Sarada is waiting for the elevator.
The man next to her pressed the button for a third time, staring at the number on the wall, 3. Looks like somebody stopped it on the third floor. A young man in plaid shirt comes running and presses the button, that is already bright. Sarada has been watching him for a week now. His office is only two flights up. He can take the stairs as easily but he wouldn’t. He just stands there as long as he has to, fidgety and annoyed.
He presses the button again.
Sarada is amused.
“All this technology is supposed to save time,” he says.
“That is the message, I guess, like in the story of the hare and the tortoise,” Sarada says with a twinkle in her eye.
There, Julie appears at the other end of the corridor, walking hastily towards them, and waves, as if asking to stop the elevator.
Sarada looks up at the row of numbers, number 3 still.
“Perhaps I should take the stairs,” the young man in plaid shirt says, addressing no one in particular.
Julie is getting closer.
The thought of taking stairs flashes across Sarada’s mind for a split second. She looks up; number 3 dimmed, finally. She grits her teeth, feels cheated. It’s not fair. Two, one. Elevator has arrived, doors wide open.
Julie has not caught up, not close enough yet. She yells, “Hey, wait, stop.”
Sarada quickly says, “hi” and walks into the elevator.
The young man in the plaid shirt pushes close button.
Julie, gasping for breath, sticks her foot between the doors and slides into the elevator. “Ha, I made it,” she says, with a satisfactory smile.
“Yes,” Sarada nods vaguely.
“Okay. How’re you?”
”Fine, just fine.”
“Anything new?” Sarada asks sounding casual, as if it was expected of her.
“Yes,” Julie responds with a glee.
THAT is a surprise. She has never finished a sentence with a single, dry ‘yes’.
Ninth floor. Both of them step out on to the corridor and walk to our desks, without another word. They hardly settle down in their seats, Julie’s cell rings.
Sarada has been watching her for six months now. Almost everyday, the phone rings a dozen times. Always, it is about an hour-long chat. If not phone, somebody comes to her desk and chats with her for 30 to 40 minutes. Amidst all of this, Julie finds time to shoot a volley of questions at her.
“Indira Gandhi is acting like a dictator. What do you think of that?”
“I heard of the huge population in your country. What do you people manage?”
“Isn’t poverty in India appalling?”
Finally, one fine day, Sarada gives it to her. “Look, first of all, I don’t have the stomach for politics. Secondly, I do have enough things to keep myself busy and not worry about fixing the world. So, don’t ask me these questions.”
Julie is silent for few seconds, and then pulls out a cigarette, “Mind?”
Yes, I do mind, she told herself but gives her ‘go ahead’ nod, reluctantly. Julie knows that too.
“Seen the news today? A woman stabbed her hubby with a kitchen knife. It says he beat her up constantly as if it is his birthright. Do men in India beat their wives? And the women take it without protest?”
These questions, doubts, preconceived notions about her motherland drives her crazy.
Heinous position of women in my society …
Appalling poverty …
Arranged marriages …
Numerous Babas and umpteen gods …
Endless questions, on and on.
“Have we gotten the mail yet?” the usual question to change the subject.
“Not yet. Me too, waiting for the mail, I mean,” the same response, as always.
“Let me check. Excuse me,” Sarada gets up from her seat, just finding an excuse to leave the desk. She knows the mailman brings mail to her desk in a few minutes.
“Why? Something special?” Julie asks.
Before she could come up with an answer, Julie’s cell started ringtones. That ties her up for another 3o to 40 minutes. What a relief! Sarada dismisses the idea of going for the mail and opens the files on her desk.
It is hard to focus on work, she frowns. However much she has tried, she could not focus on work because she is so annoyed by Julie’s demeanor. Your country, your government, Indira Gandhi, women’s plight, homeless children, hungry population … Ugh, rubbish.
Why does she have to worry about these matters?
Doesn’t she have any thing else in her life to worry about?
Is she or is she not happy? No peace of mind, not even for a day? Why not find some gratifying avocation? Why can’t she get busy with her work? Why did she take this job in the first place?
Julie hangs up and looks out the window. “Isn’t it gorgeous?” she mumbles as if she is talking to herself.
“Yes,” Sarada says, knowing full-well her colleague isn’t really looking for a response. In the country where she comes from, it is more often than not, they feel scorched by the unbearable heat.
“It must be very hot there? I wonder how you people could take all that heat,” Julie says again.
Mail has arrived. Sarada thanks her stars and starts opening them—a couple of catalogs, a promo notification from an insurance company, explaining what could happen if she died without insurance, another explaining an easy plan to make millions without spending a dime, … She throws them into the wastepaper basket and turns to work on hand.
She couldn’t help looking at Julie. Julies is staring at the letter in her hand, looking tense.
Sarada goes to Peter’s office to discuss an important matter. When she returned to her seat, she finds Julie still in the same posture, staring at the same letter.
“Where did you go?” She asked her, weakly.
Sarada is in no mood to chat. She makes a faint gesture towards Peter’s office and buries herself in the files.
“In there for quite a while. What’s the problem?”
Sarada knows what she meant. A few others also have made similar insinuations. She also knows Peter does not have a special interest in her. It is not hard to guess why. She works like a donkey for one and a half person’s work and gets paid three quarters of wages. But Julie does not believe that. “You know Peter has left his wife,” she says with a wry smile.
Sarada hates that kind of insinuations.
“Look, I don’t care a damn about his personal life. As far as I am concerned, people in this office are no different from this pile of files,” she says, holding a bunch of files and waving them at her.
Julie’s face turns pales. Perhaps, it was too harsh, maybe. Maybe, she could’ve tried to be a little polite, for the sake of appearances, at least.
Julie pulls out a cigarette from the packet, looks at it as if she is having second thoughts.
Sarada turns to her files again. She had a long discussion with Peter, but it didn’t help. It is frustrating.
Julie noticed it. “What is it about?” she says, pointing to the files.
Sarada makes some uncanny noise and shakes her head, “Nothing.”
Julie looks at her cigarette and puts it back into the box.
Sarada is taken aback. She’s never seen Julie return a cigarette to the packet. It is like Lord Rama’s arrow; once set in the bow, it must be shot.
She asks gently, “What’s the matter?”
Julie keeps staring at the paper in front of her. Something must be seriously wrong; must be very painful.
Suddenly, Julie jumps to her feet, and walks to Sarada’s desk. “See this,” she hands a newspaper clipping to her.
It is an obituary notification, announcing a woman named Harriet A. Christensen in a city called Peoria has died of heart attack. Age 50. Funeral service to be held next Sunday.
Sarada is confused. Julie has told her previously that her mother’s name was Barbara. So, what is the connection? How does this fit into Julie’s life?
“A close relative?”
Julie does not respond right away. Takes a few minutes and then says slowly, hardly audible, “She was the woman who’d given birth to me.“
Sarada is stunned, feels like a huge boulder hit her in the head.
Time seems to be moving slowly, very slowly, at a snail’s pace.
Julie continues in a very low voice, “She was my mother. It took me 16 years to learn this truth. I was eleven when I first came to know that Sorensons are my adoptive parents. Ever since I’ve learned my status, I’ve been going crazy to find my birth mother. I can’t even count how many people I’ve contacted–doctors, nurses, resident doctors, student nurses, schools, newspapers, county clerks, and even people in the neighborhoods I thought she might be living … I’ve even visited a couple of morgues. Just for this purpose, I’ve joined three organizations in three states.”
She stops for a minute, and sighs. For some reason, it doesn’t feel like it is a sigh of relief. “Yesterday, finally, I received this letter notifying me that she is in Peoria. I spent all night thinking about her, about her looks, what she might be thinking, wondering if she was looking for me, thinking of visiting her …”
She smiles a faint smile and takes the newspaper clipping from Sarada’s hand. “Isn’t it funny that I saw her, or at least would like to think so, I’ve seen her when I was born. For the second time, I would see her when she’s gone. Ironic, isn’t it,” she weeps silently.
Sarada feels a knot in her stomach. Almost involuntarily, she gets up, puts her arm around her shoulder, and says, “Come on, let’s have some coffee.”
Julie looks up into her face. Tears in her eyes are glistening.
As they continue walking in the corridor, riding in the elevator, sitting down in the cafeteria, Julie keeps narrating her story, intermittently, her struggles with the one question: Why. Why did her mother had given her away, why didn’t she contact the daughter she had given away? And, she talks about the things she had said to other people in her desperation, the troubles she had to go through, the insults that had been poured on her, …
Sarada sits there listening to her, without saying one word. All of a sudden, she sees that Julie is like an open book. Everything about her–her words and her actions–become so clear! So natural!
Julie stops for a few minutes. Sarada is still in a state of shock, so to speak. She couldn’t find a word to say to her.
Then, as if in a reverie, she speaks, “I think marriages in your country are much less complicated. The adults will take care of everything. There won’t be any children, who knew nothing about their fathers.”
Sarada is cut to the quick. She has understood what she is saying. Julie asks her again, “Are you going to have an arranged marriage?”
That does it. Sarada jumps to her feet, “Oh, God, I almost forgot, there is a file I should have finished yesterday. I’ve to go. Talk to you later. Excuse me. Take care,” She rushes to her seat, leaving a couple of dollars on the table for coffee.
The earth seems to whirl around me.
Marriages in my country are less complicated.
The adults will take care of everything.
Everything much much better there.
Children, who knew nothing about their fathers.
Oh, God! Oh, God, help me,
she wails silently in her heart.
“I asked Peter for permission to go home. I won’t be in for a couple of days. Going to attend the funeral service.”
“I am sorry about your mother.”
“Thank you,” she says, heading towards the door.
Sarada nodded in acknowledgement.
Julie has left.
This is mind-boggling for Sarada. A turmoil in her head. Julie’s words are ringing in her head like church bells. She staring at the file in front of her. Everything is fuzzy. Looks at the watch; one more hour to go. Julie has just left. She can’t ask for permission to leave at the same time. No, Peter wouldn’t appreciate that.
Adults … arranged marriage … father unknown … I am going crazy.
She picks up the phone and dials uncle Chinnappa’s number.
“Hello,” aunt Kamakshi from the other side. Usually, she doesn’t pick up the phone.
“Hello, auntie,” Sarada says, a bit hesitant.
“Yes, auntie, it’s me Sarada! How’re you?”
“Good. You? How’re you?”
It took a minute to reply. “Yes, I am fine. Just … feeling bored. Thought I’d talk to you.”
“That’s fine. Glad you called.”
“Good. What else? Haven’t heard from you for ages.”
“Nothing much, really, nothing in particular. Felt like talking to you today, catching up, you know. Can you come over … just for chat …” Sarada says, stumbling for words.
“Of course. Sure, I’ll be there. Tell me what is good time for you.”
“Today? Later in the evening, I can pick you up, after work. I’ll be done in about half hour. I’ll drive straight to your place, pick you up and we can go somewhere. Don’t worry, I’ll drive you back to your home again.” Sarada hangs up with a sigh of relief. Feels like she has won half the battle.
“Alright,” kamakshi says and hangs up. That is very much in step with her character. Each word sounds like she has carefully thought it out and weighed in each letter. She never asks, just listens.
“Will you call your uncle and tell him that I am going to your place?”
“Sure, I will.”
Sarada shows at uncle’s door at 5:15 sharp. Aunt Kamakshi is waiting at the door. She wore a light pink cotton sari and same color blouse. Sarada gets out of the car, walks around and opens the door on the passenger side. Kamakshi settles in her seat with a gentle smile. It is almost like she has understood the gravity of Sarada’s situation. It is a short ride along the lake. Cool breeze gently is blowing into their faces. Sarada slows down and says, “Let’s sit here. It is so pleasant ad comforting.”
They get out of the car and walk closer to water. Sand under their feet is tickling. Small waves are rolling leisurely at a calculated pace. A couple of ducks are gliding on the waves.
Sarada is struggling to find the right words.
Kamakshi is enjoying the beautiful scenery, as if there is not a care in the world. Perhaps, that is her way of giving the time Sarada might need.
A few minutes pass by.
“Have you heard from home?” Kamakshi asks.
Sarada is relieved. That’s what she likes about auntie. She knows what to say when
“Yes. I received a letter last week.”
Once again, silence prevails for a few minutes.
Sarada, looking into the horizon, speaks in a low voice, “I know my brother and sister-in-law are taking a very good care of my child. I am fully aware of it. No doubt. My baby is being raised with the best care any child could hope for. …” Sarada stops for a second, takes a deep breath and continues, “However, it is actually my responsibility, my duty. It is my job to raise my child. I have to do it. She should not be deprived of both the parents. I want to tell her that I care about her, I want her to be with me.”
Ha! Such a relief after speaking those few words; it is like a big burden lifted off her chest. She already feels elated as if she has the child in her arms, held tight to her bosom.
“That’s good. Good decision,” says Kamakshi.
Kamakshi looks at Sarada. Her face is so serene. Little smiles spread on their faces like the little ripples on the lake.
The very next thought that comes to Sarada is: Tomorrow I am going to tell Julie …
(March 8, 2022)
The Telugu original, “Amma tapana”, has been published in Andhra Jyothi Weekly, November 12, 1982.
Click here for the original Telugu story, అమ్మ తపన
(Translated by author in the mid-eighties.)