Around 7:00 in the evening on the day of dhana trayodasi, the entire city of Bombay was celebrating the occasion exuberantly. There were not as many lamps as on the deepavali day, yet each house was glowing with the little lamps enough to display the contour and the beauty of it. The firecrackers were making loud PHAT, PHAT noises from every corner. In every house, people adorned the goddess Lakshmi with gold jewelry and performed the puja per custom.
In one house however, there was no sign of those festivities. Instead of calling it a home, it is better to call it a shed. That shed, set between two mansions of rich businessmen, was looking like Jyeshta, the goddess of poverty, who had come to watch the celebrations of her younger sister, Lakshmi, Gpddess of Wealth. We can however say that the people felt happy to see the cleanliness and tidiness in the shed, despite a feeling that it is also undermining the beauty of the neighborhood a bit. Maybe, my dear sisters would be upset that I was giving them the news of a poor family instead of telling the stories of wealthy men on this festive occasion in this great city. Sisters! If you listen to this story carefully and without being annoyed, you would understand that the story of this shed is extraordinary.
I have stated earlier that there were two great mansions on either side of this shed. Those mansions had several lamps there while was only one lamp at the center of this hut, shining brightly. In front of that lamp, Vijayalakshmi sat down, sowing the blouse, she had agreed to make for another woman for money. A four-year-old girl and a cute three-year-old boy sat next to her, making her happy by showing their toys and asking child-like questions.
Vijayalakshmi was finished cooking, and was waiting for her husband to come home. Her husband Venkataratnam was working as a clerk for Setty, a rich businessman. She was aware that it was dhana trayodasi day and her husband would not be able to come home until after the puja at his boss’s house had concluded. Therefore, she fed the children, and left her madi state, and sat down to make the blouse while waiting for her husband. Ah! The woman’s face was so fascinating, carrying the signs of waiting for her husban, who had seen such women with their own eyes, could appreciate it but not the others. She sat there thus, with her physical eyes fixed on the blouse and her mind’s eye on her husband’s return to home.
At that time, the cute son came to her and wrapped his hands around her neck tightly. She had to turn her attention to him. Up until now, she was answering his questions with a brief “ha” or “um” rather inattentively, while working on the blouse. Now, the sweet little boy held on to her neck tightly, so, she had to set aside her sowing and take him into her arms. She said softly, “Nayanaa! What do you want? You’ve been playing with your sister so far. Go, play for a little longer. I am sowing the blouse for somebody. I need to finish this now.”
That well-behaved boy heard Mother’s words and moved away. Then, he saw the bright lights from the fireworks in front of their neighbor’s house. He started clapping and laughing gleefully. He said to her in his baby-like words, “Look, Amma, that’s so nice.May I go there? I want to see that.”
The place he wanted go to was nearby. Therefore, Vijayalakshmi called her daughter Rukmini and said to her, “My little girl, you take Ramu to watch the festivities in our neighbor’s home. Be careful, don’t go too close to the lights, and don’t fight with anybody there.”
The two children went to their neighbor’s home. As the mother watched the two children leave, her eyes were filled with tears and uncontrollable grief. Poor woman, probably she remembered the first day of the festivities. It was the day of fireworks. Children had wanted to light fireworks but she had managed to calm them down somehow. After that, the children did not ask for them again. Now they asked for her permission to watch it in the neighbor’s home; she could not but think of their remarkable behavior; she felt sorry again that she had not had the money to fulfill the wishes of such well-behaved children. The thought was even more painful to her. She was distressed that they did not have a good home to live in, good clothes to wear, and no sumptuous meals even on a special holiday. She was spending her days happily in the company of her worthy husband, despite several hardships they had been facing each day. However, when she thought of the suffering her children were being put through, her grief was boundless. She was aggrieved for her children’s suffering especially because she had experienced unlimited wealth in the past.
Both Vijayalakshmi and Venkataratnam had had a rich life in their childhood days. Venkataratnam was the only son of Mallayya, a prominent man of Kolakaluru village. Therefore, his wedding had been celebrated on a grand scale. He was ten-years- old at the time. A sum of fifteen thousand rupees had been spent on the ceremony. Oh, God! the couple, on whose wedding, fifteen thousand rupees had been spent, were not even in a position to lay their eyes on such big amount now. Maybe, it is no surprise for those, whose agraharams had been ruined. Anyway, Mallayya’s agrahaaram had been pawned partly even before the wedding took place. Yet, they continued to take out more and more loans and celebrate more and more events. Under those circumstances, Mallayya thought the time for his only son’s wedding was slipping away fast. Therefore, he took out one more loan and performed the ceremony.
This loan hit Venkataratnam’s family even harder, had to suffer several hardships. There was no food in the house. It had come to this—the day they had to watch even the children suffer because of their miseries. During Mallayya’s time, the creditors had not bothered them. But, as soon as he died, they all came together and collected their dues from what was left, at the rate of one half of one rupee. Poor Venkataratnam, he had to experience the travails resulting from either the stupidity or cleverness of his predecessors. Venkataratnam was an honorable man. Although he had lived the rich life as son of an agraharam owner, he had not acquired their bad habits such as egotism, conceit, and indolence. The pecuniary circumstances were painful yet he was managing because his wife was also as upright as he was. By the time his father died, he had passed the Entrance exam. Although he was young enough to continue his studies and improve his qualifications, he had no money to do so. It was not the time yet for him yet, given the circumstances, he had to take get a job. He joined as a clerk under Setty, a businessman, for ten rupees per month. They were managing somehow with that ten rupees. It is only natural for them to worry about the children uner the circumstances.
I have stated earlier that Vijayalakshmi was very worried about her children’s plight. The rich life they had enjoyed previously came to her mind; the way it had been destroyed, and the hardships the children had been through because of all that. She was struggling to keep her uncontrollable sorrow under control.
Just then, she heard Ramu crying. She got up with a jolt and went to her neighbor’s house. She reached their home and saw that her neighbor was beating Ramu. She asked what happened. The woman said that Ramu had taken a firecracker with no leading wick, broken into two, and put next to the lamp. The lamp had been put out as a result. Actually what happened was–the neighbor’s child beat Ramu and Ramu started crying. The boy was afraid that his mother might beat him. So, he turned around and said Ramu hit him first. The boy’s mother believed her son, and started beating Ramu as if he was an animal, not a little boy. Even those mothers who usually beat their own children could not take it if somebody beats them like that. That being the case, imagine how difficult it was for Vijayalakshmi, who never beat her children, to see somebody beat her child. She was angry beyond words, yet, controlled herself, and brought Rukmini and Ramu home. She consoled the two children, but could not control her own grief. She was heartbroken; she told herself that her children were suffering only because of their poverty. She ran her fingers over Ramu’s bruises tenderly and shed tears incessantly. There was nobody to comfort her. If Venkataratnam were there, he would have comforted her. Look! Even now, only he was the reason for lessening her present anguish.
Vijayalakshmi heard her husband’s footsteps, hid her sorrow, and put on a happy face. Aha! Vijayalakshmi! Who can count your fine qualities? You are so considerate of your husband’s feelings; you hide your sorrow, wipe your tears, and appear before him with a happy face and the baby in your arms. If all women cherish such values, imagine how much more our country may prosper?
Venkataratnam came home. However, he was not as happy as he used to be but sad and down. He was sweating all over. Usually, he would come home, speak to his wife with a smile, kiss the baby and then he would go in. Today, he went in, without speaking to his wife and kissing the baby.
Vijayalakshmi thought that her husband probably had worked more than usual and was tired. She started dabbing the sweat off of his face. The baby in her arms was sleepy. She went in, put the baby to bed, and returned to hand over fresh clothes to her husband to change into.
Venkataratnam changed his clothes, handed the old clothes to his wife and sat down, leaning on the bedding on the floor. Vijayalakshmi saw his conduct and wondered if he had a headache. He went to him, put her palm on his forehead, and asked, “Why are you quiet today? Is your head hurting?”
Venkataratnam said he had no headache.
His answer was not convincing to her. She asked, “If you do not have a headache, why are you so quiet today?”
Venkataratnam looked at her and felt sad. He asked her, “Do you not think of our gloomy situation and worry?”
As she heard his words, Vijayalakshmi recalled the grief she had suffered a few minutes back, thought her husband might be worried in the same manner, stifled her own grief, assumed a happy face, and said, “Is that all? Why be worried for such a small matter? I am not worried even in the least bit.”
“Ha, You are amazing! When I think of our riches in the past and the current miserable condition, I feel very sad. We have lived exuberant life in the past. Now we are forced to live every kind of destitution, and that is hard. Today, all the others gathered their valuable jewelry in one place and worshipped it. You had worn several items of jewelry made of gold and diamonds but today, do not have even one piece of jewelry on you. Should you not be troubled about it at least a little?”
Vijayalakshmi, said, “I am not troubled even a little. You are worried that we do not have riches, right? I would consider our situation the best, when I watch the egotism and lack of judgment among some of the rich people. Had we been wealthy, we would not have this unlimited pleasure, which we are enjoying by following the righteous path. As for me, I would not consider any other kind of riches beyond your affection.”
Venkataratnam heard her words and cringed. The expression on his face showed the scare in his heart. He, who had been virtuous so far, showed signs of fear in his face. He was surprised; he was not sure how to respond to his wife. Finally, he picked up the courage and said, “Dear wife! What would you do with dried up affection?”
Vijayalakshmi did not notice the change of expression on his face but was distressed by his words. She said, “You are causing me only pain by such talk.”
Venkataratnam: If so, I will not speak at all. Do you not worry about our children’s sad plight at least? While the others’ children wore fine clothes, ate sumptuous meals and set off fireworks merrily, our children stood there with miserable looks on their faces. Does that not bother you?
Vijayalakshmi: Why feel sad for that? I do not have even a little bit of sadness in me. Let it be. Why are you saying unnecessary things today? You are creating problems which are not there to start with and then worrying about them, why? Did our children ask for anything ever big or small?
Venkata: That is the reason I am even more depressed.
As he spoke, he chocked with sadness, “If I tell you something … never mind.“ He bit his tongue; his face looked as if he was going to say something horrible but held back. Poor woman, Vijayalakshmi noticed his behavior; she was lost for words. After a while, she came to and asked, “You were going to say what?”
Venkataratnam collected himself and said, “Nothing. Let it be. You spoke the truth. Why should we dwell on unimportant things and worry?” Nevertheless, while he was saying those words, the expression on his face indicated that he was hiding a secret. But Vijayalakshmi, being naïve, could not understand his secrecy. She believed his words.
He said, “I am hungry. I worked hard today, it is frustrating. Let us eat quickly and go to bed.”
Vijayalakshmi went in and changed into madi garment. She served him food, ate after he had finished eating, tidied up the kitchen, and went to bed. By then, Venkataratnam was already asleep. It was getting late. Therefore, Vijayalakshmi also decided not to pick up sewing and went to bed straight.
Since Vijayalakshmi was guileless, she fell asleep as soon as she lay down. But, Venkataratnam, being worried, could not sleep but pretended to have fallen asleep. The incident that had happened earlier at work kept him from sleeping comfortably.
Earlier that evening, because his boss Setty had been engaged in the Lakshmi puja festivities, Venkataratnam stayed longer at their home, helping them with the puja. At the time, the senior clerk, Krishnamurthy, pulled him to a side and said secretly, “Venkataratnam, I am asking your help since you are very intelligent. You promise me that you will tell not anybody about what I am going to tell you.”
Venkataratnam had known the old clerk to be a good and trustworthy person, and so, promised him to keep his secret.
Then, Krishnamurthy said, “Venkataratnam! See all this valuable jewelry they had taken out from the chest for the purpose of Lakshmi puja? These items are not much for them. They have jewelry thousand times more valuable in their store. You do not know about this, right?”
Venkataratnam could not follow where the clerk was leading yet said, “Yes, I know.”
The senior clerk: Since you know this, you should also know that the entire money is in my custody.
Venkataratnam: Yes. Setty garu trusts you immensely. Therefore, he gave you the keys to the chest.
The senior clerk: Because they have that kind of faith in me, I am engaged in an activity that will not fail them, I am sure.
The senior clerk’s words gave rise to a little suspicion in Venkataratnam’s mind. Yet he kept quiet waiting to hear what the senior clerk was going to say next.
Senior clerk: There is so much wealth, it is not wrong if we take a little of it. And Setty garu is not going to sustain a loss because of it. For us, it rids the Lady Poverty of our lives. I am a senior clerk and my salary is only fifty rupees. And for you, it is only ten rupees. You know, it is impossible for us to run our families on such small income. You need not worry that the secret might come out. I will take care of it. This suggestion of mine must be carried out before the year-end accounting is completed. There are only two more days left for that. What do you say?”
As the senior clerk continued to talk like this, Venkataratnam became irate and his eyes turned red. He wanted to stop him in the middle but swallowed his irritation and kept quiet since the man was his senior and more powerful. After the senior clerk finished his speech, Venkataratnam said, “Sir! Krishnamurthy garu! If you are suggesting this to me for fun, that is all right. If it is real, your suggestion is absolutely not acceptable to me. Since I have given you my word, I will not reveal this to anybody else though.”
From Krishnamurthy’s demeanor, it was obvious that his enthusiasm had been curtailed by the powerful argument put forth by Venkataratnam. Yet, the senior clerk was determined, and so, continued to persuade Venkataratnam.
Venkataratnam was aware of the enormous wealth of Setty yet remained steady in his stance.
The senior clerk recounted the pecuniary circumstances of Venkataratnam and the hardships his wife and children were being subjected to.
Tears started flowing from Venkataratnam’s eyes as he heard his own heartbreaking plight, narrated by the senior clerk, who was well seasoned in business dealings; he was around for a very long time. The senior clerk saw the tears and said, “Venkataratnam, what is it? Am I not correct in describing your family matters?”
Venkataratnam: (Wiping his tears) Yes. It has been like that for sometime.
The senior clerk: If so, why would you not accept my advice?
Venkataratnam: Chi. Krishnamurthy garu! Do not speak to me like that anymore. Your words cannot change my heart.
The senior clerk was well aware of human nature. He knew that if a person’s heart turned to evil, even a little, it would be very hard to bring it back to goodness, and, it would be better to give him some time to think. He said, “All right. So be it. I will not talk with you for now. You think about it all night, come back to my home tomorrow and let me know your decision. Today, it is Deepavali festival and probably you have nothing at home to celebrate. Therefore, take this one-hundred rupee note. Do not say you do not want it.” So saying, the senior clerk put the note in Venkataratnam’s pocket.
On his way home from the store, numerous thoughts rose in his heart, a committed family man, Venkataratnam. Should he or should he not do as the old man had said? The question was troubling his mind. His conscience was saying that such action would ruin his good family name. At the same time, the preaching of shrewd Krishnamurthy was coming back and encouraging him to accept clerk’s proposition. Venkataratnam reached home in that kind of mindset. You, the intelligent readers, probably had guessed by now that it was what Venkataratnam wanted to tell his wife yet was hesitant to do so.
Venkataratnam closed his eyes and pretended to be sleeping but could. As described earlier, several thoughts beset him. He had not decided what he was going to do though. He noticed that his wife had fallen asleep, rose from the bed, and started pacing. He suddenly remembered the one-hundred rupee note the senior clerk had given him, took it out from his pocket, went near the lamp, and started examining it. His face revealed that he had come to a decision. He told himself, “Yes, I will take his advice. He said it was only to help me. Is it not so?” He turned around and looked towards his wife. Then the words she had spoken a few minutes back came to his mind. He forgot at once the decision he had made earlier and told himself, “Chi. I would never do such a thing.” He looked at the children, who were sleeping next to his wife, and the sight drove away the good thought he had entertained a moment ago. He thought, “I cannot see the miseries of these little children. Besides, nobody else is going to know what I am thinking of doing.”
At that moment, Vijayalakshmi woke for some inexplicable reason and sat up.
Venkataratnam saw her, was dumbfounded, and leaned back on the wall. The note in his hand fell onto the floor.
Since Vijayalakshmi was sleeping, she was not aware of what had happened in the past few minutes. Surprised and worried, she approached her husband and asked, “What is this? Why are up now. What are you doing at this time of night? You seem to be worried since evening. Can you not tell me what is bothering you?” At the same time she saw the note on the floor. It broke her heart. She said, almost crying, “Sir! What is this? Where did it come from? Can you not tell even me wherefrom you have gotten this? Today, I have seen several bad omens. I pray, please, explain this to me.”
Since Venkataratnam was clever and also was influenced by the senior clerk’s words, he tried to persuade his wife but to no avail.
Vijayalakshmi shuddered and was anguished as she heard his words. She was angry beyond control; her eyes turned red and started shedding tears. Even in her anger, she did not think she should keep quiet because he was her husband. She was convinced that, if she ignored it now, he would take to evil ways and that would ruin him. It is her duty to stop that from happening. Thus, she decided not to keep quiet. She said harshly, “I suspect you did not earn this money by fair means. What is your reason for doing so? Have I ever bothered you for jewelry or fine clothes? Have the children ever pestered us for something or other? If that is the reason for harboring such evil thought, I swear on your feet that I will never ask for anything and make sure that children will not ask for anything. Please, be kind to us and stay away from such actions. You may say that others would not know of your action. Nevertheless, can you deceive the omniscient Lord and pursue your plan? If you do so, do you think your poor soul will be at peace as before? Can we have the same happiness with this stolen money as we do with the hard-earned ten rupees? Does it not bother you each time you touch it that you’ve gotten it through deception? Oh God! I am unable to stop your plan. I will not be able to enjoy the happiness I have been enjoying so far from the present poverty.” She could not control her sorrow. She wept pitiably.
Venkataratnam looked at her, pulled her closer to his bosom, and said, “Oh, the best sati! Your good words eliminated the gloom of ignorance from my mind. I will never do a bad deed again. We will stay poor and enjoy the pleasure the righteous path bestowed on us. Oh! Only because I have a wife of impeccable virtues, I am freed from a huge sin. You, the very personification of my life! The name Vijayalakshmi suits you well. Today, I have earned the victory in the true sense of the word. A little while ago, I was worried that I did not have Goddess Lakshmi to worship while the entire world was worshipping her. I have you, the very personification of Lakshmi right in front of me. Why should I worry about a Lakshmi made of metal? Today, I will worship only this Lakshmi.” So saying, Venkataratnam worshipped her and hugged her, who had no gold jewelry on her person yet was adorned with plausible virtues.
In that moment, Vijayalakshmi was elated and, unconsciously, leaned on his shoulder. She was worried beyond words that she had blamed her husband for no good reason. After a while, she said calmly, “You would not commit such act ever again? Is that right?”
Venkataratnam embraced her again and said that he would never do so again.
She held his feet snugly; felt that her husband had been redeemed from a huge mistake and returned to her. Venkataratnam picked her up. They both spent the rest of the night in a hearty sleep with a clean conscience.The second day, it was Naraka Chaturdasi day (The day before Diwali) and so they should be be up at the crack of dawn. Vijayalakshmi made Rukmini offer harati to her husband and son. They all had head bath.
Venkataratnam ate the piece of jaggary his wife had given him, wore clean clothes, and went to Krishnamurthy’s house. He put the hundred rupee note in front of him and said, “I will not accept your proposition,” and turned around to leave.
Krishnamurthy stopped him, asked him to sit, and said, “You wait here until I come back” and went in.
Venkataratnam sat there wondering about Krishnamurthy’s behavior. Not only that. On the previous day, Krishnamurthy was disappointed when Venkataratnam refused to go along with his plan. Now, the same Krishnamurthy seemed to be happy about it. He was pondering over the events while waiting for the senior clerk. Then he saw Krishnamurthy and with him was his boss, Setty. Venkataratnam stood up and walked towards them.
Setty walked toward Venkataratnam and said, “Venkataratnam! Well done!” and patted on his shoulder. Then added, “You are very intelligent and hard-working. Therefore, I wanted to test you to see if you are equally righteous. I asked Krishnamurthy to test you. You passed the test and also your impenetrable poverty. Yesterday, it looked like your heart was shaken a little. That was the mistake of the poverty but not yours. A man who had attempted to do an evil act but swerved away from it is a greater man than the man who had never entertained an evil thought. It is possible to commit a sin by the first person but there is no possibility at all in the case of the second person. You have earned the hundred rupees you had received yesterday by sticking to your principles. Secondly, I will promote you as an assistant to Krishnamurthy with a salary of 20 rupees per month.”
Venkataratnam heard it all. He could not be silent anymore. He did not like the praise that was being poured on him. He told them what had happened between his wife and him the night before.
Setty heard his story and was very happy. He sent for Vijayalakshmi. Setty told her, “Amma! You are Vijayalakshmi in the true sense of the term. You are like a daughter by virtue of your principles.”
Since then, Setty continued to treat Vijayalakshmi as his daughter. Venkataratnam loved his wife and treated her like a goddess. The couple enjoyed the riches they had received as a result of their courage and strength of dharma, for a very long time.
Note on translation: I tried to keep author’s tone. It was written in 1902 and Acchamamba’s style reflects the style of those days. The story depicts author’s awareness of social conditions as well as one’s both man’s as well as woman’ duty or dharma,
(The Telugu original, dhana trayodasi, was originally published in Hindusundari monthly, November 1902 and reproduced in bhumika monthly, January 2006.)
(Translated by Nidadavolu Malathi)