Two days back, Radha called her to inquire how she was doing. Geetha said she was doing well softly, sounding lifeless. Radha understood her predicament; she knew it only too well. Almost all Telugu women went through that downtime in the first few months of their arrival in America.
She said, ”How is your family at home? Have you talked to them?”
“No, no phone in our house, you know. I didn’t want to disturb the neighbors. I wrote to my mother.”
“That’s good. We all had been through that feeling, Geetha. It takes time to get used to it.”
“I hope so,” Geetha sighed.
“Look at it this way,” Radha said, trying to cheer her up, “You’ve said you were not very close to your brothers; you were arguing all the time. Now you don’t have those arguments.”
Geetha laughed, ”Well, yes. Still it is not the same. I still miss them, actually missing them more now.”
Radha too laughed and agreed that it was not the same. Also told Geetha it had been like that for her too, at first.
After the chat, Geetha’s spirits hit a new low. How on earth did this happen? I took one big leap in a split second, like I did not know it was a lifetime decision, she thought with awe. Her entire life rolled out in her mind like an old movie; it was like someone else’s story.
A decade and a half had passed since.
The Ramanatha Swami High School had published the final exam results. Students gathered in the schoolyard anxiously, looking for their names on the list posted on the big board. Those, who had passed the exam, were elated; they walked around like they had grown two inches taller. The students, whose names were not on the list, were eager to leave the place. The successful students were trying to stop them and speak some encouraging, deriding, or reassuring words to the failed folks: I am sure there will be a supplementary list; What’s the big deal; You can try again; There must be some mistake; and so on.
Some of them talked about their future plans: I will take Biology major; I want to go to law school; I don’t think my father lets me continue; I will probably learn to typewrite…
“I will go to America,” Ranga Rao said.
Several students quickly gathered around him.
“What do you do there?”
“I don’t know. I just want to go to America. That’s all I know for now.”
“Yes, yes. I’ve seen him buying a ticket at the train station yesterday,” somebody said, mockingly. Two students laughed. Four students snickered. Two students, standing next to Ranga Rao, took him seriously.
The entire atmosphere was boisterous with various emotions: happy, sad, disappointed, desperate; Aspirations, hopes, fears, and tears.
Geetha stood a few feet away from them, and watched the other students with a feeling of inexplicable apprehensiveness.
“What do you think you will do?” her friend Satyam asked her.
“Um. I don’t know.”
“Yes. For girls like us, no plan. Things just happen,” Satyam said inanely.
“You too think so?”
“Well, you know. My two brothers are in college, and two sisters are sitting there, waiting the wedding day. I know father can’t pay for my education.”
“I just don’t know what I want to do.”
Satyam sighed. “We’ll see. I have to go,” she said.
Both left for their respective homes.
Geetha’s father was on the porch, reading newspaper. He said, “Passed?”
She nodded in assent and went in.
“Glad it is done,” said her mother.
Geetha went into her room and stood in front of her bookshelf. Those books meant a lot up until last night, but now meant nothing. She sighed and turned around.
Her little brother, Chitti, was standing behind her, “You said you’d give me a quarter of a rupee, if you passed the exam.”
“When did I say that?”
“The other day when I was playing drum, you said you’d give me a quarter, if I stopped playing the drum and let you study.”
“Okay. I’ll give you later.”
Mother called her from the kitchen, “Geetha, go to Nagamma Atta’s Atta: Aunt home, get some curry leaves. I am making pulihora.”
Geetha went to neighbor Nagamma Atta’s home. Nagamma Atta was making cotton wicks for her daily worship as Geetha walked in.
“Done with high school?” she asked.
“Yes Atta, passed. Amma sent me here to get curry leaves from your tree.”
“Sure, take them. What is the rush? Come here, sit down.”
“Amma is waiting for the curry leaves. I have better go.”
“Ah, okay, go. You will be in college soon, I guess.”
“I don’t know.”
“Why? Did your mother say no need for further studies?”
“No, she did not say anything.”
“No, Atta, nobody said anything. I have to go.”
“Well then, you tell them that you want to go to college. Stop being so naive. Times have changed. No boy would come forward to marry you without a college degree, at least.”
“I have to go,” Geetha said, and left.
Geetha knew there was would be some discussion at home sooner or later. That moment had come soon enough. At dinner that night, mother Kamakshi brought it up.
“Probably, college costs a lot of money,” Kamakshi said in a soft voice, while serving curry. She would like Geetha to go to college very much.
“I guess,” said father Paramesam, indicating it was on his mind too.
“Aren’t there scholarships or something like that?” Kamakshi asked.
“Oh, no, Vadina! Vadina: Older brother’s wife. That is only for the rich and the mighty, not for folks like us,” Bhanumurthy, Paramesam’s younger brother, said, sarcastically.
Kamakshi was annoyed but kept quiet.
“Why does she need a college degree, anyway? All she is going to do is cook, clean and take care of the kids, right?” he added.
“You said it right, my boy! I think so, too,” said Bamma Bamma: Grandmother garu from the hallway, where she was lying on the jute-rope cot and listening to the conversation.
Kamakshi did not say what was on her mind for fear of offending the woman one generation senior to her. She sighed, and went in to bring the yogurt.
Geetha sat there with her eyes glued to the food on her plate, and mixing the rice and curry clumsily. Father, Mother, Babayi and Bamma garu–they all were talking about her future. She was listening; it felt like it was not about her but somebody else.
The following Sunday, Geetha went to Saroja’s home for a party. It was late in the evening by the time she returned.
“How was the party?” Kamakshi asked. She knew what kind of questions she might have faced, and how painful it could be.
“Okay,” said Geetha, and went into the adjoining room to change.
After they all ate supper, Paramesam settled in the reclining chair on the porch with the newspaper.
Geetha spread the mats and set the pillows in the adjoining room. Usually, that room served as a chat room for the adults to discuss the day’s events, and as a study room for the kids to do their homework. On that day also, as usual, they all gathered there and started chatting.
“So,” said Bhanumurthy, lying on the mat on his stomach, and resting his elbows on the pillow, folded, under his chin.
“How many times have I told you not to fold the pillow like that. Use two pillows if one is not enough,” Kamakshi said.
Bhanumurthy, ignored her chiding, and continued as usual, “So, what is Saroja going to do?”
“She says she will study medicine,” Geetha replied.
“Ha ha. Is she that smart?” Bhanumurthy laughed. He got through high school with bare minimum marks, took the polytechnic course, and took a job as a telephone operator.
That hurt Geetha. She did not like BabayiBabayi: Father’s younger brother. dismissing her friend’s aspirations in one curt sentence. “Saroja has gotten good marks, as always,” she said with knotted eye-brows.
Kamakshi did not like it either. “Who are we to tell how smart she is?” she retorted edgily. She wanted her daughter to go to college, very much. In her younger days, she had hoped to go to college, but that did not happen. Now she would love to have her daughter a college degree.
“Hindi class is good,” Bamma said from the hallway on the jute-rope cot, not that her suggestion mattered. She, however, considered herself part of the family since she was living under their roof; and, offered her advice, asked or not.
Geetha picked up the courage to say, “I want to go to college.”
“Think about it, college education does not come easy. It takes four years to obtain the degree. Your father retires by then,” Bhanumurthy said.
Geetha pretended not to hear his words, and said, “A degree in Hindi takes time, too.”
“It may take time, but not that expensive,” Bhanumurthy said. He was surprised that Geetha spoke. He wondered if that came from attending the party at Saroja’s home; who could have said what to her?
Kamakshi’s face fell, but nobody noticed it. “It would be nice if she could get a bachelor’s degree, at least,” she said.
Paramesam would like it too; but, he had overwhelming responsibilities. He was aware that it was beyond his means.
Bhanumurthy, however, did not let go of it. “What do you mean by ‘nice’, Vadina, tell me; enlighten me,” he said.
Paramesam came into the room, yawned, and said, “That’s enough. It is getting late. We need to wake up early. Go to bed.”
The discussion ended, leaving her future hanging in the balance.
Some of them had to find other venues. Saroja signed up for the Biology course, but Sambu could not, although he had received higher marks in high school. Lakshmi, Sundari, John Gopal, Ansari Ali, and others went their separate ways.
Geetha signed up for the Hindi class. She could not help but think of her classmates. Some of them would graduate from college and go for further studies. They just happened to be in a better position socially, and so, got better opportunities. She knew that some of them “managed” to pass the tests. She had gotten good marks, fared better than some of them; yet she could not go to college. She could not help but think that she would remain “a girl without a college degree” for the rest of her life.
Kamakshi’s younger brother, Ramana, was in America. He wrote that he was happy that Geetha had passed the high school exam, and would be happy to help her get admission in a local college. Kamakshi it twice and left it on the coffee table.
Geetha returned from her HIndi class.
“Did you write to him?” mother asked.
Geetha was confused. “Writing what? To whom?” she asked.
“To Ramana MamayyaMamayya: Maternal uncle., about passing the exam.”
“I did. So?” Geetha asked.
Kamakshi threw a scathing look at her and went into the kitchen.
“Yes, go, pack and leave right now. He has gotten a white girl; he will find a white boy for you too,” Bamma said, expressing her displeasure.
Ramana had left for America when he was 22, completed his studies, got a job, got citizenship, and settled in the U.S. He married his colleague, a white woman. That was a sore point for Bamma ever since.
Kamakshi was adding stirring the eggplant curry on the stove in the kitchen. Bamma’s comment ticked her off. She came into the hallway and said, “He married a white girl, so what? Our girl passed the exam. She was happy. So, she dropped a line to her uncle. He too was happy about it. What has one got to do with the other? It is not like we are taking him upon his offer, anyway.
“Let’s not forget how we treated him. He came home, after 12 years away from home, and how did we treat him? He is my only brother. You did not take into consideration even that. You insisted he must not enter the kitchen because he was married to a white girl. We should be happy that he offered to help us, despite such humiliation.” She struggled to stay calm while replying to Bamma.
“What did I say? Did I say anything that is not true, or, inappropriate?” Bamma fired back.
Geetha stood there watching this farce. She thought for a second about what would have happened if Babayi was there; then it occurred to her that Babayi would be home soon, and this bickering would continue.
She was right. Babayi started out the squabble again, after he returned from work. He raised several questions, starting with, “Where did she get the money to buy the aerogram,” to “Where did she get the idea of going to America.”
The truth was, she had heard about it at the party at Saroja’s house. Ranga Rao mentioned, casually, that it would be easier to go to America, if one had a relative or friends in America. Geetha thought about Ramana Mamayya.
Not that it had become an obsession with her, but when she saw some space on the aerogram her mother had given her to write Ramana’s address, and mail it. She scribbled a line about her passing the exam, and mailed it. It was all casual, no expectation of opportunities or, possibilities.
Bhanumurthy would not let go of it, so easily, though. “So, that is it, Vadina? I must give it to you. You’ve done a wonderful job of training her,” he said.
“Aha, that is my training? My training adds up to what, while you all are here to protect her?,” she replied edgily.
“So be it. Okay, Geethamma, please, don’t forget this poor, no good Babayi, please. Maybe, you can find a small job for me, too,” Bhanumurthy continued his brassy remarks.
Geetha felt terrible. She regretted her action; Oh, God, what have I done, she thought.
“Who knows what is in store, Bhanu! As they say, the barren land you have ridiculed could come to fruition some daynavvina naapa chene pandutundi. A barren land may yield produce.,” Kamakshi said, and left the room.
Paramesam’s father had enjoyed a fairly good life. They had enough to run the family, and help a couple of others as well. In course of time, however, the property had been used up for children’s education, weddings, etc.
Paramesam inherited a small single family home, and got a job as a teacher at a local middle school. That was about it. He had three sons and one daughter. First son finished college, got married, and moved to the big city. The second son was in the second year of college. Now Geetha was finished with high school, and the question of her studies was hanging in balance. The last child, Chitti was in the 4th grade.
Paramesam’s younger brother, Bhanumurthy, completed high school, and joined a telephone company as a telephone operator in the same town and moved in with them about 5 years back. His stay with them was helpful, financially; his thoughtless comments and ideas were annoying to both Kamakshi and Geetha. Basically, he had no college education, and so he saw no reason why Geetha should get a degree. Bamma garu was one more living soul in that household. She was Paramesam’s mother’s younger sister. She had a son, who refused to take care of her. Since she had no other place to go, Paramesam’s mother took her into her home.
Siva Rao was a childhood friend of Paramesam. They both had tea in the same tea stall, attended the same school, learned to smoke cigarettes and play cards from the same classmates, got a taste of the same rods from the same teachers. They received medications and reprimands from the same doctor. They were not born to the same parents, but grew up practically like brothers. After they were done with schooling, each settled in life in their own ways. Siva Rao married his mother’s brother’s daughterCross-cousins are permitted to marry in Telugu families. and settled in Guntur, taking care of his father-in-law’s business. Paramesam married the girl Kamakshi, his parents picked for him, and settled as a school teacher in Vijayawada. Both got busy with their own lives. There was no communication between the two families for a while.
One fine morning, Siva Rao came to visit Paramesam’s family.
Kamakshi welcomed him heartily, gave him a glass of water, and inquired about his family in Guntur.
“Haven’t seen you in a long time. I thought you’ve forgotten us,” said Bamma garu said, expressing mild displeasure.
Siva Rao sat in the reclining chair on the porch, sipping water.
“Oh, no, Bamma garu, my business is like that, hardly any time to do anything. We can’t trust anybody nowadays, can’t let the guards down, not even for a second. It’s killing me, no time even to die. If the Lord Yama[ God of Death. ] comes to take me away, I would have to tell him, not now, come later,” he said to her. Then he turned to Kamakshi, “They are doing well, Chellemma!Chellamma: Younger sister. Your vadina has some minor complaints like backache, but nothing serious.”
“Don’t your sons help?” Bamma garu asked.
“No, Bamma garu, too young to get into business.”
“So, what is new, AnnaAnna: Older brother. garu?” Kamakshi asked.
“Oh, I almost forgot,” he smiled and said, “I have come to invite you all to my son’s wedding. It is set to be performed on June 25th.”
Geetha returned from her Hindi class, and stood on the last step to the porch, listening to their conversation. She tried to imagine a young man who was too young to take care of business but old enough to get married.
May 27, 2022)
|↑2||Vadina: Older brother’s wife.|
|↑4||Babayi: Father’s younger brother.|
|↑5||Mamayya: Maternal uncle.|
|↑6||navvina naapa chene pandutundi. A barren land may yield produce.|
|↑7||Cross-cousins are permitted to marry in Telugu families.|
|↑8||Chellamma: Younger sister.|
|↑9||Anna: Older brother.|