“Amma!” Ellamma’s older son stood next to her, wanted to ask her something.
“What?” Ellamma yelled at the boy.
The little boy in her lap was hungry and crying. She put her three-month old son in the cloth sling, and was trying to soothe him for an hour now. There was no end to his hungry wails.
“What’s it? Wanna eat?” she softened her tone and asked him gently.?
No, the older boy shook his head. He was six-years-old yet looked like a three-year old. His arms and legs were thin like dried sticks. All his growth was showing only on his belly. His worn out shorts could not stay put on his big belly; it slipped farther down. Waist up, there was nothing to cover his body.
He said slowly, spacing his words, “Amma, Ganesh is drinking milk, they say. True?”
“What Ganesh? Haven’t they dropped all those Ganesh statues in Hussain Sagar two days back, on the big “Immersion’ day? Where is Ganesh again?”
Ellamma picked up the little one and stood up. He was still weeping; he barely had enough strength in his body to cry aloud.
“He hasn’t had milk in a week. Where’s he getting this energy from,” Ellamma mumbled to herself.
It had not rain the entire year this time. In their village, Ayyavari palem, nobody had a chance to drive the plow into the field. For three years in a row they had been doomed by droughts, and this year it was the worst. Not even one drop from the clouds. The fields were parched and cracked all over. Those who trusted the land were starving. There was no water, not a drop to drink anywhere in the area. The only place they could find water was the old well on the outskirts, and it was so deep, one could hardly see the water at the bottom of the well. The women’s arms were nearly knocked out of their sockets as they drew water from that cavernous well.
Pochayya stared at the strip of the land that failed to yield one bit of grain. His heart shivered, ?Our guts gonna groan the whole year.” Grief lumped in his throat.
Then he saw Veerayya on his way home from the city. Pochayya asked him, “How’re thing there? Do ya think folks like us find work there?”
“Well, there’s always somethin’ to do if ya wanna work. No shortage for dough either. They’ve buildings kissin’ the clouds. You’ll make forty just for carrying one basket.”
Pochayya drew a deep breath. Buildings kissing the clouds! Is that why the clouds aren’t raining anymore? Buildings in their way?
Work and money, the two words got stuck on Pochayya’s mind. He decided to move to the city. He said to his wife, “Ellamma, Let’s go to the city. I heard there’s plenty o’ work there. Here, no sign of rains anytime soon. If we stay here, we gonna die. Let’s go to the city, make some money and then come’ome.”
The thought frightened Ellamma. “The city’s such a big place. No friends or relatives … How on earth can we make it there! But then again, let’s say we stay here. Then what? No food to eat, no water to drink. We’re sure to die. We can go to the city, save some money and maybe that’s not a bad idea after all,” she thought and said, “Yes, that’s a good idea.”
The same night, Ellamma packed the few belongings they had–a couple of warped aluminum pots, plates and glasses–in a bag. She folded the old eeta mat, rolled it in an old quilt and tied them up with a rope. She looked around, that’s all we have in this hut, what else? There was nothing else except a beat up rope cot, and some firewood by the wood stove. She turned to Pochayya and said, “Should I pack the firewood too? They say firewood is costly there?”
“Those logs are full o’ thorns. Why bother? Never mind those, come on, let’s go,” Pochayya said and picked up the two bundles his wife had packed, and walked out.
Ellamma picked up the little one in her arms, grabbed the older boy’s hand and followed her husband.
The night before, Pochayya had told her that they must leave at the crack of dawn, and get to city early; that way they would have time to find a place to settle down. She cooked some rice, added a dash of salt to the rice broth, and they all ate and went to bed.
At the crack of dawn, they set out to leave. The sunlight was barely visible on the horizon. The rice broth they had last night was gone, their stomachs were empty.
“Wasn’t there some rice in the box? Did you pack it?” Pochayya asked his wife.
“Yes, I did. Now, hurry, let’s go,” she said, hurrying her pace, and lugging the children along.
They reached the bus stop at dawn and waited. Soon it was noon but no sign of the bus. All the buses that headed for the city were jampacked and went zooming by without stopping at their stop. Finally one white bus stopped and the doors flung open.
Pochayya ran toward the bus with his bundle, and Ellamma with the two children.
“Sir, does this bus go to the city?” Pochayya asked the conductor politely.
“What, gonna go to the city?” the conductor stood in the doorway and laughed. “This is super express bus. The ticket costs twice as much as the regular bus. Got the cash?” He was still laughing. The other passengers and the driver joined him.
“How much?” Pochayya asked with a sinking heart.
Pochayya, Ellamma and the children had not eaten all day. Their stomachs were growling. They kept gulping water to fill their stomachs. The little one was chewing up mother’s breast, could not squeeze a drop. He was frustrated and started thumping her with his little fists. The older boy was hungry, and sagged like a stalk of spinach.
The conductor looked at them and laughed again. Pochayya put one foot on the step.
“Get down,” conductor seized Pochayya’s shoulder and shoved him away.
“Why? Isn’t it goin’ to the city?” Pochayya asked.
“Forty rupees per person, and a half ticket for that boy. Pay up first,” he said.
“Sir, what’s that? Isn’t it two rupees?”
“Ha, how long ago do you think that was?” conductor said, with a sarcastic laugh.
All the others in the bus joined him. Pochayya was downcast. Hunger on one hand and the busses zooming past on the other were tearing him apart. The one bus that stopped demanded too much for fare. He did not know what to do.
“Maybe we can find a lorry,” Ellamma said.
Pochayya kept running after every lorry that stopped there and begging them for a ride. Finally, one lorry driver agreed to give them ride for thirty rupees. Pochayya paid the money and they all got into the lorry.
It was midnight by the time they reached the city. Ellamma set up the stove by the wayside and cooked rice. They ate with the crushed pepper relish she had brought from home.
After two days, they found work, which paid forty rupees for man and thirty for woman. For Ellamma and Pochayya, it was good money, they were elated at the prospect. They also found a place to live in a nearby complex. “Our hardships are over, and good times are here,” they told themselves.
They got used to a routine life. Early in the morning Ellamma would cook rice and curry and then leave for work along with Pochayya. The older boy would eat with the parents, and take care of the baby. Ellamma would feed the baby first before she left for work, and would be back to feed him again. At noon, they would get one hour break to eat. Carrying bricks all day long was hard on Ellamma though. Her body was sore all over. She was not allowed to stop even for a second. The contractor would hurl foul words at her. Nevertheless they went about their work like a piece of machinery nonstop.
Then came the rainy season. Their space in the corner was not leaking and that was good but mosquitoes became a big nuisance. Pochayya kept scratching all night and his body was covered with sores from the scratching, and even bleeding. Ellamma came down with malaria. She went to the doctor. He jotted down prescriptions and handed it over to her. Two days’ income went to the doctor and four day’s income to buy the drugs.
The medications helped her to recover from the fever but she was still too weak to go to work. She could not get down a morsel, the bitter taste in her mouth was horrible. Let alone going to work, she was not even able to get up to cook for her husband and the kids. Pochayya cooked the food, fed the older kid and left for work.
With the fever, Ellamma’s breasts dried up completely. Up until now, the milk was just about enough for the baby but not anymore. The little baby sucked on and on but could not get even one drop. Out of frustration, he started crying. Mother put him in the cradle and tried to soothe him every which way but to no avail.
She said to Pochayya, “Ask the contractor for an advance and bring some rice.” She was waiting for him to return with the grain. It was a long wait. The little baby was crying without break. Helplessness and weakness were making her want to cry too.
The older boy walked in, calling out, “Amma!”
“What?” Ellamma yelled at him, choking with grief.
That did not deter the boy. He said slowly, spacing his words, “Amma, Ganesh is drinking milk, they say. Is that true?”
“What Ganesh? Haven’t they dropped all those Ganesh statues in Hussain Sagar two days back, on the big “Immersion” day? Where’s Ganesh again?”
“Not that Ganesh. I’m talkin’ about the Ganesh in the temple. All the people there were standing in front of the temple holding milk in pots and glasses.”
Ellamma imagined them standing in line with pots of milk.
“If I go there, I can get some milk.”
Ellamma rushed to the temple holding the little baby in her arms. The older boy followed her with his tin cup.
Several men and women, young and old, were standing there in colorful clothes, holding milk in glasses and small dishes.
“Acts of sin are spreading like wild fire on this land. That’s what God is telling us through his miracles,” one woman said. Next to her, a young man in jeans was standing with a glass of milk.
“Auntie, I took a leave of absence from work and came here to see this wonder,” he said.
“What do you mean ‘wonder’? Don’t you see? This is a manifestation of his miracle?” her voice clearly registered a protest.
“True. Even gods are unable to control the immorality that is spreading on the earth. The Almighty did say sambhavaami yuge, yuge [I’ll be born again in each epoch],” the man standing before the young man in jeans folded his hands reverently. The man in jeans stared at him, lightly touched his own cheeks, and folded his hands respectfully.
Ellamma stared at those people standing in line and holding milk glasses.
“Sir, please, pour me little milk. Here, this little baby is crying ’cause of hunger,” Ellamma held out the tin cup desperately.
“Chi, go away. Hum, these beggars are everywhere, even here! All these beggars must be banished from the country, if you ask me, they should be thrown in jail. Foreign tourists stopped coming to our country because of them only. No other country has this kind of nuisance.”
“What! Are you from abroad?” the man in jeans asked him curiously.
“Yes, I came from America for a short visit. I am a computer engineer back there,” he said proudly.
“Pour me little milk, saar. Hunger’s killin’ my little’un, ma’am,” Ellamma held the glass up to them again.
“Milk? This milk is for the god. I didn’t bring it all the way from home for beggars like you,” the woman screamed, adjusting the gold-threaded saree folds.
Her fury, like that of a pativrata, could burn a person to ashes. Two young women wearing punjabi dresses were standing next to her.
Ellamma turned to them and begged them for milk.
The two women, immersed in their own chitchat, did not notice Ellamma’s pleas at first. And then, one of them said, “I think I should give this milk to Parvati, everybody else is giving to Ganesh and Siva. Discrimination even here!”
“Stop it. You’re starting your feminist talk even here?” her friend said, laughing.
“What else, you tell me. Why should god be a man? Why not a woman?”
Ellamma reiterated her appeal, “ma’am, please, I’ll be your slave forever, just a few drops of milk,” she pushed the dish in front of them again.
One of them pointed toward a man sitting a little away from them, and said, “There, you see the man sitting there with a pot of milk. Go, ask him.”
Ellamma looked in that direction and ran toward that man. Her son hurried behind her.
“Saar, please, let me have a few drops for the baby,” she begged him.
“Milk? Do you have any idea how much this milk costs?” he screamed, “Thirty rupees per liter. Even at that rate, it’s not easy to get. Understand? You’re here holding a pot to beg for milk? Did you think you can get milk for nothing?”
Ellamma was ready to fall on his feet, “Saar, please, my baby’s hungry and dyin’. I’m touchin’ your feet and beggin’.”
The milk man quickly stepped back. “God knows where all you’ve been to. Don’t touch me; you’ll pollute the milk, you bitch, go away, just go,” he said, picking up a stick lying nearby.
Ellamma was shocked by his name-calling. She was bewildered, what else could she do? In her village, she had always been a giver but never a taker, never extended her hand in front of another person. She never said a bad word, and never was called names by others. Tears streamed down her cheeks as she kept brooding over, “There’s milk in everybody’s hand and not one man or woman is kind enough to pour a little into my dish. After the first son was born, two more were born and both died of fever even before they’d got to the clinic. This one is going to die of hunger, it seems.” She held the little boy to her chest and collapsed on the floor. And then she looked up for her other son. He was nowhere to be seen.
Panicked, she called out, “hey, boy, where are you?” She looked around and saw him. He came back, watching his step, and carrying his glass filled with milk.
“Is that milk? Where did you get it?” she asked, happy at the sight.
The boy was bubbly. He said, “Mom, there is so much milk flowing at the back of the temple, plenty flowing there.”
“Where’s the milk? Take me there,” Ellamma asked, getting up in a hurry. The boy hurried to the back of the temple, Ellamma followed him. Nobody was there. Milk was flowing in a stream from inside the temple through a small spout in the wall. It was the milk the devotees poured on the statues of Gods inside the temple.
Ellamma was ecstatic. “Oh god, I can feed my boys with this milk,” she said, overwhelmed, and gave the milk to the little baby, “Here, drink it, drink all you can, here,” she kept saying again and again. The little one was staring at her without batting an eyelid. Ellamma shook him.
“Take it,” she said, bringing the dish to his lips. The boy did not move, he was stiff!
Translated by Nidadavolu Malathi, and published on thulika.net, July 2006.
(The Telugu story, paalu ponge punyabhoomi, was published in an anthology of stories by women writers, kadambam, 1996)