is another you might want to consider. Take a kerosene lantern and run along the railway tracks one half of a mile ahead of the Calcutta train. If you notice any problem with the railway tracks, your job is to signal the train to stop. This is night shift completely.”

 “Cchup,” Maavagaru said. The friend left irately.

  “Did you say something?” Subbarao asked Maavagaru.

“You used that idiot to insult me and that is rude… Why can’t you just ask me to  move out?” Maavagaru spoke through the shirt.

“Did I ask you to come and to live with us? I am respecting you for your age, treating you like a father, and look how you are paying me back. Did I say one word to hurt you? Now you start playing with the rent money as well, you tell me how am I supposed to deal with this?”

  Subbarao’s wife called out from the kitchen, “Father, you come inside. Don’t get into an argument with him.”

“You keep quiet. I will settle this right now,” Maavagaru replied from under the cover of his shirt.

“Settle what? The shirt?” asked Subbarao.

Maavagaru was furious. He tried to act out several emotions like ‘You idiot, you are being sarcastic or what?’ The shirt gave in to his frustration and was ripped, creating two holes in the panels. His two hands emerged out of the two holes, leaving his head still in the cover.

  Veerraju heard the commotion from his room upstairs. He rushed down three steps and was stunned. There was only one doorway between Subbarao’s portion and the next door neighbors. Veerraju saw through the window the most charming scene through the window:

The next door neighbor was sitting in a chair at the center of the group. His wife was sitting next to him in another chair. Their sons, daughters and grandchildren surrounded the couple. Some of them were sitting on the floor at their feet. All of them, sitting on the other side of the door, could not see but were enjoying whatever was audible to their hearts’ content.

Veerraju saw them all lined up like for a group photo and scoffed. Janaki just returned after her tutoring session. She also noticed this scene and was disgusted. She went away to her home, feeling good that Veerraju shared her sentiment.

 While Subbarao and Maavagaru were engaged in a verbal exchange, a huge noise—as if a Canadian train engine was rolling down a steep mountain slope—was heard. They both stopped for a second. A 1928 model automobile came rolling down, making unbearable noises like DHAN, DHAN, TAK, TAK, and stopped in front of Subbarao’s home.

  “WE BOUGHT A CAR, WE BOUGHT A CAR,” Sundaramma screamed from inside the car, bursting at the seams. She lay back fashionably.

  All the tenants were so absorbed in the on-going argument, they did not pay attention to Sundaramma’s car. Even Narasamma’s children were scared a little.

  Sundaramma, disappointed, turned to the driver and said, “right, right, let’s go.” The car moved forward, turned to the right, and to another right and stopped in. “Hold on,” Sundaramma shouted as the car pulled in front of her home.

 Chakravarti was in the porch. He turned around quickly and looked up. “What is this?” he asked. Sundaramma thanked the driver, gave him a rupee and told him to go home.

“Our car! What do you think? I paid only four hundred, just four hundred,” She said.

“Are you out of your mind? You bought a car! Tell me this first. Where did you get four hundred? … Do you have any idea how much we are paying for rent?” Chakravarti said.

“Wait a second. I will tell you all about it. First I need water,” Sundaramma said.

 In the meantime, the argument between Subbarao and Maavagaru reached the peak. The audience heard the words, spoken in a high pitch, “I am giving you not only the pocket money but also letting you do the grocery shopping, aren’t I?”

 Nobody in that entire complex could believe that Subbarao could speak so harshly. Therefore they all were stunned. Maavagaru did not expect this, not in his wildest dreams. Therefore he was also flabbergasted. His lips quivered and eyes turned red. He was eager to utter several words but  none of them came out. All he could say was, “wait,” like a thunder. Then he left the house. After that, however, he wasn’t sure, what next? He looked back and saw Subbarao go into the house.

 Maavagaru deliberated for one more second and walked straight into Janakamma’s portion.

“Amma[10], you’ve heard it too, right? Here, I am holding your hands, I could fall on your feet.[11] I am old. Unfortunately I ended up in this horrible condition. Please, loan me one hundred and fifty rupees. I will pay you back by tomorrow evening, pawning my head[12] if necessary. In this complex, if there is one person willing to loan me, that is only you,” he said.

 Janaki felt sorry for him. But she does not have that much cash on hand. Besides, she wasn’t really paying attention to what happened there. She was million miles away, lost in her own thoughts. “You go to the store for a soda or something, and come back after five minutes,” she said.

  Maavagaru left. Janaki went straight upstairs. Veerraju was feeling sorry for causing so much trouble for everybody. Janaki stood in front of him and said that she needed fifty rupees, it was urgent she added. Janaki rarely talks to him. He could figure out right away the real reason behind her request now.

  “You are a very nice person,” he said, handing her five new bills.

  Janaki smiled. She has heard similar compliments frequently from other teachers, headmaster, and secretary at school. Even for a slightest complaint like headache, they all would jump in with numerous suggestions, a variety of medications from all kinds of systems like Allopathy, Ayurveda etc. They pour out sympathies on her nonstop.

  Veerraju noticed this line of thinking in her smile. “Please don’t take it as a lip service,” he added, also laughing.

“You paid compliments to my good nature, not to my lips,” she said, turning around to leave.

“Oh, that? If you want only that kind of praise, I can do it nonstop. I can write an amazing paper and have you score ten for ten on it,” he said.

“You’re funny,” Janaki said and left.

  Janaki gave the one hundred and fifty rupees to Maavagaru. He told her several times and in a choked voice that he could never repay her debt. He went home and threw the money in front of Subbarao. Subbarao took the money without a word and gave it to his wife. The wife gave it back to her father, Maavagaru.

  Maavagaru picked up the money, holding it with his finger-tips, as if it were something untouchable, and went straight to Veerraju and paid off the debt.

  The rumpus in the complex settled down. The only audible sounds were those coming from Sundaramma’s dwelling. All the other families turned off the lights, and were enjoying the argument between the husband and wife, like a light breeze. They all were ecstatic that they had the pleasure of two altercations in one day, and now joking about some specific phrases and points.

  “Are you out of your mind?” Chakravarti asked his wife.

“Why are you shouting?” Sundaramma retorted.

In the next two minutes the argument reached climax. Sundaramma’s language acquired a shade of sobbing. Chakravarti’s voice was resounding like a metal bell. Their words were flying like blazing coal.

  “Where did you get the four hundred rupees, anyways?”

“I’ve been saving for some time. I sold my chain and the silver dish and got three hundred rupees. Maavagaru noticed my desire and loaned me one hundred rupees. Don’t worry, I will repay it myself,” Sundaramma replied tensely.

  These words were heard in each of the dwellings as if the words went and knocked on their doors. Subbarao also heard them. Now he understood the real story.

  Maavagaru paid the rent, came back, lowered the kerosene lamp wick, and went to bed.

“He [Subbarao] says he will not eat today. Come father, I set the plate for you,” Subbarao’s wife said to her father, Maavagaru.

  “I don’t want it either,” he said, lying down on his bed. He kept looking at the little lamp.

“So that is the real story,” said Subbarao.

  “What story? Didn’t I throw the rent in his face?” Maavagaru said, turning toward the wall.

“I am talking about Sundaramma’s car. It’s a nice car. And you were kind enough to give her a loan. With interest, so what? You let her have one hundred rupees,” said Subbarao gently.

  Maavagaru did not respond. They were quiet for about 15 minutes. Subbarao waited until his wife fell asleep and started the conversation again, “You are an adult. Why do you act like this?”

  A few words emanated from the mouth of Maavagaru in that darkness, like the smoke from a chimney. He narrated the story slowly and unemotionally: “I was never wanting for anything as long as my wife was alive. She always served the food, no matter what– whether I brought in the dough or not. Now I am alone and had the misfortune of living under my son-in-law’s roof. All I want is a home of my own. Sometimes I am embarrassed, you know. I resent it but can’t help it. The desire is not going away. I am hankering for money simply because I want my own home. Look, I will repay your debt some how,” he said.

 Subbarao did not know that Maavagaru was worried so much. He felt sorry for him. He also resented a little that Maavagaru used the darkness as a shroud to express his wishes. He rolled over to the other side and after a minute or so.

He said, “Let’s forget the whole thing.”


   At dawn, Narasamma and her children woke up and dressed up. She went to neighbor-aunty’s house but did not ask for a loan. She and her children were invited to the wedding ceremony on the next street. Narasamma came to ask aunty is she would go with them. Aunty said no. She turned around pompously waving her Benares silk sari in the air.

Aunty was sweeping the floor. She looked at Sundaramma and laughed. Aunty had noticed long time ago that Narasamma has only one silk sari. She even told Sundaramma that Narasamma wears the same sari again and again for each and every occasion. She hoped that Sundaramma would understand the underlying meaning of her laugh and agree with her. But Sundaramma did not respond. She put the water on the stove to make coffee.

Aunty felt let down. She has been feeling let down since 9:00 p.m. last night. In the entire complex, they are the only two persons with expensive desires. If it comes to that, Aunty’s wish is a notch higher. But then Sundaramma beat her to it by buying the car first. From that moment it became her sole aim to exchange jokes with Sundaramma.

“Sundaramma, would you like to borrow coffee?” she asked in a soft tone.

Sundaramma needed coffee but wouldn’t want to admit it right away. She replied, “Oh, no. Not necessary. We have the car you see. We’ll go to some restaurant, have coffee, and then buy vegetables on our way home.”

Chakravarti was still grumpy about it. Her response ticked him off.

“Oh, no. Haven’t we got a car, of course? Let’s drink the gasoline for the present. Later we can cook the tires for our next meal,” he said in a whisper. Aunty ended up loaning a Nagpur cupful of coffee to Sundaramma.

Chakravarti, still whining, finished his coffee and went to the market. He was embarrassed to leave the complex and step outside, he was embarrassed for having the car parked in front of his one and a half rooms. As soon as he hit the road, he ran into Subbarao.

Both of them were aware that the scuffles in their heavenly abodes last night were a matter of public record. At first they were too ashamed to see in to each other’s face. Next moment both of them looked up and looked straight into each other’s face. Each one felt pity for self and sympathy for the other at the same time. They broke into a loud laugh.

Subbarao’s laugh meant, “Maavagaru in my case and the car in your case.”

Chakravarti’s laugh implied, “Car for me and Maavagaaru for you.”

“See you later”

“All right.”

The brains of Maavagaru worked fast, as he noticed Subbarao and Chakravarti leave their respective homes. He went to Sundaramma and demanded the fifty he loaned her earlier and also an additional hundred. Sundaramma spelled n-o. Maavagaru returned home and fell into deep thought. He was about to bite off his nails when Subbarao showed up.

“Maavagaru, I think you borrowed the money last night in a fit of anger. Let bygones be bygones. Here, take this money and pay it back,” he said, handing him the one hundred and fifty he withdrew from the bank.

Maavagaru was surprised and was about to protest but by the time he opened his mouth Subbarao had left to take bath. So he cancelled that thought and set out to finalize his original plan.

First he separated twenty-five rupees from the amount and tucked it in his lungi at the waist. He went to Janaki’s room with the remaining one hundred and twenty-five rupees. He told her that he would never, not even in his future lives, forget the help she had done last night. He gave her the 125 rupees and alerted her to make a note of the balance of 25 rupees. He expressed his gratitude one more time and also avowed that he could never repay her kindness. Yet, he would not sleep until he had settled her account, he assured her.

“No. Please don’t lose sleep over this,” Janaki spoke respectfully.

“That is not possible. I am dead set on returning the favor. Look! Go ahead and finish teaching for now. .. But take the time off for this afternoon. ..No. Don’t say no. I will explain it to you later. You must be home this afternoon, don’t forget,” he said and left in a hurry. Then, he went straight to the next street. He didn’t even care to eat. Narasamma was scurrying around in her silk sari. Nobody could tell whether she was in the bride’s party or the groom’s. Maavagaru told her to come home that afternoon. He kept repeating that she should be home by 1:00 without fail, told her to leave the children at the wedding party, and insisted on her word Narasamma gave her word.

Maavagaru returned home and ate. After Subbarao left for work, he asked his daughter to sit down and explained his plan to her. The daughter was surprised. He convinced her to go along with his plan. He told her to make snacks, picked up his upper garment[13] and went to take care of the rest of the arrangements.

Janaki came home at 1:30 as was told and was surprised to find Maavagaru dressed up like a bridegroom.

“Good, you’ve come home, and right on time. You could get rest of the day off. Good. Sit down for a few minutes. No rush,” he said, zealously.

“Rush for what?” Janaki asked.

“Right, right. Rush for what? No rush, no rush at all. Go, freshen up. Fix your hair. No? All right, no need. You are looking great just the way you are. Looking like a goddess,” he said.

Janaki was confused.

“Janakamma dear, come here,” Narasamma said, flaunting her new silk sari.

Before Janaki could respond, Subbarao’s grabbed Janakamma’s arm and dragged her into the house.

Inside the house, there were three chairs and a rug spread on the floor. Subbarao’s wife helped Janaki sit on the rug and started to chitchat.

“Did you see Sundaramma’s car?” she asked. “Are the people at school making of fun of Chakravarti?” she asked.

Janaki smiled timidly and said, “Yes. The news reached our school right away. Everybody has been asking him questions–whether it were true, whether he really had bought a car? Why didn’t he come in his car? Poor man. He is very frustrated. Those idiots. I don’t know why they don’t let others live their lives. What is it to them who bought what?”

“Yes, yes,” Said Maavagaru. In the next minute he said, “There, they’re here!”

A 35 year-old man named Ramarao and a 30 year-old woman named Lakshmikantamma arrived.


   Maavagaru and Ramarao met a year ago. Soon they became bosom buddies. Ramarao became the best friend and right-hand man  to Maavagaru and vice versa. For Maavagaru, Ramarao’s sister became the goddess, the center of his universe, and winning her hand his life’s mission, and so on. He coveted her to be his life-partner. That woman, Lakshmikantamma said she would agree provided he could run her clothes store profitably. If he agrees, so would she. There is however one more glitch. Ramarao also has been unmarried for some time. During that time he saw Janaki and fell in love with her, head over heels. He has been praying day and night for his marriage with her. He even fasted four to five times toward this goal.[14] Maavagaru said that was no big deal. Ramarao said, “Well, if you fix that, your marriage is confirmed. Both of us can live happily ever after.”

Accordingly, on the afternoon in question, Ramarao and his sister, Lakshmikantamma arrived there to set a date for the engagement. Janaki was not aware of this story.

When she saw the strangers, she said “You have company,” was ready to leave. The entire group assured her unanimously that she should stay.

Subbarao’s wife served snacks and coffee. They all started eating snacks and talking small talk. Janaki did neither eat nor talk. Narasamma noticed that. “Come Janaki, eat something. No need to be shy,” she said coaxingly.  For the moment, she was playing the role of an adult aunt for Janaki. She was following the instructions Maavagaru had given her earlier and treating Janaki like her own “little girl.” In the confusion, her hand shook and the coffee spilled on her blue silk sari.

“Ooooh, oooh,” Narasamma bemoaned.

Rest of company, startled, turned around and looked at her.

“Ohh, no. What can I do now? It’s mishap. Let’s wash it right away. Then it won’t smudge,” she said, watching Subbara’s wife, apprehensively.

“Don’t worry. We can take care of it later,” said Subbarao’s wife, sounding casual.

“Well, whatever you say. I’ve said it. What have I got to lose. It is your sari that’s ruined,” said Narasamma.

The rest of the party burst into a big laugh. She was perplexed.

Maavagaru cleared his throat and opened the subject, the real reason for the meeting.

“Ramarao, what do you think? Do you like her? I am telling you, she is a gold cluster. You can search all the three worlds but won’t find a gentler woman,” he said.

“That is the truth. She is gleaming like Mahalakshmi [goddess of wealth],” said Lakshmikantamma. Janaki looked at them, totally lost.

Maavagaru said, “Janakamma, he is like a younger brother to me. The best qualified man. You don’t have to worry about annoyances like mother-in-law and other children. He has a sister but she will get married soon enough and leave for her in-law’s home.”

Ramarao laughed a silly laugh and said, “True, no time wasted. We’ve already the bridegroom, it is as good as done.”

Maavagaru was embarrassed. He lowered his head, smiling shyly.

“Wait, what is the matter? Where are you going?” Narasamma said. The group turned and looked up.

Janaki stood up. “What is all this nonsense? Is this the reason you asked me to be here? Nobody needs to arrange my marriage. It is my headache and I will take care anyway I please,” she said and rushed out of the room. She went to her room, threw herself on the bed and broke into sobs.

She cried for some time and  felt relieved, slightly. Thoughts started to surface slowly and gradually as if they were scared to come out. It felt like she has all these problems only because she has no immediate family to take care of her. Every man she comes across talks about either marrying her or arranging her marriage with someone. They have nothing else to talk about. Every man watches her in some warped way… Janaki was scared. She dozed off while the thoughts were still floating in her head.

She woke up at about five in the evening and came in to the front porch. The entire complex looked lifeless, like a graveyard. Probably the tenants in this side of the complex went for a walk. .. Suddenly she heard the rattling noise of the car.

Chakravarti sat in that old convertible Austin, a piece of junk. Sundaramma was sitting next to him ostentatiously. They were going for a ride. She wore a red sari and a black blouse—a horrible mismatch, and a bunch of flowers tucked in her hair. She also wore a pair of dark eyeglasses.

Janaki smiled kindly. She had noticed that Chakravarti was driving like a scared kid and pitied him. Then her eyes turned to the room upstairs. Up there, Veerraju stood near the window, looking sad, and smoking a cigarette. He was watching the couple in the car.

Janaki felt pity again. She wondered if Veerraju was disappointed for not being in Chakravarti’s unfortunate predicament. Suddenly she remembered the money she had borrowed from him the night before. She went in, took that money and went upstairs.

Veerraju felt a flutter for a second. And then was charmed. He took the money from Janaki mechanically.

“Aren’t you feeling well?” Janaki asked him.

“I am fine. The problem lies in my heart,” he replied, looking out the window.

Janaki was not interested in finding out what problem lay in his heart. She did not appreciate that kind of reply for a casual question. She turned to leave.

“I pulled myself out of huge plot a little while ago,” Veerraju said without looking at her.

Janaki did not leave. Nor did she ask what the plot was about.

“You see, everybody is aware that I have all these units but no person I can call my own. Therefore, they all are sworn to arrange my marriage. Earlier this afternoon, a friend of mine invited me to his home on some pretext, showed me a ghastly looking woman and asked me if I liked her. A group of men and women—twenty in all—were staring at me. I was exasperated and left,” said Veerraju.

Janaki’s heart started thumping faster. She was about to say that she was the object of another plot in that very moment but held back.

“Living alone in this world is such a hassle. Nobody minds their own business, nor let others live anyway they please. Sometimes it scares me,” he said.

Janaki’s heart leapt to her throat. He is reading her mind. She wanted to tell him that. She looked at him sharply for a split second. He was not joking. He looked at her straight into her face.

“It’s true,” she said and started to leave.

Veerraju said, “Janaki.” His tone has changed. Janaki turned around, warily.

“I didn’t tell my autobiography for fun. I respect you and trust you. I believe in you. For that reason … I am thinking… if I marry you, I can be happy myself and make you happy,” he said.

From Janaki’s perspective, Veerraju dropped a bomb out of nowhere. She couldn’t decide right away—should she jump with joy? Cry for help? Or resent his proposition? In the next moment, she was irate. At school, the headmaster, some teachers, secretary, and here, Maavagaru—they all have been pestering her on the same lines. Now Veerraju also appears to be doing the same thing.

“You too…” Janaki murmured and left hastily.

Veerraju threw himself on the chair and smoked ten cigarettes in a fit of desperation.

Janaki in general considers herself good at giving cautious replies, now is feeling bad for the first time. She wondered if she had made a mistake.

Chakravarti’s chariot finished its rounds and returned to the complex. The few people who fell asleep were woken up by the noise. They all heard the loud laughs from Chakravarti’s home very clearly.

As for Chakravarti, more and more he is becoming aware of the wife’s naivete. His anger is diminishing and his love for her is escalating.. That evening she visited few expensive stores, checked out the high priced saris and bought a hand kerchief for one rupee. In another store, she bought a couple of items and asked the store clerk to put them in her car.

“Which one, madam?” the store clerk asked.

Sundaramma felt embarrassed to point out her grungy vehicle standing amidst the other pristine automobiles.

“There! That grungy car! Throw them in,” she said. Then, whatever came over her, she added, “That is our driver’s. We gave our car for service.”

Chakravarti was standing next to her. He struggled not to laugh. On the way home, he teased her, “Today you said this car belonged to your driver. Probably, tomorrow you would tell them that your silk sari belonged to the maid. What about me?”

She shut him up with her palm saying, “Cchup. What kind of talk is that?”

After a few minutes, Chakravarti planned to turn right. But the God, as is his habit, intended otherwise.[15] The car, having a will of its own, recalled the proverb, murare thruteeyah panthah [God’s way is the third way], and headed for a huge tree before Chakravarti could hit the breaks, tried to knock it down but changed its mind.

Chakravarti and Sundaramma spent ten rupees and brought the car home. …

Chakravarti told Sundaramma, coaxingly, “… for that reason, beautiful Sundaramma, we can be happy only if we don’t have this car. We can buy a good car after saving some money. But, if you insist on keeping this car, we will be spending all our income on repairs and we will starve for want of food. We w ill have to lie down with our knees nudged against  our bellies[16] literally. Do you understand?”

Sundaramma was already on the brink of tears. Yes, she said.

“Let’s get rid of it for whatever it is worth. May be our landlord Veerraju will buy it,” he said.

That Saturday night went by for each one of them in the complex in a different way—with nightmares, sweet dreams, fears or frustrations.

And the Sunday morning dawned for each one of them in a different way–beautifully, happily, hideously, or hopelessly.

Within a few minutes, Maavagaru went into Narasamma’s dwelling. He told her not to tell others about the wedding arrangements that took place the day before. He said she could keep for good the sari she wore the previous evening, which in fact belonged to his daughter. Narasamma agreed. She shook her head in assent but the thought that she has a tremendous secret nearly choked her. She could hardly keep her feet on the ground.

Within the next half hour she heard another piece of news. Veerraju was leaving town. It seems he won’t be back for another five or six months. He told all the tenants to pay the rent to the gentleman living in the other portion, and that the gentleman would forward the money to him. Narasamma noticed that Veerraju did not go to Janaki’s home.

She rushed to Janaki’s home and said, “Girl! Veerraju is going away for good, do you know?”

Janaki was surprised. “Is that so?” she said and went about whatever she was doing.

Narasamma’s zeal fizzled away. “Look, dear, can you loan me one rupee?” she asked. Janaki got up without a word and gave her one rupee. Narasamma was even more disappointed that she could get the rupee so easily. She went to a few other homes in the neighborhood and asked them for rice on loan. They all said no. “Why should I share my secret with these crooked devils,” she told herself. Finally she went to Sundaramma and asked for rice.

Sundaramma, whatever mood Sundaramma was in at the time, gave her rice right away. At once, she became Narasamma’s best friend. Narasamma insisted repeatedly that she should not tell anyone, not even the neighbor-aunty, and let out the secret about the wedding arrangements that took place the day before. The neighbor-aunty was sitting quietly behind the bamboo partition and heard the entire story. After Narasamma left, the neighbor aunty came to Sundaramma and told her the same story as if she had known it since her childhood days. She also expressed her deepest sympathy for Janaki.

“I wish Janaki would marry Veerraju,” aunty said suddenly. Immediately she bit her tongue for saying it. She had a good reason for regretting her comment. Earlier, as soon as she heard that Veerraju was leaving town, she went to him and made him promise his portion to her. She was excited that she would have at least the good fortune of renting a two-storied building, if not buy one. It is no small feat to move into a two- storied building–that would be like a slap in the face for Sundaramma who bought a car just couple of days ago. Her [aunty’s] husband never goes against her wishes. The husband is always referred to as “aunty’s husband,” pretty much the same way Maavagaru is always “Subbarao’s maavagaru.” Anyway, the current problem is, if Janaki marries Veerraju, the upstairs portion will not be available to her. Therefore, aunty closed her lips tight and left.

Sundaramma however continued to mull over aunty’s suggestion. If Janaki marries Veerraju, she could sell her car to them and it still says in front of her eyes. She might even borrow it occasionally. ..  Besides, the story of the wedding arrangements for Janaki struck a chord in her heart. She felt a surge of warmth for Janaki.

It was Sunday. Sundaramma made Chakravarti’s favorite dish that afternoon. She made coffee with utmost care and removed the creamy floats.[17] She handed him a cigarette and struck the match for him.

“Look, this is the last Sunday we will have the car. By next week it will be sold. Let’s go to the movies today,” she suggested.

Since Chakravarti was still glad that his wife was favorable to his suggestion, he agreed to go to the movies. It was five in the evening. She got into the car along with others–Narasamma who became her best friend by sharing her secret, the neighbor-aunty who entertains expensive desires, and even Janakamma by sweet-talking into going with her. Janakamma thought she might as well go somewhere in stead of staying at home and watch the heartbreaking departure of Veerraju. So she agreed to go with them.

As the car was about to leave, Maavagaru appeared. It scares him to see anybody taking Janaki somewhere. He is sure that he would succeed in convincing Janaki to accept his proposition, if not today, it will happen tomorrow. He was not willing to let go of her that easily.

“Going for  a ride?” he asked.

“No. We are going to a movie,” Chakravarti replied.

“What movie?”

Chakravarti told him the name of the movie.

“I will come with you. I wanted to see it too,” said Maavagaru. They had no choice but let him go with them.

A few minutes prior to starting the show, Sundaramma pulled Janaki to a side. “Janakamma! I am like a sister to you. Let me ask you this. Be frank with me. Are you interested in marrying Veerraju?” she asked her.

Janaki couldn’t utter a sound.

“Tell me. It’s all right. I have heard about the last night’s arrangement gala. …Listen girl, they do get crazy ideas as long as you are alone. Listen to me and marry Veerraju, that is if you like him,” she added.

“Did he tell you to ask me, too?” Janaki asked, looking down.

“What? Did he propose to you? What did you tell him? No? …Ahh, stupid thing to do! .. So, that is the reason he is leaving town. ..Be straight with me, Janaki, quick.. We are running out of time,” Sundaramma said hurriedly.

“Yes, sister,” Janaki said, dabbing her tears with her sari end.

“People will laugh if you cry here. Don’t cry. Let’s go back home right now,” she reassured Janaki, went into the movie theater and explained the situation to Chakravarti.

He stepped out and said to Janaki, “Good for you. Veerraju is a good man. You will be happy.”

Within a few minutes, they all changed their minds about the movie and got back in to the car. Since Maavagaru came only for the sake of Janaki, he had no problem leaving. For Narasamma, Sundaramma’s words are ‘vedam’[prescriptive]. How can aunty stay alone to watch the movie? Thus, they all have agreed to return home.

“Janaki is going to marry Veerraju,” Sundaramma blurted out, she couldn’t help herself.

Then followed words conveying several emotions like surprise, pleasure, anger, etc. all at the same time.

Maavagaru did not like it. Nor did aunty relish it. She was weighed down by the thought that the upstairs room will not be available to her.

All the thoughts together in that crowded car started emanating in their exhale and thereby created a strange mix of emotions. The car was moving forward in the heavy rain in a desperate attempt to catch Veerraju before he got to the train station.

Chakravarti, still new to driving, hit the breaks to make a turn but did not hit the clutch in time. As a result, the engine stalled. “Push the car,” Chakravarti said.

Who would push? There were four women and two men in the car. It was pouring outside, and the winds were gusty. Sprinkles were hitting straight in to the car.

Maavagaru said, “I am feeling weak and also running a little temperature. I can’t move a muscle.” He did not want the car to move and reach home while Veerraju was still there.

None of the others spoke. Huge, expensive cars are gliding by smoothly like swans on the wet black top roads. All the adults in Sundaramma’s car slipped into a reverie. Sweet thoughts seized them.

Maavagaru was dead set against the car’s movement. After Veerraju left, it would be easy to convince Janaki to marry Ramarao. If Janaki agrees to his plan, then he can marry Ramarao’s sister and have a home of his own. His heart screamed this must happen.

Janaki was entertaining a different scenario. Every particle, each drop of blood in her body was longing for the car to move. If she marries Veerraju, she would have a good life. With that thought her desire was escalating. At the same time, a fear that it might not happen was also growing in her mind.

Sundaramma was anxious to reach home quickly and earn the credit for making a new life for the prospective couple. Then she could sell her car to them. The vehicle would still be in front of her eyes. It’s all right if she could not buy one of her own.

Chakravarti was anxious to get rid of the car before his wife came up with another deviant idea.

If the car starts and reaches home before Veerraju left, the marriage is certain to happen. Then aunty will not get the upstairs room for renting. The couple will stay in the same place. Her desire will not be fulfilled. For that reason, aunty was begging the Almighty Lord every which way to stall the car.

Narasamma’s silk sari was getting ruined by the raindrops. She was praying the Almighty Lord to start the car and bring them home soon.

Suddenly, a lightning struck. A thought flashed in Chakravarti’s brain. He let go of the breaks. Strong winds blew with all their might.

The car, carrying the crowd, beset with strong desires, moved forward like Janata Express.


(Translator’s note: The original title, “Janata Express” is the name of a train in South India, introduced in the 1950s, specifically designed to make travel comfortable for the common man—a sort of people’s car. The author depicts the day-to-day lives of middle class families and unmarried individuals, with all their dreams, aspirations, eccentricities, as well as their community spirit.

The term ‘complex’ in translation may be interpreted as middle class complexes [mentalities] or as an apartment complex for the middle class. The story addresses both the aspects.

Telugu original entitled “Janatha Express” was published in the 1950s and later was included in an anthology entitled, “Janata Express: Mullapudi Venkataramana kathalu,” published by Navodaya Publications, Vijayawada, 1959. Reprint 1967.)

Translated by Nidadavolu Malathi and published on, March 2005. Also, included in the anthology, Short Stories from Andhra Pradesh, by Nidadavolu Malathi. Mumbai: Jaico Publishing House. 2007)

[1]  A common practice among Hindus, invoking God first as one wakes up.

[2] Telugu phrase:  kayyanikainaa neyyaanikainaa …

[3] A sarcastic observation how little things like the name of a place could evoke favorable atmosphere in conversations.

[4] A common proverb in Telugu is evari paapam vaaLLade! Literally paapam means sin.

[5] The sages are from Hindu mythology. The story noted here is probably author’s creation.

[6] Literally maavagaru is a relational term for father-in-law. In the story, the real name of the father-in-law is not given. So, I used the term as a proper name.

[7] Sarat Babu, nick name for Saratchandra Chatterjee, a famous Bengali fiction writer, whose novels were translated extensively in to Telugu and are very popular.

[8] “Hello,” and “Hello, o faivunda?” [Do you have five rupees], meaning a request for small loan, are used by the author repetitively to evoke humor. The author has written hilarious stories about people who borrow small amounts and usually don’t bother to repay.

[9] Anna was coin [currency] in pre-Independent India, equaled to one sixteenth of a rupee.

[10] Literally, means mother. Figuratively, similar to ‘my dear child.’

[11] The actual sentence in Telugu “ivi chetulu kaavu, kaaLLanuko,” literally means I am holding your hands and take it as my falling on your feet, which is the most desperate way of begging.

[12] Telugu phrase, tala taakaTTu peTTi, considered the last desperate measure.

[13] In the south India, men usually throw a plain garment, like a towel, on their shoulder.

[14] Praying and/or ritualistic meditation and fasting are part of Hindu tradition to have their desires fulfilled.

[15] Telugu proverb:  thanokaTi taliste, daivamokaTi thaluchunu, meaning your thoughts may not always be in agreement with divine providence.

[16] Popular Telugu phrase describing the way hungry people lie down.

[17] In India, milk is boiled before adding to coffee. Sometimes, the milk forms a layer of cream which ruins coffee taste.

Railway Signal Post by M. V. Ramana Reddy.

 Murthy was shocked as he recollected the old story of the fish that did not dry up in the sun[1]. He noticed a bizarre similarity between the reasons –the one behind the fish not drying up and the way the modern day political system is operating. Just like the little fish that could have dried up easily but did not due to so many obstacles, so also the little jobs in our government—they could get done easily but do not; they just get lost in the muddle of the mechanism. Our government has a unique skill in stretching out the work, without ever finishing it. The fish story was written long time ago probably to make a mockery of a vain king. But ,for zealots of freedom, like Murthy, the similarity between the fish story and the prevalent democratic government is  simply humiliating.

  Murthy was on his way home from Hyderabad. His spirits were slipping lower and lower as he approached the town. He was dispirited since he could not get the job done. How could he show his face to babayi [uncle]?. Babayi has great faith in his abilities. Up until now, he never returned home without getting done any job assigned to him. Babayi is getting old; for over four years now, he has been assigning to Murthy all his errands. For Murthy, also known as Guru Murthy, babayi is like God. Babayi took him in when Murthy became an orphan, raised him, educated him up to degree level and made a person of him; for Murthy, babayi is the only bond to the world. It’s only natural for young men of his age to have interest in worldly pleasures; but Murthy has no such interests; and that was because of the values babayi instilled in him. He didn’t seem to have any other goal in life except completing, meticulously, the jobs babayi assigned to him. Now, with his help, lot of things are getting done—things like teaching children, helping them take the entrance exams and taking them to the city to admit them in high school, helping the poor children obtain scholarships, and be supportive to the farmers in villages in time of need, etc.

Murthy’s meticulous care alone is not the reason for all these things to happen systematically though. Babayi’s influence in that neighborhood has been the primary force behind that. Local offices viewed Murthy as babayi’s representative. They obliged him as a way of paying their respect to babayi. Now, the job he has on hand is beyond the scope of local offices. At that level, where he needed support, there is nobody to  help him; nobody would even think of babayi, let alone show respect for him. The country has changed a lot. The khaddar, which was once a symbol of higher aspirations is now a mark of power; the spinning wheel which was a symbol of self-reliance is now a party icon; Gandhi, who had inspired people to earn freedom has turned into an effigy. The spirit of independence has worn out and the sacrifices our fathers have made for achieving it are lost in the history books. In that environment, who would remember babayi who had fought for our freedom so long ago? Babayi never ran for a position in the assemby; never sought any nomination; never craved for contracts; and had never applied for loans for the khaddar industry. The city of Hyderabad is in no mood to make a special note of such historical personae of the past amidst its three and a half billion population.


The train blew whistle announcing that it is approaching the station. Murthy, sitting in the third class compartment, looked out the window. Darkness has not gone totally but is dissipating slowly. The electric lights at the station are approaching fast. The train stops there only briefly. Murthy has no reason to hurry though;  He does not have to worry about getting his luggage out before the train left. He has only one handbag, no other luggage. In the past, he’s used to standing near the door to jump out, as soon as the train stopped. Today, he got up leisurely, hung the handbag on his shoulder and moved toward the door. He has no expensive items that needed to be packed in a suitcase. He wears a khaddar shirt and a pair of khaddar pants; as far as he’s concerned, two more such pairs are enough for him to travel any distance. While one pair was washed and put out to dry, the other pair served as a spare. He did the same even in his college days. Murthy was not offended when his friends teased him that he was born old.

The train came to a screeching halt along the platform ledge. Murthy got off the train; he noticed that he was the only one, nobody else got off there. A tea vendor is shouting tea saar tea, peeping into each compartment, looking for customers, and moving forward. At that time, in that station, there is nothing one can get but for the tea. If it were daytime, one could get a soda or roasted peanuts. The tea vendor stopped as he saw Murthy and said namaskaaram saar. He did not say have tea, saar. He knows that Murthy does not drink tea or coffee.

“Basha! Aren’t you going to quit this job ever?” Murthy asked him.

“I will, saar, after this month.”

It’s a year since Murthy had asked him this question. It’s a year since Basha’d given him the same reply. Murthy is trying desperately to make him quit this job and go to school. The boy is slipping through his fingers.  Basha cannot sleep unless he had earned a quarter of a rupee and watched the movies at the village theater.

The train shrieked again and set out to leave. Murthy turned around and looked at it as if bidding farewell. The train was soon out of sight. The station was empty. The station master folded the green flag, nodded to Murthy and went to his office. Murthy moved in the same direction the train went and walked slowly towards the far end of the platform. There is no need for him to leave the railway station and go into the town; that way he’d have to walk two more miles to reach the asram. On the otherhand, if he had walked along the railway tracks, he would reach the same place much faster. Through the picket fence, he could see the village at a distance, probably, a mile and a quarter from there. The village is neither big nor small; a kind of mid-range township. It is also taluk[2] headquarters. A bumpy path connects the station to the town. Along the path, there is a ten-acre, fallow land, which Murthy is trying to acquire at the behest of babayi.

The fallow land is full of seeku trees and looks scary. Recently, a few harijan families cut down the trees and built a few huts to live in; the rest of the area remains a wasteland, unfarmed. The local committee decided to  build a high school on that land; they determined it serves their purpose. There is no school within a radius of twenty miles. Most of them in town had neither the guts nor the economic resources to send their children to a far-off city. In recent times, the number of students went up, thanks to the encouragement from babayi, but not enough. Babayi believes that the country can progress only after every citizen has been educated. He embarked on a mission since he believed that a school in the vicinity would help more people to receive education.

Murthy walked down the incline of the platform and reached the path. The path runs parallel to the railway tracks. It was formed by the regular stomping by groups of day laborers and the farmers who had farms on the other side of town. It’s hard to walk on that path unless one is used to. The gravel and the sleepers lying under the tracks thwart every step of the way. Murthy however is used to walking on such roads with the ease of a centipede. Today that enthusiasm is missing in his gait.

Babayi undertook the burden rather unnecessarily. The committee members tried to convince him that they could have the school built through the Jilla Parishat.[3]

Babayi did not accept the suggestion. He said, “How far can we move forward if we leave everything to the government? The backbone of democracy will crush under its weight. Don’t you remember the condition in which the white man left the country? He robbed us of everything and left only a begging bowl for us; he handed down only the empty coffers to us. If we keep insisting that the government must undertake all the projects, when is that going to happen? Each one of us must do whatever we can and then only we can move forward.”

Originally, babayi inherited a ten-acre, rich farmland; he is the sole heir of his very rich ancestors. His ancestors had no bad habits like gambling or betting on racehorses. Once, during his father’s time, Mahatma Gandhi came to their town once. Those were the days when Gandhi was going round in the country in an attempt to strengthen the Congress Party. At the time, babayi was just finished with his Intermediate exams and came home for holidays. He went, along with his father, to visit Gandhi. Babayi’s father was eager to invite Gandhi to his home for dinner that evening.

Gandhi said, “Feeding me for a day is not a service to the country. What’s it you could give to the country?”

Babayi’s father replied, “Come to my home and see for yourself.”

We don’t know what Gandhi had seen in his face but he immediately stood up and followed him. The Mahatma is no less than Vamana[4] when it came to begging for support for his movement. And, babayi’s father is like an older brother of Bali.[5] After dinner, babayi’s father brought out a silver bowl and put it in front of Gandhi. Babayi’s father swept clean all the valuables in the house—jewelry, two handfuls of silver coins, and all the gold items that were kept in the cabinet—and filled the bowl to the brim.

The Mahatma’s eyes were moist but the little smile on his face lingered on as well. “Don’t you have anything else?” he asked.

“Name it, swamy!” Babayi’s father said in all humility and without a cringe. People around him were taken aback by this reply. They wondered how could this man, wearing nothing but a loincloth, be so greedy.

“Give this boy to the movement,” he said.

The eyes of Babayi’s father sparkled exuberantly. It was the pleasure one would experience after realizing that there is one more way of living up to the Mahatma’s wishes.

“With pleasure, swamy. What more could I ask for but living up to your aspirations?” he said, dabbing tears.

“Not right away though. I’ll take him after he had realized himself that he has a role to play in the movement that is fighting for our independence. Until then, you keep him with you,” Mahatma said.

After that visit, Babayi returned to Madras for his Bachelor’s degree. But he quit after the first year. The Congress Party invited him to join in the Non-Cooperation Movement. The Movement against British rule spread all over the country like a wild fire. Babayi was arrested and sent to jail in Chengulputt and was released after one year. After that, he was invited by the Mahatma to help him in running the Sabarmati asram. He spent four years in Sabarmati asram in the company of the Mahatma. Then he has learned about his father’s failing health and  returned to his town.

With his father’s health deteriorating, the farming suffered. After his death, it came to a complete halt. Babayi, instead of managing the house, got totally immersed in reorganizing the Congress Party at the district level. It is not in his nature to ask others for help under any circumstances. His income started decreasing and the expenses kept increasing. The British rulers never missed an opportunity to throw babayi in jail, even on the smallest pretext. His property disappeared, bit by bit. His mother pestered him about getting married, bear children and let the lineage continue. But Babayi was determined to remain celebate on the grounds that family was counterproductive for public service. Only a person like the Mahatma could practice celebacy while having wife and children. Who else is capable of such fortitude? Babayi said, “We will forget the country if we got involved in family.”

After his mother died, the house and the property were gone, babayi continued to live on the income from the remaining ten-acres of land. He never thought that that would not suffice for him. Practically there’s nothing he wanted for his own sake. He built a small dwelling on the shores of the river and planted a vegetable garden also. He cooks a modest meal for himself and thus the income from the land is actually more than enough for him. He has saved the excess money and is planning to use it for the school building now.

The numbers of poor students whom he had helped to obtain education are in hundreds. They often come to visit babayi. Most of them believed that applying for the fallow land was not a sensible idea but nobody had the guts to say so to babayi. They argued that the government was not aware of even the availability of the fallow land here; and nobody would care if the town took it. Babayi refused to occupy the land illegally; he is not asking the government to give it to him free of cost; he is asking to let him have it only on payment of the price. But it’s not working. Murthy has been running around for over a year now; his sandals are worn out in the process but to no avail.

A small stone pricked his foot and jolted him out of his thoughts and into the present. He shoved the stone under the sleepers and sat down on the tracks. Holding down his heel on the ground for relief from pain, he looked around. The horizon turned crimson as the gentle rays of sun spread far and wide The farm, ready for harvesting, is looking like bright gold. The white sand on the dried up riverbed far away is shining like a diamond mine. On its shores, Babayi’s hut stood like a lone traveler. Until now, Murthy did not realize how far he had wandered off, having been caught in the labyrinth of his thoughts. He has almost reached the second signal post. The footpath between the railway tracks and the signal post goes farther on to the other side. After passing the second signal post, he need to get off the shoreland, walk along the farm and reach the asram. It’s a good thing that the little stone pricked his foot. Or else, he’ss not sure how far he would’ve wandered off, lost in his own thoughts.

Murthy looked up at the signal post. It stood about six feet away from the railway tracks and close to the hedge. The signal post is made of twisted iron bars and woven like a net; it stood stright up, twelve feet high into the air and split into two bars at the top—one big and the other small. The bigger sign is set higher and pointed toward the station; the second one is shorter and is set below the bigger bar. At the end of each bar, a wooden branch is attached; and, each branch has two marks, red and green, one over the other. A piece of wire, an arm’s lengh, is tied to each of the two branches. For Murthy, the sight is not new. Since he was living close to the railway tracks during his childhood, he had watched it as long as he could remember. He played around that post, holding on it and hanging from it, on numerous occasions. But today, for some reason, it looked strange.

Murthy, for the first time it seems, understood the important role this little mechanism has been playing in a colossal industry like the railways. One barely notices the importance of the signal post amidst thousands of miles of railway tracks, the huge, roaring engines that run on those tracks, and the railroad cars like gigantic ships. But, no matter how big the train is and how far off it’s coming from, the train cannot enter the station unless the signal post gave the signal and again cannot leave without a clearance from the signal post. Also, the train must take only that line which the signal post pointed to. If the big signal is lowered, the train takes on the main line and reaches the platform; if the small signal is lowered, the train shall take the loop line. The train has to pass by several signal posts in this manner  before it reached its destination.

Murthy waited for six months and still there is no response from the Collector’s office regarding his application for the official document. So, he went to find out about it himself. As it turned out, the clerk, who is handling his file, is new to the job; he just let it sit on his desk  without doing a thing about it. Murthy got help from some of his friends, who were working in the same office, and got the signal lowered like in a railway station. The file moved and reached the District Collector’s office, after passing through the stations, namely  the offices of the Section Officer and the Hujur Siraddaar. The Hujur Siraddaar sent a memo asking the Regional District Collector to send his report. Eventually, the file moved from station to station as mentioned above and returned to the first clerk’s desk. A rough draft addressed the Regional District Officer was prepared by the clerk, was sent up, passed through all the stations and came back. At the end, the memo took the final shape in the hands of a typist, and sent up and came back to the office of the  Regional District Officer. The process was much the same in the office of the Regional District Office. Also, going up and down to Lower Division Clerk, Upper Division Clerk and R.D.O.—like a passanger train and through several stations and finally reached the office of the Tahsildar. Its journey in the Tahsildar’s office was again similar—from the L.D.C. to the U.D.C., to Deputy Tahsildar, and to  the Tahsildar and again to the L.D.C., and then to the Revenue Inspector, and, one more time, to the L.D.C.; after running through several stations went to Tahsildar, back to the L.D.C., and then to the Surveryor, again moving up and down, up and down, and so on. Murthy had some friends in the District Office and so the file moved a little faster in its final stage.

“The land is not yours; you’re not asking for your own sake. Why’re you bothering us?” the clerk at the Revenue Commissioner’s office asked him. Murthy understood right away that it’s not going to be within his means to move the file from there. He set out to leave Hyderabad.

Murthy chuckled as he stood up and proceeded to the asram. He walked past the signal post, got off the track slopes, and on to the farm hedge. There is no water in the river. The shore land hardened and became comfortable for walking. If it were wet, one has to be careful, to avoid slipping and falling. In addition to this footpath, there is another route also passing through the town for vehicles to reach the asram. But it would be no good for people to walk if it rained. Not that we can dismiss it as useless for that reason. That bumpy road has a history of allowing cars and jeeps endlessly. In the beginning, big name political leaders used to pressure babayi to run for office. But babayi was not interested; he felt that the country has no more use for the Congress Party after the independence had been achieved. Then, several people tried to pursuade him to get involved in promoting the party’s interests. Babayi just smiled and shrugged them off. During the elections time, several contestants came to him seeking his blessings. Several political leaders used to visit babayi while touring the country. Eventually such visits slowed down and ended finally. From babayi’s behavior, it was clear that he became more relaxed after the visits came to an end.


Murthy walked in. Babayi just finished his puja and sat down at his spinning wheel.

“Came just now? You haven’t washed up yet, it seems,” babayi asked, watching Murthy’s weary face.

“No, not washed up yet, babayi.”

“Go ahead, freshen up. We can talk later.”

Murthy went in, took  bath, and returned; he sat next to babayi. Babayi usually spreads a cotton sheet at the center of the room, and sits on it to spin thread on the spinning wheel. It is just one room—15 feet wide and 20 feet long—and without any dividers; therefore, it looks spacious. In one corner there was a puja set up and in another corner the kitchen utensils. Pictures of leaders like Gandhi, Nehru, Patel and Tilak were hung on the walls. There was a teak cabinet in another corner. There wasn’t much of anything worth mentioning in the hut but for a few baskets, bowls and a wood attic. An armchair which babayi uses for resting was propped against the wall. He never uses a cot for sleeping; he spreads a mattress on the floor and sleeps on it. Murthy also noticed that babayi never used the mattress except for sleeping at night.

Babayi handed him a basket with two or three varieties of fruits. That comprises babayi’s snack. He eats fruits and drinks milk. Murthy took the basket, started peeling the skin leisurely and eating bit by bit. Babayi noticed Murthy’s sluggish behavior and understood the situation. But he pretended not to notice; he thought that Murthy might feel even more dejected, if he showed any interest. Babayi kept his eyes on the spinning wheel and kept working on it, leaving it to Murthy to broach the subject.

“It didn’t look like the job gets done without you being there,” Murthy said, speaking softly.


It’s long since babayi set foot outside the borders of his town. There was no need after Murthy took over.

“It’s not something I can do.” He explained the situation at the Commissioner’s office.

“Is there anybody I knew works there?”

“It can be done in a snap if Lakshmayya garu takes it up. He is the Revenue Minister now.”

Murthy wouldn’t have had the nerve to suggest the idea if it were somebody other than Lakshmayya. Generally speaking, babayi would not like to approach government officials, currying favors.  But with Lakshmayya it is different, they continued to be friendly terms. All other classmates and friends have stopped visiting babayi but not Lakshmayya. He has not come in recent times but he was here two years back. Babayi feels very uncomfortable when the others visit him but not when Lakshmayya comes. Lakshmayya sits on the mat along with babayi; spins the wheel for a while, drinks milk and feels right at home here.  Once babayi asked him directly, “You’re a minister[6] now, what do I have to give you, what’s here matching your status?”

“Why do you think of me as a minister? You just be you, the friend from our college days, the person who bought me books when I could not afford them,” Lakshmayya replied.

Cha. That’s friendship. Friendship makes no such distinctions.”

“Neither do we, not now, not ever.”

Babayi introduced Murthy to Lakshmayya. Both babayi and Lakshmayya reminisced for a while about their college days and the time they worked together at the Sabarmati asram. After babayi left Sabarmati asram, Lakshmayya continued there for a long time. Lakshmayya was very worried that the Congress Party was falling apart because of some opportunists who went after power; and who ignored the great leaders who had made enormous sacrifices during the early days of the movement. It breaks one’s heart to hear from him the problems our country is facing today. Babayi’s eyes turned moist as he listened to Lakshmayya.

Babayi was surprised by Murthy’s account. He could not believe that a public service project would get stuck in an office under Lakshmayya’s supervision. He wondered if the office had come under Lakshmayya’s supervision only recently and Lakshmayya was unaware of its indolence. He told Murthy, “Let’s wait and see. It would not be easy for Lakshmayya to accept that his office failed us.”

“This kind of thing would not reach the ministers unless some one pointed it out to them. If Commissioner rejects the file, we are back to square one. Or, if the commissioner is transferred to another branch, then we are lost for good,” Murthy said.

Murthy kept arguing; he was determined to make babayi move. Babayi understood he had no other choice but to start.

This is the first time for babayi to visit Hyderabad after it became the capital of Telugu people. Murthy had found the address of of the revenue minister, Lakshmayya. Babayi was stunned. It was more like a royal mansion, huge, has a garden in front and a high, picket fence all around. The gate was wide, making it easy for vehicles to come and go; a sentry post on one side of the gate stationed by two armed guards; a plaque carrying the name, Konda Lakshmayya, Minister of Revenue Department, was hung on a cement slab next to the gate. On seeing all this display, both babayi and Murthy hesitated for a second, wondering whether it was proper for them or not to enter. Murthy collected himself and said, “Let’s go in, babayi.” Babayi put one foot forward, still hesitating.

In the next second, a guard came forward with his gun and shouted, “Stop, where do you think you’re going?”

“To meet the minister,” Murthy replied.

“Who’re you?”

What could they say? What kind of status they have to claim?

“He’s a friend of minister garu,” Murthy mumbled, pointing to babayi.

The guard looked at babayi head to foot. His outfit—coarse, khaddar shirt, hand-washed and faded dhoti, old-fashioned eyeglasses, and the cloth handbag hanging from his shoulder—was barely a testimony to their claim. Then the guard turned his eyes toward Murthy. His outfit was similar—loosely-hanging pants made of khaddar, khaddar shirt, and khaddar handbag—but for the age, there is no difference between the two men in terms of their sophistication. A small smile came up on the guard’s lips.

“Have made an appointment?”


“We have no permission to let you in.”

The guard appeared to be a nice person. Probably anybody else would not be that nice in letting them know that they are not welcome.

Babayi was stiff like a stone statue. Murthy did not know what to do; had no idea to find a way to get in. Suddenly, the car standing at the entrance honked, announcing its departure. The guard, politely, made them move out of the car’s way. The second guard also came out and they both stood at attention. A white car came out of the porch and passed through the gate, like the moon dodging a white cloud. The tri-color flag featuring  emporer Asoka’s dharma wheel[7], fluttered on the tip of the car’s nose. The two guards clicked their boots with a big noise and saluted. The car bustled through the gate, and past babayi and Murthy who snuggled behind the gate. The Revenue Minister  was on his way out. Nobody knew where he was going, nor when he’d be back.

The car moved about 15 yards forward and then came to a sudden halt. The guards rushed to the car. The car slowly moved in reverse toward the gate. The minister opened the door himself and got out. He jumped to babayi in one huge step and embraced him. Murthy was overwhelmed; he has recovered from his feeling of hurt. He looked at the guards. The first guard was perspiring; the second guard was looking confused. How could they know that these two paupers, wearing crumpled outfits, could be friends of the minister.

Abbha! Finally, you’ve come into the present world!,” the minister said. Babayi was lost for words. The minister’s eyes turned to Murthy.

“Aren’t you Guru Murthy?”

What a memory! It’s two years since they’ve met.

“Yes, sir,” Murthy replied, folding both the hands in namaskaram.

“Why is he like that? Is that how you are raising him? You should let him live in step with the present,” the minister asked babayi.

Murthy bent down his head shyly. He tried to remember how the minister looked in the past; it was vague. He lifted his eyes and looked at him. Now also the minister  is wearing clothes made of khaddar but  it is of very fine material, like a fluffy cotton ball, well-starched and crisply ironed. The dhoti has an inch and a half gold thread border, the uttareeyam on his shoulder has red and green borders and neatly-set folds.

The minister gestured to the secretary to approach him; the secretary immediately rushed to his side.

“Cancel all my appointments for the day.”

“Yes, sir.”

Babayi tried to protest, “Oh, no, your work should not suffer on my account.”

“No big deal, the sky is not going to fall apart in one day. Let’s go in.”

The minister put his arm around babayi’s shoulders and walked him in. Murthy and secretary followed them.

The house was built on a four-feet high raised foundation. One has to walk six steps to reach the ground floor. The doors, windows and the pillars are in style with the muslim emperors’ mansions. There are some cane chairs on the porch for visitors; there rooms on either end of the porch. The secretary who is walking behind Murthy disappeared into one of the rooms, probably, his office. Murthy followed babayi into the sitting room. The floor was covered with fine carpet; and the sofa set along the wall was partly covered with embroidered sheets. At the center of the room, three expensive coffee tables were set, slightly away from each other and carrying porcelain flower vases. The minister invited babayi to sit on a sofa, and he sat next to him. Murthy stood a little away and slightly scared

“Come on, sit here. It’s okay. You can be as free as you are in the asram,” the minister said. Murthy couldn’t figure out whether he meant him or babayi. He still kept his distance and sat on the edge of the sofa.

The electric bell rang. A servant came running.

“Tell the cook to prepare food for the guests. Everything must be vegetarian,” the minister told him officiously. The servant nodded and went away.

“You must eat here today, with me. Can’t even remember how long since we sat down together to eat,” the minister said to babayi.

“I’ll be happy as if I had eaten at your place one hundred times if you could get my job done,” babayi replied.

“I see. So, you’ve come with such a colossal job on your hand! To move a mountain like you, it has to be really a mammoth task. So, with whom, anyways?”

“With you, who else?”

“That’s even better. I am lucky that you’ve got something I could do for you.”

“You haven’t changed a bit.” Babayi is beginning to believe that the chimera of power has not shrouded his friend. He is feeling comfortable enough to address him as orey[8] like in their younger days.

“Anyway, what’s the job?”

Murthy leaned forward and started explaining before babayi could start. He explained at length the  situation in regard to his file. .

“Do you have the file number?” the minister asked him.

Murthy is in a fix. Office files are supposed to be confidential. If he gave him the number, the question—how did he get it in the first place—might come up. Babayi would not appreciate any shady action on his part.  Murthy had to pick up the courage since he was determined to accomplish his mission; he’d come so far after all. He pulled out the notebook from his pocket, noted down the number on a piece of paper and handed it to the minister.

As it turned out, there was no need for him to be afraid. The question did not come up at all. The minister pressed the electric bell, while taking a good look at the number on the paper in his hand. This time the bell sounded different from the earlier one. The secretary came running.

“Look at this file and tell the Commissioner to talk to me right away,” the minister told him.

“Yes, sir,” the secretary said and left.

“The British ruler did not trust us; and so, he appointed supervisors from among us, one over the other. He called it circulation. The British are gone long time ago. We have achieved independence, yet this has system not changed, how come?” babayi asked naively.

“You are so child-like! Did you expect the robbers to leave because the British left? Who do you think are all these businessmen, contractors, and overseers? They were the same people—our people—then and they are the same people now. If we are not careful, they’ll sell the country.”

“If that’s the case, what difference does it make whether a white man ruled us or a black man ruled?”

“Oh, God! I thought you became an ascetic, not a communist! The white man had robbed us during his regime and taken our riches to his country. Now, our riches stay put within the country, at the least.”

The phone rang. Minister picked it up, “Yes.”

“Put him through.”


“Namasthe. Did you see the file?”


“The settlement order must be signed today.”


“Very good,” the minister said and hung up.

  Murthy understood that the phone call was about their business. The minister did not ask the Commissioner about the reasons for the delay. Murthy was happy that it’s getting done now at least.

“The order will be ready today. You can take it with you,” the minister said turning to Murthy.

“Sir, the Home Minister is here to meet with you,” the secretary brought the message.

“I’ll send him away in a few minutes and be back,” the minister told babayi and left to meet the home minister. They both went into the next room and were talking for two hours. Snacks and tea were served a few times. The time was one o’clock in the afternoon by the time the revenue minister was finished with the home and sent him away.

“Please, don’t misunderstand. It was an important matter. He came here personally, you see,” the minister said apologetically.

“No. Don’t talk like that. After all, work is more important than our chitchat, right?” Babayi was really happy that he did not waste their valuable time.

“Shall we eat?”

“Yes,” babayi said, getting up.

“Come on,” minister said to Murthy and Murthy followed them.

Babayi was washing his feet, looking worried that he might slip and fall. Murthy stood behind him, to stop him from falling, in case that happened. Both came out of the bathroom without any disasters.

Babayi looked at the dining table and stopped, astounded. He stared at the dishes and his jaw fell. The table is in the shape of an almond leaf and there are eight chairs around the table. The top of the table is crowded with porcelain dishes filled with numerous, piping hot items. Murthy lost count of the number of items.

“Why are you hesitating? They all are vegetarian dishes,” the minister said to babayi.

“That’s fine, Lakshmayya! But so many items! Are they all just for us?” babayi asked, after recovering from the shock at the sight of all those dishes.

“As the taste buds experience a few varieties, the mouth will swallow a few more bites. If we could overcome this temptation of our taste buds, where is the difference between Gandhi and ordinary people like us?” the minister said.

Babayi felt trapped. He would not want to say that there is no difference between Gandhi and himself; at the same time, he could neither change his habit—the habit Gandhi had gotten him into. Murthy made up his mind that he would never bring babayi to Hyderabad again. Once for all, it is clear, here is a proof, that the trains running on the loop line can never take the main line pressures.


(The Telugu original entitled, “rekkamaanu”, was published in India Today, 6 September 1994, and later included in the anthology parishkaaram, published by the author. Author’s permission is gratefully acknowledged.)

Translated by Nidadavolu Malathi and published on, July 2004)

[1]A popular children’s story. The story narrates a chain  of events in support of the fish for not drying up but there was no convincing argument.

[2] A geographic unit, smaller than district and larger than township.

[3] Local government.

[4] One of the ten incarnations of Lord Vishnu.

[5] Bali was a extremely generous emperor whom Lord Vishnu, in the form of dwarf Vamana, begged for three feet of land. After he was granted the wish, Vamana grew up into a colossal figure, measured the entire earth with one step, put the second step on the sky and asked Bali where he could set his third step. Bali, finding no other place, told Vamana that he could put it on his head. The story is often quoted as an example of total honesty and sacrifice.

[6] Government official, a member of administrative branch.

[7] The emblem on the national flag.

[8] Informal term of addressing each other among males. Osey fem. form.



Partially opened door by Papineni Sivasankar

It was a moment when the two bodies rose and soared in the vast expanse of the skies, soaked in the waterfalls and experienced the ultimate bliss totally unaware of the rest of the world; it was a moment the two bodies should have resonated in unison; in that moment it struck a note of discord. There was a vague lack of interest in the eyes of his wife, a shade of pain.

“Sorry, Lalitha. Got carried away and …”

“Never mind.” Her lips flashed a lifeless smile. There were so many occasions he couldn’t read what was in her heart?

Ramakrishna rolled over on the bed with remorse and numerous thoughts. In his 20 years’ of marital life there weren’t any ups and downs or misunderstanding he could think of. There has been some kind of dissatisfaction in Lalitha from the start. She came from a fairly well-to-do family, financially. After he marriage, she couldn’t continue her status, being wife of an employee in a newspaper. She gradually withdrew into herself. Ramakrishna did not know how to pry open the closed flower. That invisible distance did not disappear even after Narmada was born. After he left his village and moved to the city, he felt as if somebody fixed his life in a tight frame with no room to move. It took a long time before he realized that he had lost the freshness of childhood and the thrill of youth. After realizing it, he was left with nothing in his life but eternal restlessness.

He fell asleep around midnight. In his sleep he saw a dream – a dream that has been recurring for some time now. A haunting dream. Somewhat mysterious- it was neither frightening nor pleasant.

Just one room, aA room without windows. The door was open partially. Inside, it was partially dark; he couldn’t figure out what was inside. He hesitated to open the door fully and was hesitant to step inside. He wanted to see who was inside but couldn’t. The door was not moving. There was no sign of light, and no hope of the man inside making his appearance. A strange dream.


 Ramakrishna is a sub-editor in a prominent newspapers in Hyderabad. If you ask me whether he had expanded his horizons or shrunk, I must say the second was true. He acts like he was busy to please somebody else, always worried that somebody was watching him and for that reason he was feeling insecure. His main job was to examine the submissions for a feature called rachana (writing). Of course, he did enjoy reading the articles and poetry he had received. Yet, it was not gratifying to a point he wanted it to be. Ramakrishna’s heart shrunk in the newspaper environment that was overloaded with lies, bad publicity, and self-absorbed people.

 “What’s this, Ramakrishna? Is this how you run a literary page? This is the second poem on the topic-suicides of cotton farmers,” Editor reprimanded him.

“Yes, sir. There are ten poems on my desk, all of them on the same topic. So far, approximately 300 farmers have committed suicide. I’d think that’s a burning problem.”

The Editor laughed like a scholar who’d laugh at an ignorant man, and said, “Aren’t the elections a burning problem? Why didn’t you publish poems on that topic?”

“I didn’t get any poems on elections,” Ramakrishna replied, suppressing his annoyance. He was itching to slap the editor on his bald head and then told himself that that would not be a good idea.

“Ha!” the editor said and asked him to bring all the poems sitting on his desk, pending approval. In reality, the editor was upset with him for a different reason. He received a phonecall from a famous writer, Guvera (Gummadi Venugopala Rao) that morning. Guvera has received several awards and rewards in the past and currently trying to survive based on that past record. He talked to the editor and during their conversation asked him, sounding casual, “How come your paper did not publish my poems?” Subrahmanyam, the editor, felt bad. Guvera has clout (not in poetic circles). The man is more important than his writings.

Ramakrishna brought all the submissions. Subrahmanyam picked Guvera’s poems and one more poem by another writers, to avoid any suspicion. He told Ramakrishna that it was not proper to keep these poems in pending for so long, and that he should send them for typesetting right away. Then he added mockingly, “In fact, rachana feature may not be suitable for you. How about moving you to janapadam (rural)? You can read about animals, produce and plant diseases.”

Ramakrishna sniffled a strong desire to snub the editor’s snide remarks but walked away without doing so. It wouldn’t take a second to speak those words. But it was also a matter of his job. The editor gets away with his attitude because he has clout with the management. Ramakrishna was frustrated since there wasn’t much he could do about it. He was caught in the fist of capitalism. As he was walking towards his seat, he noticed that, K.S. Rao, another sub-editor, cast a sidelong look at him with a barely noticeable smile. Rao was close to the editor. Ramakrishna wouldn’t be surprised if Rao was moved to Ramakrishna’s seat some day. He opened the file and read a couple of Guvera’s poetry.

Filling each heart with love

As the conscious self springs forth

Fraternity builds tenderly

A style three generations-old; rhymed lines and worn out phraseology that has been used for years by poets. How can they evoke any response in readers? Nowadays, even budding poets are showing sparks in their poetry. After all, M.V. Rami Reddy wrote an amazing poem on domestic stove.[1] Ramakrishna went into raptures when he read the line, someone opened the doors to the body, from a poem by Srikanth on the inauguration of youth. He may not be able to write poetry but certainly can appreciate it.

Office boy brought in two letters and put them on his desk. One of them was an invitation to a wedding. Gumma Venkata Rao’s son was going to be married in Tullur. Venkata Rao put a separate note also in the envelope, especially inviting him to come to the wedding. A quarter of a century back, Venkata Rao, Ramakrishna and a few other friends used to go to High School in Tullur, walking about 3 and a half miles from their village, Nekkallu, every day. They walked along the farmland every day. Venkata Rao was two years his senior. It was so long since they were finished with schooling yet he remembered him. On the other hand, he [Ramakrishna] has been living in this city for so many years yet not one person could recognize him. There was one thing in the letter that hurt Ramakrishna. His friend added, “Your younger brother’s health is deteriorating. It would be nice if you could come to Nekkallu. You can a short visit with your brother and then we all can proceed to Tullur together to attend the wedding.” The forgotten family tie bobbed to the surface. His heart was heavy with the thought. It was five years since he set foot in Nekkallu.

There was nobody in the office to share his hurt. Only sub-editor, Sarada Rani, is friendly type. Sometimes she shows her articles on women’s issues and asks for his opinion. Sometimes she also tells him her personal problems and he listens. He even feels surprise and relief on such occasions. That’s the kind of relief one feels in an environment where there was no concern but only suspicion.

Ramakrishna went to the canteen during lunch break, for want of better thing to do. A couple of his colleagues were having coffee. Associate Editor, Visweswara Rao, was disparaging the editor indirectly. He mentioned how another editor was kicked out of office. It was a kind of despicable mentality—some people don’t confront directly but lay ground indirectly in order to accomplish what they had in mind which in this case is getting rid of the editor.

Ramakrishna finished his coffee without a word and left.

He reached home at 6:30 and was surprised to see his friend, Lakshminarayana, waiting for him on the front porch. They were classmates in M.A. class. They both shared the same views and entertained the same tastes. Both of them liked the music of Lata and poetry of Sri Sri. Although Lakshminarayana lived far away from his room in the dormitary, he still came to visit with him every day. Between the two of them, they couldn’t count the number of nights they spent together. God knows how many thoughts they had shared; their thoughts on the jobs they would be seeking, girls they would like to marry and such! Eventually each settled down in his own life—Ramakrishna in newspaper business and Lakshminarayana in a local College. Lakshminarayana had to settle down for the bottomline both at work and at home. His college received no grants and so his job was always at peril; at home his family life left much to be desired. As a result, he developed low self-esteem.

“How are you? Long time since we’ve seen each other,” Ramakrishna asked Lakshminarayana.

“So, so. Same as always,” Lakshminarayana replied. He looked darker than before.

Lalita brought coffee for them. While chatting, Lakshminarayana revealed his real reason for being here. He was planning to admit his daughter in the local residential college as day-scholar. He needed five thousand rupees. Ramakrishna did not have that kind of money on hand either. He promised to come up with the money by next week somehow. Lakshminarayana stayed for one half hour talking the same old things as always. There was no closeness in his tone; it sounded as if there an iceberg between the two of them. Where did the warmth of the old days go? So many veils—hesitation, jealousies, and selfishness—go up between people in course of time! How can we pull them down? Let’s forget the business talk, how could we bring two hearts closer?


After Lakshminarayana left, Ramakrishna showed the wedding invitation and letter to Lalita. Narmada was also there by her mother’s side.

“You’re saying he’s your childhood friend. I think you should go,” Lalita said.

“But what about Seshagiri? You know our family ties snapped long time ago.”

Lalita kept quiet. The break up between the two families happened only after she came into their lives.

“If a line was broken, it could be tied together again, can’t we?” Narmada said cleverly.

Ramakrishna was surprised at his daughter’s suggestion. She might be young in age but, certainly, spoke words of wisdom. But he couldn’t accept Narmada’s wisdom so easily. “What if they don’t accept our kind gesture?” he retorted.

“Then, that would be their fault, Daddy! But if we don’t extend our hand, that certainly will be our fault,” Narmada said.

Ramakrishna did not reply. Narmada asked again, “Do you know what’s Syamala doing? She must be my age.”

“If you go to the village and not stop by your brother’s house, it wouldn’t be nice. Moreover, you said he was not well. Go and talk to him,” Lalita said.

Ramakrishna fell into a reverie. Every time he looked back, the past hurt him.


Ramakrishna lost his mother while he was still a baby. His father married again. He had two children by his second wife—Seshagiri and Sakuntala. His stepmother, Samrajyamma, never abused him physically. But there was a marked difference in the way she treated him. He was always hesitant to talk to his father. Thus he suffered loneliness at home during his childhood. He had better friends outside home. He still remembered those friends—Mutyalu, Narsimma Rao, Venkata Rao, Hanumantu, Parvati and so on.

Ramakrishna finished high school in Tullur, Bachelor’s in Guntur, Master’s in Vizag, and reached  Hyderabad. Because of his interest in journalism, he joined the staff in a daily newspaper. Seshagiri did not pass beyond fifth grade. Sakuntala got married and moved to Lingayapalem. His own marriage was arranged by adults but his stepmother could not get along with Lalita. After Seshagiri was also married, they both took their shares in the property and went their separate ways. There was a disagreement in the matter of property settlement. Samrajyamma wanted a bigger share for Seshagiri since, unlike Ramakrishna, he had no education and no job. Ramakrishna was willing to go along with her suggestion but not his father. Father distributed equal shares to all. Ramakrishna however managed to convince his father and made sure that the house went to Seshagiri after father’s death. The broken family tie was never repaired however. Subsequent to his move to Hyderabad, the distance between the family members increased. After his father died, family visits came to an end. Seshagiri, his wife, two children and mother continued to live in Nekkallu. It’s five years since Ramakrishna went to the village. He moved to Hyderabad 20 years ago and ever since loneliness became a way of life for him. There is nothing natural in his job. There is no security. There is no comparison at all between the humane atmosphere of his village and the withered life of the city. He is surrounded by people no doubt. But there is an invisible fence around each person. Everyone is in a hurry to grab happiness; for that, everyone wants money quick; for that, friendships; for that, parties; for that self-promotion and mud-slinging; masks; pretension; a businesslike attitude that includes rough, rash and dashing performance. Nobody cares about another person’s feelings. All they need is only a handshake, not a resonance from the heart. Naturally he felt smothered naturally in this kind of environment. He found solace in books rather than in people. Books touched him. They don’t deceive him. Yet he was only half a person. He suffered so much vacuum in his life—lack of mother’s love in childhood; vacuum created by loss of friends from childhood and youth; by missing the compassionate touch of village life; and the vacuum caused by his disappointing job. Lalita alone was not enough to fill in all these spells of emptiness. How could she?


Next day the editor forwarded two articles and three poems. Ramakrishna need to review them for publication in rachana. He was skimming through the pages and stumbled on a poem, avatalivaipu [on the other side] by Sivareddy.

Maybe you never saw the other side of me

Unaware that there could be another side

Doesn’t one have to have the ability, love and kinship

to open up and reveal his other side

Shouldn’t one be able to touch the other?

Shouldn’t he pull out his richness from the depths of the ocean

Open up! You idiots! Hold up your other side!

Each one should dig deep into the other and celebrate the best in him

Each one should read the other like a book, the darkest and the innermost

thoughts of the other.

Ramakrishna was overwhelmed as he read the poem. It’s true, nobody traverses into another person. Nobody touches the other. There is a lack of kinship between people, a collective loneliness. So many obstances in order to transcend this man-made distance? The insecurity, fear, jealousy and hatred –probably that poet, Sivareddy has comprehended all these emotions and transcended them. But what about himself? He was an idiot who couldn’t open up. In any human being, it is the living trepidation that causes him either to shut up or open up. One must rise above that trepidation. Ramakrishna told himself that he needed to throw away all these files, magazines, hesitations, pain and fright. He needed to redeem himself.


Ramakrishna left Hyderabad for Guntur and took Guntur-Nekkallu bus to reach his village. It was a cloudy day as always in Sravana month. A gentle breeze carrying aroma from the knee-high plantation filled the air all around. He was on his way looking for an innate human experience. Would he get it?

A song from an old movie, andaz, which he used to sing during his school years, came to his lips—give your heart to that person who is willing to give his life; give your life to that person who is willing to give his heart. Some people have no hearts at all to give and some don’t give even if they had one. In fact, surrendering your heart to a person who is not willing to give anything is the greatest thing, to say the truth.

“Ho, you! How are you? Are you going to see your brother?” Somebody asked him in the bus—the kind of casual chitchat one will never hear in Hyderabad buses.

The bus went past Pedaparimi and reached Nekkallu in ten minutes. He heard Sehnai music from a distance.

The house with clay-tiled roof on the west street looked the same as always; so also the neem tree in front of the house. The compound wall was broken on one side. Seshagiri lay on the cot on the front porch. He saw Ramakrishna and sat up, surprised. The red dog lying next to him was about to bark but changed his mind. He recognized Ramakrishna and came to him, wagging his tail.

Ramakrishna sat next to his brother on the cot and asked him, “How are you, Seshu?” Seshagiri hugged his brother with tearful eyes and without saying a word. The human touch! The blood relationship!

Then he called out for his wife, “Oh, Raji!” Raji came out of the kitchen, wiping her hands with a rag. She was puzzled first and then her face lit up. “How is everybody at home?” she inquired and gave him water to wash his feet.[2] Then she laid a second cot for him and spread a fresh sheet on it. Then she went in to make coffee. His stepmother, Samrajyamma, and neice, Syamala, returned from their neighbor’s house.

“How are you, Son! You remembered us, at last? After so many years? Anyway, how is your family, your wife and child?” his stepmother inquired. She is same as always; she aged but not her way of speaking.

Syamala came and sat next to him, smiling. “Where did you go?” he asked her. She showed him the bowl in her hands. There was henna paste. “What class are you studying?” he asked her again. Syamala replied that she was in the tenth class. Narmada also is in the same class. He could see the resemblances in their  faces. The only difference, if at all, was Narmada has acquired a shade of the city tones while Syamala has earth tone.

“How come you didn’t bring akka, pedananna?” Syamala asked him. He smiled and was quiet. Raji brought coffee.

Ramakrishna inquired about Seshu’s health. Raji answered him, still standing, and said that Seshagiri had high blood pressure for some time; last year yield on the farm suffered a loss; and he then suffered a heart attack also, due to worries from huge loans. He was taken to Guntur for treatment. He is getting better now.

“So much happened and you did not inform me, how come?” Ramakrishna asked her. She did not reply.

Samrajyamma sat near the doorstep and said, “That’s what I was telling them too. They were worried not knowing whether a sense of kinship from old times still existed or not. If your father were alive, things could be different. You know, I am a stepmother, after all. God only knows the hardships we went through to put you through school; and only He knew whether we ate or not in those days. And you disappeared into the wide world in the name of seeking work. How can we expect the family ties of old times? You know the proverb—a baby is a baby in the crib, not after growing a beard. We all live under delusion, if you ask me.”

“Why dig up all that now?” Seshagiri stopped his mother.

For Ramakrishna, stepmother’s cut-n-dry language is not new. That’s why he remained calm. Rajeswari went in to attend to cooking.

“Amma! The common adage is there’s no future for he who digs up the past. Whatever happened happened. About four days back, I received an invitation from Gumma Venkata Rao. He wrote to me about Seshu’s condition in a note. Let’s take Seshu to Hyderabad first and have him checked by a good doctor. You come too. You can visit with your daughter-in-law and the granddaughter as well,” Ramakrishna said gently.

With that, Samrajyamma cooled down; all her attitude melted down. She dabbed her tears and said, “That’s good, son! You have spoken kind words. That’s all I ask for. Come on, get up and wash your hands and feet. You must be starving.”

Ramakrishna felt relieved. In his mind one hurdle was knocked down.

Just then Mutyalu walked in, “Pinni, Is it true our Ramudu is here?” Mutyalu was Ramakrishna’s childhood friend. He was blind in one eye. He looked sideways as he talked to him, “Ho! ho! You’ve changed a lot from what you used to be. Have you eaten yet? Venkata Rao sent me, asked me to bring you for dinner at his place.”

Samrajyamma scolded him, “Stop it. What’re you talking about? My son came to my house after such a long time and you want to take him away for dinner elsewhere? Don’t worry, he will eat with you all later tonight at the wedding.” and called Raji to ask if cooking was done. Mutyalu told Ramakrishna to go to his house after it cooled down in the evening and left. He suggested that they all could go together to the bride’s place for the wedding.

After eating, Ramakrishna asked Seshagiri about family matters. Seshagiri said their economic condition was not good; he was considering discontinuing Syamala’s schooling. Ramakrishna opposed that idea. He offered to take her in and put her through school in Hyderabad. Seshagiri said he would go to Hyderabad next week along with his wife and daughter. While they were talking, Sadasiva, Syamala’s younger brother, came in, after finished playing outside. He saw pedananna and wouldn’t leave him alone. Ramakrishna gave him a toy pistol and a pen to Syamala. Both of them were very happy. As he watched them, he was sorry that he did not keep in touch with them all these years.

In the evening, he bid farewell to all of them, and left for Venkata Rao’s house. It was near the Rama temple. A new palm-leaf pandal was erected in front of the house and decorated with colored paper. A tarpaulin sheet was spread on the ground. The entire place was noisy with friends, relatives, and children. Venkata Rao was very happy to see Ramakrishna and approached him quickly. Mutyalu, Hanumantu, and Narsimma Rao were busy offering coffee and snacks to the guests. Hanumantu brought a glassful of coffee for Ramakrishna.

Ramakrishna was surprised, “What? That’s a lot of coffee!”

“Hey! Drink it. Our Narsimma Rao finished two glassfuls just a little while ago,” Mutyalu chided lovingly. Ramakrishna took the glass, smiling.

The wedding was to take place at 9:30 p.m. in Tullur. Venkata Rao suggested that Ramakrishna could ride with the bridegroom in the same car.

“If you’re upto it, we can walk along the farmland, a fun walk,” Mutyalu suggested. Ramakrishna agreed. Hanumantu also kept company. Even if they walked like at the wedding procession, still they would reach Tullur before sunset. There was no sign of showers, one less worry.

They walked along the hedge on the outskirts and turned North and ran into a stream. There wasn’t much water in the stream. A few little fish were swimming in the water. They went past the stream and came to the fields of corn, mungbeans, sesame and peanuts. The fields were all green. They were walking on the footpath along the fields. On one side, it was all wilderness. Twenty-five years back they walked to Tullur high school for their education by the same path. The environment is the same even now—the stream, wilderness, wasteland and thorns.

“Why don’t you pull out the shirt. You can feel the breeze,” Mutyalu suggested. True, it was uncomfortable to walk with his shirt tucked in his pants. He pulled it out and it felt good. Now his walk is natural.

As they were passing by tummala wasteland, Ramakrishna remembered the old times when he was so scared to walk alone in that area. During summer time, the breeze used to make a strange noise while blowing through the dense tumma trees. Sometimes it would rise like a funnel. He was afraid of seeing ghosts. Now he has no such fear. Now he is scared only in the city, while moving among his friends. It came from the fact that not a single person he knew was totally open; from constant worry that he could be hurt by somebody. Here on the other hand, Mutyalu was walking in front of him and Hanumantu behind; and as a result, all he had here was only security; there was nothing to fear.

They were halfway through and came across twin tamarind trees and a pond. They ate fresh mungbeans from the fields and drank water from the pond. Hanumantu climbed the tamarind tree and picked a few fruits. Probably it rained one or two days before. The black dirt was wet. At a distance on the west side, they could see the Anantaram mountains and the setting sun on the horizon. The sky looked like a color picture with sravana month clouds. Probably there was no favorable atmosphere for an individual to open up. As they kept walking Ramakrishna kept talking about umpteen things with his friends—from the marbles game they played as children to his present job. As he talked he felt light, as if a huge burden was lifted off his chest. Mutyalu told him about lot of things—the changes that took place in the village, marriages, disputes, elopements, deaths, and produce on the farm. For Ramakrishna some of them were relevant and some irrelevant.

Suddenly, Hanumantu started to sing a poem from the play, pandavodyagam, “For whatever reason, the pandavas forgave the insults they’ve suffered, mother was gone, and I’m here, at their request, to mediate with you.”[3] He has a resounding voice.

“Ha, ha, ha,” Mutyalu laughed.

“Why are you laughing?” Hanumantu asked him.

“It is not talli but tolli, meaning past is past, not mother was gone.”

“Never mind. Let him sing,” Ramakrishna said. He was also feeling the excitement.

“That’s why his wife ran away. She couldn’t stand his singing,” Mutyalu said, laughing.

“Go away, idiot! Didn’t Lakshminarsu’s wife run away too? Let’s see if you can sing,” Hanumantu challenged him. It didn’t seem like he was humiliated by the fact that his wife ran away; not worried that it was open for public discussion. Probably it was not an ego issue for him.

Mutyalu unwound the towel around his head, shook it off vigorously and wound it around his head again. He said, “Be ready,” and cast sidelong looks at Ramakrishna.

“Couldn’t figure out – it was for gongura[4]

I couldn’t figure out – for gongura

The cunning idiot – for gongura”

There was a time when Ramakrishna considered the song lewd. Now it sounded like a natural expression of a thought. After Mutyalu finished his song, Ramakrishna remembered one song he sang long time ago. Involuntarily the song came out of his mouth.

“You have nobody, ‘n so am I.

Let’s float away on a boat

Let’s go, my handsome!”

His voice sounded new and strange even to himself. Yet, his heart was immersed in the song as he sang out loud. It was like he was being released from a prison somewhere. The voice that resonated so many tunes during his childhood has now, after moving to the city, was closed shut. It was so awkward anytime he tried even to hum the tune at shops, in buses, and at work. To tell the truth, it is not the song that was awkward. What is awkward is the present day civilization that stifled the music. The modern lifestyle that does not open up freely—that’s what’s awkward.

As soon as Ramakrishna finished, Mutyalu hugged him. “You must come to our village like this often and we all must sing happily.”

Tears welled up in Ramakrishna’s eyes. The touch. The human touch. Human beings are here. Despite the hatred and jealousy here, there are also people who are capable of loving. He is not scared of life here.

“I won’t spare you, Ramakrishna! You will be …” The bald-headed Editor flashed in his mind.

“I would tell him Go away, idiot!” Ramakrishna thought. They walked past the cactus patch. Ramakrishna’s feet started hurting. He was not used to walking like that. There was a lake at a stone’s throw distance, woman’s lake. Nobody knows why it was called woman’s lake. Nevertheless, it was the same lake it was twenty-five years back sporting the huge tumma trees, brimming with water, spread-out, and noisy with crows and cranes, as if waiting for him. He heard a bird fly away cooing. Thullur was visible at a distance down at the other end of the shoreland. There was a time when he ducked school and swam stark-naked in this very lake with his friends Mutyalu and Hanumantu.

“Mutyalu, shall we swim in the lake?” he asked suddenly.

“Swim? Now? It’s getting late. Aren’t we supposed to be at the wedding?” Mutyalu said.

“Who cares,” Ramakrishna replied.

“What about your new clothes?” Hanumantu asked.

“Who cares.”

The lake is inviting him. Nature is inviting him. All his education and sophistication are false. The dog’s life of job is false. Only this Nature is real; the Nature comprised of clouded sky, and the fields of black soil, rain drops, the little bird, the tree and the lake under the sky are real. Come out of all that illusion, pain, low self-esteem, humiliation and insecurity! Open the door! Open the heart! Open sesame!

Ramakrishna tore open his shirt, dropped his pants, T-shirt, and underwear; he removed everything, all of a sudden. He jumped into the full current of the waters. Mutyalu and Hanumantu were taken aback, looked at him and then they also entered the waters. Mutyalu wistled excitedly.

Cool waters embraced Ramakrishna and touched each and every part of his body. The touch, the touch of Nature! His heart was peaceful, happy, and relaxed; unagitated and untarnished; it was bare and it was natural. He kept moving his hands and legs freely, as if redeeming himself gradually as he moved in the waters, like a wave amidst the waves. He went on swimming for a very long time.


(The Telugu original, sagam tericina talupu, was published in “Suprabhatam weekly,” July 12, 1998. Author’s permission is gratefully acknowledged.

Translated by Nidadavolu Malathi and published on, April 2004.)





[1] A woodburning stove used for cooking at homes usually is a semi-circular wall with three bumps on top for holding the dish steady.

[2] A traditional practice.

[3] A popular stage play in which Krishna approaches the Kaurava King, Duryodhana, and requests him to settle for peace. The great war took place after this mediation failed.

[4] A kind of leaf. The lines are part of a popular folksong, somewhat bawdy.

Headmaster by Palagummi Padmaraju


“Headmaster expired”.

Captain Rao read the telegram. He stood still for a while, preoccupied. His wife looked at him with knitted eyebrows. She bent forward to read the telegram in his hand.

“Who is this headmaster?”

“Our headmaster.”

She shrugged, left his kerchief and purse on the table, and left the room. Rao stood still preoccupied. His eyes became misty with old memories.


  The sand dunes cut the river Godavari across. From the top of the sand dune, the river looked very weak and pathetic, as if crawling to the end. But once one reached the other side of the dune, she looked more lively and energetic.

In the river, headmaster would stand, doing his daily morning “surya namaskaram”. Rao was Subba Rao in those days, and his friends, Krishnaiah, Ramanatham, Sambu and Ravi would swim in the river for about a furlong and go to the other side. There were lots of cucumber creepers on the other side. They hid small packets of chili powder and salt under the creepers. They would mash the cucumbers with bare hands and eat with chili powder and salt. From the seeds that they spilled while eating sprouted into many more creepers there all along the shore. By the time they swam back, the headmaster would have finished his “suryanamaskaram”.

“Hello, boys! What are the residents of Kishkindha up to today? Did they bring down the cucumbers or the melons?” he asked one morning. The boys were taken aback; they never guessed that he knew about their pranks.

Actually, sir, we were practicing swimming,” muttered Ramanatham.

“Look here, Satya Harsishchandra! I agree swimming practice is good for you, but if the owner of the groove catches you stealing his cucumbers, he might break your legs and you won’t be able to practice swimming any more.”

His humor was very subtle, not stabbing. He would speak softly, emphasizing every word leisurely and mildly.


 “Hallo, Captain Rao? What is wrong with you? You are talking very softly!” It was Captain Reddy on the telephone. Rao smiled to himself. He was imitating the headmaster unconsciously.


In a school play, Rao played the role of Yudhishtira imitating the headmaster’s mannerisms and speech. All the teachers and friends complemented him on the job. The headmaster looked at him with smiling eyes and said, “Subbulu! Finally you made me Dharmaraja! He was a lousy bastard!” He was the only person who called him Subbulu.

“Reddy! Can you drop in on your way to the airport? I wish to join you.”

“What is the matter?”

“I will tell you later.”

Captain Rao returned the telephone to the cradle. He entered the dining room for breakfast. He sat down, sipping orange juice, and still looking vague. Kamala threw a suspicious look at him. Both of them were not on speaking terms for the past one month. There was not any fight or argument. In fact, there were no clear-cut accusations either. But Rao knew very well why Kamala was angry and why she shut the bedroom doors on him.


That day, she came to the airport, as usual, to pick him up. She always made it a point, to pick him up after his flight duties. She never came, after that day. He knew that she wouldn’t come any more.

On that day, there was a constant drizzle and wind. He couldn’t see her in the pitch-dark night, waiting for him. He did not expect her that day. In fact, she was farthest from his mind. Ms. Usha was hanging on to his neck, trying to go down the staircase of the aircraft. It was very uncomfortable on the narrow stairs, he was trying to help her get down, holding her at the waist. Usha felt very giddy as soon as her feet touched the ground (really!). He held her tightly, to stop her from falling. He put her in her pick up van, and got inside the van to go with her. It was then, that he saw Kamala standing in the rain, under a small umbrella, under one of the wings of the aircraft! It was well past midnight when he reached home, after admitting Usha in the hospital.

Kamala locked herself in the bedroom.

A warm welcome indeed, his wife had given him, after he arrived home, bone tired, exhausted, traumatic, after a brush with death! He tossed and turned on the lounge chair in the living room, that entire night. He felt very hurt and indignant at the silent accusation, defending his soul and actions, pure as driven snow! Is it fair, he thought, that his wife should suspect him, just because he held a colleague, who was shivering with fright, and that too, and whom he treated like his very own sister! (Oh yeah! You held her tender waist, with a pressure slightly more than needed. When she put her arms around your neck, her breasts brushing against you, when her heart fluttered like a bird against your chest, when your fingers caressed her spine, when her hair tickled on your neck, the peculiar pleasure that ran through your nerves was just the affection that a brother feels for a sister!!)

 He bit into the omelet and buttered toast, glancing at his wife. She was observing his absent-mindedness intently. She turned her eyes away, unable to bear the love in his eyes anymore.

“I need to go to Eluru, disembarking at Vijayawada.”

She looked at him enquiringly.

“Our headmaster expired. His only son is in the United States. I am like a son to him. His wife will feel happy if I went.” He laughed at his own absurd statement. How can a wife be happy with the death of a husband? Kamala did not laugh. She looked at him as if she had understood what he needed to say.

Rao hesitated for a while, and sipped his coffee.

“She doesn’t have any kith and kin. Can you accompany me?”

Captain Reddy, waiting in the driveway, honked. Rao got up from his chair. Kamala came out of her room, ready to go. He thought her silence meant her reluctance to join him. But, she came out, locked the house behind him, and climbed into the van. Reddy gave a questioning look.

“The headmaster passed away. We need to go to Eluru.”

The aircraft was full, no seats for them. He managed to get a place for Kamala in the airhostess’ cabin.

Reddy is a cool pilot. He steadily lifted the aircraft, and on to the cotton soft clouds. Rao stood behind him, watching.

The aircraft looked like the center of the cloud. When it cut across the cloud cover, it sent a funny shiver down the spine. The airhostess, Nayaki, lost her balance but controlled herself.

“I am sorry, I nearly spilled the tea on you,” she apologized with a smile.

“I wouldn’t mind if it were you, rather than the tea,” Reddy joked.

Rao looked at Kamala. His look said, “She is like our sister”. He laughed again at his absurd thoughts. He squeezed in to sit beside Kamala.

He slipped into a reverie again.

The headmaster was teaching us English. It was an essay by Mahatma Gandhi titled

‘All the mankind is brethren.’ He said, ‘Look here, boys. Mahatma seems to be quite a naughty man. He talks only of the males. He deliberately did not mention anything about ladies being our sisters. He must have seen many boys like our Subbulu ‘ – that is me. I was quite a naughty boy in my high school days.”

 Kamala’s eyes sparkled with a hidden smile. She strongly doubted that Rao said this story just to divert her attention from the airhostess. Though she was partly right, once he started speaking, Rao forgot everything about the airhostess and the conversation. His heart was filled with memories of the headmaster and his lips parted as he remembered the sweet smile of the headmaster. Kamala gave a sidelong glance at the smile.

The second airhostess too, lost her balance and gave an arrogant smile. Her smile seemed to carry the emptiness one feels in the pit of the stomach, when suddenly losing the footing. She could not guess whether Rao noticed the airhostess or not.

Suddenly Rao resumed talking.

Air is not like the terra firma. We are used to walk on the firm ground, but flying in the air is always an unpredictable, novel experience, however well trained one is. Air carries the aircraft, most of the time. But some times it lets go, like an adult who throws up a child in the air playfully and catches. At those times, only people who trust the air don’t panic. Some pilots do not develop that kind of trust in the air, even after many years of service. On every flight, they consider air as an enemy that needs to be vanquished.

Captain Rungta is an experienced pilot. He is also a very brave man.

But, on that day, he seemed to have lost his mind. That stormy night when Kamala came to receive him at the airport! All of them were nearly killed that night. Captain Rungta was the chief pilot and Rao was the co-pilot. The left side engine was totally damaged. The wind and storm were playing with the aircraft as if it were a mere toy. Captain Rungta did the unthinkable. He jumped into an egoistic clash with the storm. The aircraft looked puny and powerless to face the nature’s fury. The aircraft was spinning like a paper boat. Rao warned Captain Rungta. Rungta yelled back with a gruff “shut up!” Rao was furious. There are about eighty people on the flight who could have died due to Rungta’s stupidity. Airport was yet a half-mile away. The aircraft steadily started losing height. The small hill ahead the airport, with a glowing red light on the top of it, was approaching them with alarming speed. “Lift her, lift her” shouted Rao in panic. Airhostess Usha was screaming in fear and frenzy. In the next two minutes, they would hit the hilltop and crash. Rao lifted his arm and gave a resounding whack on Captain Rungta’s neck. Rungta slumped in his seat. Rao pushed him aside and took over the controls. He gave a full throttle and lifted the aircraft. They just crossed the red light in a hair width. Then he balanced the aircraft steadily in the air. They were almost out of the ruin’s way. He made a circular move in the air and slowly landed the aircraft. When, finally, the aircraft came to a halt on the ground, he realized he was swathed in sweat. Usha was clinging on to him and shouting hysterically. He had to take her to the hospital and, only after she was sedated, she let him go.

Rao finished the story.

“The rules and regulations on the ground cannot be taken into consideration while in the air sometimes. I went against the rules when I overpowered Rungta and physically injured him. If I had followed the rules, even when he was prepared to kill all the passengers with his foolishness, I was expected to standby and watch. I disregarded the rules because I wanted to save those passengers. Just obeying my instincts is a strong part of my character. Right from my childhood, I caused problems to all those around me with my impulsive nature. On the aircraft, it is a different world altogether. I am the king there. I never make a mistake there. Back on the ground, all that I seem to be doing are mistakes.”

 He ignored her, on that day, and ran to the hospital with Usha; and today, he is trying to justify his actions, thought Kamala. He was not exactly apologizing, but rather saying that, since he had saved so many lives that night, he has a right to do just what he wants, she thought foolishly. Rao gave her an understanding smile.  He remembered suddenly, what the headmaster had said once, “A woman never trusts another woman, and more so, if the woman happens to be close to her husband and of course, it is the husband whom she trusts the least.”

Rao completed the rest of the story.

Usha fell asleep on the bed at the hospital. Rao went to the hotel. He sat in his room and wrote a letter to the authorities, explaining his breach of discipline. He mentioned that he hit Captain Rungta and took the controls of the aircraft into his hand. He mentioned that he was willing to accept any punishment given to him. He apologized to Captain Rungta for his behavior.

Captain Rungta stayed in the same hotel, four rooms away. Rao went to his room and knocked on his door. No reply. He glanced at his watch. It was 2:00 a.m. He changed his mind and turned to go, when he heard a gruff, “come in”. The voice sounded heavy with alcohol. Rao entered the room.

“Good evening, my hero!”

The voice was in no way taunting. Rungta glared at him through his blood red eyes for a while.  Rao could not fathom his state of mind. He seemed to be drunk but still in control of his senses. Rao smiled and gave him the letter of apology. Rungta read the letter. He turned away to look at the lamp for a while. Then suddenly he tore up the letter into pieces and threw them into the waste paper basket. He again glared at Rao, blankly. Finally he smiled sadly!

“Rao, can I get you something to drink? Or, are you too tired?”

Rao sat down in a chair. He got ready to serve the drinks.

“No, no! You are my guest”

Rungta poured the whisky into two glasses.

“Cheers”, Rungta emptied his glass.

Rao sat silently; he was uncomfortable. Rungta suddenly said, with his eyes shining,

“Rao, how could you do it, so easily? You saved the aircraft worth nearly eighty lakhs of rupees. More than that, you saved the lives of eighty people, which are priceless. To top it, now you write a letter apologizing for your breach of discipline. Oh yes, the blow you gave me on the neck! My neck is all swollen. It will probably hurt more tomorrow! I deserve it, of course. I don’t know what had happened to me. I seemed to have gone out of my mind. Somehow, the red lamp was not in my view at all. I thought it was just a matter of time before we all had died. My ego sprung up out of nowhere! I got terribly confused. Then you took over. I fell down when you hit me. I got up burning with rage, to push you away from the controls. The aircraft that was losing height rapidly suddenly went up and crossed the killer red lamp. How deftly you had controlled an aircraft that was running on a single engine! Your supreme confidence! You turned the aircraft around as if it were a mere bird.  Then you landed it gently. I was staring at you. Your eyes, the concentration in them! Then I understood. You hit me not because you hated me or you were jealous of me. You hit me, because you had no other choice at that time. I never knew you could take over the control of a hopeless situation so easily. I always had a very low opinion of you. I assumed you were an irresponsible playboy, joking around with people. Today I knew that, behind the happy-go-lucky exterior, lurks a determined, confident professional!”

Rao felt terribly embarrassed at the direct admiration and praise. He could not get himself to look at Rungta. He suddenly caught his reflection in the mirror on the dressing table. It looked strange! It suddenly turned into the headmaster’s face! He was amazed to find the same eyes, looking innocent with all the knowledge behind them, the same smile. Suddenly he realized that the headmaster became a part of himself. He knew he could never be the same person as the headmaster was. The headmaster would never get into troubles, like he always did.  He would pull people out of troubles! When he himself got into many troubles, it was the headmaster who pulled him out. On that night too, it was the headmaster who took the control over, thought Rao.

“Rao, I am quitting. I can no longer be a pilot.”

“Nonsense” protested Rao.

“Rao, I had been a pilot of fighter planes during many wars. I escaped many mortal dangers. I know very well how calm and courageous a pilot must be, how he needs to keep his cool in the face of dangers. I lost those qualities. If I feel wobbly when the aircraft is out of control, I can no longer be a pilot. Tomorrow I will meet the chairman and request him to transfer me into the administrative section. If he refuses, I shall resign.”

Rao knew that Rungta spoke the truth. He sighed. Rungta got up and lied down on his bed.

“I am terribly sleepy, Rao. You can stay if you like and finish the drink. If you need, there is one more bottle in the fridge. I never expected you to see tonight. I am so happy!”

Rungta fell asleep even before Rao finished saying “good night”.

 Kamala looked at him. His arm circled her waist. She gave a cautious look around. Both the airhostesses seemed to be missing.

The aircraft started descending. “No seat-belt here”, Rao gripped her waist firmly.

“The poor girls are missing their chances because of me”, she said, tauntingly. But there was no malice in her voice. She choked when the wheels touched the ground. She felt secure and happy with his arms holding her.

When they were in the taxi en route to Eluru, Rao opened his dairy and showed it to her. Under the plastic wrapper there was a photograph, which she had never seen before.

“Who is this?”

“Our headmaster.”

She looked at the picture for a long time.

The dead body was placed in the main hall. Headmaster’s wife sat at his feet. Janardana Rao and his daughter Nagamani sat a few feet away.

“Hello, Subba Rao”, Janardana Rao recognized him. Nagamani looked at him and turned away. The headmaster’s wife looked at him vacantly.

“Subba Rao, Surya Rao (headmaster’s son) will not be here for three days, at least. We need to cremate the body before it starts decaying. What do you think we should do?” asked Janardana Rao.

Rao went to the headmaster’s wife.

“Madam, can I perform the last rites? I am like your own son,” his voice choked.

She gave him a blank look. Finally she said, “alright child!”

Janardana Rao got busy with the arrangements.

Rao refused to look at the headmaster’s lifeless face. He firmly retained, in his mind, only the living, lively face of his teacher.

As he walked along the streets, performing the last rites, he felt the streets calling to him, silently.

The memories of the canal, shore, the boats, the early morning when I stole bananas and jaggery from the boats, swarmed my mind. Mother sent me to Kovvur to the high school, to the headmaster. He and my father were childhood friends. Mother was very much worried about my mischievous deeds.

I stayed in a small room next to the headmaster’s house, with three other friends. I was at an age when rebellion came naturally to me. I could not fathom the master for the first few days. Grey hair, his moustache, gold framed glasses, he indeed looked academic. He would sit on the verandah till late at nights, in his armchair, reading a book.

One day I took the other boys to a late night show at the circus tent. The other boys were good as long as they are on their own; they would never go for a late night circus show. They would not tell tales about me to the headmaster either.

Next day, when we were swimming in Godavari, the master asked,

“Boys, how was the circus last night?”

By the time I’d gathered my wits to bluff my way out, master had already left. I realized that I would never be able to lie to him.

The cremation fire was glowing. Janardana Rao and he sat on the shore of the canal.

“I have never seen any one think so clearly and so good at heart. I shifted to Eluru for Nagamani’s education. He too retired and settled here. His son went abroad. He would always ask me, “”dear sir! Please find a small house for my old woman and me. I can’t afford high rents.” I got him to stay in this house. We would meet every day. Both of them liked Nagamani very much.”

“Did Nagamani get married, sir?” Rao asked hesitantly.

Janardana Rao smiled.

“Of course! She is of the same age as you are. It was he who saved you and her after the big furor. I was hell bent upon ruining your future those days. He diffused the whole situation. Of course, it was good for my daughter too…………”


Janardana Rao was a member of the Brahmo samaj. Their ancestors were from the courtesans’ caste. He was a lawyer by profession and got all his sisters married. Nagamani was his eldest daughter. She was my classmate. She was very proud of her father and spoke always of “her dad”. He always quoted from scriptures. Most of the high caste Hindus ridiculed him. Our Telugu teacher always joked about him. Ramanatham and Sambu always walked behind the girls after school and teased them with comments.

“Who could be the father of the lawyer?”

“It is a bit difficult to tell. You would have to choose from many people!”

“Unfortunately, he wants to become a respectable man.”

“No point in washing a rat’s skin, it is forever black”, they would sing.

Nagamani would be enraged and treated all of us like filth.

One day Telugu teacher said in the staff room,

“All the great people in Mahabharata are of dubious parentage! Like some respectable people in our town…”

Headmaster had just then entered the room, and said mildly,

“Now, sir, do you think one knows surely who one’s father is? We have to just go by what our mothers say, isn’t it? In any case, we are in no way affected by who our father is, but by who we are, don’t you think?”

One day in the evening Janardana Rao was giving us a talk in the school. Headmaster invited him. We all got angry with both of them. When he stood up to give his talk, we made a racket. He seemed to be slightly irritated, but headmaster looked calm. Janardana Rao could not finish his talk and he concluded as early as he could. Headmaster got up to say something. We were all nervous with waiting. He said without any emotion,

“I wish to thank Mr. Janardana Rao on all our behalf. The thanks are not for his talk. It is for his patience towards us. I also apologize to him, for I could not teach basic courtesy to my students.”

All the teachers sitting in the front looked uncomfortable. All of us understood how pained headmaster was with the emphasis he placed on each word. With child hood irrationality we held Janardana Rao responsible for all the agony of the evening. To add to it, Nagamani abused us with strong words. I was even more enraged. When I found her alone, I started taunting about her caste. She would turn red in the face, but never complained to any of the teachers. Perhaps, she guessed correctly that none of the teachers would support her. One fine day, she gave a sarcastic smile and said, “Elephants always ignore barking dogs.”

That day the last class was history. History teacher was a pious, timid old man. We loved to embarrass him with silly questions. We found his discomfort hilarious. That day I got Sambu to ask him, how many concubines Krishnadeva rayalu could have had? He turned red in the face, since he considered Krishnadeva rayalu in high respect. Fortunately, the bell rang and put him out of his misery. He rushed to leave the class. After going out he must have remembered that the teacher who taught in the last hour should wait till all the girls in the class left. I did not notice him standing outside the entrance. All the boys were in a stampede near the entrance. The girls waited for all the boys to leave. At the end of the girls was Nagamani, standing. She gave her usual sarcastic smile to me. I lost my temper. All the girls were moving out. In the end Nagamani and behind her was I. Suddenly on an impulse, I grabbed her plaited hair in my hand and pulled her towards me. She screamed in fright and fell over me. I held her waist and hugged her. I do not know why I did. All the girls were screaming hysterically. The teacher came inside the class shouting, “you naughty boy! What are you up to?” I fled the scene.

I ran without aim or direction along the river. I climbed the railway bridge and ran towards Rajahmundry. Some train climbed the bridge behind me, started chasing me. I ran till I reached the next station. My lungs were bursting with exertion. I slumped on the platform. I reached home back by ten o’clock in the night. I stood near the wall in the darkness. I heard Janardana Rao speaking to the headmaster.

“We have to teach such rowdies a stiff lesson. I will see to it that he is kicked out of the school for ever.”

“Sure sir! I will complaint to the higher office. I will write a strong complaint, so that he cannot join any other school. Let the history teacher come with the report, first” said the headmaster.

I felt weak in my legs and slumped down. Janardana Rao left after a while. Headmaster saw him off at the gate, turned back to go in and noticed me. I stood up facing him. He slapped me on the face. I fell down and could not get up again. He came down to look into my face. He said,

“Go inside and sleep”.

He paused again before going in, and asked, “have you eaten any food?”

I did not answer. He took me inside.

He called his wife and said, “I think this idiot has not had any food. Give him some rice.”  I wondered if she knew what I had done. I said I did not want any food. He said, “Shut up and eat.” I ate my food and looked at him. He looked like God who could forgive all our sins. I finished the food and came out. He was reading a book on his chair. I wanted to tell him something, but could gather neither my wits nor courage.

He simply said, “Go to bed now.” I went inside my room. My roommates too did not bother to talk to me and promptly went off to sleep. I could not find sleep anyhow and my brain was teeming with absurd thoughts. I have to apologize to Nagamani. Of course, I will be rusticated from the school. Then I will humiliate her again in the main street. Why did I do it? What will happen to me now? What will mother say? I will commit suicide.

The whole night dreams haunted me.

Next day morning I did not go to the Godavari for my usual swim. I did not step out of my room. My roommates still avoided me, as if I were a particularly harm full animal. I heard the history teacher talking out side to the headmaster.

“Idiots, these boys are! We have to punish him, sir. How dare he, in the class, with so many students! I tell you, sir he should be….”

I peeped out of the crack in the door to see what was going on. History teacher wrote a three-page report, which the headmaster was reading. He read the first page and merely turned the rest two pages.

“That is fine sir. I will report the incident to the higher authorities,” he said in the end.

A week went by. Everyday evening Janardana Rao would come and ask about the status of the complaint.

“Come on, sir. How can we discipline the school children if we don’t punish the rascals? Why is there no reply for your complaint?”

“Red tape, sir! Do you think any office works efficiently in our country? Most of the time they simply throw our letters in the waste paper basket.” headmaster would say.

“Please send them a reminder.”

“Sure. I will do it right away. I will mark a copy to the D.E.O too!”

Daily morning the history teacher would come to make similar enquiries. Again the same dialogue would go on. I kept on imagining what would happen next.

Headmaster would write a reminder. It would travel by the evening mail to Eluru. The D.E.O would read the letter. He would call mother and tell her the matter. How upset she would be! If only the letter would not read Eluru! If the train meets with an accident near Nidadavolu! If only all the letters would catch fire! Or, if the letter would be read by a clerk in the D.E.O’s office, who was in a similar predicament in his younger days! He would sympathize with me and throw the report in rubbish.

I heard that Nagamani has not been coming to school for the past four days. I felt guilty.

After ten days, the history teacher came in the early morning, in a foul mood.

“What is this I hear sir? It seems you never sent that report to the higher authorities.”

Headmaster fell silent for a minute.

“Hmm! Actually I am having second thoughts about sending the letter.”

“What? How can you spare such undisciplined brats? How could you forgive him?”

“Come on, sir! Is he an enemy soldier to hate him so much? He is still a child!”

“What are you saying, sir? How will we train the children if we let him go?”

“Dear Sir, all those sages who performed strict penances and thought nothing beyond God’s feet too ran agog with desire when they saw an apsara, why talk of a young inexperienced boy! I do not know about you sir, but honestly, if a good-looking girl were passing by, I too feel extremely tempted to give a second look! The fear of the society, my family, my own concepts of good and bad, all together pull me back. Or else, I too would have hugged a girl, in my age. I do not, because I know that in that event, more than the girl I will be in soup. He is a young boy; he did not have such discerning capacity. He did a small mistake. Who knows how much he is repenting, now. If we leave him now, he will never do such a thing in all his life. If we ruin his life by expelling him from the school, he may never get a chance to start afresh. His repentance is his own punishment, I think.”

Suddenly they both were in my room. I was slumped on the floor. I could not lift up my head with the weight of guilt. Slowly both of them left.

That day evening the lawyer came as usual. After some routine discussions, he got up to go.

“Sir, I need to tell you something. I took my own decision in a small matter. I did not send the report to the higher authorities,” said the headmaster.

“But why?” said the lawyer.

I heard a roar in my ears; the anxiety and pressure were too much to bear.

 He was still saying,

“If you complain about me, I will have to resign from my job. In principle, I should have filed that report and punished that boy. But somehow I was not convinced about the wisdom of the action. I am a teacher. When one of my students strays, my duty is to show him the right path, not ruin his life. If I had sent a report about his misbehavior, he would have been expelled from the school, which of course he deserves. But he will be totally out of control then. He might think he can do anything and get away with it. He might even humiliate your daughter even more! You can get him arrested, but then unnecessary rumors will start floating about your daughter too, which I thought is undesirable. But if you insist, I shall send the report.”

“That’s fine, but why did you not tell me for such a long time?”

“You were too enraged to think calmly.”

After that I lost track of their conversation.

I ran out of the house. I took a short cut to reach the lawyer’s house before him. I was breathless when I reached their house. I knocked on their door.

His wife opened the door and asked,

“Yes, who is it?”

“It’s me, Subba Rao”

She gasped. She became stiff as if I were some murderer or a drunkard. Nagamani came out.


“I am very sorry Nagamani. I did something very wrong. I am not asking you to forgive me. I do not know why I behaved so badly.”

I did not notice the lawyer standing behind me. I turned back to go home and saw him.

“Sir, I heard all that you and headmaster were talking. I am sorry for what I have done. Even if you get me expelled, I will not bother Nagamani any more. Do what you think is the best, sir”.

I did not return home that night. I sat in the schoolyard. I slept there.

From the next day I attended school as usual. Every body seemed to have forgotten about the incident. I cleared my school leaving exams in flying colors that year. I thought that is the best way to thank headmaster. I wanted him to have the satisfaction of pulling a man from the brink of ruin.

After that whenever I faced a problem, I would think what the headmaster would have expected me to do. He became a part of my alter ego and me. When I make stupid mistakes, my alter ego lovingly forgives me and corrects me gently.


He sat on the cot and told the entire story to Kamala. Nagamani was sleeping inside with her mother.

In the mild light of the dawn, all the birds were waking up the entire world. He looked at Kamala sleeping peacefully, her head perched on his thigh. A smile played on her lips, a smile that knows all his faults, and forgives, just like the headmaster’s smile.


(Translator’s note: This story was published in the anthology gAlivAna  (1984) of Palagummi Padmaraju. The permission given by Smt. Palagummi Satyanandam is gratefully acknowledged.

Acharya devo bhava“, the teacher who plays an important role, just like parents, in a person’s character building and is indeed on par with the God.

Translated by Sharada, Australia, and published on, October 2004) 



The Small Wheel

By Nidadavolu Malathi.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sarmaji left growling like a ferocious animal.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Venkanna sincerely hoped that he could tea for this gentleman.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Telugu original is available here