Evolving Values by J.P. Sarma

(The unpublished Telugu original, Ammamma Uttaram, translated by Dr. Suguna Kannan.)

Grandmother’s Letter:

Dear Chiranjeevi Lakshmi Sowbhagyavathi(1) Kamakshi,

This is your grandmother Narasamma writing to you…

We do speak every day over the phone, but there are some things one cannot share over the phone so, this letter. Our neighbor’s son has promised to post it to you. Tomorrow, I will call the boy when you ring me up and you can share your postal address so he can write it down.

Anyway, my reason for writing to you is this …. in my youth, the auspicious month of Sravan2 used to fly by on golden wings. On Tuesdays and Fridays, our home would overflow with female friends, and the festivities would keep us all busy and engrossed. To add to the hubbub, would be the brouhaha caused by the occasional tiny showers common during this season. It would make the ladies worry about their silk saree getting wet. Unlike the present times, there was no craze among the ladies to deck themselves in costly grand sarees and expensive gold jewelry. Everyone dressed according to their capacity. Whether affluent or impoverished, their concerns were only about…. performing the pooja with reverence, visiting each other’s homes to receive the blessings and prasad (offerings to God) … inquiring about each other, and exchanging greetings and news… our lives were limited to these, and time passed by with no problem! By night, the whole house, covered with yellow turmeric, would appear golden. The sight would be gratifying to the heart. Maybe N.T Ramarao3 chose yellow as his party color hoping it would make Andhra Pradesh golden! Now neither the turmeric nor my husband is there in my life… What is the use of thinking about them?

By evening, about three kgs of the prasad(soaked chickpeas) would accumulate. I would grind it with salt, chilies, and some onions to make vadas (savory fried snacks native to South India) since your grandfather was very fond of those. I used to make them for four or five days after that and he would polish off half a dozen vadas after his afternoon nap while reading a book. All that revelry and merriment has vanished from this house. I see a few ladies visiting each other for the pooja but their faces are more likely to be colored white rather than yellow. Your grandfather’s departure to heaven has prevented them from coming to this house.

I was reminded of all this, my dear – I don’t know, why? Your uncle married as per his wish but what was the use? Your aunt could never see eye to eye with him on any issue! It is ten years since they left…. I don’t even know where they are! Maybe he does not even remember me! Okay! I got over that too … since your mother was in the same town…you are her only daughter…and what did she do… unnecessarily she sent you to America for further studies! You got married as per your choice…white or black what does it matter…he is not ours, No? So, where is the scope any longer for…Sravan month, poojas, and gaiety? I could not fulfill my yearning with your mother…. nor with you!

My mother used to perform the pooja with me and when I used to pay obeisance before her, she would bless me, “May the years of my lifespan be added to yours, and may you live happily for 100 years”. Finally, I seem to have taken the years from my parents’, your grandfather’s, and even your mother’s lifespan. I am still alive but there is no life in me.

By writing my thoughts, I feel unburdened, the tears that had long frozen in my eyes have melted. They flow down my cheeks providing me some relief. I know that memories are sorrowful but I have no one to share them with except you.

Take Care, dear!
Your Loving Grandma,
Narsamma

Granddaughter’s Response:
Dear Ammamma(4),
Your granddaughter Kamakshi offers her namaskarams(5) to you through this letter.
We are all fine here and hope you are safe and sound there. After reading your letter, I wanted to reply to you. Ammamma, your letter reminded me of all the advice given by my mother as well as you and that is what inspired me to pen this letter. For me, it is a first …. I have never written to you earlier… I did not even know how to address you in a letter so I searched on Google for a long time. Pshaw! …. great Google had not the faintest idea… as if it could even think of such a thing! So, I thought …. I would write just as I talk to you on the phone!
Ammamma…. If I had stayed in our place, I might not have learned as much about Telugu as I have learned after coming here to New Jersey! Only after coming here, did I realize the value of our language (as they say the grass is greener on the other side). My first boss was from Andhra and he told me, “In our office, three-fourths of the employees are from Andhra. If you know Telugu, you will learn the job easily.” Those days the only language I heard was Telugu so I began to improve and refine my Telugu usage, which I had avoided earlier. My love and respect for the language grew. You always insisted that ‘distance makes the heart grow fonder’…now it has been proven …QED as they say in Geometry. My thoughts about our language and you have undergone a sea change!
In this place, there is an organization called Silicon Andhra Manabadi(6), which teaches Telugu to children. These children have a greater grasp of Telugu compared to me. I learn from them without any embarrassment.
Incidentally, here also pujas are performed during the month of Sravan grandly with greater reverence and ritual purity. Here it is not just a formality to be completed but done with great interest and dedication. I met a lady doctor in the local hospital, where I had gone for my first formal medical check-up. I did not realize that she was from Andhra but she spoke in Telugu after seeing my name. She invited me home to her place and I went.
You cannot believe how much I have learned from her…she came here some fifty years ago. On my first visit to her home, I was surprised to find her looking just like you in a simple handloom saree with a long plait. It was quite contrary to the Western image I had formed of her in my mind. In their house, one whole wall is covered with a big bookshelf filled with volumes ranging from Ramayana to the latest Telugu books of poets like SriSri(7). I gained a lot of knowledge about Telugu culture but she very modestly says, ‘I learned all this only after coming here. Through her, I have become acquainted with many like-minded people. I have heard you say that in your youth, Andhras went to all other Indian states for employment; so, you will not be surprised to hear that now we find a multitude of Andhras in other countries too – so much so that at times I feel that I have not left our town. I am very surprised by the change in my thought processes during the past five years that I have been here. Doctor Aunty said that I would look nice in a skirt and half saree because I have a very adolescent appearance and look. I bought a skirt- half saree set online and wear it for festivals and special occasions. For the Varalakshmi Puja, she came home and instructed me on how to perform the puja. She had meals with us and praised my cooking a lot. After tasting the Gutthu Vankaayi (stuffed brinjal) I had made, she was surprised and said, “No matter how I make it, it never tastes so good”.
So, Ammamma, don’t worry! It is not as you imagine… our language and festivals are better respected and cherished here; as they say, “Farther from Temple, nearer to God”. My African-American husband has also learned Telugu. On festival days, when I wear silk sarees, he wears the traditional dhoti and kurta and looks like Veereslingam Pantulu(8). Ammamma, you know though he is dark, his heart is white and pure.
Incidentally, that Doctor Aunty has an only daughter…born and brought up here…she is in a live-in relationship with a South African and has gone off to some foreign country …. it’s been ten years…Aunty does not know where the girl is!
This seems to be the outcome of a free society. “World is a family” does not mean this, does it?
Poor lady! Whenever she sees me, her eyes fill up with tears but I can see a sort of happiness in them. I see my mother in her.
But one thing, Ammamma every family has a feeling of sorrow and success… it is unavoidable, isn’t it?
Bye then
Your affectionate granddaughter
Kamakshi

Foot Notes:
1. Chiranjeevi Lakshmi Sowbhagyavathi – In Indian vernacular, elders while writing a letter to a younger person began traditionally with a blessing of long life (Chiranjeevi) and prosperity (Lakshmi Sowbhagyavathi)
2. Sravan – Sravan is the fifth month of the Hindu Lunar calendar and is considered its holiest. It is choc-a-bloc with festivals and auspicious occasions.
3. N.T Ramarao – Nandamuri Taraka Rama Rao popularly known as NTR, was an Indian actor, filmmaker, and politician who served as Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh for seven years over three terms.
4. Ammamma – Grandmother
5. Namaskarams- means “I bow to you.”
6. Silicon Andhra Manabadi- a global Telugu language learning platform.
7. SriSri – was an Indian poet and lyricist, famous for his works in Telugu literature and films.
8. Veeresalingam Pantulu – A famous Telugu social reformer and writer considered to be the father of the Telugu Renaissance movement.


(June 1, 2022)

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