Bhanumati’s Story of a mother-in-law and daughter-in-law, review by Nidadavolu Malathi

This is the second story of the series in my analysis of Telugu humor.

The story opens with the mother-in-law (Attagaru) proposing to pay a visit to the Lord Venkateswara in Tirupati. She says that the lord appeared to her in her dream and was angry of her indifference.

My Attagaru [mother-in-law] insisted that we must go to Tirupati on that very day and pay a visit to the Lord Venkanna. My husband, who said he would not be able to go with us, and suggested to postpone the trip to the following week. Frankly, he has nothing to do yet never free to do anything, as the saying goes.

“Blasphemy, blasphemy,” Attagaru said, touching her two cheeks per our custom.
I was amused but did not laugh. Nevertheless my two hands touched my cheeks gently and reverently, and my lips muttered ‘blasphemy’ instinctively.

“So, what’d you say?” she said. She was observing madi at the time. She touched  the door curtain inadvertently but moved away quickly, probably thinking I did not see it.

“You go with Kodalu. We can all go together later,” my husband suggested.Attagaru went on insisting, “How can we go without you? That’s blasphemy. You shouldn’t even utter it.”

“What can I do? I have several urgent files to attend to. I can’t leave for another week at least. How would I know about your plans? You laid it on me out of nowhere. Did you think I have dreamt of it?”

“Now that you mention it, actually I had a dream; I saw the lord Venkanna in my dream. How do you think he appeared in my dream? He looked exactly like our elderly neighbor Purushottamacharyulu. His body was smeared with red kumkum, and he was holding a silver-lined cane. He was standing on the other side of our door and called out ammanni. I was so stunned, was not sure why He was angry with me. I was in the kitchen. I dropped the pan right there and ran into the hallway. By the way, it did not look like our hallway, nor the kitchen like ours. The kitchen looked like the one in my grandfather’s house and the hallway like that of my uncle’s.”

My husband finished his breakfast to his heart’s content and got up to leave. “Alright, alright. So be it. Are you done? I’ve to go,” he said.

“There again you are being disrespectful. Do not talk like that. The old man with a forehead featuring red kumkum was no other than Venkanna himself. As soon as he saw me, he yelled, ‘Ammanni, What has gotten into your head? You have not  paid a visit in a long time. You seemed to have forgotten even my existence. What a nerve,’ and he started beating me up with his cane. Trust me, there was a such huge swelling on my head. I knew even then that Venkanna was angry with me because I did not pay my respects to him, and I was being punished for it.”

My husband laughed and said, “What a nice God! He beat you up and made you decide on a trip to his temple.”

“No respect, I’m telling you. How can you joke around with Venkanna. What do you know about Venkanna anyways. He will slap you with his shoe if you are disrespectful toward him. My Attagaru told me that He had beaten her with a silver sandal in her dream; that was a very long time ago though. I am lucky, I was wearing the madi saree. So, he smacked me with his cane only on my head …”

This short dialogue between Attagaru, her son and the daughter-in-law [Kodalu] sets the stage for a long trip in their car from Madras to Tirupati–the trip of Attagaru, with Kodalu, their driver and a Malayalee as an errand boy.

The list of items they took with them shows author’s eye for details. The author shows her love of humor in itemizing the list in an irreverent fashion. The driver brought a kerosene tin filled with all the things he had been collecting to offer to the lord over period of time–during his wife’s and children’s sicknesses, strands of hair from his children snipped according to Sastras and kept “in stock”, etc.

It was a fierce struggle for him but he made sure that nothing else was put on the top of that tin box. Our errand boy, a Malayalee, sat in the front seat. And he put his leather bag, containing his clothes, on top of the driver’s tin box. That caused the driver to wiggle as though the life was squeezed out of him. He said quickly in his half-baked Tamil, “That tin contains items avowed to be offered to the Lord. You can’t put a leather bag on it, that’s disrespectful.”

Those two never got along to start with. The Malayalee boy yelled back, “Where else can I put my bag? On my head?”

Then the narrator continues to tell us the precautionary measures Attagaru had taken before leaving the house: My Attagaru locked each room – the kitchen door in the back of the house, the paddy room, the storage room, the puja room in numerical order. She left unlocked only the hallway in front of the kitchen for the cook’s use. It was like donating the Sahara desert. She alerted the gardener to watch the house, and told him to move the buffaloes to the cowshed in case it rained and then, came out and sat in the car, along with the palm leaf basket containing her items avowed  to the Lord. In the meantime, I locked all the rooms upstairs and returned to the car.

This is the strength of Bhanumati’s style. In describing the actions of Attagaru, she does it in exasperating detail, and in her own case, sums it up in one sentence. After all the detailed explanation, it is not over yet. Attagaru says they need to hand over the keys to her son (narrator’s husband). Kodalu assures her that they can drop them off at his office on their way.
The car made a few miles and the tire on the side my Attagaru was sitting burst with an earthshaking sound. Attagaru was stunned. “Oh god, where is that blast coming from?” she asked, clutching my arm tightly. I was not sure whether I should laugh or curb it. “Don’t worry, Attaa, just the tire burst,” I said, struggling to hide my laugh.

Here the author is setting stage for another incident with similar connotation to follow later. If it is not humorous for the reader at this point, it will be soon. The driver puts on the spare tire and proceed to their destination. While they are on the road, Attagaru goes into a rambling about all the relatives they had in Tirupati. Kodalu says that is one of the reason she wished her husband was with them. If he had accompanied them, they all would go straight to the temple, and return home. Without him, Attagaru insists on visiting her relatives and Kodalu cannot say no. And the next question is whom they should visit. Both Attagaru and Kodalu have their own preferences.

For those who are not familiar with Indian customs, and conditions particularly in the sixties era, here is something you need to know. First, the relatives may be cousins twice or thrice removed, and secondly, a family can always show up at the relatives door unannounced. Also, the length of the visit can be anywhere from one hour to a couple of days. Bhanumati cashes in richly on all these aspects of extended families to bring about humor in her stories.Thus Attagaru decides to visit one of her relatives. They go there only to find a big padlock on the door. Apparently, the prospective host family went away on a tour of their own. The same thing happens with the second choice of Attagaru. After running out of all her options, Attagaru agrees to visit the family her son had suggested earlier, which happens to be the choice of Kodalu also.
There once again the figure [size] and the temperament of Attagaru come to surface, much to the chagrin of Kodalu.
The doors were small and narrow. Attagaru lowered her head cautiously and turned sideways and entered the house. My todikodalu [co-daughter-in-law] was surprised, put her hand to her cheek; her eyes opened wide and were rolling as she said, “Who’s that? Atta, is that you?”

“What’d you mean who? Have I changed that much that you can’t even see who I am?” Atta said, pulling her saree palloo over her shoulders, to avoid evil eye.

“Oh, no. Nothing happened to you, only your body … just a little …” my todikodalu said.

As can be expected, the comment from todikodalu triggers a rampage of heated argument. Here is one such description, where Attagaru teases todikodalu and the rebuttal from todikodalu.

“That’s what I’m saying too. Maybe you looked like a twig in your day but now who can miss your body type? The same people who laughed at me in those days are laughing at you, aren’t they?” todikodalu said.

“Let them laugh. It seems it is my karma I should take this banter from you.”

“Nobody said anything madam. I am the one who’s taking all the banter here. Only you said that my people were penniless and murky; You poured insults on my family; You made fun of my nose;

Only you said that my husband had taken to bad ways because of me; You’re the one who called me garish and wicked.”

Readers need to remember difference in the two forms of the second person pronoun–nuvvu and meeru. While Attagaru uses nuvvu, todikodalu uses meeru. The implicit element of respect in the use of meeru fades away in instances like this.
Despite the attempts of Bavagaru [todikodalu’s husband] to break them up, Attagaru and todikodalu get into a verbal exchange, dredging up the insults each poured on the other in the past several years.

Next morning Kodalu and the daughter-in-law of todikodalu are surprised to see the same two women engage in a friendly chitchat as if nothing happened the day before. Attagaru and Kodalu set out for the temple and they invite the host family to join them. That includes Bavagaru, his wife [todikodalu], their son, his wife and the baby. The car starts looking like a woman in her third trimester.

The tire on attagari side bursts again. Attagaru cringes, screams ‘Oh lord’ and clings to Kodalu. Bursting the tire on the same side twice, why? Kodalu wonders, suppressing a smile. Even todikodalu cannot contain her laughter and covers her face with the palloo.

Todikodalu and Attagaru engage in a round of verbal exchange once again. This time it is about modes of conveyance each of them enjoyed in their younger days—horse- drawn carts, cars, and such, they or their families had owned in the past. Bavagaru tries to shut up his wife. But her mouth works as a piece of machinery–an “automatic system”. She has no control over her vocal chords.

Eventually, they finish the darsan to the lord and go to the traveler’s bungalow. After eating the food served in the temple, Attagaru rests for a while and todikodalu lies next to her.

Kodalu (narrator) and the daughter-in-law of todikodalu go to see the rose garden. Their hearts jump at the sight of the flowers and are disappointed at the thought that they are not allowed to pick the flowers. Even if they had picked, not allowed to put them in their hair–that would be a sacrilege. It is interesting how often Kodalu is reminded of what is sacrilege and what is not. By extension, we the readers are also warned of the same.

Eventually they return to the bungalow, apprehensive of the kind of scene they might be walking into. Contrary to their fears, they find Attagaru and todikodalu in a boisterous mood. Both of them are laughing loudly, teasing each other, and saying to each other, “Go away, Atta,” and “You go, jackass.”

They notice the two daughters-in-law [Kodalu and the daughter-in-law of todikodalu] back from their walk, and speak in unison, “Come on, girls, we’ve good news for you. You two are going to have a huge feast soon,” meaning, they have arranged a wedding between todikodalu’s brother’s son and attagaru’s older sister’s grand-daughter.

Before the actual marriage takes place. however, Attagaru and todikodalu get into one more round of verbal exchange. The young daughter-in-law takes on Attagaru to calm down while Kodalu takes on todikodalu to appease. That is a strategic move. Kodalu knows that she cannot work on Attagaru and so sends the young daughter-in-law to Attagaru. This is one of the instance where the author’s knowledge of human nature and the negotiating skills come to the fore.The narrator comments, “Like two hostile planets moving in one combat zone, those two (Attagaru and todikodalu) will meet again in one place for the wedding that is going to take place in the month of magha [the eleventh month per lunar calendar].”

Reader can visualize the narrator bracing herself up for the impending event. Bhanumati was knowledgeable in astrology, which she used in her stories often. One more interesting angle in Bhanumati’s stories is the naming practice. In traditional Telugu families, it is common to refer to people by their relationship rather given names. Like most of her stories, Bhanumati always refers to people only with kinship terminology. So one has to remember the context, who is saying what and with reference to whom, to understand words like son, daughter-in-law etc. It is confusing on one level, yet it also makes a powerful social comment on the interpersonal relationships in the Telugu homes.
[End]

This article by Nidadavolu Malathi has been published on thulika.net, April 2006.

 

 

 

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