By Kalipatnam Rama Rao
That was the month the Sun enters the house of Sagittarius. It was early morning of the day before Bhogi. Nevertheless no house in the village received a coating of whitewash, except those of the rich. Between the village and Malapeta the green fields used to look to be in full bloom. Now there was only a parched Pumpkin patch.
In Malapeta, Pydayya sat in the front yard in a two-foot patch of sunshine. His older brother Narayudu’s children were sitting next to him. Narayudu washed his face and turned to the Sun God to offer his daily prayers. Facing them, Yerremma stood, not too far from them.
“So, is that it?” Yerremma asked Pydayya, looking straight into his face. He was her son-in-law.
Yerremma was about forty years old. Crushed by hard times, she was looking like well over fifty.
“Is that what you think too? If so, I will leave right now,” she added.
She tried to speak as softly as she could. Pydayya had never heard her speak in such a restrained voice!
Pydayya was barely twenty-five. After moving to the city, he had grown a bit taller and was looking robust. He wore a sleeveless t-shirt and striped silk shorts. The naked children around him looked like baby crows with bald heads and white streaks on their dark faces even the mother crow would not coddle. “Nevertheless they are looking like round sweet balls, must be gobbling alright,” Yerremma thought.
“So, should I leave?”, she asked again raising her voice.
Bangari could not hold any longer. She was patting mud on the patio wall while listening to Yerremma’s words. She went ballistic. “Why keep asking, ‘shall I leave, shall I leave?’ Who asked you to come here in the first place? Did we send a special invitation? Why did you come running to us? Who invited you, me, my son, who asked you to come here? Don’t you remember? You’ve said you will not set foot in my front door, unless and until my son and I go to your place and beg you on our knees, didn’t you? How could you show up here now? You came here, we did not go to your place. You have no shame to come here. Never mind. You’ve come and said whatever you wanted to say. Now you are done talking, you had better leave. Now, just go, go back to your hut,” Bangari said and returned to her work.
Pydayya was happy that Bangari stopped there.
Yerremma for whatever reason listened to all that bantering without speaking a word.
After a while, Bangari scoffed, “She is your kid, your blood. That is why she went with you. I am her mother-in-law yet she ignored me, my words, and went with you. You may say he is your son-in-law but you know he is my son first, and then only your son-in-law. He is my son as much as she is your daughter. Anyway, take him with you, if you can. I am not going to stop you.”
It sounded like a matter of bondage for Yerremma. She took it as such and decided to step up. “You want to split them apart?” she asked
“I don’t have to do anything, you’ve done it long time ago.”
“If that was my intent, I would not have shown up at your door at all,” Yerremma said, shaking her fist in the air.
Bangari saw that and washed her hands in a fit of rage.
Oh, God, these two women are going to go at each other again, Pydayya thought. Narayudu intervened and bawled at his mother, “You, stop it.” Then turned to Yerremma and pleaded with her, “Please, Yerremma, I am begging you, go home for now. We are not ignoring your words. We are saying he will go with you if he wants to. After all, he is not a kid you know. We can’t force him either to stay here or go with you. He is a grown man. He will do what he wants to do. Let’s not pull the rope until it snaps. Listen to me, go home for now.”
Narayudu literally held her chin and begged her. Yerremma had never lost in this miserable way, never in her entire life. She swiftly turned around and walked away furiously. She went a few steps, turned around and shouted, “Hey, hey, Iyyaparaala!, Listen, I’m telling you today, you are separating your son and daughter-in-law. For that, you will rot in hell not only after your death now but for the next several lives. In the next life, you’ll vegetate in bed forever. I am telling you today, as the Sun is my witness. You keep that in mind.” She walked away in big strides to her home, just a few blocks away.
“Go away, truth-teller! Be gone. If your curses and mine have the power the entire world would have been burned down long ago,” Bangari broke into a big laugh and then turned to her work.
* * *
Sankranti is six months away from Aviti, it is said.
“I will bring my daughter home every six months. You may be her mother-in-law but you have no right to stop me,” Yerremma argued.
Aviti is a chariot festival, an annual celebration observed in the Ganjam district, previously part of the State of Orissa. These two families were living in an area that was part of the previous Ganjam district. Just like the people there, the customs and traditions of both Orissa and Andhra got mixed up.
Bangari said, “Take her as many times as you want, either before or after the festival, keep her for a couple of days and send her back. After all, we all are in the same village.”
“Whatever you are thinking? Bringing a daughter home every six months is traditional, especially during Sankranti and Aviti festivities. You can’t say it is different simply because we are in the same village. Tradition is tradition, whether we are in this village or the next village; rules are the same everywhere and always,” Yerremma argued.
“If you are so particular about festivities, take her the day before the holiday, keep her as long as you want, a month or two, I won’t say no,” Bangari protested.
“Who are you to tell me when I can or can’t take my daughter to my home? Maybe before, maybe after, it is and should be my decision. I am the one bringing her home, you know. You have no right to dictate one way or the other,” retorted .Yerramma.
Those gathered there also dismissed Bangari’s argument. As long as she was willing to send her daughter-in-law home, what difference did it make, before or after the festival, how did it matter, they said.
Bangari could not explain her real reason. She could not explain to them that one of her daughters-in-law had gone to her natal home for the delivery and another had died. If she let go of Sanni, she would have to manage the household all alone, all by herself. She was too old for that.
Yerremma’s counter-argument was, she sent her daughter to have a life with Bangari’s son and not as a servant to work for Bangari.
Pydayya’s move to the city for a job gave further support to her argument. If he stayed at home, Bangari could argue that he could not live without her, and she could do nothing about it. But that was not the case.
Yerremma came to take her daughter home a month ahead of festivities. Bangari raised hell.
“I won’t send her,” said one woman. “Come on, let’s go,” the other woman seized the girl’s arm and dragged her toward the door. “I’ll see how you can take her,” one woman said. “I’ll see how you can stop me,” the other woman said. The entire village gathered to watch them.
Poor thing, Sanni was embarrassed. She endured their push and pull for a few minutes and then broke into sobs. The two women stepped back. A few minutes later, the two brawlers went at each other again – grabbed each other by the hairs, scratched, and stoned each other. Only after the villagers interfered and separated them apart they stopped the squabble.
Yerremma, being the outsider, sustained more wounds. Sanni saw her mother bleeding. She could not take it anymore. She followed her home.
“If you leave now, I will not let you set foot in this house again,” Bangari barked.
* * *
In the evening three girls were picking grass on the banks of river Tummalcheruvu. One of them just started wearing half sari. She came for picking grass for the first time. Quietness spread like the Great Sea. They were feeling suffocated.
Neeli stopped digging and asked, “Oley, Sanni, do you think it reaches the village if I shout from here?”
“Don’t you worry, nobody is going to snatch and run away,” Ankemma snickered.
“Who is going to snatch me? Nobody cares about me. If at all, they will pick you up and run away, or, your friend here. You two are in the prime of life. It can happen only to girls like you.”
Sanni broke into a big laugh.
“You, naughty girl!” Ankemma said with a touch of disdain.
“Don’t I know why you two come to this god-forsaken corner while there is so much greenery all around the village,” Neeli said in retort.
And then added, bringing her face closer to theirs, “Kotthapeta is not too from here, isn’t it? Your man will come to see you later in the day. That’s the real reason.”
Sanni and Ankemma burst out into a big, side-splitting laughter. After a few minutes, Neeli asked, “Come on, Sanni, tell me the truth. If I shout from here, can they hear it in the village?”
“Shout and see.”
“What if nobody can hear it?”
“I’m telling you, just shout and see.”
Neeli stood up and looked toward the village. There was no sign of a human as far as she could see.
“I should call whom?”
Neeli pretended not to hear it. Dali was Neeli’s husband, he was from the same village. She was nine at the time she was married.
Neeli pulled herself up and shouted, “Hey Pydayyaa mama!”
Ankemma giggled. Sanni smiled and said, “Not good enough. Shout louder.”
Neeli again mustered all the strength in her body and shouted louder, “Oooooooooh, Pydayya mamaaaaaaaa!”
“Ooh”, Sanni chirped like a bird in the mango grove.
“Aha! No need to laugh at me. He is coming for real,” Neeli bluffed. Then she crashed onto the ground.
“Oh my God! He is here, He is coming, for real.”
No, Neeli was not kidding.
“For sure?” Ankemma asked.
“I swear. Come here and see for yourself. I saw him climb up the banks past the Tummala grove. At first, I thought it may be somebody else. But then, I clearly noticed his striped shirt and lungi I’d seen before. That certainly is him,” Neeli said.
Ankemma stood up slowly and sat down right away. She saw Pydayya.
“True,” she said to Sanni.
Sanni did not move, showed no signs of emotion.
“So, what? Let him come,” she said, sounding casual.
Regardless, her heart started beating faster.
In the next minute, the other two girls became serious.
“You stay here. We’ll see you later,” Ankemma said, picking up her basket to leave. Neeli kept pulling the grass.
“No, Don’t go.” Sanni’s voice sounded harsh. Ankemma was ticked off.
“That’s cute. Have you lost your mind? Your mother and his mother are fighting, fine. Don’t you let it get under your skin, He did nothing wrong,” she reprimanded her gently and went to the Palm Grove along with Neeli.
As Sanni continued to pluck the grass she noticed two dark feet in front of her. Her heart jumped to her throat. She was trying desperately to keep her shaky hands under control. Finally, she asked, “Found time at last?”
“When one is far away, it is hard to find the time. Fine. What about them, who don’t talk to the person right in front of them? What is that?” Pydayya asked, sitting on the grass, making sure clothes did not get dirty.
Sanni lifted her eyes and lowered them again, without stopping her work.
“Can’t open that mouth,” Pydayya asked.
Still Sanni said nothing.
Pydayya was wearing a colored silk shirt and freshly washed white lungi.
Sanni was wearing a colored sari, it was faded and looking dirty although Sanni had washed it earlier on that day. She wore a rubber bangle on her right hand and wool thread on her left hand. If she stayed in her mother-in-law’s place, she would not have been in that condition.
“I’ve come from so far away, can’t you say something, not even one word? What have you got to lose?” Pydayya said.
Sanni had no good sari to wear and no valuable jewelry yet she was beautiful. She always took good care of her body. She took care of her looks even when she was busy or not well.
Pydayya was watching her keenly and imagining how her honey-colored figure would look in the yellow sari with red border and green silk bangles he had brought for her under that evening sunlight.
“How long you are going to stay?” Sanni asked, shaking off the dirt on the roots of the grass she had collected so far.
“I will stay for four day if you are nice to me, counting today that is. Otherwise, I’ll be gone by tomorrow.”
Pydayya expected the word “nice” to hit her hard. But there were no complaints from Sanni.
“What actually happened?” Pydayya asked.
“What can I say?” replied Sanni. She lifted her face slightly, there was a little warmth in her voice.
“Didn’t you receive my letters?”
She did not reply.
“Everybody tells me how the squabble took place but nobody tells me how it started,” he said teasingly.
Sanni was about to tell everything but changed her mind and returned to digging.
“I don’t know either how it started. Even if I knew, it is not appropriate for me to tell you.”
“How telling the way it is would be improper?”
“The mother who has given birth to me on one hand and on the other the mother-in-law who is supposed to take care of me. I’ll be in trouble whichever side I appeared to have taken.”
Pydayya had no answer. After a while, he said, “Alright. If you want to act like you’ve nothing to do with it, I have nothing to say either.”
“We can’t dismiss it as ‘whatever happened has happened and so be it.’ They’ve gotten into argument today again. I am in a fix, it is like a well in front and a ditch behind. Tell me what I am supposed to do now at least,” Pydayya said.
For some reason, he thought she would say something but she did not. He was annoyed. “If you don’t tell me this either, I would have to assume that you are angry with me and my mother.”
Water welled up in Sanni’s eyes. She stopped digging, filled the basket with the grass she had dug so far, and replied in a hoarse voice, “You do whatever you want. I am only a woman after all. In matters such as this, I must not tell you what to do. Even if I had said something, you must not listen.” She picked up the basket and stood.
Pydayya was hurt by her words and even more by her walking away in that manner. Ever since he had set foot in the village, his mother, brother and even his wife got into fights, and now, she was telling him, ‘you do as you please.’ He felt he was being punished for a crime he did not commit. Even a passerby would show some sympathy in times like this. His own relatives were showing no concern! He suddenly stood up and said, “Alright, I will leave tomorrow morning. If I set foot on this soil again that would be my ashes only,” and went away.
Sanni stood there with tearful eyes.
Pydayya walked away in big strides, his legs floating. Earlier, his heart was beating the same way as he approached Sanni. On his way here, he thought about what he would ask her. And what did he do?
What he did was wrong. He turned around quickly and came back to Sanni. As he did so, he noticed that Ankemma and Neeli were watching them both from behind Palm Grove.
“Can you come to Tavitappa’s home later in the evening?” he begged. He was about to break into tears. His voice sounded desperate. Sanni noticed it. After that she found it hard to say no but she had to.
“You come to my place,” she said, lowering her head and looking away.
Pydayya could not take it anymore. He left without looking back. He was coming home once every three months and stayed for three days. Both of them lived like that, he in the city and she in the village, for the past three years.
The other two home girls came back to Sanni. She wiped her tears and stayed there for a long time.
* * *
Lights were lit by the time Sanni returned home. Yerremma saw that the basket was only half full and growled, “Is this all you could bring, after spending the entire day on the field?”
Sanni was going in to put away the sickle under the eaves. Yerremma’s question annoyed her. She was shaking as she spoke, “I did not come here to be your slave, not to cook and feed you and kids. I came here because you asked me to. Tell me if that bothers you, I’ll leave right now.” That is what she wanted to say but could not.
Instead, their next-door neighbor Narasamma took it upon herself to say so. “You, old brat, shut up. Her husband is in town and you want her do chores for you? I haven’t seen anyone like you. You shoot off your mouth and think that it saves you? You don’t care how much she is hurting or what she is longing for? You are angry because she has brought a few strands of grass short today?” she yelled at Yerremma.
Narasamma was a few years older than Yerremma, whichever way you looked at it. She was the only one Yerremma would not talk back to.
Yerremma changed the tune and played stupid. She said, “What did I say? All I asked was why smaller bundle? I was worried if she was not well or something. My bad luck, my words didn’t come out right. That’s all there is to it, I said nothing wrong,” and went in.
After she left, Narasamma turned to Sanni and asked softly, “I’ve heard that your husband went in your direction. Did you see him?”
It is not unusual for the word to reach the entire village before the man has made it to his home. Therefore, Sanni was not surprised.
“I’ll come to your home a little later,” she replied and went into the house. However, she did not go to see Narasamma, not a little later, not even after much much later. Narasamma decided to go to Sanni herself.
Sanni did not enter the kitchen the whole day. It was late evening, she spread a small jute mat in her room and lay down. Her mother went to get groceries.
The present Malapeta was on the North side of the village that was developed in course of time. A new street was formed by combining two streets, each with three rows of houses. Yerremma’s house was on the new street. Between the new street and Malapeta, there was a tobacco farm. Between that and the village, there were vegetable fields and tender sprouts in preparation for replanting.
Yerremma set up a make-shift stove under the eaves facing the street and started cooking. A small wall stood between the stove and the street. The room Sanni was sleeping in had a door toward the street but not to the back. At night Sanni and her six younger sisters would sleep in the same room. Yerremma would make room for herself in the kitchen to sleep. The veranda had just enough room for a cot for an asthma patient. Yerremma’s husband would sleep there wheezing all night. His only past-time was to lay in the cot and listen to Yerremma cursing him.
Yerremma cooked and fed the kids. Sanni said she was not hungry. Yerremma put away the pots in the slings hanging from the roof, closed the door, and went away.
After she left, Narasamma came. She held Sanni’s shoulder, helped her to get up and said, “Listen to me, let’s go to my place.”
Her father and her sister, who had not fallen asleep yet were watching them with curiosity. Sanni understood that there was no use protesting anymore. As they proceeded, Yerremma came out and saw them.
At Narasamma’s house there were two young kids but no male member. The kids were sleeping.
Narasamma cleaned the ashes in the coal stove, set the pot on the stove, brought the lamp from outside, and sat next to Sanni. She said, “I am like your mother. Listen to me carefully. Families break up or make up on occasions like this. I suggest you follow his suggestion. Trust me, take his advice.”
Sanni felt like her life had become a tabloid story, she was heartbroken. She covered her face with her sari end and cried. Yerremma heard her cries from next door but could not pull herself to go into the house.
“Stop it, whatever happened that you should start crying?” Narasamma said, a bit annoyed.
“My life has gone to dogs. Fine, see how low he’s gone. He asked me to go to the hut every scoundrel visits.”
“That’s right. That’s why I am telling you to take care of yourself. He is stupid. If you neglect him, no doubt another girl grabs him and runs away. That’s why I’m saying, you need to heed to his words.”
Those words caused Sanni further grief. “Why can’t he come to my place?” she said, overwhelmed by grief. She was aware however that her expectation was meaningless.
“How can he? Even on the wedding night, he did not want to go to your place. It is worse than a pigsty. Tell me, is there anything that can make one want to stay there?” Narasamma said.
It sounded harsh but there was truth in her words. The kids would not be able to sleep in the front yard, with only worn-out sari pieces for sheets to cover in the chilling cold weather. They would have to cuddle next their older sister or mother and sleep in the same room. That was the reason, although he had spent all day at her house, he had to take her to his home at night.
“I cannot say you sleep at my place. That won’t do. Your Atta holds a grudge against me for something I had said sometime back. It sure is bound to get us into trouble.”
Sanni could not see a way out. She hid her head in her knees and was silent. A little later Narasamma said, “That’s why I am telling you to forget these stupid ideas. Just do what he says. I’ve got hot water ready for you. Wait for a second, I’ll fix your hair. I have sent my little boy to watch when Pydayya arrives and let’s know. You get ready before he reaches home. Take the boy with you to be safe. On your way back, bring your husband along with you.”
It sounded reasonable at first. Then it occurred to her that this news would not be a secret for long. She was devastated. She broke into big sobs, muttering, “No, no, I can’t go, I can’t,” and shaking her head vigorously.
Narasamma tried to explain to her in so ways but Sanni remained stubborn. Narasamma was exhausted and yelled at her, “would you rather kill your marriage?”
Sanni kept staring at the floor. Narasamma said, “Tell me what are you thinking exactly. You think he will come to you today or tomorrow, or maybe the day after. Well, listen to what your Atta has to say,” and then shouted out, “Oley Yerremma, come here for a second.”
Yerremma came in. “Sit down,” Narasamma yowled. Yerremma sat down. Narasamma said, “Tell her what the Dokkolla woman had said to you.”
“You tell her,” Yerremma said, looking away.
“She said that your Atta had laid down two conditions to let you back into her home. First, you must promise that you’ll never raise the question of visiting your natal home for the next three years, not until she feels like it and say ‘you may go’. Second, your mother should go to her and admit that she (your mother) was wrong. Unless those two conditions are met, she would not share the same roof with you as long as she lived. You know full well how stubborn she is. Your husband and his brothers will never cross her. Now, tell me whether you will listen to him and save your marriage or give in and let your Atta have her way.”
“I may take his advice but where is the guarantee Atta will have a change of heart?” Sanni said. She was irritated.
“Who can tell what is going to turn out how? When the man and wife join hands nobody, not Atta not the Goddess over her head, can split them apart. Otherwise you have got nothing. Any bitch can break you up.”
“If that is what you think will happen, I have had it. I will not go to him at all. As far as I am concerned his people are as important to him as my mother and siblings are to me. I am not going to use my body as bait to get him.”
Hardly Sanni finished her sentence, Yerremma stood up ready to leave. On her way out she kept muttering, “haven’t I said so? She, her Atta, her husband, and all of them are the same. I am the only one, the outsider. They all blame me as if my girl has joined me and pouring her earnings into my lap. All I’ve got is the blame. Ask her. Ask her if she has ever given me or my kids one paisa, just one paisa. There is the mirror and there is the face. Ask her straight. She keeps feeding that worthless idiot like a pig. I’ve told her time and again that it is the same for you whether he lived or died. But she won’t listen. She keeps feeding him bottle after bottle. I would ask her why? She says the gusty winds cause him to shiver miserably and she could not watch it. Well, as they say, if he dies today tomorrow is another day. How is he helping anybody by staying alive? It is a hassle for him and a hassle for the family. She stood by such a worthless idiot and got it to this point.
“I did not want to go there to bring her home. I’ve told her that her Atta is stubborn. I told her since there is no produce this year no work either, and no point in bringing her home. But she insisted that I go there and bring her home. So, I went to fetch her. And, see what happened. I have got broken bones and was confined to bed for four days.
“Yes, she is here. What good has come of it? She has got nothing, not even enough to buy a rag of a sari for the festival. That’s what she has accomplished. You are suggesting I should fall on her feet for this girl’s sake. Her marriage goes to dogs and people will spit in my face, you say. This is my karma, that’s all I can say,” Yerremma left, mumbling and smacking her forehead.
Among the rich, there are rich, very rich, and super-rich. Among the poor, there are poor, very poor, and dirt poor. Yerremma was very poor.
Yerremma owned a hut. She possessed a few clay pots fairly in good condition, some aluminum and bell metal dishes. Also, one cracked aluminum pot, a badly dented vessel that was no good for pawning, and two dinner plates. Thus she was very poor, she must not be categorized as dirt poor.
Compared to her, Bangari was just poor. In her house, there were not only aluminum dishes but also three bell metal dishes good for pawning, two brass platters, brought by her daughters-in-law, and a small brass pot. She also had four water tumblers. She possessed a few other assets as well.
She also owned a house featuring a raised front porch and a door to the backyard. On one side, there was a small porch just enough to hold a cot and a small backyard. After Sanni had joined them as a daughter-in-law, the backyard was fenced in. Above all, she had a small strip of wasteland, which was like a pregnant buffalo that keeps gobbling fodder endlessly but never produces milk. Therefore, many people referred to them as ‘haves.’
Immediately after Bangari had been married into this family, her mother-in-law had divided the property. Bangari and her husband received a farm that yielded four or five bags of paddy and a peanut farm that yielded four bags of peanuts if they worked right. They barely had anything to eat. In their lives having a piece of cloth was considered a luxury. They learned to manage barely.
The family grew bigger in course of time. Then came the War. Although the land continued to yield now and then, costs went up, commodities disappeared, and newly the black market came into play. The costs of commodities shot up sky high as they reached the village. Out of necessity, people took loans, failed to pay back, and were forced to sell their lands.
Thus, under the rule of the previous government farmlands of several farmers were wiped out. They had been told that under the new government things would be different. Some said the new government was going to be like the rule of Lord Rama. A few others believed it would be the Mala rule, that they would determine the administrative policies.
“Jobs for Mala folks, houses for Mala folks, and all the wasteland for Mala folks,” the landlords said. Some of them even said that the rules of the new government were laid out by a Mala gentleman.
It was nice to hear them but in action it was different. Wherever the Malas turned the Kapu men confronted them with sticks. The Mala folks in the end received some barren land, quite rocky and in a far off location. It was a horrendous task to break the rocks and cultivate the land.
Bangari’s husband had to implore the Village Accountant desperately, offer gifts, and perform numerous odd jobs around Munsif’s house for umpteen months. He was nearly worn out by the time he obtained a small strip, located in the middle of a dried-up river. He died in the same year. Folks said the land was accursed. Bangari ignored those comments and kept the land.
The children were still young. Only Narayudu grew up and taller. Bangari assumed the responsibility as the head of the household with Narayudu by her side. From what she had seen so far she understood a few things about life. She told herself, “It never gets better for the poor. If they try to get something they don’t have, they will lose everything including the things they have had. The poor may starve days on end yet they do not die. That being the case, why lose the things they have had on hand?” She decided that she would not try to get something she did not have previously and would not let go of the things she had on hand, even if her life depended on it. She put it into action to the letter, never budged an inch. Under her management, they did not lose a blade of grass.
The other Mala folks, who did not have that kind of fortitude and, who believed that the Mala rule would happen, sold pots and pans, sweated blood, and turned the wasteland into a viable farm. As they say, the fresh water washes away the existing water too. The expenses wiped out the profits. They were left with nothing but their houses and their bodies.
The rich would not buy the houses in Malapeta. The poor could not afford to buy a house. It was the same with the bodies. Sacred texts and jurisprudence would allow renting out the bodies occasionally and for a brief period, but not to sell them with full rights. Thus most of them ended up becoming dirt poor. Or else, they would have been very poor.
Bangari was doing fine until all the four sons had grown up and two daughters-in-law joined the family. They saved a little cash and a few seeds in season and invested them in the land. After the season ended, they managed the best they could without taking out loans. They ate whatever they had and even when they had nothing they managed.
In course of time, Bangari’s third son Pydayya grew up. Usually, young men in the early stages of youth entertain a love for life and develop belief in their vigor and brains. Additionally, Pydayya was married. He started complaining that their mother had no mettle, and people without mettle remain stuck in the same place like floor mats.
“You do as you please but no loans, I will not let you borrow. Put up fences, gather dry cow-dung chips, move dirt from the pond, pour sand, add fertilizer, dig ditches and grow greenery, anything and everything you can and want you may do. I am not going to stand in your way. You work hard, I like it too, but no loans,” Bangari told them a few times.
Pydayya was ticked off. He declared that he decided to move to the city at the first sign of an opportunity. “Ah, go, I don’t care,” said Bangari. Pydayya wasted no time. He left for the city.
* * *
Pydayya struggled for about six months in the city and by the end of the year, he made it fairly well. It was not clear what happened but he found no work. In the past two years, he had been struggling with no income in sight.
Back in the village, Bangari’s oldest daughter-in-law died in the same year Pydayya left for the city. For the next three years, the yield on the land was far from satisfactory. The yield kept diminishing, first one quarter, next one half, and at the end the entire yield. The entire village was thrown into spasms of fear and uncertainty. It was like the floods after heavy rains. Tiny grass blades were drowned at first and the huge trees and weaker trees were knocked out next. The villagers were suffocating. Bangari lost her mind.
Dogs fight for the morsels of food off the dirty plates in the garbage. Those who eat on those plates might not understand why those dogs fight. Only those who had starved for a year can comprehend the underlying philosophy.
Before the Aviti festival, people could find work like digging and sowing peanut seeds for a month. After Aviti there would be no work until after three or four weeks. There would be plenty of work, like reaping the harvest one month before Sankranti. It, however, would depend on rains-no life without rains.
That was the reason Yerremma
wanted to take her daughter home before the festival. That was the reason Bangari wanted to let her go after the festival.
In Yerremma’s household, there were only two female laborers, including Sanni. In Bangari’s home, there were four male laborers and two female laborers, not counting Sanni. Yet Bangari would not let go of Sanni.
* * *
On the following day, Pydayya took bath per tradition, ate bitter-sweet chutney and set out to go to Peddamma’s house.
“Why now? Why not go later in the afternoon?” asked Narayudu. Pydayya promised to return home in time for the festive meal. Narayudu agreed.
The night before Pydayya could not sleep and the next morning he was feeling down. He had to talk to someone to find a solution to his problem. Peddamma’s village was one and a half miles away from his village. His close friend Kannayya was there in Peddamma’s home.
The eldest daughter of Peddamma had died fifteen years ago. Kannayya was her only son. After her death, he moved to his uncle’s home. Pydayya and Kannayya had been friends since childhood. Pydayya thought he would feel better if he spoke with Kannayya.
At Peddamma’s home, everybody was thrilled to see Pydayya; it was like seeing God. They set a seat made of palm-tree strands for him and gathered around him. Kannayya was not home. Somebody went to fetch him.
An aged, withered old woman was lying in the cot on the porch. She looked like a bag of skin and bones and barely covered with a few rags. She was woken by the noise. “Who is there? Who is that?” she squealed weakly.
Peddamma went close to her, held three fingers in front of her face, and shouted, “My sister’s son, the third boy, the third.”
Pydayya also went to her and said, “It’s me, me, your great-grandson, Kannayya’s friend.”
The old woman got it finally. “Ah,” she said with a glimmer in her eyes.
“The bitch got it,” they all laughed.
Whether she understood or not, the entire neighborhood got the message. Those who had known him for a long time came to greet him. Peddamma welcomed them all and showed them places to sit.
After the usual chitchat for a while, they started inquiring about the city.
“How are things there?”
“What can I say? Same as here,” Pydayya replied, clearing his throat.
“No, not that. What about rationing? We heard a lot about rationing of the items like rice and such, can you get them easily?”
“Yes, we can get them you know in the black market. You can get them if you can pay twice the price.”
“Like here,” said one old woman.
“That too is the same as here; some find it, some don’t.”
Then, they all asked him about life in the city. It was a very big city, ten miles away from his village. It was like three adjoining villages put together into one in size, their village could not compare even to one neighborhood in the city. It was surrounded by mountains on three sides and the sea on the fourth side.
They all listened to Pydayya’s presentation of the city with great enthusiasm.
One young woman said, “Yes, you would have to see it at night if you really want to see it, I was told. It would be like all the stars fell into the valley in the dark, I believe. It would cost them millions of rupees you know. My uncle told me.” She kept watching Pydayya and the others as she spoke.
Pydayya looked at her and guessed she might be about 25. She could be mistaken for Sanni’s sister if one saw her suddenly. She was standing in front of him, leaning against the palm tree trunk pillar.
“Our Bariki Ramayya’s Kodalu,” Peddamma said.
Pydayya realized that he was staring at her and that it was not appropriate. He turned away.
“Anyway, what do you do there?”
“I work as a day laborer.”
“What does that mean?”
Pydayya explained: In the city, there was a marketplace called Pedda Bazaar. Millions and billions of rupees changed hands by wholesale dealers every day. The businesses included clothes, sugar, grains, tamarind, and many other items. His employer was handling onions and vegetables. Since Pydayya was good at math, he was assigned bookkeeping and the supplies of commodities to small stores. Occasionally, he also moved bags when necessary.
“How much you make per day?”
For several reasons, Pydayya did not give a straight answer. “it depends on seasons and luck. If the transportation is good and supplies are running smoothly, one can make as much as ten rupees. Or else, two or three, sometimes not even that.”
The others did not stop there. “Make 70, 80 rupees a month?”
“What about out of season?”
“One way or the other, no less than fifty.”
That is good, they all looked at each other and shook heads in assent. Pydayya, pretending to be casual, looked at Kodalu and noticed that her eyes were fixed on him.
“By the way, what do you do for meals?” Peddamma asked.
“There is a group of eight workers. A woman from their caste cooks for them. Each of them gives two rupees in the morning. She serves cold rice in the morning and usual meals at noon and night.”
“Is she the same woman from way back?” Kodalu asked.
Pydayya could not figure out whom she was referring to. He thought she might be talking just to get his attention. The others knew it was normal for her.
“You knew?” Peddamma asked her.
“Is she not the same woman? She was married to the village watchman Appayya of Kotturu. After she had run away with a snake-catcher or tanner, he got married again,” said Kodalu.
She was blabbering like an old hag, thought Peddamma, it was annoyed to her.
“That was so long ago,” she sneered at her.
“Long ago? Hardly ten years back, maybe fifteen,” Kodalu said, watching Pydayya, “Didn’t my uncle come to visit you? He said he had seen her and greeted her but she turned away.”
Pydayya kept staring at her pretending not to understand what she was saying. Well-formed figure, Sanni may look like her at that age, he thought.
“Never mind who she is. Forget what your uncle has said. He can’t recognize today someone he had seen yesterday. You think he has recognized somebody he had seen ten years ago!” Peddamma said.
Pydayya was confused still. Peddamma explained to him, unraveling like a ball of wool. “Remember last year watchman Ramayya came looking for you? The dark, tall deaf man. He told us that he had eaten at your place. This girl is his daughter-in-law. She has been repeating his words ever since.”
Pydayya finally understood. He recalled the incident.
* * *
A year ago one day he had received the goods and was on his way home late in the evening.
“You have got a guest,” said one of his coworkers. Pydayya looked at that person but could not recall who he was.
“Who are you looking for, sir?” Pydayya asked politely.
The stranger did not tell directly who he was. He first established for himself Pydayya was the person he was looking for, and then said he was a relative of Peddamma. On his way back from another town, he stopped to see Pydayya since Peddamma had asked him to.
Based on his own relationship with Peddamma, Pydayya extended hospitality to his guest. He took him to the restaurant, both ate there and then went to a movie.
Ramayya was tall like a pole, dark and skinny, and leaned forward. He wore a white shirt and a dhoti on his head as turban. Below the waist, he was wearing only loin-cloth. Being a watchman, he would never leave without a cane. Standing next to Ramayya, Pydayya looked like a dwarf.
The movie was an old movie but the theater was a dazzling new theater. It took some time for Ramayya to get used to the dazzle. After that, he was so overwhelmed, there was no telling how much.
The old man could not follow the storyline. He kept asking questions. He was partially deaf. Pydayya could not raise his voice because of the others around him, and if he lowered his voice the old man could not understand. After the interval, the old man felt sleepy, Pydayya felt relieved. But, as soon as they left the theatre, the old man resumed asking questions again.
“Why the theatre is so glamorous? Don’t they have theaters where you can sit on the floor comfortably? Have you heard of touring cinemas?”
The conversation went on like that for a while. Then he started asking about the city: Why places are so far apart in the same city? Why didn’t you bring your family? Men without family don’t behave well, don’t they say?
And more questions about men and women passing by, the stores remained open after midnight, moving buses and rickshaws – endless questions.
Pydayya did not have a room of his own. He slept on the porch in the marketplace. For some reason, there were no lights there. As Ramayya walked past the gate, a bandicoot ran across his path. After that, he was terrified each time he stepped on a rotten eggplant or decomposed cucumber.
Pydayya pulled the old jute mats and rags from the eaves, dusted them off, and spread them on the floor.
The old man did not go to sleep. He kept asking, “Why it is so dark on the porch when the entire city is bright with lights? Why did you not wash this patio?” He could not sleep for a long time, worried about getting bitten by bedbugs, rats, and bandicoots.
Pydayya thought this experience would make him leave. But he did not leave. He wanted to see the city. Pydayya had no other choice. He sent word to his manager that he was taking the day off, told the woman to cook for one more person, and set out to show the city to Ramayya. He showed the huge buildings, skyscrapers, hospitals, and offices, explained about them as much as he could. By one o’clock, Ramayya was hungry and tired. “Let’s go home,” he said.
“I don’t have a home,” Pydayya replied.
“Where do you keep your stuff like bags, clothes, and all?”
“Right there in a corner in the marketplace,” Pydayya said.
“What about food?”
He explained about his food arrangements. Behind the market, there was a block of slums like any other slums in any other city. This one, however, being in the middle of the city, was small. Since it was small, the houses in it were also small. People huddled in those houses, built one on the top of another on the marshland on either side of a gutter. On either side of that locality, the streets were full of multi-story buildings, a stunning movie theatre, and a few restaurants that depended on the theatre for business. On the fourth side, the Grand Trunk Road with endless traffic ran.
As he walked in, his first question was, “You live here?”
The hutments, which they called homes, were built of clay-wall surrounds. The roofs were made up of garbage like old rotten palm leaves, rusty copperplate mats from the times immemorial, and jute mat pieces. Rusty copper plates served as doors.
Ramayya was shocked to learn that a room barely enough to hold a cot was rented for ten rupees. He could not creep in through the small hole, which served as door. He sat outside, managed to eat the gruel served to him, and washed his feet rubbing hard. He said, “One might as well starve to death, if you ask me. That’s what I think.”
Pydayya did not realize the kind of dump he was living in until Ramayya pointed it out. One-fifth of the city’s population was living in those huts. He felt good, it felt okay for him as long as he had some cash. But whenever he was short for cash, Ramayya’s words came to mind.
Pydayya was startled by Kodalu’s voice. Kodalu was telling Peddamma, “Not that, I am not talking about castes. Who cares about castes nowadays. I just asked if that woman was the same woman as we had known.”
“Who knows what you are saying or why. Never mind your words. Your father-in-law also ate the food she served. If his caste is tainted, so is my son’s. If his caste is not tainted, my son’s caste is not tainted either.”
They all laughed. Nobody said a word for a few minutes.
Suddenly, one of the women shouted, “Why ask me? I did not go there, nor seen it. Ask your uncle yourself.”
A 15-year-old girl, sitting by the door, was embarrassed for being caught thus and pouted. She shoved the older woman from behind.
Pydayya understood that she was Kannayya’s wife, based on the relational term she used.
“What? What?” those around him also wanted to know. The older woman explained. Further Peddamma added, “Yes, son, tell them. She is dying to know. A few days back, her husband made a big fuss about joining you in the city. He said he was tired of working here as a farmhand. He calmed down a bit only after Ramayya returned and described the city life. Now she started it again. Maybe she would just go away someday. Tell her what she wants to know.”
One of her aunts said, “Just because she asked about the wages, it doesn’t mean she is moving to the city.”
“Do you really think she will leave your grandson and go away?” one old woman asked.
“Who knows? It is not unusual nowadays. There is a group of folks for whom the city is heaven. You know they have a guru too,” Peddamma said, pointing to Kodalu. The young woman would not take it. She retorted, “What is wrong if I go?”
Peddamma did not reply. Kodalu got bolder. “What do we have got to lose? Isn’t it better to go to the city rather than wriggle here with empty stomachs,” she turned to the others around and asked. Nobody replied.
Peddamma said, “Go, girl, go. Who is stopping you? Please, go there, and wallow in the mire filled with flies, pigs, and bandicoots. Nobody is going to stop you.”
“Yes it is wrong to go there and wallow in the swamp leaving behind all this great life we are living, all these mansions, costly beds, and all,” she said mockingly.
“Nothing there, nothing here, we might as well die here,” another old woman commented.
“Here we have a morsel to eat at least. What do you have there?” added another young woman.
The rest of the women joined the fray. Pydayya understood from their ranting that the reason for this bickering lay not in the current situation but in a feud that had been brewing for quite some time.
“Yes, yes, we are not eating here,” Peddamma prolonged the conversation.
Kodalu was annoyed. She countered, “We are eating true, it is so obvious. Let us see what your son has done. He has been a farmhand under Venkatrayudu for over eight years. The first four years it went well, they paid him alright. After that, they kept feeding excuses: ‘Tomorrow,’ ‘In a couple of days,’ ‘Just wait, wait until the new moon,’ ‘After full-moon,’ so on and on. It was a fierce struggle to get paid even once in the first six months. Then they said they would pay after bringing the produce home. Then they said the produce was ruined. Produce was not ruined, nothing happened, they were doing fine. We kept begging and begging, and even told them we were starving. Finally, they yielded, gave us three months’ worth of grain. The remaining wages only after the next yield, they said. They have not given us anything in the past two years, I swear. Nobody dares ask them for fear of getting beat up.
“I asked your son, ‘Why work for the wages you may never see?’ I told him to quit but your son says, ‘If I quit now, I may lose everything. If I stay, maybe one day the produce comes home, and maybe they will disburse our share to us.’ I will say we may earn a couple of rupees in the city but he won’t see it that way.”
“Jobs are not free for grabs in the city either,” Peddamma said.
“Neither here nor there. That’s what I am saying. What do we have here except toiling and moiling? We are starving but not seeing one paisa in return. There, we may live in a pigsty, fight flies and bandicoots, but we’ll have some gruel at the end of the day. Why not move to the city? Why toil on the farms and fields for nothing? And why be kicked and pounced upon, be called pinchers and stealers by these worthless folks?” Kodalu stopped.
“So it is all about you only?” Peddamma asked.
Kodalu retorted, “What do you mean all about me? Did I say you should not go?”
“Do you think the city is teaming with jobs? Who knows how many others had gone there in the past and could not find work? Sometime back, Kopparam Pothayya and his brothers had sold their property, moved to the city, and returned within six months. His wife left him for somebody else while they were there,” Peddamma snickered.
“Why talk about those that had come back? Why not talk about those who remained there and are doing fine?”
“They too will be back tomorrow, if not today.”
“Fine. Probably we will also return some day. For now, let’s live like this.”
“Is that all you can say? Don’t you think about others?”
Kodalu was lost for words for a few minutes. Then she came back with renewed vigor, “Alright, I don’t think about others. You think and tell me what you will suggest.”
What could Peddamma say? She sought God’s help. Kannayya appeared at the door.
Kannayya, without saying one word, wrapped his upper garment around his head, went to Pydayya, and started yelling, “You scoundrel, get up, up.” He kept hitting him on his forehead and chest with his fist.
Pydayya could not take it; he left his seat. Kannayya sat on it and continued his attack, “Son of a bitch, don’t you know you should come to me and not the other way round? Come, come here, sit at my feet.” Pydayya did not sit at his feet. Then Kannayya lunged at him, both went into a big fight like two ferocious bulls while others watched. They went on fighting until Peddamma came with a stick and threatened to thrash them.
* * *
Pydayya did not keep his word to his brother. He had said he would return home for supper but he did not. Peddamma did not let him go until he had eaten at her place. Instead of going home he went to the pond and sat on the banks. The midday heat was turning into a soft warm glow. The cool breeze was getting breezier. There was no sign of Sanni. He looked around. Somebody was walking by the Palm Grove at a distance. Pydayya told himself that he would wait until that person went past the Palm grove and then leave.
Pydayya was waiting for Sanni but his mind was not on Sanni. Ramayya’s Kodalu had taken over his heart and soul. She was like a well-ripened fruit or a fully blossomed flower. His heart was craving for her but he was scared also. At Peddamma’s house, he had noticed that her eyes were devouring him. She took his side while arguing with Peddamma. Her eyes, the moisture in her eyes, the glimmer in that moisture and its reflection in her face, amity in her voice, and her indignation – they all were haunting him.
He recalled his conversation with Kannayya about Kodalu earlier that afternoon. They left Peddamma’s house and arrived at the village limits. Pydayya asked Kannayya about Kodalu. Kannayya said, “She may appear like that but she is not worldly-wise, very naive I should say. She is not that kind of a person, as far as I know.”
Pydayya thought so too but did not want to believe.
Then Kannayya related to him of an incident that had occurred sometime back. According to him, Kannayya visited Kodalu’s place and as he was about to leave, she said, “Leaving already?”
“Why? Are you cooking for me?” Kannayya asked.
“Why should I? Aren’t there women in your home? Or, they don’t know how to cook?” she said.
Kodalu had been thinking about moving to the city for a while. Her husband had the muscle but not the guts. Therefore she started working on Kannayya. He stalled her for a few days. The more he avoided the more persistent she was. The pressure was building up by the day. Finally, he decided to find out her real intentions. He tried to get close to her a couple of times but she dodged him cleverly. And then he got hold of her while she alone.
“Where would you go now?” Kannayya asked her.
“I am not going anywhere but I will tell you one thing. One must not steal as long as one can get by. It is the same with couples. When one has a spouse, one must not resort to evil ways. Tell me if you don’t have a wife at home. I will even go along if she is ill. But I am not going to break up families for no reason. All men are alike and so also all women,” she said.
Kannayya said he had left with his head down.
The story got to Pydayya. He thought Sanni was no contest to that woman, and himself no contest to Kannayya.
Pydayya was feeling tired. He looked around again. A woman carrying a basket was climbing up the ridge. Probably fifty-years-old. The sun was down. Pydayya gave up on Sanni and got up to leave. “Just one more minute,” his heart was pulling him back.
He thought of something that had happened a few days before Sanni had moved in with his family. Pydayya was wandering in a neighbor’s Palm Grove looking for palm fruits. The Sun was prickly hot. He saw a girl alone amid hillocks.
There was no other human being in sight under the scorching Sun. But for the gusty winds blowing through the trees, there was no other noise, not even birds chirping.
The cool breeze from the sea was caressing but he was feeling burning hot. Occasionally dry winds blew and that made him even more frustrated. With pounding heart and longing eyes, he looked around like a thief. He picked up the courage and went into the crags of the small mounds. Madiga Appayya’s daughter was there snuck in a corner. She bit one of the mangoes she had stolen from a nearby Mango Grove. She pushed one side of her upper garment and tucked the other mangoes in her sari folds at the waist. She was startled by Pydayya and quickly tried to hide her mangoes with her torn sari end.
For the crime he had committed on that day he could not stare into her eyes again for a very long time. Now he was thinking it was not his fault. Hunger is the mother of all evils.
Pydayya was in the same mood today as he had been on that day. His mind was scattered; he could not decide as to what he should do.
Sanni will not come, he told himself and stood up to leave. As he stood, he felt a flood of something at heart, he was not sure whether it was sorrow or frustration. Whatever it was, there was no way out. He dusted off his clothes, turned westward, and thought it was a few hours for the sun to go down. He walked halfway along the banks and arrived at the temple of the local goddess. Something reminded him of Gangamma. He felt relieved for some uncanny reason and proceeded to cross the pond. Halfway past the pond, there was Chennangi grove and Gangamma’s hut ahead of the grove.
He walked a few more steps past halfway. Right there was the hut of Dayyala Gangamma.
“You here? Are you lost?” Gangamma greeted him with a question, “Lost maybe but the same old path,” Pydayya replied.
Gangamma cleaned the front yard, set up three stones for a make-shift stove. She was cooking gruel.
Pydayya sat on a boulder across from her. His face looked like a partially burned charcoal with bright sun rays shining on his dark face.
“Why that face?” Gangamma asked him, watching the fire in the stove.
“I have been roaming around since morning, totally beat up. I was hoping I will get some cold water,” Pydayya replied.
Gangamma read hunger in his face like a doctor would the illness in a patient’s face. She was going to refer to the winter weather, instead, she asked, “Where did you go?” as she proceeded to fetch firewood.
Pydayya told her the places he had been to.
The old man inside heard voices and asked in a streaky voice, “Who’s that? Narayudu?”
Gangamma’s first husband had left her after four or five years of marriage and eloped with another woman. Gangamma remained without a man for about ten years. Her present husband invited her into his life after his first wife had died. After she had moved in with him, he fell ill with some unmanageable disease and lost both his legs. Gangamma nevertheless held on to him faithfully more than his life.
“No, not Narayudu, it is his younger brother Pydayya,” she spoke loudly so it could be heard inside.
Pydayya went into the room and said, “I have no cheroot but how about a beedi, old man?”
There was nothing in that room but a water jug and a cot. There was no room for anything else, he thought. He did not notice the dustpan under the cot and the two clay pots in the sling hanging from the beam.
“Whatever it is, I will take it,” the old man said in a raspy voice. For Pydayya it was hard to watch the old man’s pale face and the drawn-in eyes, which looked like cotton balls. He looked away, lit up one beedi, handed it to the old man, put another by his side, and went back to the front yard.
Gangamma stirred the gruel well and put the ladle down.
She waited for Pydayya to say something. He was quiet. She started asking about his life in the city. Then she brought up the question of the squabble between the two women and asked if there was truth in what she had heard.
Pydayya gave her short answers but did not get into any real conversation.
After a while, she asked, “Why are you here?”
“I told you I was thirsty,” he looked up, pointing to his throat.
“If you are thirsty you should go to a liquor store. What do I have to give?” she said in a steady voice.
“Whatever you have,” he said.
“All I have is this gruel. I can starve the old man and give it to you,” she said, smiling. She checked the rice if it was cooked well and took it inside. In a few minutes, she returned, put out the fire, and removed the ashes.
Pydayya started to speak in a trembling voice, “I am starving for a woman for the past six months. My mother and mother-in-law are bickering and causing a rift between me and my wife. Last night I asked Sanni to come to Tavitappa’s house. Even she does not understand my suffering. I am telling you, I have thought of picking up a knife, stab them both and kill myself but I don’t have the guts. I would not be in this miserable position if I had the guts.”
Pydayya went on to relate the history behind the current situation. He said, “At a time when things were tough at home, somebody from my brother’s wife’s side suggested to him to go to the city. His wife begged him to take up on the offer. My brother refused. Then I took that advice and went to the city. God only knows how much I have suffered, am still suffering for that decision. Leaving my wife behind, went there and have been toiling and moiling day and night. I’ve been sending home some money, five or ten, whatever I could. But my folks don’t understand, they can’t see that I come home once in six months after slaving away in the city.”
Pydayya stopped and sat there looking down. He wondered if he was telling her what he had wanted to tell Kannayya earlier that afternoon.
“I could have conducted myself anyway I pleased in the city if I wanted to. I watch the hardships my coworkers are going through. I can easily do everything they do, but not when it comes to women. If I go for a woman in the neighborhood, It ruins the family. If I go after a young girl, her innocence would pester me for the rest of my life. There are streetwalkers but I am sure that sends me reeling to some hospital. That means no work and lost wages. That’s what I am saying, only I know and God knows my pain.”
Darkness was creeping in. He sat there for a while scribbling on the ground with a twig.
“Even now I would not have asked you. The thoughts I had last night are killing me, I am scared that I might do something horrible in that frenzy. Now, I leave it to you, whatever it is, I will take it as your pleasure and my luck.”
He sounded the same now as six years back. Six years back he had come on a sunny afternoon just like today. She could not recall whether Pydayya had been married by then or not, but for sure Sanni had not come to their home yet. Gangamma agreed to his request on the condition he would not ask for such a favor again. He has not grown since, she thought.
“You’ve heard what the old man said earlier. He mistook you for your older brother. Now I am your brother’s wife. He will be here soon,” she said.
Pydayya was stunned by her account, sat there like a stone carving. Gangamma was sorry for him and asked, “Can you handle country liquor?” She sounded like a mother at that moment.
Pydayya had drinks on few occasions, but he did not answer her question. She understood, went in, and returned with a bottle.
“This is two rounds for your brother. You talk one half and leave the other half for him,” she said, putting the bottle and snacks by his side. Then she went to feed the old man. She ate some, washed the dishes, and returned to Pydayya.
Pydayya warmed up and started talking. Within 30 to 45 minutes, he was flying high.
The bottle was half empty. Gangamma told him to stop.
“You’ve said you are my sister-in-law and I accepted it. You can’t have it your way in everything. That is not going to happen,” he said.
Gangamma heard him and decided she had better let him drink. She knew about drunks full well. Pydayya passed the limit, but did not lose his wits though.
“My brother thought about the children at home and decided not to remarry. He did the right thing, I thought. But then I also wondered how he was managing. Now I know this is how has been managing.
“I think this is good too. He is happy there and you are happy here. What else is there for the moiling folks like us? We can never, not even in thousand years, fill our stomachs. Consummation is the best of all pleasures. For the moment, this is a pleasure, but there is a fee for this. And then some damage too. For that pleasure, no fee, no damage. That is the happiness God has provided for the poor. For me, even that has become out of reach. Look what I’ve longed for and what I’ve got. Lovely.”
Pydayya went on prattling about his life. Even in that state of drunkenness, he did not blame any one individual nor God. After a while, he calmed down. Before Gangamma could bring some straw to make a bed for him, he threw up and screamed. Gangamma tried to hold him, but he pushed her away and fell down, fell in his own vomit.
* * *
“Hey, hey, Bangari, come here, you bitch,” Yerremma shouted a Sugreeva shout.
Friends and relatives gathered at Yerremma’s house to celebrate the Sankranti festival. The Sun was down by the time they arrived. They all sat down to eat.
“Can’t you hear, Iyaparaala, come here,” Yerremma shouted from outside. It was heard inside. Narayudu was about to get up, Bangari stopped him. “You must not get up from the festival dinner. You have fasted all day and you must have the prasadam. It would be an affront to our ancestors to get up without eating prasadam. I’ll take care of her,” said Bangari.
“Listen, don’t be hasty. Tell her to wait, I’ll be there in a minute. I’ll talk to her,” Narayudu said.
Yerremma, with sandalwood paste smeared on her throat and red Hibiscus flower in her hairdo, stood in the front yard like a belligerent warrior. As soon as Bangari appeared at the door, Yerremma howled, “You, where did you send your son last night?”
“Where did I send?” asked Bangari.
“Did you not send him anywhere?”
“You tell me.”
“You tell me.”
“You started it.”
“Alright, I will tell you. Will you take a smack from me with my sandal.”
“If it is my fault, I will for sure.”
“Maybe it is your fault, maybe it is your son’s fault, the fact remains he has transgressed the rule.”
“If something wrong has happened, I will take the blame for it.”
“Where did your son go last night? Did they, the two men, not bring your son home last night on their shoulders?”
“What son from what town? What two men?”
“Your two sons Narayudu and Kotayya brought your third son home,” said Yerremma.
“Yes, they brought him home.”
“Where from?” Yerremma asked.
Bangari did not reply.
“Why did they have to carry him?”
Bangari did not reply to that either.
“Why? Doesn’t your son have legs to walk? He left early in the morning and did not return home until late at night. What was he doing all day? Your oldest son went in search of him and returned at what time? To where did your two sons rush kicking and screaming? And then, brought him home in the middle of the night secretly, why secretively? Where is the need for secrecy if it is only him getting drunk and losing control? Your first son is a drunk, your second son is a drunk but this one never drinks. Why did he drink now? Where did he drink? I understand if he had a drink in a toddy store or in a country liquor store. But why at some bitch’s house? Why go to her for a swig, for anything for that matter? Is he related to her? How is he related? Are they of the same age? He should be home at that time but he went to her house, why? Is that his idea or some bitch taught him?”
She stopped to take a breath. In the meantime, a huge crowd started gathering in the yard.
“Are you done or is there something more?” Bangari asked calmly.
”Why? Isn’t that enough?” Yerremma said.
“Yes, I am saying that is is enough.”
“Alright, tell me why he went there.”
“I did not send him there. Ask him. ”
“Well, I will ask him. Tell him to come out. “
“He is eating.”
“I will wait until he is finished eating.”
“Why? Can’t you come in?”
“I will not step inside until your son comes to my place.”
“Well then stay here,” Bangari said and went in.
“Hey, don’t the special occasions mean anything to you?” the crowd taunted Yerremma. She attacked them too.
“She did not come here for nothing, she came here to wrangle,” Bangari said as she walked in and saw Pydayya washing his hand. She did not ask why. Narayudu said, “He is leaving.”
“What happened now?”
“He says he cannot take this bickering anymore.”
“What is this nonsense? It is like taking out the ire of Atta on the cattle. Alright, go away if that is what you want,” Bangari said.
“That is enough. He is worn out as it is. On top of it, you two- you here and Yerremma there – are acting the same,” Narayudu said.
By then, Kotayya was done eating. He belched loudly and went into the front yard.
Yerremma looked at him as if wondering “why he?” and asked, “Your little brother has not done eating yet?”
She thought Kotayya was going somewhere. He walked straight to Yerremma and said, “You get up.”
“Get up from here, I said,” he yelled at her. Not only Yerremma but all the others also were startled.
“Oh, you scoundrel!” said Yerremma.
Kotayya jumped on her, hit her with his fist several times and kicked her. “Now, get up,” he said again.
Yerremma got up crying out loud, “Oh my God, oh my God.”
“Go, be gone,” he said, pointing to the street towards her home.
She started out in that direction shaking calling on her parents. She went a few yards, turned around, and cursed Kotayya for his behavior.
By now the other villagers joined the neighborhood crowd and kept watching them.
Kotayya took two steps toward her and said, “Should I come and get you again? Go, just get lost.”
Yerremma took four steps backwards, did not stop cursing him though.
She included even his mother, wife, and brothers too in her barrage of curses.
Kotayya went it. Inside, Pydayya was getting ready to leave.
“What? Are you leaving?” Kotayya yelled.
Pydayya was quiet.
“If you want to go, go to your wife. Or, bring her here. Don’t go somewhere else like a cry baby,” he said, dusting off the patio floor with his upper garment and settling down.
Kotayya’s face turned red like a beetroot. Narayudu was anxious to pacify Kotayya desperately but was worried about how he might react also.
“Tell me if you can’t go. I’ll go and get her,” Kotayya jumped to his feet as he spoke.
“Wait, assailing them is not going to help,” Narayudu followed him, pleading. Kotayya ignored his pleas and left.
Yerremma’s two daughters seized her on either side and dragged her toward their home. She was stepping back and forth, growling, shaking off her daughters, and throwing her arms into the air, while continued to spew profanities.
Kotayya walked in big strides toward her house.
“Come in,” Sanni squealed standing in the doorway. Probably Yerremma noticed it, she gave in to her daughters. Nevertheless, she resumed her angry outbursts as soon as she reached home.
“Why? What is he thinking? She is not beautiful enough for him? Not young enough? Is there a caste issue? Short of his moral standards? Why? Why? What is the reason for him to go to another woman?” Yerremma kept asking and waving her fist in the air.
She had a point for being angry and frustrated. But her outburst meant nothing to Kotayya. He was focused on Sanni bringing home. It frightened Sanni. She quickly went in and was about to close the door. The door did not close.
“Out, get going,” Kotayya howled.
Sanni came out, trembling.
“Come on, move,” he said harshly.
Sanni came out, shivering.
Sanni’s father saw that and said to Kotayya, “Orey Kotayya, calm down, calm down.” It was hard for him to speak because of wheezing.
“You keep quiet, Mava! You don’t know,” Kotayya said. It sounded more like a warning.
Yerremma was crying. Neighbors heard her cries and came out of their homes. Sanni’s kid sisters hugged her and cried.
Kotayya seized her by the shoulder, dragged her out and pushed her crudely.
The entire neighborhood heard Yerremma’s cries and came out of their homes and were watching the commotion.
Kotayya pushed her once again. Sanni started running toward her mother-in-law’s house.
Yerremma saw the crowd and started crying louder, “Oh my God, oh my God, what can I do? They are attacking us.” She ran and stood in Sanni’s path, telling her not to go.
Kotayya stood between the two and pulled them apart. He threw his turban around Sanni’s waist to avoid holding her physically, and dragged her toward his house.
Yerremma fell to the ground, got up, attacked Kotayya, beat him, and scratched him while bad-mouthing him. The folks from both the villagers tried to pull them apart. Kotayya pushed away those who stood in his way.
Kotayya saw his mother coming toward them. He let go of Sanni, pushed her towards Bangari, and went away shaking off his turban.
Sanni saw Bangari, collapsed to the ground, and broke into big sobs. Bangari took her into her arms, “Don’t worry, don’t you be afraid, my girl, don’t you worry,” and walked her toward her home.
Yerremma fell to the ground and cried. After Kotayya, Sanni and Bangari left, the folks who gathered around started arguing, taking sides.
“Well, she went to their place first and now he came to her place,” said one person.
“Is it the same? A woman going to their place to pick up a squabble is not the same as a man coming here and attacking her,” one old woman said.
“He may be her brother-in-law but to drag her by the shoulder and take her home is inexcusable. I’ve never seen such an atrocity,” a young woman commented.
“It is okay if it was her husband. But for a brother-in-law to put a hand on her and drag her is wrong, totally wrong,” one old man said.
“This has happened only because she is a woman and her husband is disabled. Had she had a son, heads would be flying by now,” a hot-blooded youth commented.
* * *
It was during that period, Asirnayudu, the village-head, decided to talk with Bariki Papayya. He was looking for a ram to sacrifice at the upcoming Kanumu festival. Asirnayudu noticed the commotion from a distance, went closer and asked the people close by what was the matter.
None of them could explain to him clearly. Then he called Bariki Papayya. Papayya explained to him the entire episode briefly.
“So, the man who dragged her and escorted her to his home is not her husband?” Asirnayudu asked angrily.
“No Babu, he is not. He is her husband’s second older brother, Kotayya,” Papayya replied.
“Bring that scoundrel here right now,” Asirnayudu said.
Bariki did not move.
“If he refuses, pick him up, seize him by the hair and drag him to me,” Asirnayudu shouted louder.
“Yes, sir,” Papayya said, still did not move.
Asirnayudu became suspicious. “Why? Does he drink?” he sneered.
“After he calms down, after an hour or so, they all will come to you, Babu. If we get involved now, we will not have enough time to go to Venkayyapalem and bring the ram. Shouldn’t we take care of that first,” Papayya replied cleverly.
It made sense to Asirnayudu. “Bastards, whatever got into their heads, they are acting like scoundrels. Somebody has to teach them a lesson,” he left, mumbling. Bariki Papayya followed him.
* * *
“We are eating whatever we have and living our lives quietly. Why work as farmhands for some landlord?” Narayudu’s younger brothers would say. Nobody understands how this story would have turned if they had not had those rules and if Papayya had not intervened.
Papayya was right. The village regained peace after an hour or so.
Yerremma, leaning on two men’s shoulders, went to Asirnayudu’s house. Some of her neighbors followed her for support. A group of drunks from the same area put up a drums and bells show and went around asking for donations.
Sanni was sitting on the back porch. She cried until she was tired of it. Bangari tried to persuade her to freshen up and wear a new sari. Narayudu heard that Asirnayudu was angry and sent Kotayya away to his in-law’s place. Kotayya hardly crossed the outskirts, Bariki Papayya appeared at their door with the message that they should appear before Asirnayudu.
Following Bariki Papayya’s advice, Narayudu told Pydayya to stay home and went alone to meet with Asirnayudu. As they reached Asirnayudu’s home, Papayya told Narayudu to wait outside until after he was done talking with Asirnayudu.
Sun was down. The backyard was noisy with the animals returned home from grazing. Yerremma and her supporters were sitting in a corner on the veranda. Village entertainers heard about Asirnayudu’s visit and came per custom. The entire village was looking forward to the entertainment enthusiastically.
Bariki came back and repeated what he had told him earlier. After the drummers had left, Bariki Papayya addressed Asirnayudu, “Babu, Babu.” Asirnayudu turned toward him. Bariki said, “Narayudu is here, Babu. His second brother, Yerremma’s son-in-law that is, had gone somewhere. His mother promised to send him to us as soon as he returned. The other brother had gone to his in-law’s place, tomorrow is Kanumu, you know.” He sounded casual.
“They whisked him away. Did I not say so? They whisked him away,” Narasamma said, crying.
“You shut up. They should be crying, if anybody. You keep quiet,” Papayya yelled at her.
“Of course you are upset with me. You all are the same party,” Narasamma replied. Asirnayudu ignored her.
Narayudu came rushing and said to Asirnayudu, “Babu, Babu, I am begging you.” He was very polite but that did not stop Asirnayudu from screaming at all of them. “You, scoundrel, what’s gotten into your heads, you scumbags, what were you thinking? You broke into her house for what? Because she is a helpless woman? How dare you barge into her house and beat her? What do you think this is-a village or jungle?
“No, Babu, I was not there,” Narayudu was about to say.
“Shut up, bastard, how dare you speak again. Did I not see the wounds? Do think there are no witnesses?” Asirnayudu stood up.
Narayudu did not know what to say. Papayya said, “You be quiet. Babu had seen everything on his way to Venkayyapalem.”
Narayudu took the hint and kept quiet.
Asirnayudu continued, “I had seen everything. That bastard dragged her down the street like a beast. If I had a stick, I would have broken his bones and sent him to the hospital for six months. Let him show up, I will take care of him like he never forgets, scoundrel.” He stopped and returned to his chair.
Narayudu waited until he calmed down and then said, “Yes, Babu, it was wrong. If she had not provoked him, it would not have come to this. After fasting all day, we sat down to eat and she showed up like a bumblebee. My mother saw her and turned away, she did not say a word. My younger brother, you know young blood, could not control himself. This is not a one time thing, she has been plaguing us for over a month. She comes in storming, and I tell her to stop but she would not listen.” He presented his counter-argument.
Yerremma was about to say something, Asirnayudu told her to be quiet and turned to Narayudu, “If she came to your house, you should have come to me. You should not have gone to her house.”
“Yes, Babu, yes. That was wrong,” Narayudu said. One should not punish a person after he admits his guilt, that is the rule. Therefore, Asirnayudu slowed down.
Then followed a torrent of comments from those present there – Asirnayudu’s wife, their neighbor Subbamma, Setty who had supplied sugar to Asirnayudu, the local barber who came to give a massage to Asirnayudu. They all agreed that nobody should resort to violence, no crime should be tolerated. Not one person said violence was acceptable. If there was a disagreement, they should not settle it by going at each other but go to the proper authorities and seek resolution. Everybody suffers from anger and frustration no surprise there. Decent people contain them.
Narayudu listened to all those comments, readily agreed with all of them, “Yes, ma’am,” “Yes, babu,” “I agree, totally agree.”
After that, Asirnayudu settled down. “Where is the girl now?” he asked Narayudu.
“She is with us, Babu,” he replied respectfully.
“You take her back and hand her over to her mother. You bring your younger brother here tomorrow. Yerremma will bring her daughter. I will find out what exactly happened, all the details, and let you know my decision,” Asirnayudu said.
Narayudu said, “yes, Babu,” and heaved a sigh of relief.
Yerremma’s supporters looked at each other, their faces fell.
“You left out the one person critical to all this, Babu,” Narasamma said timidly as Asirnayudu got up to leave.
“Yes, I forgot. Bring your mother too,” he said to Narayudu. With that, the party’s faces brightened.
* * *
The rich festival falls on a new moon day, they say. But this festival was not a rich festival and so it had the misfortune of falling on a full moon day, it was said.
Bangari’s house was crowded with folks anxious to hear what Asirnayudu had said. Pydayya was sitting on a cot in the front yard.
Soon enough, people started coming out one by one. Sanni was one of the last five or six persons. Under the white moonlight, her yellow sari looked white and the red marigolds in her dark hair looked dark. She walked past Pydayya with Narayudu behind her.
A little away, Yerremma’s supporters stood like shadows. Narayudu took her precisely to the same point Kotayya had dragged her and handed her over to Yerremma.
* * *
Asirnayudu was basically a small person. If he was weighed, his bones might not add up to one KG. Hard to imagine where God hid that power in him but Asirnayudu was a tiger whether he opened his mouth or threw his palm like a lion’s paw. People feared him and worshipped him.
The day his wife had set foot in their house with amazing qualities like those of Goddess Lakshmi, the family had begun flourishing in leaps and bounds. On the same day, Asirnayudu brought together all the fields under one head and set out to cultivate them. He performed his two daughters’ weddings. The girls were gems and the grooms were majestic. Three of his sons landed big jobs in big cities. The fourth son was very smart and appeared to be heading to a foreign country in course of time.
“That’s what I’d call luck, Bava! Without leaving your chair, you have managed to get the boys educated at the expense of the government. With the high dowries the sons brought, you have performed the weddings of both your daughters. In the town, you’ve got clout and assets, which you can enjoy as long as you live. That is what I would call ‘things falling in place,’” commented a local MLA.
The MLA was afraid that Asirnayudu might run against him in the next election. That however was uncalled for.
Asirnayudu hated politics. He often said that politics existed only to destroy the young and the old alike. He had been Gandhi’s follower sometime back and wearing khadi garments too. However, all that ended after Gandhi died.
Now, his village was his kingdom and his current politics were confined to the villagers’ welfare. His goal was to make sure that the villagers adhered to the path of Dharma and lived amicably. He would say, “Life is ephemeral, it is here today and gone tomorrow; only dharma stays forever. The world would turn upside down if dharma is not adhered to.”
Folks would listen to him and shake their heads in assent. In practice, however, they forget.
Asirnayudu would tolerate anything except stealing and misconduct.
“Bastards, if you have nothing to eat, go begging door to door. It is better to die than steal. By stealing you lose your souls in both the worlds – heaven and earth. Why can’t you understand that?” he would ask.
There is a pride in stealing and maybe hard work too. Therefore that is tolerable. Stealing from the fields is different. Hard work and karma depend on one’s faith and trust in others. No matter how many farmhands a farmer has, it is not possible to watch the fields round the clock. Asirnayudu would not tolerate stealing from farmers. He would stop at nothing until the justice was served.
“Bastard, what are you thinking? It is you mother’s property? Or your father’s? Did you work on that field?” So saying, he would beat him up black and blue and throw him out.
However, stealing had been happening. Asirnayudu let go some without much fuss and others with mild curses, yelled at some offenders, mildly cursed a few others, and occasionally he took some to task. One way or the other, he got it under control. It was the same with misconduct. He made it his mission to keep them all under control.
Because he hated violence so much, Kotayya’s action the day before infuriated him. That was the reason he told them to come to him for settling the matter. He did not care about the festivities.
Asirnayudu said he would settle the matter the next morning but he did not attend to it in the morning, not even in the afternoon. It was getting late. Papayya said to him, “Babu, these folks have not eaten all morning, are worried you might call them any minute. If it is not settled by evening, Pydayya cannot be present. He needs to be in the city by tomorrow.”
“Okay, ask them to come at noon after they are done eating.”
Papayya went to the parties well before mealtime, gathered them and brought them to Asirnayudu’s house.
They all waited and waited, and were nearly exhausted by the time Asirnayudu came out. He asked Papayya, “Are they all here?” and went in again.
He had coffee, came out, and sat in his chair. Across from him, a little to a side, Narayudu and his mother sat. Next to his mother, Pydayya squatted, he was dressed up like a city man. Two women were standing behind them.
Yerremma sat in a corner with bandages on her body and around her head. Her two daughters sat next to her. Behind her, her neighbor Narasamma and a few other men and women were standing.
“Who are they?” asked Asirnayudu.
“Witnesses, Babu, witnesses,” Narasamma said.
“She has no mouth? You, Yerremma, what are they for?” he said, nodding toward them.
“They have beat me up yesterday, Babu. Look at these bandages. They have broken every bone in my body.”
“Serves you right, bitch! They should have shut up your mouth. That scoundrel broke only your bones, he should have taken a blunt knife and cut off his tongue. That’s what I would have done,” he said.
The women on Narayudu’s side turned aside and giggled.
“Babu, if you go easy on them, they are going to go even wilder,” a man in Yerremma’s group said from behind.
“You all scoundrels, you are the problem. You all gather around them and cause trouble. Or else, why would you bring witnesses and evidence for the problem I had resolved yesterday?” Asirnayudu yelled at him. That shut them all up.
Yerremma wanted to confront him, “What resolution? All that cursing of yours got nowhere, and so are my wounds,” but decided not to. As the way things were, he was already spitting fire, and if she spoke, he might go into another fit of rage.
He was quiet for a few minutes and then said softly, “I have been watching you all for years. You always keep bickering with each other for something or other, why? Why do you have got to gain? What is wrong with you? Do you have properties to fight for? Land to infringe upon? Water resources to fight for? Roads? What is it you have got that justifies these quarrels, tell me.”
He stopped, looked around until they all bent their heads down, and then continued his preliminary statement. “God has given you all the muscle. That’s what you all have got. If all the adults go out and bring home some dough, you have enough to eat for a week or ten days. That being the case, why can’t you all stand by each other be happy? Is there pleasure in these squabbles? Don’t you have brains? Or, some worms have gotten into your heads and eating them away?”
What could they say? What could they say that would make sense to him?
“Therefore, take my word, stop bickering, learn to put a stop to these squabbles,” Asirnayudu said. Then he asked them what was the main reason for their quarrel.
Yerremma and those who accompanied her could not explain the issue clearly. They kept repeating who said what, to whom, by whom, when, and after that, who did what, why they did so, but none of them could explain in a way Asirnayudu could understand.
Then Narayudu summarized the arguments of both sides the best he could and without prejudice.
Asirnayudu listened to some of it and ignored the rest. It was pretty much the same as Papayya had told him on their way to Venkayyapalem earlier.
“So, that is the problem?” he asked.
“There is one more thing,” Narasamma said, “I heard some rumor, Babu, I have not heard it myself though. It seems Bangari said, ‘What an arrogance! What does she have that she could be so arrogant? It seems she said she would arrange her son’s marriage with another girl within a year, or else, her name is not Bangari.’ Then Yerremma started asking questions. I don’t know what she had found out, but that’s the reason she went after Bangari yesterday. They beat her up and sent her home.”
Bangari was about to say something. Asirnayudu stopped her and asked Narasamma, “Is your name Narasamma?”
“… … …”
“Are you Yerremma’s lawyer or witness?”
“… … …”
“I am asking you if she has asked you to speak on her behalf.”
“Babu, babu,” Yerremma said, “I asked her to speak on my behalf. Polite words do not come out of my mouth. Besides, I am not feeling well either.”
“Are you sick?” he dissed her and turned to Sanni, “Who is her daughter, you?”
Sanni said yes.
“What is your name?”
Sanni mentioned her in-law’s surname.
“Yerremma! What is your surname?”
“Don’t you know?” Yerremma asked.
“You say it, bitch.”
Yerremma answered at once.
“That’s right. She might be your girl way back then but not now. If she wants to and her husband wants to, she will come to you. If not, she will not. If her husband and her mother-in-law please, they will send her to you. By law, you have no right to insist that you can take your daughter anytime as you please. Now, you shut up and sit down,” Asirnayudu said.
Yerremma had no tears in her eyes to shed. She kept staring at him with her dry eyes.
“If you really want, beg them to let you take your daughter home. Or, ask your daughter if she is willing to walk away from her marriage.”
The last sentence hit Narayudu hard.
“Babu, that is not right. We have a saying, ‘How can the man who tied the knot has more rights than the woman who has given birth to her?’ The truth is she has her rights and we have ours. When it comes to a girl, both parties have rights. We are not going to deny that,” Narayudu said, sounding kind.
He continued, “Maybe she was upset and so raised a hell. Here is what probably Yerremma thinks: She (Bangari) has four sons and two daughters-in-law. What’s wrong if she lets me have one girl. But Babu, you know the bigger the tree the gustier the winds.
“During my father’s time, you have granted us a strip of land for farming. It was about one cent of land located in the middle of a dried-up pond. For us, it was a royal elephant or a barren cow. It gobbles up everything we have and produces nothing. I told my mother and younger brothers to stop working on it but they would not listen. My mother was also worried that if we take out a loan, we would lose the land just like all the others. That is why my second brother went to the city to make money.
“All we see is only his hardships there but no dough. We are constantly worried that he might get hurt there. We continue to worry about him, despite our problems here. We can’t ask him to set up his family in the city since there is not enough money. He cannot run a household in the city and be left with enough to send to us. Also, my sister-in-law is not worldly-wise, she is very naive.
“I have thought about our situation thoroughly and told them, ‘These are not the times to take a chance, let’s be content with the measly food we have and stay here, let’s not run.’ My kid brother was upset. He said, ‘Do we have acres and acres of land to cultivate? Are we producing barrels and barrels of grain? It is getting hard even to find day labor. In hard times, you say it is enough if we have a strip of land to work on and a sip of gruel, at least some of us live if not all.’ But they don’t understand, heavy storms and gusty winds together will put an end to the story.
“Anyway, by mid-year they have understood the truth in my words. They tell themselves to wait and see one more year, holding on to their hopes. It is two years now. He brings some clothes but has saved nothing. In fact, things are the same here too, getting harder to live. My mother can’t watch these motherless kids cry. I try to tell her that there are kids that are in a worse position than ours. That is how this fire started, it has arisen from that pain in the pit of the stomach.”
Asirnayudu thought there might be some truth in his words, if not entirely. Narayudu stopped for a few seconds and then continued, “I am not going to say my mother is right because she is my mother, and I am not going to blame Yerremma because she is an outsider. I have told my mother that Sanni loves her mother even as we love our mother. My mother does not accept that the grand-kids are as much her grand-kids as Yerremma’s. It is the same with Yerremma too. She thinks Pydayya is her son-in-law but does not think that he is my mother’s son too. She has been hoping secretly for a very long time that Sanni and Pydayya would move to the city.” Narayudu stopped.
“Oh, my God, oh my God,” Yerremma was about to say something.
Narayudu stopped her and said, “Okay, if you don’t think so, let’s us say I am thinking like that, or maybe, these folks think so too. Anybody can entertain such a thought. That is why I am saying. I thought about it a lot. Once they leave they leave for good, no coming back. Think about Yerremma. She is alone and her husband is disabled. She has no relatives, close or distant. Her husband has a brother somewhere in the West but she cannot count on him. In other words, she has no other support but this or another son-in-law. Our situation is totally different. In her case, Pydayya is the only one she can turn to if she needs help, not until another daughter gets married at least. What else is there for folks like us but fellow folks? No land, no chattel, we have nothing. We have to take care of each other. But they don’t get it, Babu.”
They all understood what he was saying but some of them were not willing to accept it. Not one of them could see the difference between Asirnayudu’s judgment and Narayudu’s explanation. It was not clear whether Asirnayudu got his point.
Asirnayudu turned to Yerremma and asked, “Oley, you stupid bitch, did you hear what he has said?”
“Nice,” she said.
“Shut up, slut,” Asirnayudu sneered. After he was done scolding her, the others did not have the guts to open their mouths. They did not notice when the sun was down and the lights were turned on.
“Why the light on the street-side is not turned on?” asked Asirnayudu. Somebody turned on the lights in the veranda but left out the one facing the street since there was enough moonlight. The light was turned on right away. It startled everyone except Pydayya.
Asirnayudu looked at the gathering and said, “How long you are going to sit around like this? Ask if you have questions.”
“What can we say? You shout at us even before we open our mouths,” Yerremma said.
Asirnayudu noticed the change in her voice and kept quiet. After a few minutes, Papayya came forward, “Oley, Yerremma, get up,” he said, poking her with his stick.
“You stop, scoundrel! Don’t you show off,” she snarled at him.
“Whip the bitch,” Asirnayudu howled.
Yerremma stood up, whining.
“Go, go, be nice to your son-in-law, speak with him and bring him home,” he said to her. Then he turned to Bangari and asked her, “What did you say your name is? Bangari?”
Bangari said yes.
“For this once, go easy on whatever wrong she has done. Don’t you two get into fights and create problems for your kids. Remember one more thing. You are a scrap better than she is. Her suffering brings no good to you or your children.”
Bangari wanted to ask, “What about my suffering and my kids’ suffering? That brings no good to whom?” Asirnayudu was gone by then.
Everything was back to normal after that incident. The husband and wife, who should have gotten together the night before, finally got together that night.
* * *
That night at 9:00, Pydayya sat down to eat in front of the plate like a beast at the water tub after beaten badly.
Sanni sat by his side and was serving the food. Yerremma was in the front yard with her grand-kids. From there she shouted to Sanni, “Give him the pulusu Nayaralu had given us earlier.” Nayaralu had given them not only pulusu but also cooked rice and a few curries.
After the matter was settled and they were on their way home, Papayya went to Yerremma and said, “Forget the squabble. Nayaralu wants to give you some food from the feast. Go to her.”
Yerremma went to the front door and saw not Nayaralu but Asirnayudu. He said, “You are such an idiot. Listen to me carefully and try to understand why I am saying this. You have no money and no people to help you in times of need. They are doing better. Be nice to them. You can’t fight with them and win. That is the reason I suggested an amicable solution. I will tell you one more thing. Looks like he is a good boy. Win him over and help them to set up a family in the city. Your daughter will have a good life. Maybe, you may even get a crumb in the process. If everything goes well, you may even be able to send one or two of your other kids to the city. Unlike here, they will have work year-round. With enough support, older women also can find work. Narayudu likes everybody to stay here but I don’t think that helps. Nobody would have enough to eat here. Empty stomachs do cause problems for sure.” Thus he gave her the lesson one more time about the need to be amicable, called his wife, and told her to give Yerremma rice, curries, and other dishes.
Pydayya went to his home first and then went to Yerremma’s house. By then Yerremma had fed the little kids. She saw Pydayya and told Sanni to set the plate for him.
Sanni set the plate and served pulusu. He bit a piece of curry and kept mingling rice and pulusu. He was jolted by Yerremma’s words. He put food in his mouth but could not get it down.
“Not hungry?” Sanni asked.
“Not hungry? Of course I am hungry,” he said.
“Then, why are you not eating?”
Pydayya could not lift his face or food to his mouth.
Sanni waited for a couple of minutes and asked, “How much did you pay for this sari?”
Pydayya took a bite and said, “I can’t get it down.”
Sanni felt bad for him. “Never mind, leave it,” she said and went in.
Pydayya was in a dilemma. He would be hungry if he does not eat, and if eats it, he cannot stomach the handout from the haves.
He looked around and thought, “if it comes to that, what is there that is not a handout here?”
Sanni returned with an empty bowl and put it in front of him. Pydayya washed his hand in the bowl quickly.
(The Telugu original, aarti has been published in Andhra Jyothi weekly, May, June1969.
Translated by Nidadavolu Malathi, with author’s kind permission.
Also grateful to www.kathanilayam for the Telugu original)
(July 8, 2021)