Suddenly, from out of nowhere, people started pouring into our town; not just a few small crowds, but a multitude of them.
Our shelter was flooded with folks day in and day out. And there were who had no room anywhere. They started cooking on somebody’s front porch. A few others set up tents near the village well. It was a chaos.
For the town’s storekeeper, it was a blessing though. He buried his head in the cash box and kept counting his earnings; he did not have time even to check which way the pin on the weighing scale was leaning.
Children could not stay home; they were bustling around, looking important and busy. Of course, how could they stay home while so many people swarmed the town? They were scurrying around, like at a wedding party, with hundreds of new faces, short braids, and tiny hairdos. The children went to receive them with great zeal. They were everywhere, like a shower of pogaDa flowers, after the tree was shaken.
For the past four or five days, people started pouring in as if it were a village fair. The town was small, I mean very small. In fact, one cannot even call it a town. Originally, a few huts were built by the roadside. And then, during the reign of the great Vijayanagar empire, two wells had been dug and a few more families had found homes, hoping that the wells would provide water for their subsistence. Then they had settled down and started cultivating the land in the area. That’s how it had become a township. Nobody cared to give it a name. The people never needed it. The Revenue department however had the land registered under the name of the village next-door. The town had one specific advantage though. Since it was located by the roadside, other villagers, on their way to the city, found it convenient for a brief stop.
On that day, Sivanna, a farm hand, had no time even to breathe. Normally, he was not a sweaty type of man; no matter how hard he had worked, he never looked tired. Now, he kept working leaning over the work on hand. He had no time to think. Still, a thing or two kept surfacing in his mind off and on, poking at his heart. Whoever could have expected that such a huge catastrophe would befall their town?
No, nobody could have expected it; but it’s not unusual though, for the Rayala seema area. There are some dim-wits who’d call it ratanaala seema [diamond ore] but, it’s a rock bed to speak the truth. There are no canals to bring in water for farming in the area; and so, the farmers have to draw water from the wells, which nearly broke their backs. Sometimes, they would have no rains for four or five years at a stretch, causing drought; the wells would dry up, and the people would have to struggle even for a morsel of food. Often the poor families are forced to leave the land, which they had trusted for centuries. They would go away to far off lands, just to stay alive. That happens when families go away in huge clusters, leaving behind the gloomy townships. That is not unusual. But the people in this particular town had never faced it, not until now.
By the end of the day, the commotion died down. Sivanna finished packing all of his landlord’s stuff in boxes.
He went home and lit up the stove. The splinters caught fire and the flames shot up. He put a pot of water on the stove, added the maize grits and covered it with a lid. Then, he sat in front of the stove, watching the flames. He watched, without batting an eyelid, as the splinters blazed and the flames enveloped the pot. Puffs of steam were escaping from under the lid; the maize was cooking, hissing softly. He picked up the ladle and stirred the maize a few times, covered it again, and lowered the flames.
Squatting there, he made up his mind; he pushed away all the thoughts that were hovering around in his head. No matter however much he had to suffer loneliness in that hut he would not leave the town; he was not going to be like the rest of them.
His landlord was leaving with his family; he did not ask Sivanna to go with him, not in so many words; but his wife said something to that effect. At the time, for some odd reason, he had thought it would be nice if he went with them. He had waited for his landlord to say the same thing but that had not happened. He had been disappointed a little but not brought it up himself. Then he considered going to some other place, by himself if not with the landlord; he could make a new life for himself, as a day laborer or something. After all, he was just one person; could he not manage somehow? He was at the prime of youth and hard-working. Then again, other thoughts took over—the thought of leaving the native soil, however worthless it was, depressed him. What kind of a relationship he had with this soil? Can’t tell! He could not explain it. He never shed a tear in his twenty-years of life; yet, today the thought of leaving this place was agonizing.
Sivanna told himself, “I am not going anywhere; I will not. The entire townspeople can go away; the town can be totally desolate and all the houses abandoned, but I am not leaving my home.” He convinced himself that all this was great—lighting up the stove by himself, washing and pouring the maize in the pot, and emptying it into his plate after it was cooked, and sitting down with his food and a slice of pickle all by himself. Sitting for hours on end like that—all that seemed interesting and pleasurable for him; it even felt like a custom he must not sidestep ever.
Sivanna finished eating, spread a mat on the front yard in the open, and lay down with his hands tucked under his head. He kept staring into the sky. The moonlight spread sparsely on his face. He dozed off.
A little after midnight, the commotion stirred up again. Sivanna could hear the noises from the wheels of the moving carts and the jingling bells around the bulls’ necks. He got up quickly, washed up and went to the landlord’s house. By then, the carts were all there, lined up. Sivanna loaded the boxes in one cart, single-handedly. The landlord’s family boarded the other two carts. Sivanna followed the carts to the outskirts of the town to bid farewell.
The landlady said to her husband, “I was hoping Sivanna would go with us.”
“Yes, that would’ve been nice. But I don’t think he would want to leave this place,” he replied, sounding casual.
Sivanna heard their conversation. He knew that those words were not spoken wholeheartedly.
That conversation would have hurt him under different circumstances but not today. He told himself again, “That’s true. I cannot leave this town and walk away.”
The carts went past the boundary line The landlord told Sivanna to turn around and go back; he shoved a ten-rupee bill in Sivanna’s hand. Sivanna did not want to accept it. He pulled back; the landlady called out for him. She said, “Look, Sivanna, this is our pleasure. Don’t say no. I am fully aware of all the things you’ve done for us; and I know this is nothing compared to that. Yet, please, don’t refuse it. Ayya 7 would be hurt. I know you don’t need this money. But later some day you might want to go somewhere and then you’ll need this. Save it for that purpose. One more thing. Keep an eye on our house.” Sivanna nodded politely.
The carts moved on. Sivanna stood there for a long time and after the carts were out of sight, turned around and went home. He did not step outside his hut for a couple of days.
In the meantime, almost all the houses in town were vacated. Even other villagers passing by stopped only for a few hours or a day and moved on. Some were on carts, some on foot, and a few older persons were carried by other men in dolis. Their animals followed behind them.
Sivanna came out of his hut on the third day; the sun was going down. He went to the village meeting place—the concrete patio—where people used to gather. He saw the three grimy stones, set to serve as a stove for the passersby. He walked a few steps but found nothing; but for a few rags and old papers; all the houses were filthy for want of care. Some of the streets were like dark tunnels; no smell from the animal sheds; no sight of greenery anywhere, not even for a sample. Sivanna kept walking, recalling the people in each house as he passed.
As he approached the well, he saw something white; it was moving. He went closer.
He was taken aback. Poor thing; probably, she escaped from the herd and returned home. “Hum, you are also like me. Leaving home is a heart breaker, right?” he thought.
The cow lifted her face and looked up. Sivanna patted on its back gently and started walking, caressing her neck. The cow followed him; she kept looking back towards the well.
“You, silly animal, looking for water? Let’s go to my place. I’ll give you all the water you can drink,” he said. Then something else occurred to him. Where could he get fodder for the cow?
The cow was walking slowly, nibbling on the blades of grass, which fell off the carts that had gone by earlier. Sivanna chuckled.
A faint layer of moonlight spread on the cow, and seemed to condense on her. Sivanna was amused that he should find this new life at this place, where humans could not survive. He wondered whom she could have belonged to, and where she had come from. There was no way for him to know.
Sivanna was walking, smiling to himself. The cow was walking behind him. Suddenly, a kind of droning sound was heard from one of the side lanes. Sivanna did not hear it but the cow did and she stopped. She bellowed; her ears pricked. Sivanna also stopped and then heard sobs coming softly from the side lane. He was taken aback.
The cow bellowed again.
Sivanna went into the lane. The houses on either side were very close to each other and the lane was too narrow; it was like a dark tunnel. He went farther and heard the cries of a little girl. He went farther quickly and found her. She, barely five-years old, wore a skirt and a blouse; she was there alone. She saw him and stood there without moving.
Sivanna’s heart moaned at the sight of the child. He was confused; whose child she could be; who could have forgotten here, from which village? There was no way he could establish her identity.
He was baffled as he thought of the series of events that had occurred in his life.
He picked up the child and held tight to his chest. He said, “Don’t cry, baby. No need to be scared. Let’s go to our home. I’ll feed you, sing lullabies and put you to bed. Okay? You’ll not cry anymore, yes? We don’t have to worry about anything. You, I and our cow—we three will be all right. Let’s not leave this town ever. This whole town is ours now. Let’s not go anywhere any time, ever again. Okay?”
The child stopped crying but was gasping for breath. The cow was walking ahead of them. Sivanna told himself, “It must be a blessing; must be fruits of my good deeds from past several lifetimes. How else can I account for these strange events—this little child coming into my life at a time when the entire country was hit with drought, the entire town starved for food, and deserted the place. I was the only one, alone and scared, to stay back; how could I explain these new relationships in my empty life?”
He pulled the child’s face closer and kissed on her forehead. The little girl put her two hands around his neck and snuggled her face in his bosom.
The heavenly bliss he felt in his heart in that moment was beyond words. Only the full-blown moon up in the sky would know!
(The Telugu original, vennela panDina veLa was published in Jwala, Translated by Malathi Nidadavolu.