Kamalabala sat on the boulder between the two houses and kept staring at the row of the marigolds. She was peeking through the rows with her keen eyes. The baby moon threw in a kindly smile peeking from behind the outline of the two storey building.
That was ‘the garden’ on the outskirts of the town. There was a huge building in the middle of the garden. That was the ‘main house’. On the west end of the garden, there was a small house with clay tiles. That was the guesthouse.
The gentleman who owns the building was living in Culcutta, taking care of his business. He was one of those folks you know. He returns home for a month’s vacation in summer, along with his family. He could rent it out during his stay in Culcutta but realistically, no. Nobody would be willing to pay the rent he expected for a house that was so far away from civilization. And the owner would not rent it for less. Even if he had agreed to lower the rent, it would be unreasonable to expect the renter to vacate every summer to suit his convenience. For all these reasons, the owners locked up the main house and let it be. They rented out the guest house though.
Since the house was small and away from town, they have settled for lower amount. Avataram garu rented it although the house was small and away from the town. He took it since the rent was low.
If somebody asked Kamalabala, “What does your father do?” she would respond in a snap that her father works in a bank. But she could not answer questions like what does he do there? how much he makes? how long has he been working there? etc. Questions like how much her father was making, and whether he made enough for the family or not were not on her mind. She was totally absorbed in her own little world, which was her school.
Last year, in April, she took the 8th grade test and passed, and at the same time turned twelve. At the same time the family moved into this house.
Then her father explained to her—
“School is too far from this house. Right? You tell me how you can walk all alone all the way from here to there. You can’t, right? Yes? … No? You just say that but in reality you can’t. I know. Listen to me. You have passed the 8th grade exam. Not just passed but passed in flying colors. Okay! Isn’t that enough? Look at that Sitalakshmi. She got her M.A. degree. And then what? She got married, yes? … therefore … for a girl, marriage is the final goal. Understand?” Her father went on talking on those lines–giving some good excuses, and a few ‘no-good’ excuses and thus put an end to her schooling.
Kamalabala understood on that very day that all those reasons were not real reasons but lame excuses, and there was another real reason. After father left for work, she went to her mother. She begged, screamed and raised a rumpus. Her mother, Seshamma garu, was exhausted and yelled back, “What are you thinking? Do you think your dad is a millionnaire to put through school all the ten children? Or, do you think we have a tree in our backyard growing rupees? Do me a favor and stop crying. Got it? Go, move those raw sticks into the sun.” And then she rushed into the kitchen furiously.
Kamalabala dabbed her tears quietly. From then on, she has gotten used to dabbing her tears without others noticing it.
On that particular day, Seshamma garu jacked up the number of her children to ten out of her frustration but in reality she did not have ten children.
The last daughter Vimala was born ten years after Kamala was born. In between, there were four boys. They were Sitaramudu, Radhakrishnudu, Parvatiprasadudu, and Gangadharudu. All the four of them were Raos. However their nicknames at home, or rather the way they were called at home was like this: “Hey Sita, hey Radha, you Ganga, you Parvati … Come on, the food is getting cold … Wherever we got those plants. What a pain. Your akka (older sister) has lost her mind. Whatever happened to you? Come on, hurry, I haven’t got all day …” That is the usual dialogue of Seshamma garu with her children.
Soon after they moved into the new house, Seshamma garu sowed coriander seeds, bitter gourd and other vegetables. After a few days Kamalabala came in running. “Ammaa, ammaa, did you see the coriander plants near that wall? There are hundreds of them,” she said. She could hardly contain herself.
“There, near the compost.”
“Near the compost? They are marigolds, you dim-wit.”
“Will they blossom marigolds?”
“What do you think? That you get snake gourd from the marigold plants? That is cute! Children nowadays! We send them to school, and they lose whatever little brains they had,” Seshamma garu said, amused.
Kamalabala’s attitude has changed since then. She didn’t decide to plant a flower bed right away. It was more like the way things take their course– like when you find a diamond in a heap of charcoal. First you would separate it from the pile, clean it up and store it in a safe place, right? Kamalabala decided to separate those plants from the manure and plant them in a better place, which eventually led to growing a garden. Later the same Kamalabala brought the same manure and spread around the same plants, but that is beside the point. The first thing she did was to bring some of those marigold plants and plant them in their yard.
The younger brother who did not help to bring the plants or to sow them, but was eager to express his views, “Akkaya, are you planting them all in the backyard? Wouldn’t it be beautiful if you sow some in the front yard as well? When they start blooming, that would be a sight to watch for all those walk by.”
She was convinced that it was a good idea and so she planted some of them in the front yard.
Radha said, “Akkaya, I think it would be nice if you plant them in rows.” Kamala followed that advice also.
Parvati intervened, “Akkaya, Akkaya, if you plant them so closely, they are going to look like the stuff in our rooms. Make some room for them.”
Kamala was annoyed. “Shut up. Nobody asked you for advice. Come and help me if you care. Or else just shut up,” she yelled. Although she yelled at him, she did make room for each plant.
Ganga did not offer any advice. He brought water with a little pot and gave it to her.
Vimala offered no advice nor sat quietly. In a desperate attempt to plant some plants, stomped on some of them, jumped into everybody’s way, and then she was yelled at by Kamala, was comforted by Sita and was taken to mother, finally.
By the end of the day, they all together planted 30 plants in six rows. That evening the plants wilted.
The moon did not show up that night. There were no clouds. There were stars in the sky. Kamala was not looking at the sky. With her star-like eyes, she was staring at the marigold plants furtively in the dim light of the tiny wick lamp in her hand, and slouching over the flower bed.
She did not let her father and mother breathe that night for her fear that the plants may not live.
“Would they live or not?” that was the crux of the problem for her.
“They will live. Or else, they will not. Just shut up and go to sleep. Stop pestering me,” Seshamma garu said, rolling over to the other side.
Kamala couldn’t remember when she fell asleep. She was not aware that a bunch of clouds came that night and poured rain on the plants either.
Next day Kamalabala woke up early in the morning, and walked to the flowerbed, still rubbing her eyes to wake herself up.
She screamed at a high pitch and went running to the flower bed.
Only a mother would understand the feeling. A father would understand it. Probably the God would know, and all the humans who give life to a human must know—the surprise, amazement, pleasure and excitement of a thirteen year old at the sight of the small plants standing tall that morning.
She approached the plant from this side. She rushed to the one on the other side. She became the plant here. She was also the plant on the other side. She was the cloud of last night. The same Kamala is shining like the sun this morning. She is also the fine breeze that is blowing this morning. That excitement of Kamala turned her into a different Kamala altogether.
Taking care of those plants became the primary vocation for Kamala. But she did not consider it her exclusive right. The entire family participated in the venture and became shareholders. Ganga’s job was to keep bringing water in his little pot and watering them. Parvati is assigned the job of bringing the pail and shovel from the gardener (landlord’s employee) and returning it. It was Radha’s duty to fetch manure and feed the plants. Sita’s duty was to inspect the plants twice a day. The gardener, landlord’s employee, assumed the duty of paying occasional visits and offer his learned advice. Avataram garu took up on himself, with his limited knowledge, at pedda balasikha level, to offer mediocre advice. He returns from work everyday, and sits in the easy chair by the plants, and reads newspaper. Seshamma garu sits next to him, sewing something, or not sewing, and chatting about a wide variety of things, and in between, shows off her pride regarding the plants and the children.
“Akkaya, a bud, a bud,” Parvati shouted exuberantly.
That day Kamala knocked about all over the house as if she lost her mind. That day Ganga poured water to the plants like there was no end to it.
All the plants showed buds.
Then the question came up—which one was going to open first—the one in the first row or the third row?
While the debate was in progress, one bud on the shortest plant opened partly. It could have been the goldmine itself.
At that time not only Kamala but all the kids broke into hullabaloo, with their aahhs, and hoos. Even Avataram garu couldn’t help expressing his pleasure at the sight. Seshamma garu turned into a child herself. Vimala screamed at the top of her voice and started jumping up and down.
Then another rule was put in place. Kamala warned Vimala, “Vimala, if you touch the flower I will tell dad and have him flog you alive. So don’t even think about it.” That warning was the origin for the new rule that no one should pick flowers.
At first, they did not want to pick the only flower that has blossomed. Then they decided that they should wait until each plant blooms one flower at the least. Eventually all the plants had flowered but for the one plant—the one in the middle of the third row. That plant stubbornly refused to bloom. Eventually, after a long time, it showed signs of budding. Four flowers opened.
Kamala gave in and allowed Vimala to pick one flower from that short plant. No, actually she did not let her pick; Kamala picked the flower herself and gave it to Vimala. Later she regretted it too.
That night Ganga sat next to the flower bed, balancing himself on his heels. Kamala was standing next to him, with her hands on her waist, and watching the plants. Then he asked her, “Akkaya, you have said earlier that if the goats eat the plant, the plant weeps. How come you picked the flower today?”
Akkaya [Kamala] did not reply. She was looking at the short plant tenderly.
Up in the sky, the moon was dawdling aimlessly. The moonlight was soaking into the marigolds or gliding off the marigolds. They could hear Radha’s laughter from within the house. The remaining stub after the flower was picked was staring at the moon sadly. Kamala looked at the stub lovingly.
Suddenly Kamala came to a big decision. She told her brother, “Hey, Ganga, let’s not pick flowers any more.”
That was the story last year.
Months passed by. A new year came in. The seeds from last year were sown, and new plants started growing. This time Avataram garu took personal interest, and prepared soil on a larger area between the two houses. They moved the plant beds into the strip. Ganga and Parvati were waiting to bring and supply water to the plants without a break. Sita helped in bringing the manure in his own small way. The plants grew up. They started budding and flowering.
They all were sitting one day near the plant beds. It is at that charming moment, the skinny Bhagavanlu showed up at their door.
Avataram garu has gotten used to him—each month, the night after he had received his paycheck, he would tell himself, “that skinny scoundrel will show up first thing in the morning.” He could not go to bed without remembering that line. In much the same way he described it, the skinny Bhagavanlu would show up at the strike of seven in the morning, yelling, “Sir, Avataram garu!” Each month he comes to collect the rent. The voice, carrying ten shades, sounds like it is hollering at all the ten avatarams.
Bhagavanlu’s job was to take care of the house, the garden and the related business on behalf of the owners. On that day, he took the rent and said, “The owners are coming for christmas holidays,” and left giggling. It gave him great pleasure that the owners’ presence would make the rentors behave.
The owner is no favorites of Kamala. She does not know him personally. He never comes to the guest house. The landlady seems to be okay. The eldest daughter lives in the city with her in-laws. Kamala never met her. The second daughter was 16 years old but looks 25 and acts like a ten-year old. She were around, there would be no crops on the ground, and no rains from the sky. The third daughter, a ten-year old, was quiet a handful. Avataram’s family refer to her as ‘the girl with two pony-tails’.
The owners arrived at noon the day before. They got out of the car. The last girl was the first to jump out of the car like a ball and run in to the house. The owner got out next. His head was bald. He was smooth and fair-skinned. He was wearing a flannel outfit. His wife got out slowly, after him. She was a well-rounded person. She was wearing a blood red colored saree. Her skin was like a 24-carat gold. Their second daughter did not get out of the car. The others helped her out. She was wearing an overcoat over her saree. She was moaning loudly.
“What happened to the young lady, madam?” Bhagavanlu asked with great concern and respectfully. He was told that the young lady was running temperature—one half of a point.
Skinny Bhagavanlu was not worried about it. Kamala couldn’t care less.
Why did the owners come now? How long would they stay? Would that young lady suffer from fever for the entire time of their stay here? yes or no?—Kamala spent all night mulling over these questions.
Kamala woke up next morning. She slowly walked to the front door. Last night a nurse came to take care of the landlord’s second daughter. In the afternoon, their servant came and borrowed a brass pot from Seshamma garu. beyond that, there were no other events to report.
However, around three in the afternoon something happened. Kamala went to water the plants with a small pot, dropped the pot and ran into the house, screaming.
The landlady walked into the front patio adjoining the living room of the main house, and at the same time, Seshamma garu came to the front door of the guesthouse.
The youngest daughter of the owners—the one with two pony-tails, wearing a blue frock, and looking like a fully blown football—was screaming at the top of her voice, “I can do whatever I want. I want to pick them, and I will.” Kamala held her hands and shouted, “No, you can’t. Don’t pick them.” The two were wrestling intensely. Three marigolds got crushed in the scuffle and fell on the ground.
“Hey girl! What is that noise?” the landlady asked harshly, tackling clearly Kamala alone. The two girls stopped scuffling and looked at her. Seshamma garu walked up to them, released Kamala’s grip, and let go of the other girl.
“See mommy,” the girl with two pony-tails tried to explain.
“Never mind. You take as many flowers as you please,” the landlady told her daughter, and turned to Kamala’s mother.
“What is the big deal? Flowers after all? Why is your daughter raising such a rumpus? Silly! My baby can and will pick as many flowers as she wants. Don’t say anything to her,” she said to Seshamma garu and went away. She did not look upset. It was obvious though that she was annoyed though—for the tenants fussing over such a small matter. In her mind it was ‘quite unnecessary’. Seshamma garu wanted to say something but she didn’t get a chance. The landlady disappeared into the house.
Kamala looked into mother’s face. Her face was saying that she had no courage to stop the baby. Not in so many words but Kamala got the message.
“This gun will not go off.”
She did not have to say that. Seshamma garu was not a gun-like person. It was not in her nature.
In the meantime the little girl was snapping all the flowers, as many marigolds as she pleased. It seemed like there was no end to it.
The mother and daughter walked slowly towards their home, without looking back. Vimala was standing at the door, holding Ganga’s hand. She was weeping. Ganga stood there, he couldn’t weep.
What is the big deal about marigolds?
Kamalabala was dabbing her tears.
The moon from above the silhouette of the two-storey building, was scattering smiles with abandon, numerous beautiful smiles.
Kamalabala was wiping her tears.
She has been wiping her tears ever since.
[Translated by Nidadavolu Malathi, and published on thulika.net, September 2002.
Translator’s Note: Marigold is national flower for Telugu folks, bursting with color, easy to grow and pleasing to the eye. We cherish them fondly. Ravi Sastry takes this very ordinary event of growing the marigolds, makes it an issue for bringing family together, and at the end, converts it into a metaphor for class distinction and the attitudes of the haves towards have nots.]
[The Telugu original, puvvulu has been published in 1950s]
 Meaning their names ended in Rao. e.g. Sirarama Rao, Radhakrishna Rao and so on.
 A popular proverb: chadaveste unna mati kuudaa poyindita.
 Children’s textbook to learn for Telugu alphabet.
 Refers to the ten incarnations of the God in Hindu philosophy. Avatram apparently feels the weight of rent as ten-fold, due to the insensitivity of the collector.
 A popular proverb, that no good comes when the person is around. In Telugu the text is: kindanunte panTalunDavu meedanunTe vaanalunDavu.,
 The dialogue is in English in the original. Sastry, and many Telugu writers use English in Telugu stories to show the sophistication of the characters.
 A typical Sastry phrase.