Lamps on a dark night by Madhurantakam Rajaram

Sivaramayya had been waiting for the city bus for the past half-an-hour in that bus stop near “Arundhati Finance Corporation”. His slippers, though well worn out, still protected his feet from the heated pavement loyally, on that swelteringly hot afternoon. However, since he did not carry any towel or an umbrella with him, his bald head was completely exposed to the heat. Anyway, he arrived long ago at the philosophical conclusion that God has given us a body just for torturing us. To show his full concurrence with the conclusion, he refused to wipe the sweat on his forehead and was staring at the end of the street for the bus.

On enquiry he found that 12E has left just five minutes ago. The arrival of the next bus is entirely dependent on the luck of the person waiting!

With lorries coming like demons, cars flying past, cycles, rickshaws, people crossing the road, the road looked like a turbulent sea that afternoon.

Well-fed people coming out of  “Everest Hotel” did not mind the afternoon heat and felt it as pleasant as moonlight.

Children were running back to school after lunch recess.

On the roadside, small bunks, textile shops, every where business was going on, as usual.

In all that commotion, his life was the only immovable vehicle like a car that broke down in heavy traffic, thought Sivaramayya, bitterly. All his efforts to push it forward are yielding no result.

In a few minutes a 17 numbered bus went. Chasing it went a 11C. Close on its heels were a 6, a 21 and a 33D. Many more buses came and went. But 12E was nowhere in sight.

The road went quiet for a few minutes, suddenly. A motorbike came zooming in the gap. A young man was seated on it confidently, as if he alone knew that trick to conquer both time and distance. When the motor bike approached him, Sivaramayya was startled. A beautiful face shone from behind the shoulders of the young man.

The motorbike passed him by. The girl sitting on the pillion seat turned to look at Sivaramayya. Her eyes fluttered for a second. Sivaramayya gritted his teeth. The girl bit her lip. Sivaramayya’s eyes turned red. He turned his face away.

A bus glided to stop in front of him. It was a 12E. He got into the bus.

He was rather disturber from morning, and the sight on the road made him all the more agitated.

So this rogue had a motorbike, he thought. Or it would have come for repair and he is posing on it. Shameless guy! And this girl! Where is her sense gone? Instead of being ashamed at what she has done, she is roaming with him on his bike!

With his thoughts running along these lines, it would be right to say it was his feet that took him home, out of habit.

Paravati gave him a glass of water. She was confused at his absent-mindedness and asked hesitantly ” Is the job done?”

He stared into her face absently for a while and then replied, “Job? Oh yes, it is done!” Parvati was oblivious to the discouraging tone of his answer. She seemed to be relieved, saying, “Thank God, it is done”.

Sivaramayya glanced around the house to confirm that his daughter Sarvani was not there and continued bitterly, “Do you think it was easy? They have taken a house worth twenty five thousand as mortgage and gave me fifteen thousand rupees, at the rate of 1.5%. It amounts to a hundred rupees per month. We can happily spend the rest of our lives paying that interest. If we stop in between, they shall simply sell our house, take their money and will throw the remaining crumbs at us…”

“Please don’t talk like that. If the children hear it they will be disturbed.”

Sivaramayya felt too tired after an untimely lunch. He dozed off in the armchair. When he woke up he saw that Sarvani returned from typewriting institute and was talking to her mother. She got coffee for her father.

He looked at his daughter. No doubt, Sarvani is a beautiful girl, and is a good girl too! He stopped her from studying further, but otherwise she would have been well qualified too. What is the use? In the marriage market, without dowry and other expenses, a girl is not even a girl. In such a world what is the point in girls being well qualified or talented?

He finished his coffee and went to the reading room. He returned late in the evening. It was almost dark. The atmosphere in the home seemed to have changed.

Sujata too seemed to have returned from college. Her books were lying on the table. Sarvani’s shorthand notebook too was lying on the table. Mother and daughters seemed to be talking in low voices in the kitchen.

He waited for a while and inquired what the matter was.

“What is the matter Parvati? Why can’t you share the secret with me?”

She came into the room hesitantly. Like a bird scared in a cyclone, she clung to the wall and asked him

“Did you see Srilekha on the road, today?”

Sivaramayya’s face turned red in rage. His fragile body could not withstand the intense anger and started shaking.

“Parvati, don’t ask me idiotic questions. I see many people on the road. So what? I told you million times that I have just two daughters. Don’t talk of her in front of me again. This is the last warning.”

“Of course, I will not talk about her. You asked me what the matter was!” Her eyes were brimming with tears. It is not that her daughter was living in some far off place. She was living in the same city and she has not seen her for the past four years. A father was considering his happily living daughter as dead! She felt it extremely cruel and in the emotional pressure continued further.

“You can do it, cut off all parental love and call a living daughter as dead! That poor girl went to Sujata’s college today. “Why is father looking so weak?” she asked. She saw you in the afternoon hot sun. You were sweating with your head unprotected and she felt concerned about it. She went straight from her office to college. Hereafter I shall not take her name in this house…”

He knew that Parvati would starve herself for the night. When she was deeply hurt by something, she starved herself.

He too ate half-heartedly and went to bed though it was not nine p.m. The atmosphere and weather seemed stifling. He could control his body, but his mind refused to obey him. He heard the sea roaring in his mind.

He wished Parvati had picked up a huge quarrel with him instead of torturing him with her silence. The topic that she vowed she would not start again with him started eating his brain.

                                                                                       ***

Srilekha came to him with her S.S.C results and surprised him with “my number is in first division, father”. When he further knew that she topped the school with her marks, he was really terrified. He realized that he need not spend any money on her education since she won a scholarship. She completed her graduation in due course.

The next stage in a young girl’s life is of course marriage. That was when he knew of the sharks that infest the marriage market.

A simple graduate expects ten thousand rupees as dowry. A lecturer’s rate is fifteen thousand, an engineer demands twenty five thousand and a doctor commands fifty thousand rupees!

He was nevertheless making attempts to get some decent alliance. But she somehow seemed to trust the employment exchange. She managed to get a job and started working. Meanwhile he looked harder for a suitable groom for his daughter.

Many proposals almost materialized but slipped out of hand in the last moment.

She suddenly gave him a shock.

Srilekha, a rank holder in B.Sc., married an illiterate motor mechanic. That too in a civil marriage (as good as eloping!)! His only qualification being- no expectation of dowry!

He seemed to be related to them and was visiting once in a while.

He felt he has been gravely insulted among his relatives and friends.

But Parvathi saw it from a different perspective.

“To get her married as you wished meant an expense of fifteen thousand rupees at least, We would have no doubt borrowed that money. Now she has saved us from being caught in a debt trap. I can’t understand what harm she has done to us!”

His close friend Ranganatham, went a step ahead and said Srilekha showed a way to the young generation.

“Come on Sivaramayya! Don’t be ridiculous. Times and traditions are changing. This is twentieth century. Now if we see someone marrying a five-year-old girl to a twenty five-year-old boy, we no longer keep quite. We came this far because of social reformers like Veereshalingam. The thorn bushes of tradition cannot be just wished away. To clear them we need people with courage and vision. We all know that dowry system is sucking blood of our families. What is the point in talking about it in meetings and lecturing? We need to walk the talk. Your daughter indeed, has taken a very wise decision. She considered the dowry-demanding highly educated boys as cheats and preferred a labourer who did not expect dowry. We do accept intellectual men to have illiterate wives, don’t we? So what is wrong with what she has done?”

But still, no amount of convincing and reasoning could assuage his hurt feelings.

Clock struck ten. Immediately there was a knock on the door.

Sujata came into the hall and switched the light on. “Who is it?” she called.

Again there was a knock on the door.

“Open the door and see who it is” said Sivaramayya.

“Why don’t you say who you are” grumbled Sujata as she opened the door.

“Who is that at the door?” Parvati woke up.

Srilekha entered the house silently. Parvati could not believe her eyes. With effort she could open her dried lips.

“How long it has been, child! At last you remembered you have mother alive!” All the sorrow in her heart burst breaking a dam.

Sarvani too woke up at the commotion, and hugged her sister.

“Why did you come alone, sister? Where is your husband?”

“Come on Sarvani! Whether you accept it or not, he is the son-in-law of this house and he won’t come uninvited. He is waiting for me at the end of the street, near the park.”

“Will he wait for you till you go back?” Sujata asked innocently.

“I too will leave quickly, mother. I came to tell you something. I know father has retired. I saw him near the Finance Corporation in the afternoon and felt very disturbed. If you mortgage this house, how will you manage in your old age? It is a joint decision from both of us. I have ten thousand rupees. Please take it from me. You can give me back whenever you can. Please don’t borrow money for Sarvani’s wedding now.” She pleaded with her mother.

Parvati did not know how to respond to this proposal.

“Mother, why don’t you say something?” Sujata reminded.

“What can I say in this house? Who cares for what I say?” Parvati declared!

Sivaramayya was still motionless in his room.

Sarvani suddenly clung to her sister, “I will jump into the well to die, but will not agree to give dowry. Akka, can you help me to get a job? I will clear the type writing examinations in March.”

[End]

Translator’s note: The characters that live and are having on the stage of live have a right to chart their lives according to circumstances. It would have been ideal if we could end this story with a note that the above fact at last shone in Sivaramayya’s mind like a lamp on a dark night. However, it suffices to say that the fact remains valid and undisputed, in spite of his ignorance about it.

The Telugu original entitled cheekatlo chiru divvel has been translated by © Sharada (Australia), and published on thulika.net, December 2002.

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