The western sky glowed bashfully with powdered kumkuma scattered around by the good old peddamma. Bits of clouds were gliding away on the sky like new brides with henna-tinted feet. Darkness was engulfing the world.
“Come on, girl! Let’s go to listen to Sastri’s discourse on puranas,” my mother called out for me. I came home, after four years, to visit my family in my hometown. I was yearning to see all my folks from old times. Well, all people or not, certainly I was dying to meet with my old friend, Visalakshi, and hear all about her family life with her husband.
“How is our Visalakshi?” I asked amma.
“How is she? Great! She is a bubbly new mother, with a chubby little bundle of a son in her arms. Why don’t go and see her,” amma replied.
I was waiting only for that word. I said okay and left at once. Visalakshi, her husband and I were born and raised in the same town. I thought she was lucky to have both her natal home and in-law’s in the same town. I couldn’t attend her wedding. I wanted to write a letter apologizing, at the least. I was worried that she could be hurt since I didn’t attend her wedding. But what can I do? That idiot cannot read, not even a single letter. So I dropped that thought. Now, after four years, I could see her again. I went to her place dragging my feet and fearing that she might get on my case and give me hard time.
In the hallway, a wick lamp was flickering, looking desolate. There was no sign of people in the house. Even the other houses in the neighborhood looked the same. Here and there, some cobwebs were hanging from the corners; the dim lamp added further to the atmosphere creating an imagery reminiscent of a prosperous family that was long gone. I was upset with myself. Look at them – may god bless their souls -they living happily with little kids and here I am entertaining negative thoughts. I scolded myself as walked in. The little boy was lying on the bed as if he was in meditation. Only God Brahma should know what that little baby saw in his dream; he laid back with an indelible smile on his lips. Next to the bed, Visalakshi was sitting, removing the tendrils from the paan leaves, applying lime paste, rolling paan into shapes of birds and chewing them leisurely. She looked up as I walked in, “You, Janaki! Wretched me! I was lost in thought and didn’t even see you coming in. When did you come? Why are standing there? Come in. Come, sit here.” She jumped to her feet, quickly grabbed my two hands, and dragged me into the house. In that moment, I remembered our childhood days when we wore skirts on atla taddi day, held on to each other’s hands and twirled around; tears welled up in my eyes. It felt like an unbridled affection flooded the room. She threw herself onto my shoulders, hugged me tightly and drenched my saree and the blouse underneath with her warm tears. In that moment our hearts were dumbfounded. We forgot all our vocabulary. We sat on the swing board in the middle of the hallway. Visalakshi, radiant like a lamp, wiped her tears with her saree palloo and laughed heartily. As is, she is a doll of molten gold; on top of it, a new mother. A chain of black beads in her neck shone like the only gift god had bestowed on women folks.
“Hey, Janaki, how come it took so long for you to come to mom’s home? Did your hubby say no? Or, did you decide yourself that you don’t have to visit these rural idiots? Anyway, why would you remember us, stupid me even to think that?”
Visalakshi did not give it to me directly but certainly let me have it in a roundabout way for not attending her wedding! Hum, sneaky.
“You are something else. Why would I listen to my hubby if he says I can’t go? Don’t you think I would want to come too? Doesn’t any woman yearn to visit mom’s home?” I replied without bringing up the real subject—me not attending her wedding.
“Then, how come her ladyship has not been to this place for so long?”
“Just. Days went by without notice. He was being transferred frequently; or else, went to camps. Talk about demanding job. Stupid work. Squeezing the life out of us. You know he has no family on either side. In whose care could I leave him?”
“What do you mean leaving him in somebody’s care, Janaki? Please, don’t you ever do that. Good thing you didn’t. Don’t you ever think of leaving him into somebody else’s care. Husbands are like lamps that could be blown away by the slightest breeze. We have to fence them around with our palloos and protect them.” She threw a naughty look at me and smiled. I was surprised and wondered whenever had she become so witty! As she laughed the dimples on her cheeks caught my eye. I’ve been watching the beauty of those dimples from my childhood days. Now they are looking like whirlpools. Her words are even deeper than her dimples. I was touched by the affection in her humor. She was splendid, all of a sudden, and I wasn’t sure where she’s got it from. Why didn’t she ask about my family life? Not even one word! Maybe she was thinking I would tell her myself. I wanted to know all about her marital bliss. I hesitated. She did not ask about mine, how could I ask about hers? Yet, why should I stand on formalities with her? Why bother, who cares who went first—between her and me, why worry about propriety? I kept staring at her hoping to pick up the courage to broach the subject.
“Why are you staring at me like that? What are you thinking? That poor husband of yours might be pining away, feeling lonely? Maybe burnt his hand while cooking? Is that what you are worried about?” She chided me, jokingly.
“Oh, no. I wasn’t thinking of anything,” I replied in a hurry.
“Why lie? Don’t hide it from me. Tell me, what is it?”
“What do you want me to say?”
“Alright, don’t tell me,” she said, pouting. For some reason, I couldn’t speak. I came here hoping to talk about so many things. Not a single word was coming out of my mouth, why? My mouth was bolted at the sight of Visalakshi. I had given lectures at women’s clubs on numerous occasions; now I couldn’t say a single word. Whatever happened to all my education. I felt ashamed. I was about to say something. “How is your family life, Visalakshi?” I blurted out and then quickly pulled back. Visalakshi picked up the little baby from the bed, adjusted the sheets and handed him to me. The baby opened his eyes wide, looked at me, and then, closed them again, as if he did not care who was holding him. We both laughed.
“I couldn’t come to your wedding, Visalakshi. God only knows how much I was distressed about it,” I said, somewhat out of context.
“Let it be. You’re here now to hold the baby at least. That is good enough for me.”
“Your son is a little pumpkin.”
“What do you mean? Your mother said he was a melon.”
“What do you think?”
“I think he looks like my son.”
“Ha! Doesn’t he look like your husband?” I thought I was clever and returned the compliment. Her face fell. I was confused; I couldn’t figure out what went wrong. I felt awful; I said something for fun and it turned into something else. I have to change the subject.
“How come the house is looking empty? Where’s everybody, your folks?”
“They all went to the religious discourse. Vadina went to her mom’s place. Annayya went to the city.”
“You, a new mother, are left all alone, to be by yourself?”
“So what? Cat will snatch me away?”
“Whoever could snatch you away?”
“The Yama” she burst into a laugh. My heart groaned.
“What kind of talk is that,” I said, grasping onto her shoulder.
“Wait, my girl. Do me a favor.”
“Favor? What can I do for you?” I asked her.
“Wait, I’ll tell you,” she said, went in and returned with an envelope in her hand. She went to the door, looked around, bolted the door and came back to me. She pulled out a letter from the envelope and threw it on me. She hid the envelope under the pillow, sat on the bed and said, “Read it to me.”
“Is that all? I was thinking of something big.”
“What? Were you afraid I might ask you to lift rocks?”
“Not that …”
“Enough of that. Come on, read it.”
“What’s that, anyway?”
“If I knew that, why would I be begging you to read?”
I opened the letter and looked. “This is a letter. Why are you asking me to read it?”
“Who else could I ask? Only you could read it to me. You’re educated, the lucky one. Please, do me this favor.”
I had no choice but read it. I was embarrassed. The letter read:
“Emandi! How long are you going to leave me here like this? You’ve turned my natal home into a cage with metal bars. Even a mom’s house becomes a jail if a woman is left there forever. I am eager to show our little baby to your mother. I am anxious to meet your mother and and father. I am dying to hear your word pictures you paint—the beauty of your village, the fields there—and want to share the pleasure with you. Why are you delaying like this? I am not ashamed to come to our own home. I can walk in like a queen. I am only scared for you, in case you misunderstand me. Just tell me, is it okay with you if I show up there? It wouldn’t hurt your position in any way? If I’d taken a hasty step and showed up, maybe you’d be upset with me. How can I explain the hurt I am suffering? Everybody here looks at the baby and says he resembles you. Remember the day you came into the delivery room with the excitement of fathering a boy? I was so embarrassed. I didn’t know what to say; what to say to you; and I was nearly choked. I was your wife. Yet, I didn’t know how to hand in your gift to you. In a desperate attempt to pass the baby to you, I nearly dropped him, screamed ‘ayyo’ and pressed him tightly to my chest. Remember what you’ve said at that time? You may not remember it but I wouldn’t forget it ever, not even in the next several lives.
Not knowing how to care
For the newborn child
Lifted her eyelids and looked up,
At the father awkwardly.
That’s what you said. What a beautiful song. The liveliness in those words touched my heart and my heart jumped with joy. In that moment, the madhavi creeper, wound around the window railings; the aroma hesitating to enter the room, burst in and filled the room; it was the same creeper you used to smell; a wisp of cloud, which sneaked into our room like a thief and watched our clandestine meetings, raced away, like my heart filled with hopes and oozing a spell of charm. In that moment, you haven’t noticed them at all. Your eyes were glued onto our baby. I don’t know how but you’ve realized my inability to pick up the baby; you put it in such a beautiful language, so touchingly, and charmingly! emandi, could you please let me be in your presence forever and catch your words in my lap like gems?”
The letter continued in the same romantic tone. Suddenly I wanted to look into Visalakshi’s face. Her heart must be a cuckoo’s nest to be able to resonate such sensuous feelings, I thought. I stopped reading and looked into her face. She was blushing and her eyes fluttered as if frightened. I kept staring at her eyes, darkened with katuka and imagining how those eyes would have flustered as she handed the baby to her husband.
“Why did you stop? Read it. What’s in my face? You’re staring at me, why?” Visalakshi said.
“Your eyes are so beautiful, Visalakshi,” I said.
“Ho, ho. Even you are reciting poetry, now! So be it. They looked beautiful to you, at the least.”
“Why do you talk nonsense like that, silly you? You have a husband with such a sweet heart.”
“Yes. Neat way to put it.”
“Let it be. Did you write this letter, really? You’ve become real shrewd, I must say.”
“Oh, God! If I could write so beautifully, why would my karma be like this?”
“I am saying why would I be in this miserable situation; why would I be asking you to read it for me?”
“Ah, I see. So, you had somebody write it for you. But, Visalakshi, how could you conceive such excellent thoughts; you who could not read a single character?”
“What an idiot you are, Janaki. Can’t the uneducated have a heart and beautiful thoughts? Aren’t they human beings? When a woman is pregnant, so also her heart, bears fruition. Think of it a parrot’s nest. As soon as a woman becomes mother, it makes her complete. I have tasted its sweetness but I can’t describe it. How can I? you tell me. Anyway, it is only a matter of time. Soon you’ll experience it yourself,” she said, taking my hand into hers and playing with my bangles.
“Who taught you such a beautiful language,” I said, surprised.
“You’re coming back to the same thing, again. For each individual, the heart ripens at a different time. That’s all. Nobody needs to teach it,” she dismissed it in a snap. I did not like the idea of leaving the letter in the middle. I know I can’t write one like that. I wanted to make sure her letter got to her husband.
“This is good. But how can you have such a beautiful letter written and hide it in a box. You stupid, send it to him right away. Your husband will faint before he finished reading it,” I said.
“No, no. I can’t do that. Not me,” she said hesitantly.
“Why not? What’s wrong in sending it? Why be shy to write to your own husband? Send it at once.”
“That’s not it.”
“I did not write that letter, nor had it written for me. To tell you the truth …”
“What’s that? Keep saying, that, that, that. What is that?” I snapped.
“Nothing much to say. That is the letter Vadina wrote to my brother.”
“Then why did you have me read it to you? What a stupid thing to do. Don’t you know it is not right to read others’ letters?”
“What others? No big deal. We all are women, aren’t we?”
“I suppose. What a beautiful letter your Vadina had written.”
“That’s the reason they two are like a couple of parrots or blackbirds. The baby is such a lucky boy. His mother describes every one of his movements charmingly. And here I am; the idiot who can’t read a single word; I know nothing, not even one bit, that helps to capture the heart of the man I married. In fact, why do you think women like me should live at all? Janaki, never mind. This monologue is boring. You could be carried away by our chitchat and forget the letter. Come on, reading the rest of it,” she said. Now I am really interested in reading it. If I don’t, Visalakshi will not let me go, anyway. I had no choice but to read.
“Emandi, the little rascal rubbed his eyes with his tiny fists and dabbed the dark katuka all over his face. He is looking like a moon hiding behind the dark clouds and playing peek-a-boo. No matter whatever avatars he takes, he reminds me of you constantly. I could open my heart completely and tell you everything but for my shyness; abbha! it is a snag, affectionately though. That’s why I couldn’t express myself. In the middle of the night, he would finish drinking milk and kicks in my stomach with all his might. Each time he touched me with his hand or foot, it brings back some other memories. Then, I can’t sleep for the night anymore. Emandi, abbha, how can I, being a woman, not write here. I can’t be shameless. I can’t live here without you. Please, come and take us, me and the little boy, home soon.
It’s me, yours forever.”
I looked up. Visalakshi was dabbing her tears.
“Why are you wiping your eyes?” I asked her, surprised.
“Nothing. That’s what I’d call affection or caring. How would the other person know unless you express it?” Visalakshi said, looking miserable.
“That’s nice. How can everybody express their feelings like that? Maybe everyone who has legs can walk but not everyone who has hands can write, nor everyone who has mouth can speak so eloquently, right?” I said.
“That’s why some people aren’t blessed with warmth and affection.”
“What did your Vadina study? Does she write poetry too?”
“She’s educated, I guess.”
“You don’t know?”
“How would I know about any education, for that matter? Hey, Janaki, will you do me a favor?”
“I feel the same way when I look at my baby. The his feet underside are so delicate like petals of a flower. Look at his lips; like tender mango shoots; and his laugh, whatever he could be laughing at! I could hear the sounds in my heart. Even when I closed my eyes, I could see them. I want to tell all these things. The idiot I am, I’ve never learnt the alphabet. What can I do now?”
“Learn from your Vadina,” I said laughing.
“Your laugh is killing me, stop it; instead, why don’t you …”
“What are you suggesting?”
“Why don’t you write a letter like that for me?”
“Why do you need a letter? Your husband lives right here. Didn’t he come to see his son?”
“No. He is busy with his studies in the city.”
“Okay. I am not sure if I could write like that. I will try. Tell me what do you want me to write. I will write whatever you say.”
“Will you? I’ll be born to you in my next life. I’ll be indebted to you forever. You tell me how to clear my debt to you,” Visalakshi said and stood up to go to the next room. There was a knock on the door. Visalakshi snatched away the letter from my hand in a hurry, shoved it under the pillow and then went to open the door. Her mother walked in and stopped at the door; she was taken aback as she saw me.
“What! What! Is that Janakamma? Long time! You, girl, you haven’t come to the wedding either. So, when did you come to town? Your mother didn’t mention it either,” she said with her fingers on her cheek. She poured a torrent of questions and inquiries nonstop.
“It’s not that, pinni. I came to your house as soon as I arrived here. Probably amma didn’t mention it since I was coming here anyway.”
“What does your husband do? Where do you live?”
“What can I say, pinni? It’s not our land. Don’t ask me about those people and that language—a world all too different. It’s only because of the job that we’re stuck in that corner, so far away,” I said.
“It’s okay, who cares about the distance nowadays. Both you and your husband are living in the same place, and that’s what counts. Your mother could worry about your health and such; but then, it’s also a big relief that you are doing fine. What else is there we mothers could ask for, if you ask me.”
“What are you talking about, pinni? How long we girls can stay in our natal homes? We have to go with our husbands, even it meant going to a forest. Wouldn’t Visalakshi leave in a day or two? That’s the way it is.”
“Where would she go? Her husband has set up a family in the city.”
“Ha!? With whom?” she said. I was shocked. Visalakshi looked at her mother furiously and then laughed aloud. She said, “With his studies. My mother is making fun of her son-in-law.” Her mother was about to say something, looked at Visalakshi, and shut up. I was perplexed completely. I stared at them with blank looks. Visalakshi’s mother noticed my predicament and changed the subject, “Janaki, did you see the baby?”
“Your grandson is looking like a ripe mango. But you didn’t show me your son’s boy. Probably he looks like a melon,” I said.
“Oh, God! Am I that fortunate? I even made a vow to the Lord Venkataramana that I would name the baby after Him if I had a grandson through my daughter-in-law. I had the couple, my son and the daughter-in-law, perform circumambulations around Lord Subbarayudu; had performed a special worship at Simhachalam; had installed the Serpent statue. Don’t ask me, how many ways I’ve prayed. It’s my karma. It’s no use, I am accursed.” She went on on those lines for a while and kept smacking her forehead. I was confused and looked at Visalakshi. She sat there for a while looking down and doodling lines on the floor with her toes. Then she got up and left the room. Her mother was surprised to see her daughter leave the room and followed her. I felt as if I was sitting on a bed of thorns. I didn’t know what to do. I got up, went to the baby’s bed and was about to pat on his cheek and adjust the pillow. I felt the envelope. I looked at the envelope and noticed the address. It was addressed to Visalakshi’s husband.
My head spun and my heart was shattered. The ground under my feet was crumbling. Was Visalakshi the cloud that would not pour down as rain? She who swallowed such a huge burden of pain, and laughing and looking around with weary eyes for a husband who would never show up; loving, caring, and worshipping him; who is she? Is she the wilted lotus stuck amidst a mass of weeds? Is she an incarnation of sorrow in the form of a laugh? Is she the rage that could defy karma? Who’s this Visalakshi? Who’s this Visalakshi who could honor her husband simply to protect her mangalyam?. Is she the same childlike Visalakshi who played all girlish games like bujabujarekulu and gujjanaguullu, performed pretend weddings of dolls? What a tremendous change she’d undergone! That one, the past Visalakshi was an artless child. This one is a sarvamangala who had swallowed everything which an ill-fated life would bring, and showered blessings on the world with the tears she never shed but sucked up into herself. What kind of sin she’d committed to have such a heavy punishment meted out to her? Why is she the target of such a huge injustice?—I was burning inside and looking for answers. In my head, millions of visions and zillions of questions were howling like demons. I pressed my forehead desperately and looked up. Visalakshi was standing in front of me like a carved statue, looking sad and flickering her eyelids as if begging for my forgiveness. I couldn’t control myself. I pulled her toward me, hugged her tight and sobbed, stroking her hair gently. She freed herself from my arms, wiped her tears, smiled vaguely while her lips curved sadly, and walked me to the door. Her laugh was not audible to the human ear; heavy like a mountain; that was the laugh of an ill-fated woman who was helpless and crushed; it was the laugh of Sitamma, who agonized with despair and sought refuge in Valmiki’s asram; the acerbic, torrid laugh of the mountain that contained the fiery lava, the venomous, bubbling combustion that is contained in the nadir of an ocean fierce enough to burn the entire world. I couldn’t take the intensity of that laugh; couldn’t defend myself from under that weight, and so, I dashed home in just a few leaps.
My mother was waiting for me, without eating. My stomach was full. How could I eat? But I was afraid of the ensuing rumpus if I didn’t eat the very first day I arrived at mom’s home. So, I laid down the plank and sat on it, ready to eat a bite.
Amma said, as she poured ghee on my rice, “So, did you see Visalakshi’s little bundle of joy? How is he?”
“How else? An eyeful like a melon,” I said curtly.
“How is Visalakshi? Poor thing, a new mother, you see,” my mother continued her questioning.
“Yes, how is she? She’s looking like a million. A new mother with a son like melon,” I said and looked straight into her face. She was quiet, as if it didn’t matter; and continued to pour buttermilk into her plate. Apparently she didn’t even remember that those were the same words she had spoken earlier in the day!
Translated by Nidadavolu Malathi and published originally on thulika.net, April 2004.
Discussion: Author crossing gender barrier, click here
(Telugu original, kamalina kamalam, was published in “Yuva”, December 1966, and later included “Priyadarsini: Samagra katha samputam” by M. Ramakoti, and published by Jyeshta Literary Trust, 2000.)
 pedarasi peddamma, a mythological character in Telugu folklore, known for narrating the travelogues gathered by her visiting travelers, while feeding the poor traveler.
 A festive day for young women; occurs in October. Young women sing and dance in the early hours, play on swings and fast for the entire day, in the hope of getting a loving and caring husband.
 Lord of Death.
 Home-made dark paste, applied as eye-liner, also known as colyrieum..
 Literally, ten incarnations of god.
 A popular notion that sometimes a person might be born as one’s child to clear the past debt.
 Traditional marital status.
 Goddess Gauri, who is believed to be an incarnation and a grantor of the very marital bliss.