The day was waning like an aged body; the twilight was blushing like a new bride on her way to join her husband. The sun was setting on the western horizon. Looked like a father exhausted after a finishing a life-long task of raising his children.
At that time …
Venkatratnam set out on his daily walk toward the park as usual. That’s one thing he would never miss. He wore a khaddar shirt, dhoti, and a pair of sandals. He stopped at the third house.
It was an old house. The weak, saggy beams seemed to be holding on as if bound by duty; probably they have taken in all the pain and suffering that went on for a very long time under that roof silently; and, now dribbling down the dust like tears through the termite holes.
The walls appeared to be too tired to comfort the owners; more like helpless relatives and powerless friends who were lost for ideas to offer help the owners.
Venkatratnam called for Chandram.
“Coming,” Chandram replied, walking down the steps. He stopped on the stairs and said, turning toward the house, “Do something, whatever”.
She disappeared the door mumbling something. It did not escape Venkatratnam’s notice. This was quite common; he had been that dialogue almost every day -could be about the school fee for his son, some outstanding debt … something or other; probably today it was about groceries. Why should this happen each day when he shows up?
“Let’s go”, Venkatratnam said and started walking quietly. In his heart, a sense of indifference and disapproval were gathering toward Chandram. This had been happening for a long time – this feeling of indifference and disapproval. He would nurse these feelings for a while each day and then either ignored or forgot them. The next day, he would invite his friend for walks as always; it became a habit.
If we sort out the thoughts amassed in his heart, they would be like these:
Some people are careless while making money; squander their earnings as they pleased; and then the day comes when they don’t have any money left and they envy people like me!
Why can’t they be careful like I was? Did I ever throw away my money on movies and restaurants? Why do they have to pick up all those bad habits? I never wasted my earnings on movies, cigarettes, restaurants, and fashionable clothes, but for a cup of coffee now and then. That’s how I saved enough cash. Now everybody has his eye on my savings. At home, the sons – they’re not kids any more – want me to turn over all my savings to them! They don’t have the courage to say it to my face though, lucky me; or else, they would’ve burnt the cash long time ago.
They spend all their own earnings on the stupid whims of their wives. Have they ever thought of giving even a little cash for household expenses? No. Well, they’ll know when they have a kid or two of their own.
But then again, maybe they would never know. I’ll to wait to see them wriggle, like this Chandram, and then, I’ll give them a piece of my mind! Look at Chandram, right in front of our eyes; father of six children. The two eldest children are girls, waiting to be married; that’s going to be a very long wait. Not until Chandram had met all the demands of the loan sharks called sons-in-law. If he is lucky he could get a son-in-law at a lower price, but that is a big if, considering Chandram’s net worth. All he has is this house and whoever would buy this dump? I am sure he is cooking up a plan to unload it on me. Everybody, who has any contact with me, is dying to cash in on my friendship; my own family, friends, relatives and even neighbors – they all have their eyes on me.
Venkatratnam got carried away into a maze of rambling thoughts and went past the park entrance. Chandram grabbed his shoulder and stopped him, “Emoy, my friend, are you all right? Where’re you going? Here is the park gate. You seem to be miles away. Are you feeling okay?”
Venkatratnam felt his friend’s on his shoulder; it gave him goose bumps, truly, in that one moment. Only Chandram is close enough to put his hand on his shoulder and address him as emoy. Venkatratnam removed his eyeglasses; he felt a film of wetness in his eyes, just for a second; in the next second, he shuddered as if a cobra had jumped on him. He knew that the same hand that patted on his shoulder gently today can bother him tomorrow for a loan; the same hand would be begging for his help; asking him to look into the eyes of his two marriageable girls and the sorrow-stricken face of their mother, and ask him to do the right thing. Venkatratnam was determined to keep his distance.
He removed Chandram’s hand from his shoulder gently and said, “Oh, no. These eyeglasses – their days are over; the pieces are scratched all over and the case is broken too. Nobody cares about any of my things at home. I want to get them fixed, been thinking about it for some time. The pension money is so little, barely enough to meet the household expenses and other incidentals. It’s killing me. You’d think I have sons, earning members. But that money never gets home. Here, listen, Chandram, we the old people lose their respect after our retirement. They consider any expense incurred for the old man is a waste. They’ll say, ‘Why waste 25 rupees on a pair of eyeglasses? Why don’t you find some other way of passing time?’ Forget it. Do you know what my own wife has said the other day? The woman – I’ve supported all her life – said, ‘Festive occasion, but don’t buy a saree for me. Buy clothes for sons, daughters-in-law and our daughter; she’s coming to her natal home and would want a nice saree. You and I are old, what do we need new clothes for?’ Doesn’t that mean that any expense incurred for her and me is a waste? So, I am good enough to earn and save for the kids but not take out a little money from my own savings and buy something for myself. Never mind, Chandram, I am pouring out my heart as if you have no problems of your own, probably, twice as many.”
Venatratnam sat down on a bench and looked up into Chandram’s face; he was trying to assess how much effect his words had on him.
The two friends sat there for almost an hour. Chandram was watching the children playing on the grass by the gate, hawkers were selling roasted peanuts; he was responding to Venkatratnam’s questions rarely and only in one or two words. Venkatratnam noticed it and heaved a sigh of relief, contented. He recollected the proverbial doctor who would prescribe only the medicine the patient was asking for. He fixed the uttareeyam on his shoulder, feeling proud of himself; he was certain that Chandram would not approach him for any loan in near future.
They both got up to return home. On the way, at the fork split, they saw an old beggar with a gunnysack spread in front of him. The blind beggar put a tin box on the gunnysack and was begging, “Babu, dharmam, kindness, babu, one paisa, kind mothers, caring fathers, you, children of the goddess Lakshmi, toss a paisa for the poor, blind man, sir, madam”. Venkatratnam looked at him and said, moving away disgustingly, “Look at him, Chandra, that’s all a show. I’m sure there are several idiots behind him. They all make this old man sit here and beg while they’re messing around somewhere. They use children and old people to make money this way. A big rip off. Did you see that? The tin was empty earlier and now it’s half full. He made so much in just about one hour, more than the hard-working men. Chi, rogues, that’s why I hate these beggars.” He finished his speech and walked away in big strides.
The beggar bawled again, nearly splitting his ribs for all the screaming and howling. A science teacher were present there, he could have easily given a lesson on skeletons, using the beggar as an example.
Chandram mustered his courage and slid his hand into his pocket. He felt a few papers — an acknowledgment receipt, duly signed by the storekeeper, his son had brought him earlier; a letter from a man who would have been her daughter’s father-in-law; the letter stated we liked your daughter but her beauty alone is not enough to accept the proposals; since you’re giving us hard time regarding the dowry we have decided to drop it; and the grocery list for the upcoming festivities his wife had jotted down for him. Chandram smiled feebly and told himself, “At this point, he’s better off than I am. He has a little change in the tin box at least.” Then he hastened and joined Venkatratnam.
The entire street was riotous. He couldn’t help wondering. People complain about the escalating prices, and that the lives of the ordinary people are going to dogs; at the same time, the department stores, soda shops, hotels, and clothes stores are bursting with people; they all continue to discuss politics, five-year plans, criticize movie directors; talk about the future of new companies and the five-star hotels in Bombay, or the new car a movie star is going to buy; the women writers’ conference in Rajamundry or the miseries of residents in Vijayawada during summer; the upcoming trade exhibition in Hyderabad; the elections and the candidates; and their gold fillings in their teeth, the silver-headed canes, and their foreign-bred dogs and the food the dogs would eat; and umpteen other things.
The entire marketplace was in chaos, like the silly jokes people would exchange at a wedding party.
The festive mood sang welcome song at all the homes in the region.
On that day –
Chandram’s wife put aside the usual worries for the moment and woke up with a smile. Her heart jumped with joy. Her children washed the rooms, drew colorful rangavalli on the floor, smeared turmeric paste on the doorframe on the lower beam of the door, and hung inviting mango leaves at the top. She blessed them; wish you all the best and a happy married life to each of you in the coming year. She blessed them with the same wish last year too. That’s the beauty of festivities. It makes us forget the past and feel like plenty of happiness lies ahead. That’s why a festive occasion is a blessing for many people.
Venkatratnam had a long, leisurely bath while dwelling on the expenses and making note of the amount wasted in the process. He told himself, he must make the others also see the wastage; he had to wait for the chance. He believed strongly that all festive occasions are waste of money; they’re more like lenders that are dead set on collecting their dues.
They all finished eating. Venkatratnam lay back in his chair, relaxed. His daughters and sons-in-law were playing cards, wagering real money. They were playing for fun, yet the fact that they put down real money angered him. The daughters-in-law were planning to go to the movies. That was even more annoying. He eyed them gruffly. His wife was putting away the leftover sweets. He cursed her, only to himself though; she wasted a week’s worth of groceries as far as he’s concerned.
Amidst all this, Venkatratnam couldn’t help recollecting Narusu’s words. This was what happened earlier: On that auspicious day, he blessed a few more people with his abusive language – the college students who put up a benefit show for Save the Country Fund and forced him to buy the tickets. A second incident was when, Ramadas, a neighbor, walked in with his son, slouched the baby in his lap and said, “He has no grandparents. You two are his grandpa and grandma. Please give him your blessings.” Then his wife rushed out of the kitchen merrily; she folded her hands and prayed to the Lord Venkataramana, hoping they would have a similar gem of a boy next year at the least crawling in their hallway; then she turned to her husband and said almost commanding, “What’re you looking at? He put your grandson in your lap. Give him five rupees.” Venkatratnam jumped out of his skin, almost. He had no choice but pull out a five-rupee bill from his pocket and shove it in the boy’s fist. Ramadas giggled and said, “Oh, no, auntie, it’s not fair to bother uncle,” picked up the boy and the cash and left. Venkatratnam was so angry; he could have gulped down Ramadas without chewing! He turned to his wife; he would have burnt her with his looks; but she had gone into the kitchen, lucky for her. Instead of her, his son-in-law was standing, looking angrily his own wife, Venkatratnam’s daughter. His looks were saying, “See, you idiot. Had we had a son by now, we would’ve gotten that five-rupee bill, maybe, even a ten-rupee bill.”
Venkatratnam felt scorpions crawling all over his body. He cursed Ramadas to his heart’s content and then lay back in his armchair, exhausted. He closed his eyes. To him, the entire family members appeared to be vultures or some horrible demons with scruffy hair and keen on chewing him up alive. Chi, they all are chomping me, he told himself. He opened his eyes. There, the maid, Narusu, was standing in front of him.
She was no sight to look at. Her hair was scruffy, face was sweaty, and two of her front teeth stuck out. She said, giggling, “hee, hee, what’s it, babu? Napping before eating? I’m going home. Festival, you know, want to go to the temple. I asked amma garu for a little change, she said ask babu garu. Babu, festival bonus. Let me have a couple of rupees.”
“Yeah, you and your amma garu have nothing better do. What’re you thinking? Do you think I have a stash to throw away? Go. Ask your amma garu,” he yelled at her.
“What’s it, babu? Why yell at me, what for? You are a Rajah, aren’t you? No reason to talk about any stash. Just give me a couple of rupees and I’m gone. In fact, two rupees are not enough either. One rupee goes to the temple and then the other rupee goes to the movies, my man and I will go to the movies. That’s all, there’s nothing to save. Never mind all that. Just give me the money and I’m gone,” she kept giggling and babbling.
Venkatratnam looked at her and yelled again, “Hey, what’re you chattering about? Why do I have to give you anything in the first place? If you had not saved the money, why go to the movies? Just, go home, get lost. I have no money to give.”
Narusu’s face was jet black, her eyes always red and her voice hoarse. And when she’s angry, all the features would reach one level up. Almost all the people who knew her would know that.
She started shouting at Venkatratnam; she was quivering as if she was possessed, even without the neem branches in her hand and wagging them. Venkatratnam froze in his chair.
His sons rushed to the scene. “Nanna garu, what’s it? Why do act like this? The more control you have the worse you behave. Why bicker with a maid? Why not toss a couple of rupees to her? Festive occasion, can’t you see that much?” his eldest son said and turned to the maid, “Here, Narusu, why didn’t you ask me? I could have given you without this rumpus. Why did you go to him? Here, take this money. In future, you always come to me, not him. You know his ways, okay?” He pulled out a five-rupee bill from his pocket and gave it to her.
Narusu calmed down like a possessed woman would after breaking a coconut and offering harati. “I know, babu, but then, he is the head of the family. So, I thought I must go to him first. It is nice if came from him. Not that I can’t ask you and you can’t give; just a matter of respect,” she said and left.
Venkatratnam sat in his chair. He could hear his sons’ ornery comments; his wife’s grumbling from the kitchen, and the son-in-law criticizing him … he heard all of them. But the one word Narusu said was screeching in his ears like a howl. He wiped the sweat off his face. His heart was jumbled; his thoughts were all tangled up. He finished eating and went to bed. He closed his eyes. The thoughts wouldn’t go away; they were haunting him without a break. He dozed off.
His younger son woke him up. “Nanna garu, here, this is for you,” he put a packet on the bed.
Venkatratnam was now wide-awake and noticed the packet. “What’s it?” he asked, putting on his glasses.
“Not much. You bought clothes for all of us, but didn’t get any for yourself. We didn’t think it was right. Annayya and I went to the store and bought clothes for you and amma also. Here, wear them,” he said and left.
Venkatratnam looked up. The photos on the calendar on the wall across the room looked new. It felt like he was seeing them for the first time; the entire house looked new.
His eldest son called out from the porch, “Nanna garu, are you up? Chandram garu is here; came to see you.”
“I’m coming,” Venkatratnam replied, got up and went into the backyard. He washed his face, feet, and hands, and came out. Chandram wore new clothes, was sitting in a chair, and sipping coffee. “I am waiting for you,” he said. For Venkatratnam, several images came to his mind – the pinnacle of happiness; Lord Siva who swallowed poison and kept on smiling; Lord Vishnu who lay back on the divine serpent on the crest of milky waves; and a few others. He sat down and picked up his coffee cup. Chandram was talking exuberantly. He finished his coffee and said, “Venkatratnam, can you go out with me, just for a few minutes?”
Venkatratnam was confused a little. It was not yet time for their usual walk. Is he in some kind of financial trouble? There are no visible signs of any such thing. Never mind, I’ll know soon enough, he told himself; and said yes to Chandram, went in, put on his new clothes, sandals and came out in fifteen minutes.
Venkatratnam said proudly, walking down the stairs, “My sons bought me.” Chandram laughed and commented, “That’s obvious. You would not go for expensive clothes like that.”
Venkatratnam felt put down. Chandram patted on his shoulder and said kindly, “I didn’t mean to insult you. You buy so many things for them all but don’t take care of yourself. True, you work so hard but you are also anxious for everybody to notice your sacrifice. In a way, you are unselfish. But then, it’s not fair to expect all others to be like you. Life is priceless. Only experiences are the ones that stay with you to the end and show a new world and offer a meaning to life for that matter.
“What is the worth of a man who draws a circle around him and sits at the center? He is more like a dead tree, without any experiences, none whatsoever. A true man is that one person who experiences in every cell of his body the genuine feelings like compassion, sympathy, mercy and closeness every minute of his life. That’s what makes him a true man. A man can be rich only when these qualities are flowing like an undercurrent through his body. On the other hand, a man who keeps building dams each time an emotion kicks in, he is destitute even if he had a hoard of cash. He will be living a battle, being separated from his family, friends and relatives.
“Never mind all that. Can you guess why I asked you to come with me? Today, I felt like doing a good deed. Not a big thing. You are a good friend and I want to buy a new pair of glasses for you. I want it to be a symbol of our friendship forever. Oh, no, don’t look surprised. Hear me out. Yesterday I went to a doctor I’ve known for a long time. He said he would examine your glasses and change them as needed. I’ve already paid the deposit yesterday. Please, let me do this one good deed. I know you can buy for yourself, or your sons can buy for you. But then that’s not what gives me the satisfaction, right? Don’t think about my finances. Frankly, nothing compares, not even a million rupees, to the pleasure I will experience when I spent twenty-five rupees on a good friend. Please, don’t deny me this pleasure. Grant this poor friend this one wish.”
“Chandram!” Venkatratnam could not speak any more than that. A number of emotions like excitement, shame, impatience and hurt, burst forth at his heart like lava. It took a few minutes for him to collect himself. All of a sudden, he saw a brand new world and a new life.
That evening, he did not go for a walk, as usual. Chandram went to the temple but Venkatratnam did not go with him to the temple either. He put on the new glasses his friend had bought for him, wore the clothes his sons had bought him and went to the store, walking in big strides.
He reached the corner where the road split into two, where the blind beggar usually sits with his gunnysack spread in front of him. His heart was in a rush to do a good deed that day.
But, the beggar was not there on that day. Venkatratnam removed his glasses and looked around. No, there was no sign of that particular beggar or any other beggar for that matter.
Venkatratnam’s eyes turned moist rather unexpectedly and the moisture never left.
Translated by Nidadavolu Malathi and published on thulika.net, August 2004.
(Telugu original, taDi aarani kaLLu, was published in Viswaracana.)
 Casual form of address between close friends.