It was fourteen days since the kartika month began. The moon was waxing each day and his intensely chilling beams were making the whole world shiver.
For the rich who were living in their exquisite mansions it was not a big problem. They would close all the windows and doors tight, put on wool clothes, and enjoy deep sleep, curled up under warm rugs. However, for the poor who had no clothes to cover their bodies well in this severe cold and no well-built house to live in, the life was tormenting.
In that cold winter night, when the poor, the mendicants, and the wanderers were miserable, Ramalakshmi lay down on a palm leaf mat in a hut with her two children on either side of her. The roof was run down diminishing its value as roof. She was crying and wiping tears with the tattered end of her saree. The tears were flowing endlessly. The children were complaining “mother, it is cold,” and she was trying to reassure them in a husky voice, “Hug me tight my children. In this world all you have is this wretched mother only.”
It was past three in the morning. The blistering winds were blowing horrendously. Ramalakshmi and the children rolled closer to the wall; they lay there facing the moon. The moonbeams crept on them. The blowing winds and the cool moonbeams together made the cold even more severe.
Ramalakshmi’s younger son, Rangadu, screamed, “Amma! I am cold.”
“Don’t cry, my child” Ramalakshmi said, pulling him closer. His body felt cold like a stick. Ramalakshmi became nervous and yelled, “Oh, no. He is like a stick, oh god, what happened?” She called out worriedly, “Ranga! Ranga!” a few times. Ranga did not respond.
Ramalakshmi was drained up. “Oh, my child, why don’t you talk to me?” she started crying loudly.
The eldest son was woken by mother’s cries and asked, “Mother, why are you crying?”
“Son, your little brother is stiff; he is not talking. It seems he is not alive,” she said, crying. What else is there to say? Mother and son kept crying loudly, calling “Ranga, Ranga”.
The neighbors were woken by their cries. “Poor Ramalakshmi, she is crying. We do not know the reason though,” they told each other and came running to her.
“Ramalakshmi, why are crying?” they asked.
“What can I say? My family has gone from riches to rags, my husband died, yet I am living only for the sake of these two babies. I thought that these two boys are my wealth. Today god pokes my eye, robs me of even this bit of luck. He set fire in my heart,” she said, showing Rangadu and wailing.
“Alas,” some said and approached the body and felt his pulse. What’s there? Just a stick.
Somebody suggested, “Maybe it is the baby syndrome. He will come back to life if you burn his forehead.”
Somebody else dismissed it saying, “How can the baby syndrome afflict a seven-year-old?”
A few others defended the first argument, “Sure it will. The baby syndrome may afflict a child even at ten or twelve-year.”
“Alright. Let me burn him with my cigar,” one man came forward with his cigar lit up.
An old man stopped him and reprimanded all of them, “Have you all lost your minds? Why brand him? Look around. The cold blast is freezing our cheeks. See how the moon is spreading his cold beams; the boy is lying on a nippy mat with no sheets under or over him. Especially tonight it hopelessly cold! Poor child; he is freezing. No need to burn him. Make fire with dried palm leaves and give him some warmness. He will wake up.”
They all agreed that the old man’s words sounded right. Immediately, they made fire, and applied warmth to the child’s body using their palms as heating pads. After ten minutes, the boy’s body softened slightly. He moved a bit. People around felt relieved. They said to the mother, “Ramalakshmi! Your child has come to.”
After a few minutes, Ranga opened his eyes and said, “Amma, why is it hot in here?”
“Oh, my little child, you are alive,” Ramalakshmi said and hugged him with immeasurable joy.
For several generations, dyeing had been the family calling for Venkataswami, [Ramalakshmi’s husband]. In the past, it had been a small business in the times of his father and grandfather. His father and grandfather had never been to the coastal areas to do business. In their time, they dyed the yarn and the clothes given by the businessmen in their own village and returned to the same people after they had finished dyeing. Because they were pliant, they were able to make a little money; they never suffered huge losses. They had owned a little land and chattel, which earned them the title, “respectable family.”
Ramaswami was twenty-year-old young man when his father died. He was studying the Intermediate first year along with the other Vaisya boys in his village. After his father’s death, the family business became his responsibility. Venkataswami took up the family vocation. His friendship with the Vaisya boys helped him to develop an interest in business and his English education contributed to foster independent views.
After he started in business, Venkataswami did not appreciate the independent contract system, by which he bought the dyes from the local merchants and used them to dye clothes and returned them to the same merchants. He entertained another thought—he could buy the dyes and the clothes from merchants in Bombay, produce clothes in various colors, imprint several beautiful designs and borders with dots and vines, and not only sell them in the Telugu region but also export to other areas like Bombay, Hyderabad, Rangoon, and Simhalam [Sri Lanka]. At once, he took out several thousand rupees in loan and made arrangements to go to Bombay, with great enthusiasm and without knowing consequences—a trait so common in youth.
Several of his friends and relatives tried to dissuade him. They said, “You are young and unfamiliar with the tricks of the trade. These kinds of huge business dealings are befitting only to those merchants but not for us.” Venkataswami was so excited about his business prospects he would not listen to any of their pleas.
Venkataswami went to Bombay, made arrangements to have bundles of clothes and dyes delivered to his place, paid a sum in advance and returned home. After he returned from Bombay, his aspirations for business became even keener. He got carried away by the business acumen he had noticed in the merchants in Bombay. He decided that if he wanted to become rich, the only way was to do business on a large scale.
After he returned from Bombay, he set up huge stalls in the open area on the outskirts of the village. He went around to other cities like Bandar [Masulipatam], Nellore, Kakinada, and Madhurai and recruited workers highly skilled in dyeing beautifully, and creating fascinating dotted designs and borders.
By the end of the first year, the decorated clothes produced by Venkataswami became popular all over the country. Big advertisements in magazines such as, “Fast colors that stay even after the clothes are worn out; lightweight clothes; and, reasonable prices” made his name spread even more. Usually, things do not stack up to the ads in the papers and for the same reason people do not trust them. In the case of Venkataswami however it was different. His clothes were as good as the ads. There was no compromise in the colors or the prices. For that reason, merchants and the public trusted him.
Venkataswami was successful because of his integrity. The loan he had taken was paid off. His business grew like the waxing moon, and much to the dismay of those who had ridiculed him at the outset.
Ten years went by like this without fail. The dyed clothes of Venkataswami & Sons company were famous all over the world. His business started with a loan of five thousand rupees, and everybody said, as if their blessing for him was fail. “Sure to fail, sure to fail”, they said yet his business spread even to the remote villages in all regions. Venkataswami’s painted clothes adorned every gorgeous woman and every dandy man.
Where is the shortage for money when the business is booming? Venkataswami became a wealthy man with all the things he would wish to have. His old home with tiled roof turned into a three-storey mansion. It was filled with several modern fancy items such as silk sofas, full-length mirrors, tape cots, swings, tables, chairs, silverware, brought from big cities like Madras and Bombay. The beauty of the house was enhanced by several exuberant items. That being the case, no need to mention the ornaments the wife and children had on them!
Now Venkataswami was a prominent businessman. In the hallway of his house, you would always find two clerks sitting with two boxes in front of them and busy noting down the income and expenses related to his business. Venkataswami would sit in a chair in front of a desk, spending his time answering the business-related questions asked by the clerks, talking with the people who came to pay a visit to him, and giving donations to the people in a befitting manner. Recently, based on his wealth and influence, Venkataswami was also given some positions in local organization, although he never asked for them. He carried out his duties in those positions courteously and thus earned the respect of one and all.
Ramalakshmi was a befitting wife to Venkataswami. There was some resemblance between the two possibly because they were cousins. Ramalakshmi was just as honest as Venkataswami. She was as modest as her husband; and, was just as generous as he was.
The hungry might not get food anywhere else but they always received food in Ramalakshmi’s home. Babies might not be able to receive milk in other houses but their stomachs were always filled in Ramalakshmi’s home. There was no dearth for chattel in their house. She would pour buttermilk to every one that came to her door. Thus people from all castes were getting something or other every day from dawn to dusk when they came to her home. Thus the young couple had good life with limitless riches, and the good qualities untainted by pride or greed. Everybody in the village, young and old alike loved them.
Two more years passed. It was the year …. [Sic.]. The horrendous war started in Europe. In India where the country was dependent on other countries for everything, even for a small thing like a pin, every thing became more expensive. Especially for the dyes made in Germany and the clothes made in Manchester and Lancaster, the prices went up exceedingly high. The Mull cloth, which was sold six yards for one rupee earlier, was now selling one yard for one rupee. The dye bottles which sold thirty rupees a piece were now three hundred rupees.
In big businesses, there are not many variations. If you make it you are a prince, if not, you are pauper. One must possess the quality needed to weather these two variants.
Venkataswami was flabbergasted by this unforeseen disaster in prices. He had guaranteed the same price for three years to the merchants in Bombay. The merchants had paid advances for the same. Therefore, regardless of the high prices he was forced to pay for the dyes, he was required to sell the clothes for the same price previously agreed upon. Venkataswami’s heart flustered as he mulled over of his situation. On the other side, he had made the same kind of arrangement with the people from whom he was buying clothes and so he would be able to pay the same cost for the clothes as well. He felt a little consolation in the thought that he might be able to break even if not earn profits. His business continued thus for a while.
In the face of unfavorable winds, the sail would not go as smoothly as one would hope for. He thought he would be paying high prices for the dyes only and would be buying clothes at the old rates. But when the prices for the dyes went up several times higher, how could the business be as usual? The boat called ‘business’ was caught up in the upsetting current of the capital and began encountering hurdles. As the heat from the battle became unbearable, how could the rivulet called ‘cash’ go on? When there was no enough water, how could the boat stay afloat? For a few months now, Venkataswami’s heart was sinking. He went on mulling over endlessly.
His rivals who could not relish his success reveled in the thought that he was nearly crushed to the netherworld.
His friends felt sorry for him and said, “Poor man! Sad he had to go through these hardships.”
When the Lord Siva was on his side, there was no reason to think of the other minor gods. But now Siva himself became his challenger.
Venkataswami was a smart man. One could even say that his business acumen was much better than that of any Vaisya boy. Venkataswami came up with an idea. He thought that this would be a good time to revive the locally grown blue pigment crops. The local pigments were neglected up until now because of the recent craze for the foreign dyes. Venkataswami decided that using the local blue pigment would help him in carrying on his business without break. He started using them, and also came up with a few other tricks but nothing helped him to regain the success he had enjoyed previously.
It was half-way through the Vaisakha month. The summer days were blistering hot. It was not letting people to show their faces outside even at four in the afternoon. The sun was spitting fire. The wind was sizzling hot.
On one such scorching hot day, Venkataswami lay on his expensive bed, fanning himself with a palm-leaf fan and sipping cold water from the clay water jug. A vetiver [khas] mat hung from the top of the window was kept wet by water sprinkled on it. He was enjoying the cool breeze coming from the mat and was lost deep in thought.
Ramalakshmi sat close by on a small mat. Her eldest son was sleeping next to her. The second son would not sleep. She sat him in her lap and was playing with him. She did not want him to run into the sun outside.
Suddenly they heard footsteps on the staircase. Ramalakshmi picked up her little child and stood up to see who was coming. Venkataswami, jolted out of his thoughts by the footsteps, sat up on the bed.
The man came in. He broke into sobs and said, “Ayya! Somebody set fire to our dyes sheds. The flames are overwhelming.”
“Ah, God! What is this? A ringworm clobbered by a pestle,” he said and collapsed on the bed.
“Oh god!” said Ramalakshmi and collapsed on the floor.
Ramalakshmi’s life was somehow saved after people sprinkled water on her face and fanned gently, but Venkataswami’s life ended.
The bundles of the Mull cloth stacked up to the roof, bundles of yarn and the dyed clothes—all were burned to ashes along with the pigment barrels. What a heartbreaking occurrence!
“Oh God! Both the life and the riches are gone in one stroke!” they all cried. Not only Ramalakshmi but the entire village, the young and the old alike, wept inconsolably. Venkataswami’s life spelled out the transient nature of wealth and breath. Those dim-witted people who pride themselves on their earthly possessions may take a good hard look at this occurrence and open their eyes!
There were debts to collect and the debts to pay. Some of them were given as hand-loans (unsecured loans) and others backed by promissory notes. Some of the down payments were paid while others yet to be paid. Venkataswami expanded his business to all corners of the country and breathed his last.
The woman was wailing miserably. She was helpless and vulnerable. Poor woman! What could Ramalakshmi do? Her sons were still babies. Who could protect Venkataswami’s property?
Bombay merchants were extremely shrewd. After Venkataswami died, within a week, they came and auctioned everything down to the pans. They dragged Ramalakshmi, who’d never been exposed to the sun, into the street along with her little kids. They seized the mansion, the gardens and the fields.
Amidst this horrific scene, there was not one person Ramalakshmi could count on. What a heartrending situation! Neither Venkataswami nor Ramalakshmi had parents or siblings. Ramalakshmi had a step-brother but he was a farmer; he had no knowledge of business dealings.
Ramalakshmi had given a few items to the neighbors for safekeeping and they disappeared on the spot. The pieces of jewelry left in the care of relatives were gone the same way. What happened to all those friends and relatives who had groveled for help in the past? Not one person came to her door and consoled her. In these frightening times, even the Brahmin accountants who had worked for Venkataswami grabbed as much as they could. Additionally, they gave away various details of his possessions to his creditors in exchange for gifts. Is it not what we call swamidroham [cheating the benefactor]?
In all, the ultimate result was, there was nothing left of Venkataswami but Ramalakshmi and her two sons. His riches were wrecked one hundred thousand times as fast as accumulated.
Thus the entire world of Ramalakshmi crumbled. While she was careworn thus, a man came to her door.
He said, “Amma! Your husband had a great heart. When I was struggling for money to perform my son’s wedding, he gave me five hundred rupees. He did not ask for a note but I accepted it as a loan only. I could not repay him while he was alive. Now your family is ruined. I feel comfort in the thought that I have repaid his debt if this money helps you any way.” So saying, he gave her the five hundred rupees and three hundred more in interest. Of all the debts Ramalakshmi was supposed to receive, this amount of eight-hundred was the only one repaid. Ramalakshmi received it not as a loan repaid but as a huge gift.
Out of the eight hundred rupees she had received, she spent one hundred rupees to buy a strip of land, and another hundred to build a small hut and buy the necessary pots, pan, rice, dal and other items for the home. She moved into her the hut. She found a man she could trust and handed over the rest of the money to him for safekeeping.
There is no way to describe the hardships the poor in India suffered because of the severe shortage of food and clothing caused by the European War. For those who could barely afford the grains at three sers [quantitative measurement] for a rupee, it became even harder to buy clothes. The poor people suffered unbearable pain; they wore tattered clothes, wrapped straw mats to cover themselves, even jute rags at times.
In these horrendous conditions, Ramalakshmi and her children who had enjoyed a wealthy life before had to anguish beyond words. They had a few rupees but how long that money would last for a mother and two children? The children had been raised with tender loving care up until now; they were still green. So they would bother the mother for this and that. Poor Ramalakshmi, she would try to tell them with tearful eyes that they could not afford those things anymore.
Ramalakshmi was a gentle woman who cherished her dignity. She was waited on by others but never waited on others herself. She had given things to others but never asked others for anything. It was so hard for such a woman of high self-esteem to go begging. Yet, bad times befell her. As the saying goes, stomach knows no bounds and poverty knows no shame. She had to do whatever it took to protect her children. She was able to manage for one and a half years with the six hundred rupees she had. After that, she had to accept whatever work she could get; it was like selling wood in the same town where she sold flowers. Now she was going door to door and beseeching housewives, “Amma, I will grind flour for you or sew blouses. Please, let me do whatever work you can and save my children.”
The women, who had seen Ramalakshmi in the best of times, were moved by her entreaties. They agreed to give her work and pay her accordingly.
Ramalakshmi’s and the children’s clothes were all falling apart. Where could she find the money to buy clothes? It was hard enough to eat, how could she buy clothes? On top of it, due to the gusty winds and the rains at the beginning of the kartika month, some of the palm leaves on the roof were damaged. Was Ramalakshmi in a position to have the roof repaired? Was it not the reason her child turned stiff? Oh readers! Do you remember the incident that had been described in the first chapter?
In the morning after her child had thus become stiff, Ramalakshmi woke up early, cooked food and gave it to the two children; she was constantly worried about their situation. She was grinding flour for money. She was deeply perturbed about her stressful circumstances, “I do not have a red paisa to buy a sheet to cover my kids. If I do not buy the sheets, how can I protect these little kids from this treacherous cold?”
For Ramalakshmi, to step outside seeking day-labor was humiliating but grinding flour was not an easy task and the money was not much either. Ramalakshmi being weak could not grind more than two sers of grain a day. For grinding one ser of the grains, the pay was one anaa. The pay was the same for sewing a blouse; for ordinary blouse the charge was one half of an anaa; for buttoned blouse one anaa; and, one anaa for a small shirt. Even if she worked day and night, she wound not be able to earn more than two anaas. She could not make even three anaas in all yet three stomachs were to be filled. See how terrible their situation was!
Ramalakshmi was grinding flour and brooding over her heartrending conditions. She heard the sounds of drums from outside. Lost in her own misery, Ramalakshmi did not pay attention to what the drummer was shouting about.
Her two children, each holding a piece of paper, came in running. Each was screaming jubilantly, “Amma, see, paper … paper … I got it from the drummer.”
However difficult the situation is, for mothers, seeing their children’s faces is always a relief from sorrow!
Ramalakshmi asked the little one gently, “Ranga! Am I not your mother? Won’t you show me your paper?”
Ranga held the paper to his chest tight and said with a pout, “Why can’t brother show you his paper?”
The older son showed the paper in his hand and said, “Here is my paper, read this first, Amma!”
Ranga who had said mother should read the brother’s paper first infterfered again.
Ramalakshmi was touched by Ranga’s mischief, pulled him to her bosom and said lovingly, “Ranga! You are such a naughty boy.”
Ramalakshmi was good at reading. She hoped that the paper brought in by her sons would provide some respite from her penury conditions.
That was … [Sic.] year. In Andhra Pradesh, the passive resistance movement was at its peak. Whichever way you turned, there was a khadi society! Wherever you laid eyes, there was a handloom industry set up; anti-liquor protests were everywhere; schools for nationalist education; village fairs for indigenous items, meetings; charka, spindles, and cotton yarn in every house— everywhere that was all one could hear about!
This movement which had spread through out the country reached naturally Ramalakshmi’s village also. A branch of nationalist movement was established in her village too. They started a nationalist school also. A khadi industry was set up. Flyers distributed all over the village. The flyers stated that they would supply the spinning wheels, yarn, and spindles; also promised to pay a quarter of a rupee per veesa [measurement by weight]; they would also pick up the finished products themselves. They also promised one more quarter if the if the whorls were wound, more if the yarn was fine; they also offered to teach those who were new at the wheel. They announced that the spinning wheel would be a golden opportunity, a wish-granting tree, for the poor women who preferred to stay home and make a living.
The papers Ramalakshmi’s sons brought into the home were the same flyers. Ramalakshmi read it and thought, “I work all day and yet cannot make two annaas. I may make that much by working on the wheel. Also, if I work on the spinning wheel, I will be spared the trouble of going from home to home, bringing the grains, grinding and again going back to those homes to deliver the flour. If I work at night and spin more yarn, maybe, I will have clothes for the children too. Therefore, let me try and see what happens!”
Ramalakshmi reflected on these lines and had a letter drafted by Ramu (the eldest son) saying, “I am willing to work on the spinning wheel. Kindly send me a spinning wheel, whorls, and a person to teach me how to use it.” She sent the letter with Ramu to the industry office.
The next day, Reddy Kotamma brought a spinning wheel and cotton whorls to Ramalakshmi’s house. Ramalakshmi learned how to use the wheel from that woman in ten days. Even the first day she laid hand on the wheel, she could spin the thread easily.
Ten days passed by. She became quite skilled at her work. The handloom officer noticed the very fine thread Ramalakshmi had produced, was very happy and sent word to Ramalakshmi, “We would display your yarn in the khadi exhibition at the national conference to be held in Ahmedabad in a couple of months. You use these two months to practice to produce very beautiful yarn.”
Ramalakshmi continued to work on the spinning wheel with great enthusiasm. The industry office started paying more money for Ramalakshmi’s yarn. Ramalakshmi put her children in the native school. Since she did not have to go around door to door collecting grain and grinding flour, she stayed home and kept spinning yarn continually.
It was Sankranti day, the festival day of all festivals. In our Telugu country, Sankranti is a joyous festival. This is the time when the farmer brings the produce, after a year-long hard work on the fields and sees the results of his labor; this is the time the poor who yearn for rice will have a good meal. This is the festival when the rich and the poor feel contented equally. During this festival, the walls are painted, the doors are decorated with turmeric and kumkum, and mango leaves are hung on door frames—each house is made to look a delightfully welcome place. This is the time people can watch the abounding riches and the unparalleled beauty of nature and revel in. The extent of this festival is seen more in the villages than in the cities.
All the houses were dazzlingly beautiful. Everybody was happy. The festive spirit was obvious all over the place. Yet, the hut of our Ramalakshmi remained the same. It was still the hut with tattered roof, and her clothes the same worn out rags. There was no difference.
It was nine o’clock in the morning. Ramalakshmi was at the spinning wheel. The little son was hanging on to her back and whimpering, “Amma, won’t you get me a new shirt? Won’t you celebrate the festival in our home?”
Ramalakshmi was trying to persuade him, “My child Ranga! Don’t interrupt my work on the spinning wheel.”
The little boy would not listen. “You won’t make sweets for any festival, and no new clothes either. All the others have new clothes,” he started crying aloud.
Poor Ramalakshmi could not control her grief. The thought of good times in the past came to her mind. Her heart anguished immensely, like the great ocean subjected to riotous, gusty winds. The sorrow within her rose like the waves in the sea. With tears streaming down her cheeks, she hugged her son and said, “Child, what can I do? By the time you are old enough to ask, my hands are like this, helpless. If your father was alive, he would have rewarded many Brahmins in the name of our forefathers, would have donated clothes to several people, food to the poor, and clothes to many more. Brahmins used to come to our home for gifts even from the neighboring villages. I don’t know what happened to all the blessings showered by all those Brahmins in his time. Where are the fruits of those charitable acts—those donations of clothes, foods and money. Today the children of that generous man are wanting for clothes and a piece of sweets. He was a born king; that is why his life went well. God took him away in a snap so he did not have to suffer poverty. They say that a man’s way of dying speaks for his good deeds. Your father’s death certainly vouches for his integrity. How can we, the wretched, receive that golden state? We barely have gruel to eat; how can we expect sumptuous meals and new clothes?” So saying, Ramalakshmi broke into huge sobs. Ranga also started crying along with his mother.
Poor mother! Where are the people who would comfort her?
Click here for informative article on Kanuparti Varalakshmamma garu.
(The Telugu original, kuteeralakshmi, was published in Andhra Patrika, ugaadi issue, 1924.)
Nidadavolu Malathi and published on thulika.net, January 2009.
 The Telugu word is chinna bidda gunam, an ailment similar to tetanus. In India, it is common practice to burn the child’s forehead with cigarette in an attempt to revive him.