A Fleck of Cloud by Kalyanasundari Jagannath

At a distance, a tiny fleck of cloud appeared over the farmland.

Bhagyam put the water pot on the floor near the front door. She is feeling a shower of nectar at her
heart. At once, she shuddered. What if he had misunderstood her? The idiot I am! What’s come over
me? Why did laugh so loud? What was I thinking? I should have stopped myself, should have kept my
calm. She recalled the incident at the lake that has happened ten minutes back. She is standing at the door, lost in thought.
At the lake, she filled the pot, pulled it up to her knee and looked up. There, Seshayya was standing on the road, at the fork-split. She had known him since her childhood days; they used to play together. So many times, his friends and her friends had fought for the green mung bean sprouts on the farms. But, after her marriage, Bhagyam cut him off. That’s why she could not understand why he stopped on the street? It looked like he wanted to talk to her. Why? Bhagyam had turned away; and lifted the water pot to her shoulder.
“Peddiraju is coming,” he said. Bhagyam’s face blossomed like a lotus. She couldn’t speak for a second. She kept staring at him. She burst into a big laugh. Then again, she collected herself, calmed down.Seshayya was puzzled, for a second, she was being silly; he held back his smile and moved on. He walked a few steps, and said again, “I saw him at the Ramavarappadu bus stop. He came to see off his boss; I heard him say I’ll go home this evening. I called out for him but he couldn’t hear me, with all the buses roaring. He didn’t even look at me. Here I saw you and felt like telling you.” Then he walked away.
Bhagyam took a few seconds; collected herself and whisked the pot and set it on her shoulder, the pot is light today. She hurried home to cook and clean, need to the entire house; he is coming from the city! The house has to be spic and span! Or else, Bava would feel let down. Bhagyam was walking, mulling over; he heart is bustling with joy. The same stupid joy that had made her to lose her cool in front of Seshayya.Bhagyam went in, lit the stove; she poured rice into the winnow to clean. She could hear the jingling bells from the bulls’ necks next door and the yelling of the farmhands. The farm animals must be
crunching fodder cheerfully. Bhagyam is tidying up, singing softly.
            A fleck of cloud hung over Mangalagiri
Down came the rain on Tirupati hills
Attayya used to sing that song in Bhagyam’s childhood. She is trying to recall the other lines.Heavy rain’s pouring down the pillars Silver seat of Venkanna is soaked wet Golden patio of Mangamma is soaked wet Subbulu, the Munsif’s daughter, came from the city to visit her mother briefly. She heard Bhagyam singing. Craning her neck over the fence, asked, “Akka, what’s new, singing? Is Bava coming?”
Bhagyam bent down her head, hiding a tiny smile.
“So, it’s true. Why didn’t you tell me?” Subbulu asked again. Bhagyam looked up but said nothing.
“Why? You’re looking so skinny!” Subbulu said, opening he eyes big, and added, laughing, “Well, you know what they say—some women are gorgeous even when they’re skinny, and dainty fabric is fine even when it’s filthy.”
Bhagyam wondered. Has Bava lost weight too? Who’s there to feed him in the city? And he is not the kind to ask for this or that. He’s his own cook! Then, she thought of the saree; she has been thinking of a lightweight saree; that has been on her mind ever since she had seen Subbulu wearing them. She was especially taken by that black handloom saree with moon prints. Bava said he would get one for her.She’s busy with cooking; her entire past flashed in her mind—her marital bliss, loss of parents first, and then of Attayya—they all came to her mind vividly.It was that year—the rains came down pouring heavily as soon as the farm started sprouting. But the family survived somehow. And then, the same thing had happened the following year too. Then there had been floods for two years in a row. In fact, they all had been aware of the floods; it had become a part of their lives. Even Bhagyam had known about it They all had known about the floods well in advance.
Just before the first sprinkles, they all had gone to a neighboring village to visit their relatives. On their way back, they had noticed that the lake had dried up; there were a few small patches of water here and there. The plantation had grown up full-length. Peddiraju said, ‘look. The cranes had their coops built amidst the plantation.’ Peddiraju kept staring at them, ‘Floods are going to wash away the yield this year,’ he said. Bhagyam was depressed. “Well, that’s the problem with the lowlands; there’s no escape,” the man standing next to her said.Now that’s all coming to mind. It was the same Seshayya who’d said that. They went to visit him; and he followed to see them off. Bava stared at him, as if he’d been lost for words. That’s when she’d come to understand that Bava hated her talking with Seshayya. The truth is she never really talked with him. She vaguely remembered something, happened long time ago; she’d said something impish; and
Seshayya burst into a laugh; he thought he had Bava’s support. Bava was very upset, but held back.
Nobody said anything after that. Seshayya accompanied them up to the big lake on the outskirts of their village, told them to go safely, and went back to his home. The truth is Bava never liked her talking with anybody. He’s strange. In all other matters, he is none other than god himself.
Another episode flashed through her mind.One day Bava had gone to the village fair. Just in case … She warmed up a glass of milk and kept on the ledge. Munsif’s wife gave her a bunch of marigolds; she tucked them in her hair. For Peddiraju, things did not happen the way he’d expected. He returned the same evening; he went bonkers as soon as he saw the milk and flowers. Bhagyam was confused at first; she was crushed. Then she started explaining; the rooster crowed by the time she’d done explaining. Peddiraju was ashamed of his stupid suspicions. He was mortified.
Bhagyam had understood his ways. “So be it. Who’s there to snap at, but for me. No need to feel bad,” she had comforted him. Sometimes she would snap at him too. But all this has got to stop. No matter however suspicious he gets, I’ve got to be patient. I’ll tell him as soon as he gets here.Bhagyam’s parents died while she was still a child and Attayya, Peddiraju’s mother, had taken her under her wing. Eventually, she had performed their wedding. Peddiraju has been very fond her; always on the alert, as if she were a bubble in his palm. He made sure that she never felt loss of her parents, not even for a second.
One time the munsif’s wife had given her a couple of lotus fruit. Bhagyam mentioned to her, “I like these a lot.” Bava was there, pretended as if he had not heard her words. And the very next day, he brought a whole bunch of them. He is so thoughtful! Bhagyam was nearly on the brink of tears. She remembered about what Attayya had said; that large body of water is a menace for Bava, that’s what his horoscope says.

All these stories kept coming back to her. The cow next door bellowed from their backyard. Peddiraju had to let go of the cow too. It’s not just one thing; one after another had gone;  they’d been through so many hardships. The crops failed year after year and landed them in huge debts. Peddiraju was forced to accept day labor in the city. He went to the city, since he couldn’t get down to it: selling wood in the town where he’d sold flowers. In addition, he also hoped that he might make more money in the city and pay off his debts. That’s all he had hoped for. After that, he was sure to sweat and produce gold on his land.
Several years had gone by. Heavy rains poured big. The lake was bursting with Lotuses and tulips. The farmers made little puddles of water for their farms. Peddiraju felt free enough, and asked the munsif to harvest his farm; he trusted him. The he went away to the city.
Bhagyam could still see in her mind, as if it happened yesterday. The day he had made his decision. Peddiraju had been acting strange all day; looked as if something was bothering him. Her stomach turns every time she recalls that moment. That day, he was eating supper. Suddenly, he blurted out, “Can you stay here alone?”
“I’ll go with you,” she’d replied. Peddiraju’s eyes had shot blood red. “We can’t trust the city. No, not you there,” he said. She had not understood him. What about Subbulu and others? Haven’t they all gone to the city? Well, he would not like it, that’s all there is to it. Then he had added, “Remember, if you do anything stupid here, I’ll just go away, god knows here.” Bhagyam’s heart was in a flurry. “What do you mean?” she had asked, worried sick.
Peddiraju had brought up a smile on his lips, “Don’t worry. I am cranky, you know.”
Bhagyam’s heart sank. For the rest of the day, neither of them had spoken a word. That evening, Bhagyam had managed to smile and tell him, “You’d be in the city by this time tomorrow, Bava! Will you remember this village and us here?”
Peddiraju had been folding his dhotis. “I’ll bring you a gold-threaded, black saree, don’t you worry,” he had replied, almost in a screechy tone.
A few seconds passed by. He softened his tone and said, barely audible, “Who do you think all this is for, all this struggling? I want you to be happy, this is for your sake. You can never tell you know, how can we tell we’ll always be like this forever? Don’t we have to save something for our children?”
Bhagyam’s heart melted like ice. That’s how Bava is, she told herself.

The next day, before daybreak on the eastern horizon, Bava hit the road to catch the bus. Munsif followed him to the outskirts, waving his cane.
Peddiraju had told her, “You’d better go home. Take care.”
“You go back.  I’ll go with him a little farther,” munsif said.
Bhagyam stood fixed to the ground at the end of the street. Not a word came out of her mouth. It felt like somebody had gouged out her heart. After the men were almost out of sight, she mumbled, ”Have a safe trip, and be back with a bounty.” Only the last star on the sky had heard that blessing.
Ever since that day, Bhagyam’s life has been a drag. Each day, she it’s a struggle to bring herself to cook even a morsel; “Why bother”, the phrase keeps coming up again and again. Each day, she would cook, since she had to calm down the gripe in her stomach; thoughts about her husband beset her: Did he eat? Is he starving? How is he? Who’s there he could ask when he is hungry? He is not even the type; he won’t ask! –the questions would worry her even more; and tears fill her eyes.
The harvesting had been completed. The land was barren to start with. After sifting the chaff, they had barely enough for subsistence. The munsif kept it in a silo at his place.
Days passed by. But the weight in Bhagyam’s heart did not get any lighter. The sun has been rising on the east and going down on the west, as always. For Bhagyam, there is no difference between yesterday and today.
The silk cotton tree in the backyard bloomed. It is still summer. She did not care if they had no income or the farm for that matter. All she wanted was she should be able to live with her husband under the same roof. She thought of asking the munsif several times to write a postcard to Peddiraju. But Peddiraju was not the kind; he is not quick to take others’ advice. His first priority is to pay off debts; keeping the outstanding debts is humiliating; he would not go for it. He cares for her. He had even sent some money, in installments, to the munsif. That was for her expenses, she was told. It was time for tilling the land. Munsif included Peddiraju’s farm also when he  started tilling his own.Now, Peddiraju is coming home today, rather unexpectedly. Basking in the news, Bhagyam finished cooking. Sprinkles started outside. Bugs swarmed around the lantern, which she just lit up. Next door, in the munsif’s backyard, they started fire; the smoke crammed her entire house. Bhagyam washed two plates and set them on the floor in the kitchen; and also two glasses of water and sitting planks. They can serve themselves and eat while he tells her all about city life. She was surprised at her own courage. They had never sat down together, not in their entire life. Maybe, on the wedding day and the next, that was about it. But Subbulu had told her that that’s way it is in the city; she and her husband would eat like that all the time.Bhagyam kept the paan leaves and crushed betel nut by the bed. They two could dab calcium paste, while. What if Bava suspects again? Then again, she laughed at her own fears. Also, she wanted to amuse him a little. She changed blouses twice, just to make sure.There is something else. Bava would like to chew a piece of jaggery after his meals. No jaggery at home. She can get it from the store round the corner. She’d never been to the store by herself. And also, it is raining outside. But then, I don’t have it at home, what can I do now? She opened the window and kept the lantern on the ledge. That way, Bava can see the path leading to the house. She closed the door and left for the store in the rain. She is getting slightly wet.
The store-owner’s wife saw and said, pleasantly, “What’s new? You came, drenched in the rain?” She noticed Bhagyam’s make up, and kept badgering until she had gotten the news. She gave her jaggery, and kumkuma and sent her little son with her to keep company. The sprinkles turned into showers. As soon as she opened the door, the wind from outside blew hard and put out the flame in the lantern.She sat down, leaning on the front door, watching the bus route. She turned around and looked into the room. It seems the sprinkles were blown into the room through the open window. Inside the room, close to the wall by the window, she saw something dark. Still, she does not want to close the window; if she closed it, Bava will not be able to see the path.
The rain is getting worse and worse; the wind is blowing harder too. Each time lightning struck, she could see the bus route for a split second. She kept watching the street; she does not want to move from the door. She is not sleeping at all.
It is past midnight. The winds outside are very loud. Bhagyam is scared. It didn’t look like Bava is coming tonight. It has to be tomorrow; that’s okay too. Why take risk in this frightening rain, and why get soaked to the skin? What is there so urgent here, anyway? The sprinkles are shooting through the window into the room, almost to the kitchen. Bhagyam got up and went to close the window. In the shades of the window, she felt something soft under her foot. Bhagyam jumped a step back.
That’s what she had noticed earlier too. It is a bundle, not a puddle. It looked like a puddle because of dim light. She brought the lamp closer and looked at the bundle. It is a small bag. She picked it up, with some hesitation. She felt the soft clothes wrapped up in the blue shirt that belonged to Bava. That meant Bava was here. Where is he? Did he go to the munsif’s home, because I was not home? He must have come when I went to the store. But then, what is he doing, for so long, in their house? She went to the door, and took a peek into the neighbor’s house. All the doors were closed. There were no sign of lights anywhere. They all were sleeping quietly.
Bhagyam could not think straight. Thoughts are swarming around in her head. She jumped back into her room again and stared at the bundle. She opened it slowly. She found the clothes Bava had taken with him first time he had left, and also a new black saree. In the lantern light, the gold threaded design glistened. It is the black saree with the gold-thread moon design, he had brought for her. What a memory! Bava remembered. But then, why did he leave it on the wet floor? Why didn’t he put it on the cot? Bhagyam went crazy for a second; her head spun like a top. She squatted down on the floor.
Next minute she noticed something else in the kitchen, where the plates were set. The place was a mess. She found Bava’s purse at her foot; it is heavy. She noticed a bus ticket, a receipt and a small pencil on the floor. It occurred to her in that moment. Bava threw them all through the window, no doubt, furiously. But why? And then, where did he go? It felt like her head would split into two.

Outside the window, rain was pouring down the spouts incessantly. The wind was whistling. The rain was getting heavier; as if pots full of water were being dumped.Sprinkles were falling on her back. She did not move. She looked blank. Shadows and streaks of light—all looked the same. Tears sprang to her eyes In the next second, a lightning struck, behind her. The plates in front of her shone. Showers outside.

[End]

(The Telugu original, madanta mabbu, has been published probably in sixties. Translated by Translated by © Malathi Nidadavolu and published on thulika.net, April 2005.)

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