It was a great day for Kunti[i]. He earned a bagful of rice; that is almost two pounds. For him, it is a special holiday; the bag, filled with two pounds of rice, was hanging heavily from his shoulder and rubbing against his thigh. His face glowed with content. He would not have to worry about food for the next ten days.
Kunti went to the mango grove on the outskirts, hopping with his crippled legs. He gathered a few dried sticks for fire. He also had three mangoes, stolen earlier. He returned to the shelter, and set three stones for a make-shift stove. He pulled the clay pot from his bag and started cooking.
The red flames surged and enveloped the pot. His body, cold and curled up until now, started to unwind. He lit up a tobacco roll; the smoke filled his heart. He felt the heavy rice bag against his thigh to his heart’s content. The rice on the stove was simmering.
“Erry!” he called out.
Erry and her dad, a leper, made their home at the other end of the patio. Erry heard his voice and came to him.
“Bring your soup dish, please?”
“What kind of soup? Ho, ho!” said Erry, with bright face.
“What kind? Mango and nelli leaf.”
Erry noticed the heavy rice bag sitting nicely by his side. Hopes filled her head, “Seems like you’ve made a bundle today. Must have seen some lucky face this morning!”[ii] she said.
“Somebody lit up campfire early in the morning. The first thing I saw in that light was your bright face,” he replied.
“Couldn’t you think of something better even the day you can afford? Stupid nelli leaf. Get some fish at least. I would have bought meat, you know,” she said teasingly, staring at the item in the pot.
“Oh, no. The entire bag of rice would be gone in a snap. I want this rice to get me through for a couple of weeks.”
“Why? Won’t you go out tomorrow again? How big a stomach you have anyways? Three cups are plenty. Come on, get some fish,” she said. With that, Erry summed up the entire philosophy of the beggars community—the fundamentals of their economics. All that a beggar needs is three cups of rice to get by on any given day; and any beggar can get that much, if he or she could find one or two generous women on their route. That thought gives a lot of strength to the people in their community.
Kunti got up, and hopped his way to the old woman’s store.
The old woman sells groceries, vegetables, and firewood to the beggars. She gives him some dried fish and other spices for the soup in exchange for a cup of rice.
Erry brought her soup dish.
“Hey, can I ask you something?” she said.
“I know what you are going to ask,” he replied.
“Dad is sick. He could not go out for over three days now.”
“No. I will not.”
“I am not asking you for free. Let me borrow the rice today. Next time you are short, you can take from us.”
“No. I will not.”
“Hey, come on.”
“You go and ask that horse-cart driver. You like him.”
“You idiot! The horse-cart driver has left me.”
“Go away. He lets you sit in his cart, and wields his whip with tussles; you like that. Go to him.”
“He is married now.”
“Then, go to the other bum. I am no good; you think even that bum is better than I. An, you ask me for rice?”
“Do you know what the bum had done? One day, at midnight he got drunk, and came on to me. ‘What would you say?’ he asked me. ‘Give me a rupee,” I said. ‘Do I look like I have a rupee on me?’ he said. Then, I told him to go and get more drunk. He looked around furtively, like he was being vigilant, and then pulled out a rupee. The bums are crooks, you know. They have a lot of money. You tell me, is there anything you had ever given me?”
“What do I have to give you?”
“Whatever you have …”
“If I have …”
“What are going to do with all that rice?”
“Okay, take it. I am telling you, you must keep your word, though.”
That night Kunti begged Erry in any number of ways; he wanted to marry her desperately. He promised her that he would move in with them, and stay with them, if only she agreed to marry him and cook for him. Erry was touched.
The next day, Erry and Kunti cooked their meals together, and sat down to eat. Erry cooked fish soup again. All the other beggars in the shelter relished the fine aroma from her soup. The old man was down with fever; he also was woken by the smell.
“Who is he?” he asked Erry.
“Right from here, you know Kunti,” she replied.
“Why is he here?”
“We did the cooking together.”
“Yes, Maama[iii]. We are together,” Kunti replied.
The old man looked at him, gruffly. “You dirty rogue, get out of my sight,” he shouted.
“Why are you mad? I am not all that bad, you know,” Kunti said.
“I know alright. Get out of my face, you low life.”
Kunti was ruffled. “Are you calling me a low life? I am a Kapu boy[iv]; probably you don’t know. Ha! You are talking like your girl is a princess. She slept with that horse-cart driver. That driver is a Mala boy,” Kunti yells back with a gruff.
The old man stood and and kicked the soup bowl. It turned into a big brawl. The other beggars intervened and calmed them down. Kunti left, hopping away.
“Couldn’t you find a better guy than that idiot? I am going to find a man, the right one for you,” the old man guffawed and left.
Kunti returned. “Did you hear what your dad had said?” he asked her.
“What can I do?” Erry said, weakly.
“You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do.”
“What are you suggesting?”
“Come with me.”
“What do you mean where? Anywhere. We have all the way up to Rameswaram[v], our world has no bounds.”
“What about the old man?”
“He is not your problem.”
“What do you mean?”
“Let him take care of himself.”
“Gosh, you scoundrel! You want me to leave the sick man, and fool around with you?”
“Only, if you like.”
“Go, go away,” she screamed.
Kunti curled up in a corner, lay down like a caterpillar, and covered himself with a gunnysack.
Erry poured the soup in a bowl, picked up a couple of peppers as a side dish, and went to Kunti, and woke him up.
“Here, you had better eat it, before my dad came back. I can’t take his hollering.”
“Go away, I don’t want your food,” Kunti said. He did not get up. Erry kept imploring, but he would not listen.
The old man returned, with Guddi[vi] and called out, “Erry, come here.
“Cook for three people, today. Guddi is here; remember him?”
Erry knew him. Long time ago, they all went to Srikurmam on a pilgrimage.
“How are you?” Guddi said.
“What can I say? The old man is sick,” Erry replied.
“Well, he is getting old,” Guddi said, in a matter-of-fact tone.
“Yeah, that is true,” Erry said.
“Erry, starting today, we three are family. Cook for all the three of us,” the old man said.
Erry was ticked off; she was beside herself. She was aware that the old man had brought her into this world, and has been taking care of her; now, he is suggesting her marriage with the blind man; the old man is unable to see that Kunti is a fine man, and that he is crazy about her. The fact that the old man pushing away Kunti annoyed her. She failed to see her dad’s logic. What is the point? She cannot say ‘no’; she has to go along with dad’s proposition. He raised her.
At the other end of the patio, Kunti curled up like a rolled straw mat. He did not eat. She cooked his rice and the thought was killing him.
“Erry, you are really stupid[vii]. I am telling you, you don’t understand, you really are stupid,” the old man said.
Erry was ready to break down.
“You, come here,” the old man took her to a side, and asked her, “Did you see Guddi, I mean, did you take a good look at him?”
Of course, she saw him. She had known him for a long time. His body was dark like a boulder; and he covered his forehead with a huge smack of white paste; his eyeballs, popped up like cotton balls, and hung from his eye sockets; she was scared of his looks.
“Yes. I have seen him,” Erry replied, scratching her thigh.
“You are stuck on Kunti,” the old man said, teasingly.
“I am not stuck on anybody,” she replied.
“Come on, tell the truth. Tell me, really.”
“I don’t know.”
“You want Kunti.”
“Whatever you say…”
“Now, we are talking. That is good; that’s how the world sees it, you know. Listen to me,” the old man said.
Of course, she would listen. What other choice she has? If he says jump, she has to jump; he says take him, she has to take him. She is not free to say ‘no’, even when her heart is set elsewhere. She has no strength to rebel; it is not in her nature. Where is he getting his strength from? An old man, rotting with leprosy and on the verge of death, yet powerful enough to dictate terms to her. The parents who raise children will earn that power over their children. The children show kind of respect toward parents.
“Did I say no?” Erry said.
“You tell me the difference between the two men,” he asked her.
“Kunti is brawny; Guddi looks scary.”
“Don’t I look scary with all these sores? How come you are not scared of me? You have no problem feeding me?”
“You are my dad!”
“I am okay ‘cause I am your dad; well, he will be okay too after you are married to him. You start living with him, and he turns out to be okay. Kunti is no good for you.”
“Why not?” she asked dad.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean is he not good enough to bring home three cups of rice a day?”
“That is exactly my point. Listen to me,” the old man said, and delivered a long sermon, encapsulating the entire philosophy of the panhandlers community in that brief speech:
“I don’t want you to blame me later and say I did not take care of you while I was alive. You will not be happy if you go with Kunti. Listen carefully, and mark my words now. Check them again after a decade or so. When a cripple goes out for begging, people shut the door in his face. Nobody is kind to a cripple. He will be living off of you; he will sell you to other men. On the had, the blind man is a charmer, a prince without eyes. That is the biggest plus in his favor. Everybody will be kind to him. Women are kind to blind men; they will gladly give rice to a blind man. Besides, he is a great singer. He knows so many lyrics. You take him to some street corner, spread a sheet in front of him, and you wander away as you please. When he starts thumping his cymbals and singing, I am telling you, he will make a rupee a day, at the least. That is your proof. You see his body? He is strong like a shovel; he is not like me, you know, no diseases, no problems, not so much as a sneeze. He will have no problem earning enough for both of you. And also, he will be counting on you for help, he has to; and so, he will live by your rules. He will not bother you; no matter where you go, what you do. You can do anything you want, and he could not care less… Do you see what I mean? Wouldn’t you agree?”
“What can I say?” Erry mumbled.
“Just listen to me. Don’t let go of him.”
“Okay, I won’t.”
“Nobody really knows this big secret. All the beggar girls must go around looking for blind men, and marry only blind men, if you ask me.”
Erry and her dad returned to the shelter.
“Hey, Guddi! Erry has agreed. I am sure she will not change her mind,” the old man told Guddi jubilantly. Guddi was ecstatic. For a man like him, to have a woman like Erry is a blessing!
He went to Erry, pulled out the stash he kept tied to his waist, and said, “Erry, here is my bag. Take this money and buy yourself anklets.”
It was a huge bag, filled with loose change. Erry’s eyes dazzled as she looked at the hoard. She did not expect Guddi to be that rich.
“I want red beads necklace,” she said. She had been dreaming about a red bead necklace for a long time.
“Then, you buy the red bead necklace and also silver anklets. That is what makes a woman a woman—her anklets, you know. Anklets adds to a woman’s beauty very much,” he said. The sounds of anklets probably awaken sweet thoughts in a blind man!
“Alright. Let’s go, have something to eat,” the old man said.
Erry served food for all the three, and handed Guddi his bowl.
“That’s my girl. Feed him well, and serve some for me too. You two together, make my day. I am telling you, Erry, do not let go of the blind man. Then, you make me happy as long as I live,” the old man said.
[The Telugu Original, Empu was first published in Arasam special issue in September 1945 and included in the anthology, Chaso kathalu, 1968. Translated by Nidadasvolu Malathi and published on thulika.net, June 2002.]
Translator’s note: The story shows us the economic philosophy underlying the beggars’ lifestyle, the choices they make, and their rationalization–a mode of thinking that is normally attributed to the middle class in our society. The author underscores the universality of this theme—the parent’s anxiety about a daughter’s welfare and the inherent desire for a better life in general, present in all human beings regardless of their economic status.
The one sentence in the story, “The old man’s speech is Upanishad for the beggar community: upanyaasam mushTi lokaaniki upanishattu ” sums up author’s perception of their reality.
[i] Literally, a crippled person. The physical disabilities are used as proper nouns in this story.
[ii] A common belief that the first face a person sees in the morning could affect one’s luck for the day. In Telugu: mukha visesham, or, evarimoham chusaano/choosaavo.
[iii] Kunti uses relational term maama, suggestive of proposed marriage.
[iv] Kapu and Mala are subcastes. The speaker is referring to the hierarchy, high and low, within the lower castes.
[v] A temple town in South India.
[vi] Literally Guddi means a blind person. Like Kunti, Guddi is used as a proper noun.
[vii] Erry literally means stupid.