Monthly Archives: October 2014

Andallu and the Onions by I. V. S. Atchyutavalli

Andallu stood before the mirror, tucked a huge bunch of roses in her long braid, and finished the braid with the gold bells tying tightly at the end. Rolling her big beautiful eyes all over the image in the mirror, she watched herself as if she was taken by her beauty. She did not notice the arrival of Lakshmanacharyulu or the plantain leaf packet in his hand.

Lakshmanam watched his wife’s absorption with her beauty and coughed a small cough.

Andallu jerked turned around; her wide eyes became wider. “Ah, you! How long since you’ve come,” she said in a kind of dragging tone and put the coffee flask on the table.

“What does it matter how long I’ve been here? Been standing so long, my legs are hurting; yet you won’t let go of your love for your primary husband for me,” he replied somberly.

Andallu twitched.

“Don’t worry my beautiful! I meant the full-length mirror fastened to the dresser your primary husband, no other person. Am I not second to him? Don’t you do all those things only in front of him? Whether it is a new sari, flowers in your hairdo, the dot on your forehead and the eye make up—the entire make up is only for him, isn’t that right? You don’t even look at me without his permission.”

“Uh, go away. You’re too much. You are turning into a poet par excellence,” she said, chuckling.

“Haven’t our great teachers (predecessors) stated that the poet may see what the sun cannot? Am I not a poet? My namesake, Lakshmana kavi, translated the Bhartruhari’s poetry and left at that. I would have written a lot more inculcating all the three rasas—the sensuous, the liberating, and the devotional,” he said, smiling.

Andallu saw the packet on the table and asked, “What’s that?”

“Things you like very much, Devi!” he said, teasingly.

“Things I like very much?” she said, warily.

There was a reason for Andallu to be apprehensive. Andallu was pregnant for the first time. She was five months along. She was a beautiful woman to begin with. And, with the pregnancy and the morning sickness, she became even more beautiful, that is thinner and more delicate like a kasiratnam vine.

Lakshmanam loved her immensely because she was his first cousin and also pregnant. He was the only son to his parents. Now, within one year of his marriage, he was going to have a son to prolong his pedigree. Right away, he wrote to his mother and mother-in-law. Andallu had said, “don’t” but he did not listen to her pleas.

On the previous day, Andallu was bored and so went to her neighbor Subhadra’s house. Subhadra was frying potato pieces and onions. Andallu’s mouth watered not the fried dark brown potato pieces but for the onion pieces which glowed brilliantly in the steel pan.

Subhadra continued to blabbing this and that and asking questions in between. None of the words went into Andallu’s ears. All her eyes were glued to the onion pieces in the steel pan. She was lost in imagining the onion bits in her mouth, even savored each drop of the sweet juice scrumptiously; her tongue experienced the taste of hot pepper as well.

“Fifth month along, I suppose. How come your mother has not come yet? First time pregnant, you might be yearning for various things to eat. If mother is here, she will know what appeals to your tongue and makes it for you. You are a loner by nature. You know what they say—young wife’s managing the household is like splinters ablaze; no steady, lasting flames. If you feel like eating something, tell me—chutney or curry, anything. I’ll make it for you. You are no different from my younger sister. Anyway, you are still young, why bother about traditions? You know, these men run to the hotels and eat all kinds of junk and nobody questions them. Again the same fellows go at it, isn’t that great?” said Subhadra warmly.

At once, Andallu wanted to say, “Please, akka, let me have a bit of the curry” but again thought, Cha, how can I ask?” Subhadra would announce the story to the entire town. “I might as well buy the ingredients and make the curry myself,” she told herself and returned home, fettering her thoughts tight in her head.

Thus when her husband said the packet contained something she wanted, she thought it might be onions; she was worried that he had found out about her craving for onions. The reason for her fear was Andallu talked in her sleep sometimes; it became a pattern for her. Sometime back, she had wished for a red gold-threaded sari and that night in her dream, she had said, “I wish I could wear a red gold-threaded sari and go to the movies with you.” The next morning, soon after he woke, he went to the store and bought a red gold-threaded sari. At that time also, she had asked as always, what the packed had contained. He had responded the same way, “Something you always wanted.” She had opened the packet and was surprised to see the red sari. He had explained to her later about her speaking in her sleep. Now Andallu feared that she had talked in her sleep possibly. For that reason, she could not reach the leaf packet and open it. She was scared that she might find a pesarattu or onion in it. No matter how much her heart craved for it, how much her husband loved her, she did not have the courage to ask him for something that would flout the family traditions. She looked at him with hesitation and embarrassment.

“Come on, open it and see,” he said teasingly.

That frightened her even more.

“Ah, Andi,

Oh, Andi,

Open and see Andi,

See and take Andi.”

Lakshmanam kept humming a Punjabi style tune as he unwound the thread around the packet.

Andallu felt sick in the stomach with fear. She ran to the backyard, threw up, washed and sat down in a chair, wiping her face with a towel.

Lakshmanam brought a spoonful of maadi fruit juice to calm her nausea. Then he said, “You’ve not opened the packet yourself” and finished opening it. It was a bunch of swarna sampenga flowers. Quite taken by their aroma, Andallu, said, “ha!“ and took a deep breath.
The next day, after her husband had left for work, Andallu bought onions and garlic from the vegetable vendor. She packed them carefully in a newspaper and hid them in the midst of the stack of her saris. She planned to fry potatoes and onions in the evening and eat. She cut the vegetables and was about to fry.

Suddenly, Lakshmanam appeared out of nowhere like a villain of the piece.

“Andi, I booked tickets for the movie Navarang. Quick, go and change. We can eat after we returned,” he said.

Andallu who was planning to make the onion curry and eat before he came, was dumbstruck. He did not tell her about it in advance. Anyway, she quickly threw the onion and potato cuts in to a dish, washed her hands first with cow dung, then with soap and returned. Poor thing, she did not have the pleasure of watching a movie on that day.

The next day, she told her this is not way to do it. She started making pakora as soon as her husband had left for work. She put the frying pan on the stove, poured oil into the pan and turned the heat on. Then she mixed chick pea flour with chili powder and salt; started chopping ginger, green chillies, and onion finely.

Just in that moment, Vimalamma, a neighbor, pushed the door open and walked in. She laid the sitting plank and asked, “What are you doing, pregnant woman? Are you making some snack? Is that Bajji?”

Andallu hesitated for a moment; then told herself, “She is here, so what? I feel like eating and so I’ll make them.” Then, she hesitated again. “Gosh, isn’t she going to announce to the entire town?” By nature, Andallu was a nervous woman by nature. She thought for a second and in one quick move, she threw away the onion pieces, cut green plantain and made bajji.

Vimalamma gave her a couple of sweet mysorepak pieces, “Here, eat.”

Andallu put several pieces of bajji on a steel plate and gave them to Vimalamma, “Here, give them to your kids.”

By the time this event ended … the maid came … then it was time to cook supper … Lakshmanam arrived … The day was over with the routine as always.

Throughout the night, Andallu dreamt about onion fries and pakora.

Ever since she woke up, she waited for her husband to leave for office.

As soon as he left, she shut the doors tight and ground mung beans, chopped ginger, green peppers and onions finely and made pesarattu,, well almost … Before she poured the dough on the grill to make pesarattu, she heard somebody banging on the door. Whoever could be? Andallu was nearly in tears. She sighed, threw the onion pieces out the back door, scrubbed her hands with dirt until the smell was gone and then opened the door.

Her mother-in-law Ragavamma and sister-in-law Thayaru were standing in front of her.

Andallu’s face turned pale.

‘“What are you doing, Vadina! My brother is not home and you’ve shut the door and started cooking all your favorite dishes?” Thayaru said, teasingly.

“Ha, that’s funny! It surely looks like she is eating! Andallu! You’re so skinny, why? Seems like you’ve lost plenty of weight. If you’re too shy to ask me, why didn’t you write to your mother, you silly,” said Ragavamma, putting her hand round Andallu’s shoulders lovingly.

After that a few days went by wildly with things like bathing and eating, Ragavamma making dosa with the dough Andallu had prepared, distributing the sweets she brought—the sugar minapasunne, ariselu, chakrakeli bananas—to neighbors, and so on. They stayed for two months, Andallu was seven months pregnant.

During those two months, every time Lakshmanam got ready to go to the store, Andallu’s face looked restless as if she wanted to say something. He tried to coax her into saying it but she never said a word. He was restless.

Towards the end of the seventh month, her mother Ravanjamma and sister-in-law Alivelu came to bring her home for delivery. The house buzzed with relatives and festivities and special dishes for the next four days. Yet there was no sign of the pregnant woman getting her craving satisfied. Whom she could tell and what could she tell? Had she told? … Wouldn’t that be ridiculous, regardless they were her relatives? She thought of telling her mother or sister-in-law about her craving. Each time her heart pushed her forward her tongue pulled back.

Her mother-in-law said to Andahllu’s mother, “Vadina, talk to your daughter and find out what she wants. I’ve made several dishes but she ate none with relish. You are the mother, you should know. If she tells what she wants, I can make it for her. She is the only daughter-in-law for me. At this age, I am not happy unless I make her favorite dishes and feed her.”

“Ha, ha ha!” Ravanjamma burst into a big laugh and turned to her daughter, “Andi, why don’t you tell us what you want. Looking for the two bits mom dishes out (smacking) or what?”

 

“Come on, Vadina, say it. If you don’t say and have it now, the baby would be born with puss in the ear. People like us are supposed to fulfill all the yearnings before a pregnant woman turns mom,” said Alivelu, laughing.

 

“Is that true, I mean the puss in baby’s ear?” said Andallu looking worried; her eyes and face were taut.

 

“What? Are you not convinced still? Or, is your heart craving for fish soup or something for heaven’s sake? We have the saying—Each one of them is a Vaishnavite, yet the crab soup disappeared, ha, ha,” Alivelu went on laughing.

 

Mother and Vadina told Andallu to pack the box so could leave soon.

 

Andallu shook her head shyly and said, “Wait for a few more days.”

 

Both Thayaru and Alivelu broke into a big laugh. “We know, we know the whole story. Your heart is yearning to go to movies and walks with my brother, after we are gone. Isn’t that right? That is the reason you want to avoid going with us,” they teased her.

 

Andallu pouted, assumed a bharatanatyam style posture of anger, went into the backyard and sat down.

 

“Don’t sit outside in the open at the twilight time; this is the time for demons supposedly. It’s okay with us if you’re angry with us, just don’t sit here in the out,” said Alivelu, tucking a bunch of chrysanthemum flowers in Andallu’s hairdo and stroking on her cheeks fondly.

 

The next day the house was pretty quiet. Andallu started getting back to her routine sluggishly; she had outgrown the habit in the past two months.

Lakshmanam sat on the doorframe and kept watching her ample mien, her eyes bashfully drooping, and the cheeks glowing with blush off and on for no reason.

 

In Andallu’s mind well-cooked onions bits were glowing and spreading a heartening aroma around. She looked at her husband with salivating tongue.

 

“What is it, Andi? You look strange, why?” Lakshmanam asked.

 

“Nothing. What do you suggest for the side dish?” she asked. In that moment, she wished with all her heart that her husband would bring onions and garlic, make a heap of them in front of her, and tell her, “Here, make soup with some onions, fry some with potato cubes, save some to make pesarattu in the evening, make pakora with a few in the afternoon, fry bits of garlic and toss into the lentil chutney and bits of fried onions in gongura chutney; also, add a few fried bits of telakapindi powder (a by-product in sesame oil production) and chili powder.”

 

Lakshmanam laughed and said, “What does it matter what I want nowadays? You do whatever you feel like eating.”

 

After he finished eating, Lakshmanam was ready to leave for office. He called Andallu to find a handkerchief for him.

 

“Look in the chest of drawers. I am in madi sari. I cannot change until after I am done eating,” she said.

 

He went into the bedroom and tossed and turned all the clothes in the chest. Suddenly, a paper packet fell on to the floor. He opened it; onions! At first he was surprised and then walked into the kitchen. “Andi, the kerchief smells of something,” he said, smiling.

“What smell? Two days back at the festivities time, I distributed some scent bottles and stowed away the remaining two bottles in the chest. Why? Aren’t they good? They called it Rehana or Nurjahan or something, I don’t know for sure,” she said, lowering her head and eating dinner.

 

“Hum, it would’ve been nice if it was the scent. This smell is something else,” he said, pretending to be thinking.

 

Then Andallu understood what he was saying. Hurt, she looked pitiably into his mocking eyes.

 

“Couldn’t you tell me? Don’t I deserve that much of a chance to satisfy your desire?” he said affectionately.

 

Later in the evening, on his way home from work, he went straight to the hotel.

 

“Do you have onion pesarattu?”

 

“We make them only in the mornings, Sir,” the server said.

 

“How about pakora?”

 

“We have it with cashew.”

 

“Let it be. Have sambar to go with idli?” Lakshmanam asked, annoyed.

 

“No Sir. Today’s sambar has drum sticks,” server said, a little surprised at Lakshmanam’s love of onions.

 

“To hell with the idiot face! … Stupid town, stupid, stupid town. What else can we expect after driving away all the Tamil friends out of the state? We have such a huge town yet only one hotel!” thus cursing, he expressed his brotherly love for Tamilians.

 

Next morning, he headed for the hotel as soon as he woke up.

 

“Come, Sir, come. Be the first to eat, the fresh, super fresh pesarattu awash with onions,” server went in and brought four pesarattus with extra onions.

 

Lakshmanam carefully packed them in his kerchief and dashed home in a whiz.

“Andi, Andi, come quick,” he called out for her, bubbling with excitement.

 

Andallu came in, quite pleased for her husband’s affection and care for her, and devotion and attention towards her. Her eyes were wet. She was about to unwind the thread on the packet.

 

“Girl, what are you doing?” her brother Venkatacharyulu showed up.

 

Andallu was baffled. She was not sure whether she should be happy to see her brother, whom she had not seen for a while or feel sorry that her heart’s desire remained unfulfilled.

 

“Girl, they told me that today is an auspicious day. Sastrulu told mother that moodham (adverse days per lunar calendar) sets in soon. She asked me to bring you home today. Bava! Don’t lose heart about her. I’ll send her back along with the son in the third month, I promise,” Venkatacharyulu said.

 

Andallu looked at her husband, disheartened.

 

Lakshmanam watched her as she tossed the packet out the window sadly and said, “All right. Write to me regularly.”

 

After coming to her natal home, it became even more stressful for Andallu. The place was out and out rustic to the core. In that village, her people were the acharyas (religious mentors). With whom she could share wish?

 

As her pregnancy advanced, her fear that the baby could have puss in his ear was getting stronger than the wish to eat onions. Whether her eyes were open or shut, all she could see was a beautiful baby boy cute as jackfruit and his ears wet with puss! That became the constant vision in her mind’s eye! That was her doing too, isn’t it? How is it going to be resolved?

 

She was suffering inexplicable pain in her heart. Lakshmanam was writing letters and asking, “How are you? Has your desire been fulfilled yet?” What could say? She had not told him about possibility of the puss in the baby’s ear, and that was better. Had he known, he would have made her eat onions, regardless how many people protested. In such matters he could be very aggressive. As she recollected her husband’s range of capabilities, she got goose bumps all over.

 

It was vaikunta ekadasi day (special holiday for Hindus). Ravanjamma and Alivelu fasted per tradition. Since Andallu reached full term, Alivelu cooked food only for Andallu and Venkatacharyulu.

 

In the evening, Venkatacharyulu said to his mother, “Amma, I am taking the cart to Palem. The movie Bhakta Ambarisha is playing. Do you want to come?”

 

Andallu was elated at the mention of a movie by her brother as if she found something that had been lost for a while. “Yes, amma, you should go. You’ll be back by eleven anyways,” She said eagerly.

 

“I’ll stay with Andallu. Yes, attha, you go,” Alivelu said, being the daughter-in-law in the house, she felt it was her duty.

 

Andallu insisted over and again. She said, “Just go, you both should go. What is the harm if you two are gone for a few hours? If I am not here, you would have to take turns anyways. But now I am here, and I will take care of the house. You go,” and convinced them—both of them to leave together. After they were gone, she closed the front door and went to the neighbor Sastrulu’s house through the back door.

 

Baamma garu invited her tenderly. “Come dear, come. Sit down,” she said, peeling onions.

 

“What are you doing, baamma garu? Where is Raji? She is not home?” Andallu said.

 

“Would she be here? As soon as your brother Venkati brought the cart, she jumped in and sat in it … Who knows when god will give you relief?” she said, by way of comforting Andallu.

 

“What are making for supper?” asked Andallu casually.

 

“See these? Making soup with these saligrams (precious stones of worship),” she said, pointing to the onions in her hand.

 

Something on the stove made a hissing noise.

 

“You sit here. I think the rice is boiling over. I’ll remove the excess water and be back,” said bamma garu and went into the kitchen.

 

Andallu grabbed a few onion bits, hid them in her sari palloo and said, “Baamma garu, my back is hurting. I’ll go home and lie down,” and left quickly.

 

“Wait, I’ll give you coconut sweet balls,” bamma’s words vanished into the thin air.

 

Andallu took a bit of thick tamarind juice in a pan, added a little jaggery, onion pieces, green chilli pieces, salt and turmeric and put it on the stove and sat there fanning the flames. As it started simmering, she held her two hands over the dish to catch the flavor, brought them to her nose and enjoyed the aroma, swallowing the water in her mouth. She kept thinking—the soup must simmer first then cool down and then she should eat to her fill!

 

Just below the patio, the parijatham buds were opening one after another. The almond tree in the backyard shook its leaves as if it understood the circumstances and her condition. In that breezy evening, the potato and onion fry, pesarattu, pakora, and lentil chutney were hovering around in steel plates in front of her eyes. Andallu suddenly curled up; something in her stomach hurt; she felt like throwing up. Finally, she understood the main problem.

 

Quickly she took the hot dish from the stove, emptied it into the rim under the almond tree, and lay back against the jute-rope cot. She called bamma garu for help.

 

That evening, Ravanjamma garu and Alivelu returned from the movies and found a blue-collar midwife Veeramma giving bath to the baby boy, the size of a juicy mango fruit and bamma garu tying a piece of cloth around the new-mother’s waist.

 

Alivelu was overwhelmed as she watched her newly born nephew. Andallu, eyelids wavering lightly and she brimming with the love of a new mother, said to Alivelu, “Vadina, check the baby’s ear. Is there puss?”

 

The words, spoken in a feeble voice got lost in the resounding voice of Ravanjamma; she was saying, “Where is the metal dish, Andallu?” The voice sounded like a bell.

 

Alivelu could not hear Andallu’s question.

 

Lakshmanam received the telegram sent by his brother-in-law Venkatacharyulu. At once, he rushed all his colleagues to the hotel and ordered onion pesarattu and pakora for everybody.

 

“Lakshmanam, you’re celebrating your son’s birth, you should feed us sweets but not this hot stuff that scorches our tongues. Come, bring us sweets,” his friends said.

 

“You finish these items first. We’ll have sweets too,” Lakshmanam said, overwhelmed and bubbling like the sea.

His friends could not figure out why Lakshmanam ordered those items; yet, it was lunch time and they all were starving. So, they ate.

Lakshmanam could see the satisfied face of Andallu and the baby vaguely. He smiled to himself contentedly.

[End]

Translated by Nidadavolu Malathi and published on thulika.net, June 2010.

 

All this, Just For You! by Nidadavolu Malathi

Snowstorm is blasting away! Trees and cars on the street are barely visible.

Dharani is sitting by the window and watching the blast. “Thank goodness it is Sunday,” she told herself for the fourth time. Or else, it would have been a hell of a ride to work. She is brooding over the argument she had with her husband Dinakar last night. It is still raw in her mind. Her eyes turn towards the bedroom. There, he is sleeping like a baby; not a care in the world as far as he is concerned. It is getting close to nine. There is no sign of waking up anytime soon.

The snowbirds are heading south announcing the arrival of winter in their own language. They form a sharp cone, like soldiers in a drill session; for Dharani, it is a sight to watch. She watches them every year; the fascination never ends. She turns her eyes to the squirrels on the yard. They are busy collecting nuts and transporting them to their abodes at the base of trees. Somewhere she has read that they would collect them just enough for one winter. Wonder why humans do not have that kind of sense. Man is called rational animal. But then, who said that? Man, of course! Only we have to certify ourselves! Maybe the birds and animals are laughing at us for being so full of ourselves!

The day Dharani set foot in America, it is a fond memory. Her husband doted on her and she was elated. He kept asking, “What do you want?” “What would you like to have?” “What is your wish?” and provided it on the double. He bought new furniture and new window curtains. He was proud to show off his new wife, introducing her as “my missus.” She could not help thinking, “Wow, what a great love he has for me!”

He tells her ten times a day that she is gorgeous and that she, in her new sari, is blinding him. He repeats, “I love you” as if it were a tirumantra. One day he even asked her why she does not say she loves him. “Do you not love me?” he asked.

Dharani laughed casually, “I don’t know. Maybe because we don’t use that kind of language back home.”

Lady luck smiled on him at the same time as his better half joined him in America. A huge project fell into his lap. He flipped over. “All this, because of your luck. You must have worshipped the gods with gold blossoms in your previous life. That is why you have been blessed with a genius like me,” he said, inhaling air into his lungs and expanding his chest.

Dharani laughed happily.

All good things do come to an end. Dinu’s project ended. After that, he had a couple of other projects. Two years went by in a jiff. Currently, he is waiting for another good project. The word “good” is notable. After two big projects, he is in no mood to accept small projects. He is determined to accept only the projects that could put his abilities to the best use. He is waiting for that colossal project.

Dharani’s thoughts are traveling in a different direction. At first, she did not mind. As the time went by, a tiny fear has started sprouting, grown into branches, and now stood as a huge tree in front of her eyes. It is frightening. When Dinu passed two or three projects, it did not bother her. She even seemed to have understood his logic. “Of course, who would not want a job that is challenging to his abilities?” She told herself. Days, weeks, and months went by. Now it is getting scary as the time “he is unemployed” is stretching to new length each day. The thought that it actually decreases his prospects for big projects is chewing her up. Her heart is writhing inside with the question, “Why Dinu, who claims to be a man of unusual talent, cannot see that?”

One of those days, Dinu received a call from a Microsoft subsidiary for an interview. Dinu did not go.

“Why?” Dharani asked, narrowing her eyes. Anybody else would have jumped at the prospect.

“That manager and I attended the same school. He does not have even a half of my IQ. Why would I want to work for him? Absurd,” he said.

Dharani was surprised. He did not even go for the interview; he is already speaking as if he had gotten the job! She did not say it aloud though. After four weeks or so, he received another call from another company and again he disregarded it. Why? Because the CEO in the company is his friend’s brother. He went to Colorado for an interview but dismissed it as stupid job. His reason: he did not like the neighborhood where the office is located.

Dharani is getting more and more worried by the minute. She wonders whether he has any interest in work at all. As the saying goes udyogam purushalakshanam [Work is a characteristic of man]. Nowadays, not only men but women also are not whiling away their time sitting at home and clipping nails. How could anybody sit around doing nothing, as if he hung his head on the hook like a shirt?

Dharani could not do so. She joined the workforce within a year after she had landed in America.

Since she had a master’s degree in biology, she tried to get into Ph.D. program in an American university. She was told that she needed to study a few M.Sc. courses first. Unwilling to repeat the courses, she started looking for jobs. Her prospects were quite good in Minneapolis and Chicago but she did not want to move because it would hurt her husband’s work. Of course, she had seen couples living in different cities and commuting for weekend get-together but she was not interested in that lifestyle. Therefore, she took a part-time position as a customer rep in a local bank. No, it was not a dream job; not something, she was dying for. She took it only to escape from the house-arrest condition within the four walls. The Bank manager recognized her talent soon enough and made her full-time supervisor within six months. The income is good.

Dinu is not like that. It is not in his nature to settle for anything but the top position. The day Dharani told him that she was taking a position at the bank he was displeased. He said, “I would never settle for such a crummy job.” In his mind, that was the worst of the worst lot.

Dharani is upset. The entire situation is annoying. This man recites I love you mantra endlessly yet does not care how I feel in reality. He is not even looking for a job. What am I supposed to think of him? Given the current economy, even those who have jobs are worried sick about keeping them, and here this man is hoping that somebody comes looking for him and hand him a high rank position on a silver platter.

***

Dharani is reading today’s newspaper. She sees a job in the classifieds and says to her husband, “Did you see this?” pushing the paper towards him.

It ticks him off. He flips. “What’s the matter? When did it come to this? You’re looking for jobs for me? Are you saying I am incapable of finding a job for myself?” he shouts.

Dharani is taken aback. “Did I say you cannot look for it by yourself? I happen to see it and so asked you if you saw it,” she says coyly.

“What made you think that I did not see it?”

“’Cause the paper has arrived just now and I picked it up first.”

“Why don’t you say what is on your mind? You think this is fun for me, I enjoy goofing around like this, right?”

“Why do you put words into my mouth? Did I say that?”

“Well, then give it to me straight. Come on. Does it bother you that I am in your face all day? You may think so now. Just wait and see. After I land a dazzling position, and get too busy to be home, you yourself will complain that you hardly see, if at all. To speak the truth, do you know how many women are wailing that their husbands are hardly ever home?”

“Alright. It’s my fault. I will never speak again.”

Dharani goes into the next room. As they say, one word begets another—that is the way with the words. She is trying the best she could to be patient yet the issue is piercing her heart. Yes, family life is meant to be “for worse and for better”. It also means talking openly and freely. How can she put up with him when he is distorting every word she speaks? He keeps asking her what she wants. Does she not also want to know what he wants and help him to achieve that goal? What is wrong with her wanting to help him?

Her mode of thinking is plausible all right but she is lost as to how to convey it to him. Here in America everybody says, “Talk, talk.” How can she talk when he is in no mood to listen? Does it not take two to “talk”? If one person is willing to talk the other must be willing to listen as well. And that is the problem. It is not in his character. It just is not in him to listen.

Dinu calms down after an hour or so. “Poor thing. She is a simpleton, no street smart,” he tells himself and comes back to her. He says coaxingly, “Look, how can I take it if you act like you don’t believe in me?”

“Did I say I don’t believe in you?” Dharani says softly.

“Think about it. You know what Dinakar means. The Sun, who submerges the world with his brilliant rays and wakens, right? That is who I am. A day comes when a big company realizes my brilliance and invites me to help them. Then you will tell yourself, ‘I gave him hard time only because of my stupidity,’” he says laughing loudly.

Dharani does not find it amusing. He seems to believe it with all his heart, for all she could see.

“Okay, I agree you meant well. I am sorry I raised my voice. It will never happen again,” he apologizes and reassures her. He also suggests that she should go in and change. He wants to treat her to a fancy dinner at a high-class hotel.

She goes in and puts on her favorite dress—milky white blouse with light blue flowers and matching pants. She returns into the living room.

He looks and says, “Nice,” but the tone says, uh.

“What? You don’t like it?” she asks.

“You look awesome in the maroon dress,” he says. He bought it on one of those occasions—when a man feels obliged to bring a present to appease his wife.

Maroon is not her favorite color. “I wore it last week when we went to visit Prakash. I’ve worn it so many times. So, I thought I would wear this for a change. Okay, I will change. No big deal,” she goes in.

Deep down at heart, she wishes, “Why can’t he say, ‘No big deal, you don’t have to change.’ If he is so particular, why not buy another dress in the colors I like?” She even mentioned it once.

“What do you mean? You don’t think my selection is super?” he asked.

Dharani changes into maroon color dress and returns. “See how stunningly beautiful you are! The people at the hotel will forget to eat, watching you,” he says exuberantly.

“You and your silly talk,” she says.

The next day also Dinu continues to apologize repeatedly. That evening he says, “I will cook the dinner this evening. I will make eggplant fry, your favorite.”

“Never mind. I will make stuffed eggplant your way,” Dharani says.

“Let’s make both varieties,” he says jubilantly.

Dharani’s heart aches. No doubt, it is easy to make two dishes with the same vegetable. Would it not be nice if it is possible to wear two dresses at the same time?

She finishes cooking and sets the table. Dinu comes to the table. “The eggplant tastes soooo good. When you are angry, the dishes turn out tastier,” he says flippantly.

His words are exhilarating to her ears. Her food pleases his taste buds. The air clears for the moment.

***

Then a day comes when Dharani musters the courage to say to him, “You obviously are not interested in working under anybody. There are no companies that can offer you a position commensurate with your qualifications. Why worry that nobody recognizes your talent. Start your business and prove your brains. Then you are your own boss plus you will be the man that can provide jobs for a couple of others to boot.”

The words shock Dinu. He jerks his head like a goaded cobra and gapes at her, narrowing his eyes. He wonders, “Is she saying that I am good-for-nothing bum? Is she making fun of me?” He is furious.

“Shut up,” he shouts at the top of his voice.

Dharani shakes like a tender mango sprout. Her heart races. She has never seen him so irate. She has never thought of him even capable of that level rage. Frankly, she has never seen in all her life anybody blasting off like that. Her parents had always been very gentle with her. During her childhood, when her father had been exasperated, all he would say, “You are so stubborn. What am I supposed with you?” and nothing more. When her classmates at school said something like “My father would flank me alive” or “My mother would beat me up”, Dharani could not believe that such things could occur in real life. At school, her teachers had just loved her. She had been a model student.

Dharani stares back. Blood rushes from the bottom of her feet to the top of her head.

He thrusts his face into hers and says, “I don’t need your advice. Understand? Never talk to me like that again.”

She pulls away from his face and shudders. The globe whirls around in front of her eyes. She hurries out of the room.

Dinu drops the coffee cup on the table and whizzes out. Coffee spills over, stains the papers on the table and the carpet underneath.

He returns at midnight, after wandering around aimlessly for several hours. He has cooled down by now. He apologizes to his wife again and again, “Sorry, terribly sorry. I am soooo sorry. Even I didn’t know that I possess anger that intense, nit until now.” He also promises her that he would never let that happen again.

“Okay,” she says.

***

At work, Stella notices that something is bothering her. Dharani seems to be miles away.

Stella is a new rep, joined just a few days back. She likes Dharani and often seeks her help in work. She has heard a lot about Indian culture and is curious about our ways.

“Are you okay?” Stella asks Dharani.

Her kind words blow on Dharani as a cool breeze; it is soothing. In that moment, it feels like Stella is the only person in the world who cares about her. Not that she has nobody. Back home, there is a host of them—mother, father, sister, brothers, and childhood friends with whom she had shared food and bed. Yet, in this particular moment, there is no one but Stella who would ask her, “How are you?” Well, there is one person but he does not think about it, or so it seems.

Dharani’s heart mourns quietly. “I am okay,” she says softly, lowering her eyes.

Stella waits for a few seconds and says, “Almost lunch time. Let’s take early lunch.”

Dharani says okay, and gets up. They both sit down in a corner in the coffee room. The room is empty. Other members have not come yet.

Dharani narrates the last night’s events briefly and says, “I don’t know what to do. He is young, at the prime of his life, very well qualified, and yet sits at home doing nothing. It is several months now. I can’t understand his attitude.”

“In your country, wouldn’t they consider it incompetent for a young, educated man to sit idly at home like that?”

“I am not saying that is always the case. I think it is the same in your country too, I mean two generations back. Man is the breadwinner and woman the homemaker. Things are changing in India too. Probably, my grandmother would have called him a bum and told him that he should be ashamed to live off of a woman’s earnings. In my mother’s time, she started working and my father helped her, nominally though. Currently, men are participating actively in domestic chores. However, there are no separate accounts like in this country, not yet anyway.” Dharani tries to explain the situation in India in general terms. Things seem to be getting clearer even to herself as she spoke.

Stella ducks the issue of the state of affairs two generations back and says, “Here in our country nobody sits at home doing nothing. They find some job, one way or another. Nobody sits waiting for somebody to come and hand over a job on a silver platter. In recent times, the stay-at-home dad trend is growing. That happens only when they have children and the wife has a better job than the husband. Even then, the husband finds some kind of work suitable for his skills.”

Dharani is quiet for a few seconds and then says, almost mumbling, “I apologized.”

“What did he say?”

Dharani shakes her head. “He keeps telling me that he loves me.”

“Well, mere words are nothing. It should show in action too. If it rained, the ground will be wet, doesn’t it?” Stella pauses and then adds, “I would suggest counseling.”

“No, that certainly is not going to work,” Dharani says quickly and then adds, ‘He thinks he is the greatest genius on earth. How can he agree to seek help from somebody else?”

“He will learn,” says Stella.

Dharani nods. Both return to their desks.

After she is done for the day, Dharani heads home but not in a mood to go home straight. As she drives past Lake Mendota, she pulls over, and gets out of the car. She sits close to the water, watching the sailboats on the horizon, children playing in the water while parents are standing nearby and chatting … The entire scenery is quite comforting. Nevertheless, she is beset with distressing thoughts. Last night, as they were about to go to bed, Dinu said, “This is all only for you, only for your sake. Don’t you see, this is all for you.” She can’t help wondering. Is this all really for me? Is this what I wanted in life? What did I want in life? Really! What would have happened if I had not come to America? I would have become a Reader in some college by now. I would not have to wash dishes and clothes as I am doing now. Additionally, I would have attained a better status in society. So also, more money and the comforts money could buy. … And then? Can’t say. Then again, what have I accomplished here? I took a job, which has nothing to do with my biology education. They offered me the position because of my master’s degree, not because of the knowledge I had acquired in a specific field.

At work, in the early days, one of her coworkers asked, “What does your husband do?”

“Nothing,” she replied casually.

“Nothing?” her coworker was shocked.

Dharani looked at her face and realized that the joke was lost. She quickly corrected her statement, “I mean presently. He is an engineer. Just finished one huge project and waiting for another. I mean he is in between jobs.”

“I see,” said the coworker, “So, you’re wearing the pants at home.”

Dharani turns pallid. Later the colleague apologized for being rude. For Dharani, it was hard to ignore it all the same. In the following few weeks, she heard her colleagues make casual conversations about their husbands:

“Tom was sitting at home doing nothing, you know. I told him I can’t take it and threw him out. Who wants a man like that?”

“My husband has been a couch potato for quite sometime. I am making him do all the chores, including driving me to and from work. Let’s say I am the husband.”

“Good for you! Why marry a man who cannot take care of you? Might as well get a dog.”

“There must be some problem. Or else, how can one not find a job for so long?”

“Maybe personality issue.”

“Guess so. Must be either lack of social skills, team spirit, or fear of failure.”

“Maybe, it is okay in India. Nobody here sits around waiting for somebody to offer him a job on a silver platter. One has to prove oneself first and then may be one gets better offers. Not by doing nothing, no way!”

Dharani is having hard time listening to these comments. How come her husband acts like he does not know that?

***

At home, Dinu is sitting in the second bedroom, converted as office room, and pondering over. He is agitating over the fact that his wife is unable to see things his way.

Don’t I know that her parents are calling me “a bum, and thinking that I am living off my wife’s earnings? To speak the truth, did I say I will not work? All I am saying is I am waiting for a job befitting my qualifications. What is wrong with that? Let’s face it. Won’t she jump at the prospect when I shine in my field? If I only wait until I get a job that can utilize all my strengths and capabilities, I shall shine like a star. And who benefit from that? She and the children we will have. Is it not right? If I accept a mediocre position now, what happens? How can I prove my abilities extraordinaire? Will I ever be able to recover from the damage the low position causes? Why can’t she understand how people interpret that kind of situation?

They would say,

“If you are really that smart, why did you accept it?”

“Why are you working in this low rank position for so long?”

“If you are really qualified, your company would have made you a director by now, wouldn’t they?”

Dharani does not understand all this. She does not even try to understand. Wouldn’t I grab any opportunity that is commensurate with my exceptional brain? He is convinced that his exceptional brains would be wasted, if he accepts a mediocre position. Then she will never know that her husband is amply gifted and he is the one for the next Nobel Prize award. She does not know that, unlike in India, here people do not care what I do with my life. Nobody is going to look down on me because I am not working.

Dinu is convinced that he is on the right path to glory.

***

It is past 7:00 p.m. Dharani leaves the shoes at the door and asks, “Had coffee?”

Dinu is in the living room reading today’s paper. “No.”

Dharani goes into the kitchen, makes coffee and returns with two cups. She hands one cup to her husband, and settles in the sofa across from him, with the second cup. “I phoned you that I would be late. You could have had your coffee,” she says.

“Thought I’d wait for you, to keep company,” he says without looking up.

Dharani looks at him. He is totally rapt in today’s events in the newspaper. Stella’s words are hovering in her head. The stark naked truth is taking shape and becoming clearer by the minute. She has to do something. Action is important. The intent must show in one’ actions. If it rained, it should show on the ground. “This is all for you, for you only,” Dinu says. Saying is not enough. Acting is just as important, if not more.

“Find any job?” she asks.

Dinu says from behind the paper, “I’ll get it. Haven’t I told you? Just wait.”

Then follows the same old argument. He says again, as always, “For whom do you think I am waiting for a great job patiently? I want you to be proud of me, proud that you have a great husband. This is all for you.”

This time the wife does not back off as before. She is calm but forceful in her tone. She says, “No, it is not for me. It does not look like it is for me. I am not feeling that way. You are sitting around without work only to please yourself. One hundred percent for your own sake. You are doing it to satisfy your own stupid ego. Nobody in this country sits around waiting for somebody to hand over a high rank position on a silver platter. If you want to do something for me, I mean really for me, get a job. Prove that you are capable of finding a job. Show it in action.”

Dinu, stunned, drops the paper. His livid face shows.

The wife continues, “I am going on a Caribbean cruise with Stella at the end of this month. By the time I returned, I hope to see you either as employed in some company or the owner of your own business.”

Dinu picks on the opportunity to change the subject. “Why Stella? Let us go together, you and me, on our second honeymoon.”

“I am going with Stella. By the time I return I want to see you either employed or as the owner of your own business,” she repeats firmly.

“Or else?”

“You will see,” Dharani gets up and walks toward the kitchen royally.

[End]

(Translated by author and published on thulika.net, June 2009)

 

 

LIFE AS A RITUAL By Nidadavolu Malathi

Sitapati took his wife Sita to the restaurant on their sixteenth anniversary per local custom.
Sita is watching the people around. There are about 2 or 3 at each table- a young couple, an
old man and his wife, a father and two children, another mother with six children, probably a
birthday party. They all have paper hats on their heads and balloons in their hands. They
are talking loudly- about movies, new videos, games, songs, music, about classes they liked
or did not like, mortgages, credit card debts, the weather, winter, summer, South Africa,
Nicaragua.

Sita looked at her husband. He is lost in his own thoughts. What could that be, she
wondered. It is sixteen years since they are married. First two or three years it was fun. After
that he is living his life and she is living hers…

“How are you today?” the waitress inquired with a pleasant smile. She told them her name
and the house specials and asked if they were ready to order.

Sitapati told her that they were doing great and turned to Sita. “It is your anniversary. You
should tell what do you want?”

That is one of his habits. He always talks as he is doing everything for her sake. “Why? Am I
the only one married? You are not?”

Sitapati laughed and asked the waitress for her suggestion. He recited the list again like the
sacred mantra- specialty of the day, specialty of the house, her personal choice, and people’
s choice… Sitapati ordered specialty of the house for himself and Pina Colada for Sita.

“Would like grilled vegetable?”

“I have been ordering the same every time. I think I will have a salad today.”

He slipped in to his own world again.

She kept looking around.

He remembered about their wedding anniversary about four days back. “What do you want
for your anniversary?” he asked her with great enthusiasm.

She understood that he would get her something whether she wants it or not. Since they
come to this country this has become a custom. She cannot remember Indian festivals like
Diwali and Pongal. But these local customs are taking over. Every year he asks her and buys
something or other. So she will keep up with him and buy something for him. They start with
asking each other, protesting that he or she does not want anything, and then go out buy
something or other, wrap them up in colorful wrapping paper, then hide until the day comes,
send the children to neighbor’s house and they go out to eat…
Sita is not into the local these ways.

Sitapati could never understand her likes and dislikes. Not in the past 16 years he could
figure out what she really wanted out of life. He never forced her to do anything. He never
forced anybody to do anything. It is not just in his nature.

He respects his wife very much. In fact he has great respect for all women. He has lot of
friends. He is always there for them in their miseries. He is happy when they are happy. He
thinks highly of their brains. He has as much admiration for their wealth too Sita believes.

That is a moot point. Whenever somebody belittles women, he would take it up on himself to
rescue the reputation of those women. No. He does not physically attack them but certainly
will make sure that the men learn to respect women! Then some people teased him that his
name is justified. Sitapati literally means the husband of Sita. So you see. They have a point.

But then Sitapati did not take offense. He said he is proud to be Sita’s husband. He could not
figure out Sita. He would be able to get what she wants only if he knows what she wants.
Then he would go to the end of the world if necessary, and bring it, give it to her, make her
happy and feels great about himself. Unfortunately that is not happening.

Waitress brought plates and drinks. She arranged them neatly on the table and asked if they
would like to have anything else.

“We are fine,” Sitapati told her, and started nibbling chips. Sita looked at him for a second
and she too took a piece.

He lifted the glass and said, “To many happy years.”

“Many happy years,” Sita said.

“How is it?”

“Good.”

Looked at the table next to them. A middle-aged couple was sitting in the place of the young
couple that was there before. Sita smiled.

“Why are you smiling?”

“I am looking at the couple next to us. Earlier there was a young couple. Now they are middle-
aged. Feels like we are here for a generation long”.

Sitapati kept quiet.

The couple at the next table is planning their vacation. She suggested that they should go to
Florida. He says Colorado. Her argument is if they go to Florida they could visit with their
children. His argument is they could spend time with their friends. Either of them thinks his or
her argument is the most reasonable one.

“We haven’t seen our Telugu folks for a while,” Sita said.

“Yeah?”

“How about inviting them next week.”

“I might not be in town.”

“….”

“That’s okay. They all are your friends, anyways. Go ahead and invite them.”
Sita continued to eat. She looked at her husband. It seems he has a lot of faith in the words
of the waitress. Eating like he had not eaten in weeks. She could not swallow a bite. Is he
really enjoying it? Is he really aware what he is eating? She heard voices from behind.

“Have any plans for Friday?”

“Why?”

Sita turned her head a little and tried to see them without making it that obvious. She noticed
a couple of kids, a boy and a girl, probably 15 or 16.

“There is a small restaurant outside town.”

Sita imagined the expression on their faces. Probably he is looking at her mischievously and
may be she is raising her eyebrows with curiosity.

“Really. Good food too.”

“We’ll see,” said the girl.

“We can go to a movie later.”

“I’ll call you.”
“How about sevenish?”

Sita took a deep breath.

“What is that for?” Sitapati asked.

“Nothing. I was listening to the conversation of the kids behind me.”

“What is that about?”

“It is funny. In our families the adults go to so much trouble to arrange a marriage. Here the
kids go to as much trouble to impress each other.”

Waitress showed up again.

“Any dessert today?”

“You order,” Sitapati asked his wife again.

“I don’t want anything.”

“Have ice cream. You like ice cream.”

“Okay.”

He ordered two ice creams and lost in his own thoughts.

The group at the other table started singing “happy birthday to you”. All the guests at all the
tables looked up. After the song the birthday baby blew away the 16 candles. Everybody
clapped. Sita also clapped. Sitapati is miles away. Sita did not feel like eating ice cream.
“Why?” Sitapati asked and without waiting for her reply finished her share also.
Suddenly Sita remembered Parvati. She met Parvati about four years back in the airport, on
her way to India.
*                *                *

Due to dense fog flights were cancelled. She was standing in the corridor and looking around
and noticed another Telugu woman. Parvati’s face lit up like firecrackers. They got in to
chatting.

Parvati came to the airport to receive her mother. Since the planes were cancelled Parvati
was about to return home alone. She invited Sita to her place for the night. Sita felt a little
embarrassed but Parvati would not let go. She said her home was not far from the airport
and there was nobody else in the house.

“This is what we miss most in this country. I mean the meaningless chatting. I was born in a
small village. You know how it is. We stand at the front door or gather near the village well
and get in to chatting like “what curry” “what is new in town?” “Is that a new saree?” Here we
have neither time nor people to get in to such chatting,” commented Parvati with a nostalgic
look on her face. Sita realized something about Parvati just then. Parvati is 5 months
pregnant. With her arm around her shoulder she said, “Okay, let’s go.

“Are you done?”

“What?”

“Listening to others’ conversations,” Sitapati said sarcastically.

“Well. I’d listen to you if you talk,” she snapped.

“Alright. Let’s go,” he got up, leaving some cash for tip.

*                 *                *

As soon as they opened the door, the phone started ringing. Sitapati rushed to pick up the
phone. Sita sighed, “Anniversary is over.” She threw herself in to the couch and turned on
the T.V.

Somebody must have said “happy anniversary” on the other end. Sitapati thanked them. By
the time he finished talking, one sitcom is over and a second one started.

“What are you watching?”

“Some sitcom.”

“Stupid show. Turn it off.”

Before Sita could say something, the phone rang again. Saved by the bell. He won’t be back
for another half hour. Sita could never understand that part. He could spend hours talking to
somebody on the phone. But if she tries to strike a conversation, he would put an end to the
conversation with “yup” and “nope”. He has no problem chatting with the young and old, men
and women, pundits and the ignorant, white or colored… anybody except her. How come?
Is it possible that in his opinion she does not belong in any of these categories? While he is
at home he acts like he is on pins and needles, waiting for that phone call. No matter from
whom, as long as there is call. Probably he took a full-page ad and told them that anybody
could call him anytime of the day. And it also appears that they all took him for his word.
They do call him at all times as if to please him, without thinking twice about the family he is
supposed to have…

Sita got tired of watching T.V. She turned it off and went in to the bedroom and picked up a
book to read. After almost an hour Sitapati came in. In her mind the mantra of a daily ritual
flashed through—“pushpam samarpayami (I am offering flowers), achamaneeyam
samarpayami
(offering water)”.

“Are you done talking?” she said, somewhat annoyed.

“You know TANA conferences are approaching. They want my advice. What can I say?” he
replied, slipping in to his pajamas.

“It is always something or other. I am not sure of the Almighty Lord but I am sure the world will
come to an end without your help.”

“Well, we all have to do our share.”
*                *                *

In the middle of the night the phone rang again. Sita woke up for the noise.
“Wait, I will take it in the other room,” Sitapati said and got up.

Sita turned over wondering how the other party could be so insensitive. He may have told
them they can call at all odd times but shouldn’t they have some sense? Sitapati was not on
the phone for long. But it was quarter to 4 by the time he returned to bed. Sita was just about
to doze off.

“Where did you go?”

“Hush. Lower your voice.”

“Why?”

“Komala is in the next room.”

“What?” Sita asked, startled.

“For sometime they are having marital problems, I mean Komala and Bhaskaram.”

“They are having marital problems. And so you brought her to our house in the middle of the
night?” Sita could not believe it.

“Go to bed. We will see what we can do tomorrow.”

Sita was furious.

“Of course, I’d go to bed. What else can I do? First explain to me why you have to go in the
middle of the night and bring her here,” she asked gnashing her teeth. She knows that it is a
hobby for her husband to run to rescue damsels in distress. Where is he going to draw the
line?

Sitapati explained calmly. “Don’t talk like a blockhead. Bhaskaram has been fooling around
with a woman in his office. Now he brought her home. He says he would marry her.”

Sita wasn’t sure whether she should laugh or cry. “I must be really a blockhead. This is
beyond my comprehension. Bhaskaram brought some woman to his house and so you went
and brought his wife to our house?”

“Don’t be silly. This is totally different. Can’t you see?”

“Obviously. You have to tell me what I can and can’t see. Now you tell me whom should I call?
Who should I tell that my husband brought another woman to our house?”

“How can you talk like that? Are you kidding? You know I am not that kind of a person. If you
really suspect my intensions, I will drop her off at her home right now,” he said.

Sita could not speak for irritation. She does not suspect her husband. But she could not
understand this wild gusto of his either. His rescue missions are getting to her.

“So what do you think you would do now?”

“Let’s see. Think of something in the morning. Her brother is Canada. I’ll call him and tell him
and put her on the plane. Then our job is done.”

Sita suddenly felt like she is watching a movie. “What happened?” she asked him.

“He is a stupid fellow. Look at Komala. She is smart, beautiful, and everything anybody could
ask for.”

“Then what is his problem?”

“He says he is helping the other woman to get her immigration status.”
Sita is lost for words. She pushed away her husband and turned to the other side. She
knows her husband is kind to women in general. She also believed like Lata  that men in our
country supported women. She did not agree with Ranganayakamma  that men are
categorically hell-bent on ill-treating women.

In fact Sita appreciated her husband’s kind heart to start with. In her natal home nobody ever
put her down for being a female. Nobody ever told her “Go to the kitchen. Act like a woman.”
After her marriage she did not hear such language from her husband either. So it is hard to
digest what is going on now. She is confused as to when “help” crosses the line. When can
one say, “enough is enough”, “this is inappropriate”? Where are the meters that can
measure kindness?

She decided to see it the next morning. “Make or break,” she told herself.
***
She could not “make or break” next morning.
It was still a little dark. She woke up, finished her daily worship and was about to sit down with
her cup of coffee.

Komala walked in slowly as if she was walking on burning coal. Her eyes sunk in. Face was
pale. Seemed like might break down any second.

Sita was taken aback. After a few seconds she collected herself, “Come. Here, have some
coffee,” she said pushing her cup towards Komala.

“No. You have it.” Komala said. Her voice was hardly audible.

Sita thought of  Parvati again. We all have the same problem. Living ten thousand miles
away from mom and home, the one thing we can never get over is the family support we
have there.

Sitapati put Komala on plane that afternoon and returned home. “Calmed down?” he asked
Sita in a lighter vein.

“You never get it, do you? You saw only my anger but not my frustration,” Sita replied.

“Look. She is in trouble. I helped her. What is wrong with that? Do you really expect me to do
nothing?”

“I am not talking about this specific instance. I agree that in this case it is justified. But you
are always on a mission with the same passion. You would jump and run if she broke a nail in
much the same way. It is the amount of time you spend rescuing others and ignoring that
there is a person at home who might want your attention…”

“Alright. Next time I will consult you. I will ask for your approval first,” in the same mocking
tone.

Sita knows his words mean nothing but she has no answer for that kind of language. It is like
fighting with somebody who threw in the towel.

***
So what happens next?

Well, Sitapati suggests they would go out to eat.

Then the phone rings…

It is just like the same ritual performed everyday inanely!

[End]
Author’s note: (Hindus traditionally perform a daily ritual, which involves several physical motions. Sometimes people go through these motions almost involuntarily, unmindful of the underlying philosophy. For foreigners the local customs can become such meaningless motions, just a peripheral activity. Dining out is just that if not understood as time for communication, a way of “being together.” That sets tone for the rest of the story

.(The Telugu original devi puja was published in Swati monthly, 1988.

English translation by the author published on thulika.net, December 2002.)

 

 

SHORTCHANGING FEMINISM by Nidadavolu Malathi

“You held me tight in your strong arms.”

Sita was sitting in the living room holding the 8-page letter Gayatri wrote to Sita’s husband Sitapati. The letter left a bad taste in her mouth. Her face turned pale. Sitapati has been acting strange for a few days now. Sita noticed that much. All of a sudden, for no obvious reason, he became an ideal husband. He started doing chores, rearranging the furniture, washing dishes, folding clothes and was eager to take children for a ride. But the children were not little anymore. They are grown up. So they’d say, “Thanks, dad!” and take off on their bikes.

Sita threw down the letter. No need to read this to the end, she told herself. Her eyes wandered around the room and came back to the same pages again.

“That one-day… after 23 years…”

“You said you’d take me to…”

“Your secret letter…”

“The thing you’ve forgotten in our bathroom…”

Sita was burning inside. She wanted to stomp on those papers. But she couldn’t. After all the paper is Goddess Saraswati !  Was he going to all this trouble just to cover up his games with Gayatri? At first, she was surprised at her husband’s sudden interest in the household chores. But then she convinced herself that he has changed much the same way she had. Now she was beginning to see the clear light of the day. Sitapati had gone to India as a visiting professor and returned home, after six months, a whole new Sitapati! He was not the same person she had spent the last 17 years with.

One day he made coffee by the time she woke up. “What is this? It almost looks like you have learned quite a few things there. What did you do there, teach or learn?” she said teasingly.

“Well, we all learn at some point, right?” he replied facetiously.

Sita’s eyes fell on the letter again. “The thing you’ve forgotten in our bathroom.” What could that be? What is it that a man would take off, leave in the bathroom and forget it? It’s got to be his wristwatch or lungi.  Of course nobody walks around without his lungi on. That has got to be his wristwatch. She remembered that Sitapati told her that his watch broke while he was in India.

She bent down and picked up the papers. What should she do now? Casually hand them over to him saying, ‘Here, these are yours?’ Hide them? Burn them? Even as she continued to brood, she tore them up, unwittingly. “The world is not going to fall apart if he doesn’t see this one letter,” she told herself.

“You have been cooking for 17 years without a break. I will cook for you today. Tell me. What would you like to eat?” Sitapati walked in boisterously only to find Sita was not in the room. He was a little puzzled. Rani and Bobby were not home. He found Sita in the bedroom.

“Lying down at this hour? Are you okay?” he approached her and felt her forehead to see if she was running temperature.

She pushed away his hand. “Who is Gayatri?”

“Just a friend from childhood days.” He sounded casual.

“Friendly enough for hugs and kisses?”

“Who kissed?”

The argument went on for about a half hour. Then Sita gave up. Not because she believed him, but she was no match for him in debates. Sitapati however was content. In his mind, he did not do anything wrong. Gayatri poured her heart out in the letter. He felt bad for her and so he put his arm around her shoulder just to comfort her. What else could he do? That was the way he has always been, ever since he was a kid. Any time somebody was hurt his heart cried for that person. That was one thing he could never nderstand–what is wrong if one person embraces another? It certainly did not mean that he had broken his vows to his wife anymore than it broke Gayatri’s vows to her husband. Certainly there is no reason for raising hullabaloo about it.

Sita thought there would be no more secrets after her confrontation. She was wrong. That night she heard him take a phone-call from India. She expected him to tell her about it the next day. It did not happen. Once again she was confused. Why would one make a phone call from half way across the world in the middle of the night if it were not an emergency? She decided to let go of it.

Next day Sitapati brought mail from the mailbox, slipped one letter into his pocket and handed the rest of the mail to Sita. “I can wait,” he said with a touch of sarcasm. Sita felt firecrackers explode in her head. There is a Telugu proverb, a woman good at flirting is good at lying too. She wondered why this proverb was stated in reference to women only. That day Sitapati vacuumed the rooms with renewed vigor. He bought presents for the children on some lame excuse. He even took Sita to a movie. Sita also was acting as if nothing happened The pain in her
stomach lingered on.

The following day Sitapati left for a conference in Philadelphia. That afternoon a telegram came in the mail. “The boy got admission in our college,” it said. That was also from the same Gayatri. This started getting very annoying for Sita. Somebody’s boy was admitted in some college? Does that call for a telegram? Or, is it possible that the boy is not “somebody’s boy”? Sita felt sick in her stomach again. Her husband apparently was hiding something from her. What was it? And why? At this point she was certain of only one thing–she could not rest until she knew the whole truth. Maybe that was needed to understand him, maybe for her own satisfaction. She had to know the whole truth and nothing but truth. There was no point in asking him, either. In the past 15 days he never gave her straight answers. He was beating around the bush smoothly, kindly, arrogantly, snootily, angrily… He was shutting her up every which way but did not come clean.

A few months back, Sita told her husband, “Listen. I don’t trust your words and I don’t want to discuss this matter with others either. That is why I am asking you straight.”

Sitapati did his usual routine. “I hate lying,” he said. “It hurts to think that you don’t believe me,” he said. “What about my reputation,” he said. “Hell with it,” Sita told herself.

Something occurred to Sita. She got up with a jolt and went to the basement and looked around. It did not take even 5 minutes. There were letters, pictures of two women, and a phone number scribbled on a piece of paper. Sita threw herself down in a chair with the letters in her hand. The letters were written by not one woman, not two but three women.

“My husband is not in town. I am holding a new sari…”

“I wish I could come there and live with you…”

“Next time you come, you must stay only with me…”

“Loneliness, depression…”

“Forget your analytical skills. You’re the king of experience for sure.”

“I want to put my arms around your neck.”

“I want to nibble your earlobes.”

Sita threw down the letters furiously. Then she picked them up again and looked at the dates. Some of them had been received here and some while he was in India. Thoughts started hovering in her head like bumblebees. A small smile came onto her lips. So many women in America argued with her that Indian women are oppressed. These letters vouch for the complete freedom Indian women have achieved. The question is what are the women doing with that freedom? These photos and letters didn’t look like it was just about friendship. It did not look like a matter of simple sobbing and comforting. “King of experience,” it says. What experience? Did the experience precede or follow his critique? Did she offer experience in exchange for his critique? Or, is it the other way round? Not bad. Not bad at all. Next time he goes to India, he might as well announce, “Consult Sitapati for experiential critique!”

She looked at the photos again. One of them seemed to be very young. That could be Sobha. Had he married earlier, he could have that age daughter. Sita felt sick. She was disgusted. God, tell me what to do? I want to do something desperate. But what? Take the car for a ride and hit a tree? Kill somebody—him, the children, those women, whom? Whom could I kill? How about confront those women? But then what can I ask? What is there to ask? I should be asking my husband only. What can I say to him? What is this with married women? Why fool around with mothers? What kind of pleasure you get in playing a second husband? Sita felt like there were really no questions she could ask.

Sita closed her eyes for a second. What was the crux of her problem? She was not able to see it herself. Like Major Barbara she stood on a rock she thought eternal; and without a word of warning, it reeled and crumbled under her. She hoped that Sitapati would cherish some values even if he has not believed in our culture or religion. She expected him to show some decency at the very least. Probably that is what was bothering her most. He has been lying to her. But she could not figure out why. What did he hope to accomplish by that? She heard garage door open. Sitapati walked into the room.

“I saw the letters,” Sita said.

“What letters?”

“The ones from your female friends.”

“Not again. I told you that there is nothing going on. Didn’t I?”

“The letters are saying a different story.”

Back to square one.

“They are after me. I am not after them,” he said. “Nothing happened,” he added. “Nothing that you should worry about.” Then he continued to explain. “Something terrible happened in Gayatri’s life that led to depression. I am trying to help her restore her self-esteem.” And he also said that Sobha was a writer and that that’s how the women writers write. Then he asked in all earnestness, “What can I do if they write like that?” Then he assured her that he would tell them to stop writing like that.

Sita did not believe a word he said but kept quiet.

“Stop all those stupid thought. Let’s go out,” Sitapati suggested.

“I am not going anywhere. The children will be back any minute,” Sita said crossly.

“It’s okay. They are not babies. They can take care of themselves.”

Sita went into the next room without saying a word.

* * *
Sitapati was in the basement studying. Sita was in the bedroom. She thought her skull would crack open with frustration why did my life turn like this? I’ve been adjusting to his needs as best as I could. In this god-forsaken country, whom else could I turn to but him? And what is my life like here? My day is nothing but making coffee, fixing breakfast, packing lunch, driving children to school, again bringing them back home, shopping, cleaning, washing dishes, washing clothes, snow blowing in winter, lawn mowing in summer, raking leaves in fall…No. These chores do not tire me out but they sure do take the entire time of each day. Amidst all this, if I find a free minute, I would rather sit doing nothing than get myself busy with something, don’t even feel like write a letter. In this amazing land of affluence, with all the gadgets, if I want a cup of coffee, I have to make myself or forget it. Hell. There are times when I skipped the idea simply because it entails washing three dishes. And then the food. I have to have Indian curries at least once in two days. For the children all the three meals are American style. And then Sitapati. Of course he does not spell it out but he does have his preferences….

Amidst all this Sita could neither account for her time nor could she say that she has plenty of free time. It is catch 22 for her. Sitapati does not follow any traditions except the one that includes having guests without a break. His complaint is Sita is not living up to his idea of a traditional wife. Is that the reason that he is running after other women? Sita felt totally debilitated. A weak smile came on her face. God knows whether Sitapati reinstated self-esteem in Gayatri or not, but right now her own self-esteem hit the bottom. She felt like crying but couldn’t. She wanted to talk to somebody. But with whom? Till now she always was listening to others but never took her problems to them. She started remembering all those friends, one by one. No. There is no use. It is not going to happen. It is not like back home. Here you cannot go to somebody’s home anytime as you please.  “We have plans,” they’d say. “We didn’t expect you,” they’d say. “Please call next time,” they’d say.

How about a movie, Sita wondered. Her body refused to move. She turned the T.V. on. Some soap. A wife sees a photo of another woman in her husband’s pocket. Sita laughed. No matter where she goes, the story is the same. She was about to turn it off and then again changed her mind. She wanted to see what happens in the story. She knows life is not like movies but then there is some consolation. The TV wife started drinking to forget her problems. What if I start drinking? But the problem in drinking is you need to drink until you forget everything. Then you don’t know whether you found a solution or not. Probably I would frighten the children. She recalled the proverb, “Plan on making a pundit and end up with a monkey.”

Sita felt like she was losing her mind. She wanted to do something drastic but was not sure what it was. She picked up the phone and called her friend Kamakshi.

“Hello!”

“It’s me.”

“Oh. How are you? What is new?”

“Nothing. What is for lunch?”

She heard a small laugh. “Stuffed eggplant. Want to come?”

“Are you kidding? You’d better be careful. I might show up.”

“I am not kidding. Come on.”

“Okay. Be there in ten minutes,” Sita said and hung up.

* * *
“I can’t live in that house.”

Kamakshi stared at her and said softly, “Want some coffee?”

Sita nodded and started telling her story.

“Did you ask him?”

“I did. I also told him that I wanted to keep it between him and me, not take it to others. He mouthed some nonsense, as usual. You know his rhetoric. It sounds okay for the moment. And then some letter or some note appears making it only too obvious that they have him wrapped around their little finger.”

Kamakshi didn’t know what to say. As far as she knew, both the husband and wife were reasonable people, both know right from wrong.

“The more I think about it, the clearer it is getting. It is not just that one question—whether he slept with one woman or not. In the past ten years, he has always been so wrapped up in the lives of others—their problems, their worries, their tears, their health, their children’s education, their marriages. That is his life. And now it has gotten down to hugs, kisses and lies. Then why should I worry about our traditional values? His ‘saving women program’ has reached the peak.” Sita stopped.

“Like Veeresalingam?”  Kamakshi said partly in jest, trying to clear the air.

“Yeah,” Sita replied, and then with a weak smile, added, “No. Actually there is a difference. Veeresalingam tried to save the vidhava women   by arranging remarriage for them. Here this man is messing around with housewives, making their husbands vedhava.”

Kamakshi couldn’t resist a laugh. Sita stayed there for another 15 minutes and left. She said a few more comforting words and told her not to act in haste.

* * *
Sita felt a little lighter but the pain did not go away. Her heart was numb. There were several occasions when she participated in debates about the situation of women in India. Not only with other Americans but also with Sitapati. She argued that in Andhra Pradesh men always supported women.

Sitapati did not agree with her.

“Veeresalingam arranged marriages only for young widows for fear that they would seduce men. Even women’s education he promoted was about making women dutiful housewives.” His arguments in regard to Chalam  were also on the same lines. He said Chalam advocated sexual freedom for women only to ingratiate men. What an irony? Now one woman complains that her husband was ill-treating her and another woman claims that her husband allows her total freedom—and they both ended up in his bed! Wow! Sita felt like hitting her head against the wall.

That night after one more round of wrestling, each of them said ‘go to hell,’ and then they both split. He went into the basement and she went into the bedroom. Sita wanted to believe her husband’s words. He never acted like a total jerk in the past 17 years. Besides, if he really wanted to fool around, aren’t there plenty of opportunities here? Why did he wait this long? Why so far away? What kind of secrecy is this? Such a joke! What should she think? Is he too smart or too stupid? Or did he think she is stupid?

***

One week went by. Sita went into the basement for some book. A letter slipped out of the book and fell on the floor. The letter was addressed to Gayatri. Sita was taken aback. This is the third time it happened like this. She recalled a couple of lines Rani wrote when she was 9 years old: “Believe me they say, trust me they say, and when I trust them, everything goes wrong.” A smart observation for a nine-year old! What is this? At a time she was trying to convince herself, she found four more letters—two of them from the two women, and the other two from Sitapati to them. Sita felt dizzy. She threw herself in the chair. Even the dumbest of the dumb would know when they see these letters that Sitapati has been bluffing all along.

“I want to hug you.”
“I want to kiss you.”
“I want to go to Khajuraho  with you.”
“I am surprised that you know so much about birthmarks.”
“Now the room is vacant. This time there won’t be any problem. No problem with the children.”
“Bring me size 34 bra. Bring me gold. Bring me nylon saris. Bring me camera.”

Sita stopped for a minute as if to make sense of all this. And then she continued to read again. The letter that shot through her heart was the one written by Sitapati to Sobha. You have a right to hug me. You have a right to kiss me. You have a right to go to Khajuraho with me.

Sita choked with anger. She came upstairs, holding the letters in her hand. She sat down slowly in the couch. The snow outside was bright white like a heap of salt. Sitapati said in his letter you have a right to hug me and kiss me. Sita wondered, “So what are my rights? Snow blowing, lawn mowing, washing clothes and dishes? Is that it?” She recalled her words to Sitapati during one of their arguments, “If you think I will stay here for the sake of your reputation while you mess around with others, you are wrong. Don’t count on it.”

It is clear now. She decided that she couldn’t stay in that house anymore, not a minute longer. She decided to leave. Then she felt the burden off her chest. For the first time in several days she felt hungry. She got up and started cooking. You are the only one who understood me. This time I may not stay long. The lines from the letters were pestering her like hungry dogs. Suddenly she remembered the letters she wrote to her husband in the first few weeks of her marriage. She knows where they were kept. She quickly went there and pulled them out. She started reading them.

“Here also the sky is blue and the weather is cool.”
“With the new status I attained after walking the seven steps  with you…”
“When I asked you ‘what do you want’ and you responded ‘you just come’…”
“Each person has so many layers of personalities. If you had seen me in my office…”
“Waiting for the day when I can walk with a friend in the woods and whisper solitude is sweet…”

She felt totally exhausted. For the first time, tears sprang to her eyes. Sita did not get the life companion she was looking for. And he? Only he should know. She kept racking her brains. What happened in 17 years? Why? He did not hit her. He did not use obnoxious language. On the other hand, he repeatedly told her that she could do whatever she wanted. But, by the time she understood that, she also realized that his job and avocations stood in her way to do whatever she wanted to do. Six years passed by. In the freedom Sitapati allowed her, there were a lot of built in responsibilities—money management, part-time job, children’s needs, guests’ needs, household chores. … He kept telling her “you do such a great job” and left everything to her. And he got used to spending time with his friends.

Sita tried to understand from his perspective. He says, I leave home at 7:00 in the morning and return at 6:00 in the evening. During that period I struggle to keep the job, work for promotions, try to prove my value, to please everybody, it is almost like prostituting myself. After a long day, what is wrong if I want my wife to welcome me with a smiling face? What is wrong if I ask about the children? If I have to observe formalities with my wife also, why marry at all? In America wives buy shirts for their husbands. You would not buy clothes for me. I love beauty in nature. Even from childhood days. But if I say ‘you are beautiful’ you are annoyed…

Sita took a deep breath. That is his argument. Maybe there is some truth to it. But she was annoyed that he did not take into account all the chores she does. He complains that she is not acting like an American wife. But he does not do half the things the American husbands do. In fact look what he is doing—fooling around with 2 or 3 women? Even that shows that his dream girl is a composite picture, a collage. During one of their arguments some three years back, Sita said, “If that is your idea of a wife, you might as well look elsewhere.”

He said, “If you think I would go to another woman, obviously you don’t know anything about me.”

That was three years back. Now…?

That’s life, I guess. Days and months go by without we noticing it. People change without announcement. Their thoughts and opinions change unconsciously.

Ding, ding, ding… Fire alarm went off. Sita rushed into the kitchen. The curry got burnt, turned into charcoal and started heavy smoke. She turned off the range, and went into the bedroom. She stooped to pull out the suitcase from underneath the bed. The tali  in her neck from under her sari folds jingled, like cowbells. Yes, like cowbells they made noise. Sitapati has changed. His values have changed. Today he is giving a new definition to the word marriage. Sita removed tali from her neck and threw it in the suitcase. She heard garage door open. Sitapati walked in. He did not find Sita in the living room. Went in to the bedroom looking for her. “What now?” he said looking at her.

“I am moving out,” Sita said, busy packing her suitcase.

Sitapati laughed. “What happened now?” He moved closer and touched her hair gently.

She pushed away his hand.  “Don’t touch me, never again,” she said and added, “I have warned you. I am not
going to live as one of your sluts.”

“What?” Sitapati said, surprised.

Sita continued as if she was narrating somebody else’s story, “I never called anybody a slut. Today it came out
very naturally. I don’t know how.”

“Wow! Have you become a militant feminist or what, all of a sudden?”

“No. I did not become anything. I am and have always been the same. Great pundits like you read volumes of literature, deliver soapbox lectures, and produce more literature. And then there are women like Sobha and Gayatri that keep blabbering about sympathy and empathy like the wrestlers in a rut. They need to be saved and you are there to save them. You all need each other. I am one of the million, very ordinary Sitas who do not belong in either category. I spend my days, weeks and months like a bullock-cart on a country road, enjoying the peace and quiet while you rush to save the world with your pedantic brain waves and heated debates. But then I am not any less of a person just because you don’t think so. Didn’t you hear the proverb–the turtles slither and the deer hop. That’s their nature. Each person has her own lifestyle,” Sita said unemotionally. Then she added, looking straight into his face, “Isn’t it ironical that you lecture about female voices, hear female voices across five continents but not the one that is talking to you directly and under your own roof?”

***
(The Telugu original, nijaniki feminijaaniki madhya was published in Andhra Prabha weekly in September 1987. Eventually it was published in several magazines and anthologies.  –Malathi.

Translated by the author and published on thulika.net, December 2002.

 

Bommireddipalli Surya Rao. A Creator.

Gangayya woke up early in the morning, took bath, put on ash patches on his body, the kumkum dot on his forehead, picked the machete and stepped outside into the street. He was facing the only problem—must earn the day’s wages, and fill his stomach. There was nothing more he would ask for. But then, that was the toughest problem. He set out to find a solution for that one problem.

He felt a little cold, since it was winter and he did not have enough clothes to cover his wrinkled body. Suddenly he recalled his past in one sweep.

He was sturdy in his younger days. No matter how cold it was, he would wake up at four in the morning and take a bath with cold water. He never felt this cold. After a clean bath, he would put on the ash stripes on his arms and chest, say his prayers, and walk into the street leisurely, twirling his moustache while his red silk upper garment wavering in the wind. If somebody stopped him on the street and asked him “to where”, he would say that he was going to work either in a factory or at a building site. He did not just say it; he worked and proved to the world that he meant what he said.

One time, he got into an argument showed it to his opponent by building the entire mansion of an attorney in the city single-handedly. He could finish alone the workload of four men. When he removed his shirt and sawed the porch plank as his body glistened in the sun with beads of sweat.. The sinews cracked like a bamboo stick. He made two or three rupees by the end of the day.

Stupid money. He made one rupee if held a machete and two if saw. When he planed, any type of wood shone like a mirror. “When I planed, you can see your shadow on the plank. That I would call workmanship. Workers nowadays can do nothing,” Gangayya told himself.

Why say all that? He was watching his own son work. He had only one son and that too after long time. Gangayya strived hard to make the boy the best carpenter among all the carpenters in the entire region. But his wife fussed over him and spoiled him. Idiot! The son turned wicked. Mother started harassing; claimed the boy would come to his senses after marriage. So, Gangayya performed the son’s wedding. Right away, the son moved out with his wife. The old woman [mother] lost her sight as if she could not watch her son wandering away.

Now, Gangayya’s body was wrinkled and all the strength in it gone. His sight was failing too. It was getting harder and harder to live. The old woman was lucky; went away quickly. The son, on whom he pinned his hopes, was no good anymore; nobody to count on. He was lonely. For him, it would be enough if he could earn a quarter or a half-rupee. And even to earn that became hard.

Gangayya set his machete on his shoulder, and arrived at the Rama mandir, which stands at the four-way junction of the town. He turned towards the lord in the temple and said his prayers.

Just then, he saw Venkadu. He was skinny and tall, like the vegetable, drumstick. One could easily recognize him as Venkadu, even from distance. Gangayya pretended not to see him and took a turn and walked hastily. But then, Venkadu caught up with him, and seized Gangayya’s arm from behind.

“What is the matter, Gangayya? You’re avoiding me. Don’t you think you should repay the money you’d borrowed from me? Planning to call it off or what?”

“I’ll settle it, you fool! You stop me in the middle of the street for that tiny bit of a loan? What kind of a gentleman are you?”

“You mean whom? You or me? You came to me, begged me for that tiny bit of loan. If it is such a small bit, why don’t you give it back to me? Tiny bit, he says! Ha, tiny bit. Did I get it freely? Come on, pay it up,” Venkadu raised rumpus. Poor Venkadu was not a bad person. Who would want to throw away money though! “This is going on long enough. Put away your games, they don’t fly with me,” he said and snatched the machete from Gangayya’s shoulder.

Nayanaa, nayanaa. God bless you, please, let it go. If you take my machete, how can make money? I promise, I will bring your money by dusk,” Gangayya begged him,

A few people gathered to watch the bickering. They all felt sorry for Gangayya.

“What does he have to give? Why hold him?” said one man to Venkadu.

“No? What do you mean he does not have? He has to sit in the club and drink tea,” said Venkadu.

Sometimes Gangadu would sit in the club on the street leading to the city and pay one anna for a cup of tea. He did that when he had no money for rice. But for many people in the town, sitting in the club and drinking tea was a pastime. Gangayya did not like telling them that he was drinking tea only because he had no rice to eat. He implored again that somehow he would manage to settle the debt by evening, and for now Venkadu should let go of his machete. The people who gathered around got them to an agreement. Gangayya would get back to Venkadu with money by evening, and Venkadu would let go Gangayya for now.

Gangayya started to walk with his machete on his shoulder again. He must earn one quarter of a rupee today and pay back the loan. How could he get a work for one quarter in this stupid town? There were only four Brahmin homes, two or three homes of kshatriya, and business communities. Rest of the families belonged to kapu, golla, weavers, goldsmith, washer, hair-cutter, mala, and madiga castes. What kind of work they would have to pay a carpenter and get the job done? They were struggling for food themselves. How could they help others? Let’s say he would go to a kshatriya home. What could he find there? Their houses were big, no question. But they lost all their assets and they were barely making it themselves. All those mansions were disappearing fast enough and they were living discreetly. The tiles were falling off from the roofs. And the walls were cracking, causing plants to grow from the cracks. Alas, that was their state of affairs. The only hope was in the Brahmin homes. There is proverb: Go to the Brahmin’s colony, if you have nothing else to do. They could give a chore anybody who appeared at their door. They would want you to work for them but squirm to pay though. If you beseech, they might give you food or gruel. But Gangayya needed some money to pay off the debt and some more to fill his stomach. Today he must earn two quarters, but how could he? Obviously, it would not possible in this town. He should go to the city, which was three miles from his town. Would it be possible for him to walk three miles, work there and bring back his earnings? It was already quite late in the day. He told himself to go to the Brahmin homes and try first and proceeded.

He could find no work in the first three homes. He went to the fourth house. He felt the winter sun prickly on his skin. Gangayya was exhausted. He squatted on a nearby patio, hoping to rest for a while. His stomach was empty since last night. He was hungry. Gangayya could not think straight. There was no thought, none whatsoever in his head. Whenever he thought, he thought only about himself. There was blistering fire in his stomach. He should put something in it. That was all he was thinking—the only thought on his mind. Nothing else mattered to him.

At a distance, a few people gathered under a neem tree. Nothing in particular. A sheep was slaughtered. That was it. They peeled off the skin, and hung from the tree within their reach, sliced the meat and doled out their portions. Each one of them took their share of raw meat in a banyan leaf and was on their way home. One of them took the head and another man its legs. The tanner came to take the skin and begged for a bit of the meat. Gangayya kept watching the scene keenly. It was quite sometime since he had a taste of meat. One must eat the sheep’s meat! What a taste! His mouth watered. The meat distribution came to an end after ten minutes. All of them were gone.

Gangayya got up, and slowly went into the house and stood in the hallway. Somebody was sleeping in the bedroom on the west side.

“Amma, Narasamma garu!” Gangayya called. Narasamma was in the kitchen. She did not come out but Kantamma, the daughter-in-law, came from the next room.

“Gangayya, you are here, for any reason in particular?” she asked, as she sat down on a cot in the sun and started unbraiding her hair.

“Nothing in particular, Amma. Wondering if you have any job for me?” Gangayya said, came into the room past the hallway, and sat down.

“Oh, no. We don’t have any work in our house. Did you not go to other places?”

“No, amma. I did not go anywhere. Nothing to do since yesterday. Tell me, amma, if there is anything to be done. I will do it.”

“No, nothing to do in our house.”

“What do you mean? Why say no work. Please, call the old lady. You may not know,” Gangayya said, scrutinizing the cots in the yard, just in case any of them needs fixing. He told himself, “There are four young boys in the house. Not one of them breaks a cot.”

“Amma, Narasamma garu!” he called again. Narasamma came from the west side room. She was her daughter-in-law sitting in the sun and said, “What is that, Amma, sitting in the yard? Winter sun is not good for the body. Go, sit in the porch.”

Kantamma stood up and went into the porch.

“Gangayya, what is new, you came here?” Narasamma asked.

“Nothing, Amma. Please, let me have a sip of coffee,” Gangayya said, leaning on the pillar. Hunger was chewing him up.

“That is good, naayanaa, coffee at this time of the day? We are done eating dinner,” Narasamma said.

“Are you crazy, Gangayya? How can we have coffee at this hour?” Kantamma said, staring at the hair that stuck to the comb. Then she said to her mother-in-law, “Look, Attayyaa, how I am losing hair.”

“Yes, you are not taking care of it. You are just three weeks pregnant. And you are already everything as you please. Don’t you have to eat proper food? Don’t you have to take care of your body? You know you are not a child,” Narasamma reprimanded her.

Kantamma did not understand the relevance between falling hair and eating right but kept quiet.

Gangayya was dozing. He thought, “These people are worried about losing hair while here I am losing my life. Stupid hair. Who cares if it is gone. Why not let it go, saves oil at least.

Narasamma looked at him. “Probably the fool is hungry,” she said to Kantamma.

Kantamma laughed.

“Gangayya, Gangayya,” Narasamma called.

“What? Coffee?” Narasayya woke with a jerk.

“No, no coffee. There is some leftover rice. Want to eat?”

“Ccha. What kind of question is that? Up until now, in all my life, I never had even sip water except in the house of my own caste. I am from a man of my caste. How could you suggest that I eat yesterday’s gruel in your house?”

“Enough of that confounding caste. Come over to the backyard. Sit by the well and eat. Nobody is going to know about it,” Narasamma said.

Kantamma laughed aloud. “Why wouldn’t eat, Atta. In this village, they all eat even meat, I heard.”

“Ccha, I swear on Veerabrahmam, Amma. Maybe some casteless idiots ate but you cannot say the same about everybody. Nice way to say that.”

“That’s fine. I will give you a job. Finish it, and eat and lie down on the porch,” Narasamma said.

“Good. Tell me, what is it?” he picked up the mettele.

“Oh, no. Nothing to do with mettele. Day after tomorrow we are going to have the naming ceremony for our baby.

“Do you want me to make a cradle? Any baby, who sleeps in the cradle I had made, will become a great man. All the children of the inspector in the city slept only in the cradle I had made for them. See how great they had become—one of them is a lawyer, another tahsildar, and yet another is in some very big job. That sweet mother says even now that ‘Ganga, it is all in your blessed wrist.’ When one works, the wages are not going to stay for ever but the name does.”

“We don’t need any such work at this point. There is a little job. Can you do it?”

“Tell me, amma. For an expert, no job is impossible.”

“Day after tomorrow, we are going to have barasala for our grandchild. Pick a few coconuts from the tree.”

“What? You want me to climb a coconut tree? I can’t. You will have to call the tree-climber.

“Nayaanaa, nayannaa, please, do me this favor. That idiot has gone to his mother-in-law’s home. He will not be back for another ten days, I was told.”

“Amma, you are asking me to climb a tree. That is not my vocation.”

“Babuu, babuu, I will pay you two annas. Monkeys are ravaging the fruits. And the naming ceremony is coming up in two days.”

Gangayya was tempted. A bowl of rice would fill the belly nicely. It would taste great with a pickle on the side. A wad of meal now would help him to go even without water for rest of the day. The old woman also promised two annas cash. That would get him a cup of tea tonight and the next day as well. Oh, no. What about Venkadu’s loan? Well, he would worry about it later, after receiving the two annas from the old woman.

“Okay, amma. Let me have a wad of rice.”

“Why don’t you first pick a bunch of coconuts? You can eat later. If you eat now, you will lie down and rest. After that, no way you would pick the fruits. After all, it is only a five-minute job,” Narasamma piqued him. She thought, “Yes, of course, I would have to be strict with him. Or else, the idiot would not go up the tree. On needs to be skillful in getting work done by idiots like him.”

“At least, let me have a little buttermilk,” Gangayya said.

Narasamma went in, returned with a can of buttermilk and poured into his glass. Gangayya finished the pot of buttermilk, burped loudly, went into the backyard and stood under the coconut tree. The tree was tall, and smooth like a pillar. “To hell with this tree. See how tall it is,” he told himself. Gangayya never accepted defeated when it came to job on hand. He had lot of trust in his own abilities.

He put on the rope on his feet and the waist, and started climbing the tree. He put the ax on his shoulder since he did not have the right kind of knife to cut the coconuts. He was not used to this kind of work. It was hard at first. But there is nothing impossible for those who are stubborn. He reached the top and cut a few fruits.

Narasamma, waiting on the ground, picked them and put them in a basket. And then, she shouted, “these are enough. Come down.”

Gangayya was exhausted. He was thirsty. He stopped for a split second and looked around. He could see the entire village. He could see the fields and silos at a distance. Farmers, sitting on the lakeshore, were eating gruel. Gangayya remembered the warm food and pickles. That was it. His eyes went dark. He could see nothing—the village, the fields, silos, nothing. He screamed, “Oh, ammaa!”

His head rested on the rock on the ground. His face was peaceful. He did not let go of the ax in his hand. Gangayya died. However, Gangayya was a creator. What is death after all for a creator?

[End]

Translated and published on thulika.net, April 2009.

(Originally published in Bharati monthly, April 1953.)

Revisiting childhood by Kandukuri Venkata Mahalakshmi

Katyayini start wondering. To be frank, why is she going there now? Did her cousin and his wife really invite her because of their affection for her, because they wanted her to attend the wedding? Her cousin mailed the invitation card announcing his daughter’s wedding, which looked more like a matter of formality. Katyayini saw the invitation card, and packed a few clothes in a bag. She told her husband and left. That was two days before the said wedding date.

When she told her husband that she was going to her uncle’s granddaughter’s wedding, he was surprised and puzzled. He looked at her but there was no response from her. He went away without another word. The reason being he is well aware that there is no communication between Katyayini and her cousin—no visits, no letters, none whatsoever. And this is not even the first celebration in their home. There had been several others. Each time Katyayini read the invitation cards and put them aside. That is why he is surprised by Katyayini’s decision to attend the wedding. But he does not dare to ask her. They are husband and wife by marriage yet the interaction between them is nominal.

Their relationship has been deteriorating ever since the day they got married. Never mind whose fault it is, but there has never been the fondness or closeness that should be part of husband-wife relationship. They have two children, as a sign of their association in the early days of their marriage. For Katyayini, as a punishment for bearing the children, it became her responsibility to raise them and take care of their education, and so on. Both the sons became post-grads and found jobs in two different cities. After they settled in jobs, their marriages also were performed as a matter of course. Katyayini began feeling the strain of loneliness. Her husband is not going to change. She keeps cooking and serving the food, taking care of the household and in return he lets her eat.

Katyayini set out on this trip because she wants to extricate herself from this rut, and more than that, wants to dig up the old memories and mull over.

Katyayini sits in the train reflecting. Her heart goes to the days, thirty-years back.

We are three daughters to my parents. I am the middle one. We all got married and moved to three different towns. Every summer, we would start the same evening the vacation began and reach our home in the village. We three have two children each. I have two sons. My eldest sister is three years older than I. She has two daughters. My younger sister has one daughter and one son.

As soon as we arrived there, my parents would say “children are here,” and there would be no end to the hullabaloo they would make. Mother would engage a cook and have several special items made for us. Father would arrange to bring several varieties of fruits like coconuts, mangoes, and guava from the farms for us to eat. During the entire summer, we would forget our homes in our towns, become children and run around the groves and fields. Father would gather all the six children, play with them, sing with them and turn into a child himself amidst them.

We would have great fun through out the summer and then return to our homes. We would put in boxes all the sweets and snacks mother had packed for us and return to our routine lives in about a week.

It had become common for us to go to mother and father every year, and wait for the next summer again. It also became a habit for us to mull over the memories and continue to swim in the ocean of family life, enduring the annoyances and the quandary, which necessarily accompanied it.

A great man once said, if the time remains the same always, there will be no stories. Only the time has the ability to keep going foreword without paying attention to anybody’s wellbeing and without turning back even for a second.

Father passed away. Mother tried to cover up his absence by becoming both mother and father for us, continued to invite us and did everything for us as usual.

After a few years, mother also passed away. Since we all were flung in far-off places, we decided that we had nothing in that town. We sold the house and the farm, took our shares and returned to our present homes. But for the letters we occasionally exchanged, we sisters lost touch with each other. There were no visits like before. We met only for the weddings of our six children. There are no more meetings each year like in the past. We all are swamped by our own family matters. We are growing older and each one of has our own daughters-in-law and sons-in-law. Each of us is so absorbed in our lives with husbands, children, and their families; none of us has any more time to think of others.

I lost touch with even my own sisters after my parents were gone. What can I say about my uncle’s children? Occasionally, they mail an invitation card. That is about it. This cousin of mine has never attended any of celebration at my home, why am I going to a wedding in his house?

Katyayini wants to see the town and the house she grew up in. She wants to see how much the town has changed. Her heart is elated as she mulls over; the heart, which is withered for so long, oozes sweet memories, drenching the heart with joy, and turning into tears of joy. It feels like she. Overwhelmed. Seems to be keeping the beat as the train engine hoots.

Katyayini wrote letters to both her sisters before she left her home. She asked them to attend the wedding so they could visit their hometown, where her mother and father were not present anymore, and reminisce.

As planned, the three sisters attend the wedding. Her uncle, his son and daughter-in-law are very happy to see them. They also meet several old relatives at the wedding. The three days of celebrities go by with excitement.

After the bride left for her in-law’s place, the three sisters visit their village. The village has changed to a point, it is not recognizable anymore. The gardens they used to play around were not there any more. People have built homes there. In the past there were only two movie theaters. Now there are more than a dozen. After going around the village for a while, they finally arrive at their parents’ home. That house has not changed much but for a few small alterations.

The sisters stand in front of the house and argue for a while as to who should go in first. Each wants the other to lead. Finally Katyayini steps forward and knocks on the door. A 70-year old woman opens the door and looks at them, confused. Katyayini smiles a friendly smile.

The woman invites them in and spreads a mat to sit. The sisters sit and look around. The woman does not understand the behavior of these three sisters. After a while, Katyayini looks at her and says, “Aunty, my father built this house. After he passed away, we three sold the house since we live far away. At that time, none of us felt like keeping it. Now we came here to attend my cousin’s daughter’s wedding in the town next door. We came here to see our village. The same way, we took the liberty and came in to see the house our parents had owned.”

The old woman is pleased at Katyayini’s words, and shows them around.

In the backyard, the sapota tree is full of ripe fruits. As they watch the winter apple and guava, they remember the old times. They ask for the woman’s permission to go into the garden. The pleasure is beyond words. For a moment, they feel the presence of their father inside the house. They tell the woman that they are leaving. The woman says kindly, “Wait. You came all the way here. Eat before you go.” They could not say no to that generous lady. They stay for a little longer, eat.

The woman also gives them blouse pieces, coconuts, turmeric and kumkum per custom. The sisters gratefully accept the gifts, bow in obeisance and seek her blessings.

In that moment, an elderly gentleman walks in through the front door. The woman of the house introduces the three young women to him. He nods kindly at Katyayini and her sisters and talks with them fondly. The sisters tell him how hard their father had worked for building this house and how he collected various plants and planted in the garden, and such.

After hearing their enthusiastic story, the older man says, “Girls, my son will be returning from abroad next month. He wants us to live with him. We are thinking of selling this house and moving in with him. We have already put it on the market. If one of you is interested, I am willing to sell it for less. Think about it and let me know. I noticed the affinity you seem to be having with this house. It seems this house brings memories of your parents to you.”

The three sisters are awestruck by his words. After their mother and father passed away, they never came to this place again. Their ties with this village had been broken. They came here because they wanted to break away from the web in which their hearts had been caught like in a spider’s web all these years. They came to the wedding and then to this village in which they had been raised. But they have no intention of settling down here. They all bought plots in the towns they are living now. But then, how come these words spoken by this elderly person have taken them to thirty-years back? Why? The thought starts picking their brains. They look at each other.

The same thoughts spring in their hearts simultaneously—they sold the property in the past because of the weight of the responsibilities on their shoulders. Now they are free from them. They are getting old. It is possible to take turns and each spend ten days at a time in this house built by mother and father, eat the fruits and vegetables from the garden raised by them, and live blissfully and away from all worries and vexations.

They tell him their thought, put down deposit, and have the papers drawn. They return to their homes jubilantly like three children.

[End]Translated by Nidadavolu Malathi and published on thulika.net, September 2008.

(The Telugu original, tirigocchina baalyam, was published in priyadatta biweekly magazine, 2003.)