Kantham and I by Munimanikyam Narasimha Rao

Since humor does not lend itself to crosscultural translation easily, I decided to bring out the highlights of three short stories and then summarize in a separate article again. Here is the first story, Kantham and I in the series.

The story opens with a monologue of Kantham’s husband, Venkata Rao, expressing his anger. He is upset since Kantham’s laughed at him the night before, and for that reason decides not to eat at home, by way of punishing his wife.

“You can give me a thousand reasons why I should but I still will not eat at home today. Forget the food, I will not even drink a glass of water here. You’re way out of line. How long do you think I can put up with your misconduct? I am in no mood to eat at home today. I’m determined to go to the hotel.”

“Please, forgive me. What’d I say, anyways?”

“I don’t want even to hear the word forgive. I  can take any number of insults in the privacy of our home but not in front of my friends?” I said. The humiliation I suffered last night is fresh in my mind. Boiling inside, I went to the hotel. I kept to myself all all the insults she poured on me until now but for long can I put up with her misconduct? Can you say I’m being irrational?

He continues to explain the reason for his annoyance: You might say ‘Why bicker with Kantham, just forget it. How can I? She’s not only showing the respect I deserve as her husband but she was calling me by name, Venkata Rao, in an undertone.
Stupid, she thought I could not hear her. I was willing to let go of it but then she burst into a big
laugh, watching my turban. That is the real issue. She called him by name and laughed while watching at his unsuccessful attempts to wear a turban properly. His refusal to eat at home sets the stage, and the description of his struggle with his attempts to  wrap the turban around his head is hilarious. I never made the mistake of wearing a turban during my student days. I started it after I’d entered the teaching profession out of necessity. It never turns out right for me. Sometimes it looks like a turban sitting on the top of a pestle, or turns into a Tamilian’s headgear. When I take a lot of trouble and try to wrap it around my head, it takes the form of a snake charmer’ turban. In Greek mythology, there was a cowherd, who could predict future. There was however a snag; if a person seized him, he’d transform into a petrifying figure, and tries to scare them away. Only if that person remained calm, and not be frightened, then the cowherd returns to his normal figure and predicts the future for that person. I suspect that my turban is a reincarnation of that cowherd. It keeps taking any and every form except its natural form as a school teacher’s turban.

There I was struggling to wrap it around my head correctly, and she, instead of helping me, was
standing by the door and laughing at me. You tell me how should I feel? The reader can see why it was amusing to Kantham. One person’s misery is hilarious for another, that’s human nature. It’s amusing how the author tied in a cowherd from Greek mythology to his own turban problem. His reference to a Tamilian’s headgear seems a little far-fetched. There is however one difference. The author used a different word, talagudda, a piece of cloth worn on one’s head as opposed to talapaga, a turban, reflecting one’s sophistication. Possibly it could be a reference to the Tamilian, hotel server, who’s going to appear later in the story.

The story was written in pre-independence era. In those days teachers were required to wear a
turban, even with three-piece suits. Apparently, that was not a winning experience for all teachers.

The next episode is a comment on women’s lack of interest in acquiring knowledge and keeping
abreast of current events. (The author of Radha and Gopalam story also makes similar comment.)
In the current story, the husband rushes home with the latest issue of a highly respected literary
magazine, parishat patrika. I rushed home holding parishat patrika zealously. I was hoping Kantham would read the magazine and become knowledgeable in current matters. I said, “Here’s parishat patrika. Read it, it contains plenty of new information.” She took it, and as soon as I turned my back, used it to cover the soup dish  I came back, noticed it and was sad. That cracked her up again. What can I say? Historically, it was the time when the women’s education movement reached its peak, and in several families, men encouraged women to learn to read and write. Possibly men felt that women had not been responsive to the movement with the same zeal as men.

On a side note, this reminds me of another story, stri vidya [women’s education] by Bhandaru Acchamamba written in 1887. In Acchamamba’s story also, like in Kantham and I and Radha Gopalam, the protagonist’s husband tries to pursuade his wife to learn to read but the wife ignores all his arguments. Eventually, he is arrested as a freedom fighter and thrown in jail. And then, the wife realizes that she needs to learn to write in order to keep in touch with her husband and learns to read and write. Maybe women are pragmatic in their approach and are prone to acquire the necessary skills only when there is a good reason for doing so. It is also possible that, from the perspective of women, the current education system is not addressing the women’s issues in a meaningful way, and thus fails to capture women’s attention.

Despite Kantham’s apparent lack of interest in the day’s events, Venkata Rao starts to read the
journal aloud. Kantham stops him, saying the text was not in Telugu (neither did I, to be frank). She said, “Wait, that’s not Telugu; it sounds more like a Tamil women’s song. I know a few Telugu women’s songs. You don’t have to read that to me.”

Venkata Rao tries his level best to explain that it was not a Tamil song but Kantham was not
convinced. He has no choice but to laugh along with her. Thus, Venkata Rao believes that he has been ridiculed one too many times, and it is getting to a point when he cannot take it anymore. He is itching to prove that he is right for once at least, and watch her lose for a change. He abides his time.

One day Venkata Rao was seriously engrossed in a matter relating to exams at school. Kantham
came in.

emandi!”

“Hum.”

“Listen, I’ve a question.”

“Huh, now? What?”

“Why don’t you listen to me?”

“I’m busy. What’s it anyways?”

“Just tell me what do you want me to do?”

“About what? Don’t you see I’m very busy?”

“If you snap like that, what can I do? All I want to know is whether I should make okra curry or
soup with okra? Or, make the soup, forget the okra. Or, forget both, and grind lentil chutney with
cumin?”

I was upset with her at that moment. I pushed the books to a side and thought for a second. I was
not sure what to say. “If you skip the okra soup, what’s the curry going to be?” I asked her.

“If I don’t make okra soup, we’ll have okra curry,” Kantham said.

Oh, gosh. What a mess. I chased her away, saying, “That’s all very confusing to me. Take it to your brother, have it converted into a ‘simple equation’ , and bring it back to me.” I was happy that I won the first round.

He revels in his success but that turns out to be a short one. He faced with another loss the same
evening.

Kantham starts coughing. He gives a herbal root and tells her to keep it in her mouth. Here is a
rough translation of the dialogue between husband and wife:

“Here, tuck this herbal root in your cheek. It cures your cough,” he said.

“I don’t want it.”

“Why not?”

“I don’t like the taste of it.”

“What taste? It’s medicine. Just take it.”

“I’m telling you, I don’t want it.”

“No, I won’t let you not have it. If you don’t take it, how do you think your cough goes away. You
and I both will be sleepless all night.”

“I won’t.”

“Don’t you give me the lip. Take it,” I shouted.

“Do I have to?”

“Yes, you have to. Or else I’ll be very angry. Doesn’t a man have that much right over his woman?” I said harshly.

That got to her, it seems. She was afraid that I would be upset. She took the root.

This sounds rather harsh. Would a man, who is so stuck upon his role as a “man” would verbalize that sentiment in so many words? To me, the author was being sarcastic, aimed at the men “full of themselves”.

Secondly, the author continues to narrate that the husband is elated that he succeeded in making his wife do what he wanted her to do; he recalled his grandfather’s words, that a man should keep his wife in line one way or another. He is however confused when he saw Kantham smiling. Why is she smiling?

Here is why. He goes to her bedside and looks at her keenly. Kantham is lying down on her bed
with the root in her palm, holding next to her cheek.

“How could you be so stupid?” I asked.

“You said ‘tuck it next to your cheek’.”

He did not say whether it should be tucked in from inside or outside! Just a play upon words. She
is not stupid, just playing him. He is humiliated one more time. And then comes the final blow when one of his friends came to visit him. The couple invite the friend to stay for dinner. At the dinner time, Venkata Rao tries to impress his friend by making excuses for not serving a huge banquet.

The ships did not arrive at the port; there were no fresh potatoes in the market. All the other
vegetables were rotten. There was a snake gourd in the kitchen, but it was picked so long ago, I am sure it’d gone bad. I’m afraid you’d get sick, if we served it to you. You may think that this rice and chutney  is a meal for a recuperating patient, but trust me, we’re doing you a favor and saving your health. … The chutney is prepared with gongura from Guntur, the place known for its gongura fields in the entire world. …”

Kantham was in the kitchen. She sneaked in as if she’d nothing better to do, and said, “When did
we get gongura from Guntur?”

My friend was suspicious about my ramblings, and now he was convinced that I was bluffing. He burst into a big laugh.

Venkata Rao tries to bluff his way one more time. “Didn’t your sister bring it from Guntur?”. And Kantham says, “Yes, I forgot”, but her tone sounds more like no. That sends the entire household into a sidesplitting laugh. Venkata Rao has no way out and so joins them in their laugh. That is when he has decided not eat at home anymore. He goes to a hotel, run by a Tamilian. The author once again makes fun of the Telugu language spoken by Tamilians. Most of the words are Telugu words with different meanings. Probably, a rough translation reads like this.

“Is food served here?”

“Yes, [we] drop it.”

“All right, drop it then.”

“Buy ticket first.”

I bought the ticket and sat down in front a leaf plate.

“Should I drop a morsel?” he said.

I was ticked off. What does he mean, ‘drop a morsel?’ Am I an invalid or what? Is he going to give me a measly morsel, like I can’t digest a full meal? I was racking my brains. He came in and
dropped two morsels of rice in my plate literally. The first serving was not even enough to eat with chutney. I shouted again, “rice.” He held out two morsels in my face, and asked, “Should I toss all this?”

“Yes, toss the entire lump and bring three more servings. Don’t kill me,” I said.

After that, he brought the ghee dish. It’s true, he has a ghee dish in his hand, that’s all I can vouch
for. Beyond that, God only knows whether there’s ghee in the dish or not. Probably it is easy to
discover what is at the bottom of the Bay of Bengal but no one can tell what is at the bottom of that dish. … Into the dish, he dipped a ladle with a long handle and pulled out with extraordinary skill, lifted it nearly a mile above my head, and tilted it. For a second, I was under the delusion that something would drop into my plate, like the ganges from the top of the Himalaya mountain. That did not happen.

The server goes through similar gestures while serving other items. Venkata Rao returns home, with a half-empty stomach. He tells himself that it served him right.

At home, he finds Kantham lying on the floor in the kitchen with her head on a sitting plank. She
sees him and sits up. He can see remorse all over her face.

“Did you eat?” he asked.

“No. How can I, without you,” Kantham said.

“What does it matter if I’m not home. Can’t you eat?”

“My heart will not allow me to.”

“All right. Eat now.”

“I won’t unless you eat too.”

“What if I’d eaten at the hotel?”

“Then I’ll wait until evening.”

That was enough to let me know how strong her love for me was. At the hotel, I had only half a
meal. So, I told her to serve for me too. I persuaded her to sit down with me, and serve for both us. We both enjoyed a hearty meal together.

The author makes his point with the last line. Couples agree, disagree, fight and make up.
Nevertheless, there is an interesting twist at the end in regard to the husband’s attitude. He acts like he was doing her a favor; he could not admit that he didn’t have enough to eat at the hotel, and was still hungry!

One question I have is: Did Kantham guess as to what could have happened at the hotel and
decide to play along – a pragmatic approach to marital bliss? In the final analysis, the entire story appears to be about taking a jab at the attitudes of men and women in the nineteen forties decade.

[End]

(© Nidadavolu Malathi. The story is taken from an anthology by the same name, Kantham and I, written in the forties. This review has been published on thulika.net, March 2006)

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