It was Tuesday. Sumana set flowers, camphor, and lamp wicks for puja. She did not believe in the daily worship but her husband, Siva Rao, performed every day. She made the necessary arrangements. That day also she began setting the stage, but mind was a thousand miles away.
Two days back, kathala Attayya garu (Storyteller Auntie) called from Milwaukee and let her know that she had arrived in Milwaukee. A month ago, she had arrived in New York and called Sumana from there to tell her she would like to see her.
Ever since she heard from Attayya garu, Sumana could hardly contain herself. She told Siva Rao. He said, “Let will see.” A trip to New York would take planning. Now Attayya garu was in Milwaukee, only a couple of hours drive. Sumana asked Siva Rao and he said sure.
On Friday, he said, “We can go to Milwaukee tomorrow.”
Sumana looked at him with disbelief. Her big eyes became bigger; really?
“Yes,” he said.
The Lord Siva has issued His command![ Refers to a Telugu proverb which says not even an ant will sting unless the Lord Siva commands it, Sivudaajna ayitee kaani cheemaina kuttadu.], the phrase resounded in her head.
Sumana was nine-years old when she chanced to meet a lady in the neighborhood and befriend her. She used to call her kathala Attayya garu [storyteller auntie] fondly.
After nearly thirty years, she heard from the same kathala Attayya garu again. She was ecstatic.
This is how it happened: Attayya garu came to California for a visit with her son, Rambabu. One day, while she was turning pages of a local Telugu magazine, to her great surprise saw Sumana’s name. She brought it to her son’s notice right away. “Ohhhhhhh, this little girl I know her. So she lives here now? She is like a daughter to me, don’t you remember? She used to come to our house everyday … I knew her since she was this little,” and she held her hand as if she was marking the girl’s height in the air. Rambabu got on his laptop at once, conducted a people’s search, found Sumana’s phone number, and dialed the number.
Sumana picked up the phone and said hello.
“Wait, I’ll get your friend,” he dropped the handset on the table and went away.
Sumana was confused. Who this friend could be? Before she came to any conclusion, she heard hello from the other end. The voice sounded a bit mature, to be a friend of her age.
Sumana said hello back and asked apprehensively, “Who’s this, madam?”
“Me, dear, your story-teller attayya from Mangalagiri, remember? You used to come to our house every day in the evening after school.”
“Wow, kathala attayya garu! Oh, no, how could I forget you? When did you come? Where are you?” Sumana was startled and chocked; she could hardly contain herself for all the joy the tidings over the phone had brought. She could barely keep her feet on the ground.
“Yes, ammayi! Rambabu is in California now, you know. He bought a house. I came for gruhapravesam[ Ceremony marking family’s move into a new home. ],” she said, feeling elated that the little girl had not forgotten her.
“Wow, listening to your voice again, is so nice, feels like I am in your kitchen again!” said Sumana.
“Where do you live? Are you close by?”
“No, Attayya garu, California is far away for us. If you come to Chicago, let me know. We will come to see to you.”
“Chicago? I don’t know about that. I will go to Madison. Is that close?”
“Ah, yes, it is close, very close, Attayya garu. When will you be in Madison?” Sumana was thrilled by the prospect.
“I don’t know yet, Ammayi. My father’s brother’s granddaughter lives there. She has asked me a few times to visit her. Her husband has some job in some company. She stays home with her two kids. I am not sure yet, thinking about it though. The travel here is such a hassle, you know.”
“Please, do come. I would like to see you also. We will come to Milwaukee and bring you to our house. You have to see our house. Travel is hassle, I understand. It is not that easy in this country despite all the flights,” said Sumana, feeling choked.
“Who’s she?” asked Pandu. He understood mom was talking to somebody she liked very much.
“Attayya garu,” she said and explained to him how she had met her and become fond of her. She went on talking about Attayya garu, unaware the boy had stopped listening.
Attayya garu called Sumana after she had arrived in Milwaukee. Her uncle’s granddaughter, Ratnamala also was very amiable; she invited Sumana to her place.
Ever since Sumana had received the news, she had been trying to persuade her husband Siva Rao to take her to Milwaukee to visit her favorite Attayya garu from her childhood days. Unfortunately, Siva Rao had not been able to do so; something or other was coming in the way. The fact was he would not miss a puja or a religious ceremony in any Telugu home within one hundred miles radius under any circumstance. At the beginning Sumana did not want to go with him to those festivities, but he prevailed upon her, eventually. He told her, “If you do not believe in God, that is fine. Just come for a sumptous meal called prasadam.[ Food or fruits offered to God and eaten by devotees as a sign of receiving His blessings.]” That worked for her. Their six-year-old son Pandu would jump on any occasion that got him out of the house. After that, it had become a tradition in their family. However, the current situation put Sumana in a different mood.
Sumana was losing hope; kathala Attayya garu would leave Milwaukee and go back to California the following Sunday. After that, she would not get another chance to see her again.
“Let’s go to Milwaukee coming Saturday,” Siva Rao.
Sumana’s heart shot to her throat. Thoughts about the storyteller auntie rose in her head like a swarm of bumble bees. Sumana was floating on the clouds after Siva Rao announced that they would be going to Milwaukee on Saturday. She could not sleep all night. She could recall her visits to Attayya garu’s home, the mind-boggling aroma from the spices Attayya garu used in her cooking. Finally in the wee small hours her eyelids drooped heavily.
The car stopped in front of Ratnamala’s home. She invited them in gleefully.
Sumana’s eyes were hovering around in the room for the person she had been looking forward to see. She sat on the edge of the sofa. Her heart was pounding like the little engine.
“Attayya garu will be here in a minute,” said Ratnamala; a little smile spread on her lips, understandingly.
Pandu was restless. Siva Rao was trying to keep Pandu occupied.
“What would you like to have? Coke, coffee, tea?” asked Ratnamala.
Pandu said coke. Siva Rao said no thanks. Sumana shook her head, nothing for me.
She wanted to see only Attayya garu. That was all she wanted. She kept looking around and toward the staircase. When will this wait end?
Attayya garu appeared on the staircase, at last. She was small of stature yet had a commanding personality, like the statue of goddess Rajarajeswari devi in a temple. The signs of age were visible yet nothing changed. She was fair complexioned, always displaying an amicable smile on her red lips, eyes radiated affection; hair turned gray giving the whole face a new glow. Back then, her hair was shiny black. She would apply coconut oil and comb it neatly, put it in a bun, and tuck a bunch of jasmine flowers in it. Then, she would make one more bunch of jasmines and keep it on the little table by the door for Sumana.
Sumana sat there glued to the chair and watching Attayya garu as she walked down the stairs. Attayya garu walked up to her, took her chin in the palm, and said in a touching voice, “Let me see your face. I am getting old, can’t see clearly. So, how’re you doing? Is this your kid? Very cute, looks just like you.”
She went on and on asking question after question nonstop. Sumana’s eyes turned moist for all the kindness Attayya garu was showering. Yes, that’s my boy, he is my husband … she was answering in the same order. She wanted to ask as many questions, wanted to tell so many things, not a single word would come out of her mouth.
Attayya garu sat next to her, put her hand gently on Sumana’s head, and said, “It’s so long since I’ve seen you … You’ve grown up so much, I never thought I could see you again, not even in a dream … As the Lord Siva wills it, I believe.”
“True, Attayya garu, I also wanted to see you, always thinking about you, but never thought it would happen.”
“Yes. As they say, even an ant would not sting unless He commands it.”
“It will sting if you stick your finger in its anthill,[ A children’s story in which a little boy pokes into an anthill and the ants sting his finger.
]” Pandu said, referring to the story he had heard so many times.
Attayya garu laughed heartily, “Aha, did your mom tell you that? Even then the ant would sting only if it has Siva’s command.”
“How would we know the ant has His command?” he asked.
Attayya garu pinched his cheek playfully and said, “You’re also into stories like mom? You’ll know it when it stings you.”
“It won’t sting if it did not have His command?”
“No, it won’t.”
Ratnamala smiled and said, “Let’s eat. It is getting late.” She went into the kitchen.
Pandu sat there with a pout. He was bored. Ratnamala noticed it and said, “I wish my kids were home. They would have great time. Unfortunately, they went to a birthday party; my first son’s friend’s birthday. I told them to stay home but they wouldn’t listen.” She turned on the cartoon channel and handed the remote to Siva Rao and went into the kitchen.
“Can I help?” Sumana followed her.
“It’s almost done, not much really. Just ready in five minutes. You two chat. I’m sure you’ve a lot to talk about,” she said.
At the table, Attayya garu sat next to Sumana, gently playing with the curls on her forehead and talking, “You had a dark, thick mop of hair; I used to struggle to braid it. Did your husband tell you to cut it?”
“Oh no. He did not say anything. I did it myself. Just a matter of convenience; easy to take care, you know.”
“Is he making good money? Our people come here for the money only, leaving behind families and properties; isn’t it true? Are you saving? We never know when goddess Lakshmi comes and goes. Why aren’t you working? Did your husband object? So, how come you have only one child? He is making good money, you have everything, you should have bellyful of kids. One eye is not an eye and one child is not a child, my mother-in-law used to say. I also have only one child, Rambabu, you know.”
Sumana was flabbergasted. She never imagined this side of Attayya garu–endless flow of inquiries about her personal life. She did not know how to answer them. She felt like a little chicken caught in the hands of a naughty boy. Her heart shrunk; she threw a desperate look at Ratnamala, with “save me” look. Ratnamala was busy with something on hand and with her head down. Or, she could be enjoying the scene. Probably, she had been in that situation earlier.
Sumana gathered all the strength she had and made a desperate attempt to stop Attayya garu as she said, “Oh, no, no, he did not say anything, nothing at all. In fact, he never interferes in my decisions. I just do whatever I please, that’s it. He is not like that at all.”
“How come you are not working? I’ve heard here you have all kinds of facilities to take care of children.”
“I thought I’d rather take care of children myself than hand them over to others. Children are more important to me.” It hurt her to think Attayya garu felt she did something wrong.
Ratnamala wanted to say something in defense of moms taking care of children. “That’s what I said, too,” she said, setting the table. “Will you tell them the food is ready,” she said to Sumana, putting an end to the chat temporarily.
Sumana thanked her stars and her hostess, jumped to her feet ,and dashed to the living room. She came back and sat next to Pandu on the pretext she needed to feed him. However, she could not escape from the torrent of questions from Attayya garu completely.
Attayya garu sat across from her and continued her inquiries: Is the young man [her husband] treating you well? Is he doing well in his job? You own the house?
On the way home, Siva Rao turned to Sumana and asked, “Happy?”
Sumana could not come up with a good answer for his question.
Sumana put down the pen and started folding the paper in her hand. Siva Rao returned from office. He saw the paper and asked, “Letter? From whom?”
Sumana handed over the letter to him without saying a word.
Siva Rao took it and stared at her. From Attayya garu? Sure looks like it! He was confused.
Sumana shook her head, read it.
Siva Rao sat down and started reading the letter.
“chiranjeevi saubhagyavathi Sumanaki,[ In our culture, the form of address at the beginning of letter reflects relationships between the two as well as blessings or regards as the case maybe. The address here indicates the old lady started the letter with her blessings to the young woman. ]
Your Attayya garu blesses you and writes as follows. I am doing well here and hope you all are doing well.
I was very happy you came from so far away just to see me. I never thought I would see you again in this lifetime, my little girl! You remembered me and came to see me. It made me so happy. May God bless you!
You’ve always been a good girl, even when you were a little kid. Remember, you used to come running to our home after school every day. I waited for you everyday eagerly and your uncle teased me, your pet child has not come yet? At the time you were six-years old. you’ve grown into beautiful young woman right in front of my eyes and finished high school. I, however, see you only as that six-year old child. That’s why I was so excited yesterday. I was so excited, wanted to ask you so many questions, wanted to know everything about you … I could barely contain myself, my dear. How’re you? What are you doing? How is your marriage? Is he taking good care of you?
Probably, it was annoying. But, what can I say? What can I do? You know I am not educated like you. You tell me, how would I know the manners of your generation? I have no idea what movies you watch and what politics you talk about. That’s all Sanskrit to me. I live in my small world, talk only about the few things I know, and only in a way I know how. That’s all. Anyway, while we are on the subject, I am asking again. Is your husband treating you kindly? He is not into drinking and flirting, right? Okay, never mind. I’ve seen him. He looked pretty decent to me, I’m sure he is a perfect gentleman and is very fond of you.
Do you remember? One time your uncle went out of town and he wrote a letter to me from there. I didn’t know how to read and asked you to read it to me. I asked you all right but did not let you read it to the end. I snatched it away from your hands midway. I was not sure what he might say and what questions you might ask. Now, you’ve all grown up, maybe, you’ll understand what it could be about. I know your husband too is romantic!
At that time, anyway, I was angry with your uncle for writing the letter, knowing full well I did not know how to read. I yelled at him and he yelled back at me, saying I should have learned how to read and write. After your family had moved away, I started to learn how to write, with the hope I could write to you, but it did not go far.
Do you remember? You made a small mat in your crafts class and gave it to me. You told me I could sit on it at the puja time. I still have it. I would not sit on it though for fear it might wear off and get ruined. I know what I should do now. After I return home, I will sit on that mat and perform Satyanarayana puja in your name, seeking the Lord’s blessings for you, your husband and the child. I would wish a long happy marital bliss and family life for you all.
As for me, the fact that you’ve come to see me is enough. I never thought I would see you again. And, probably, I will not see you again. My part in this world theater is nearing the end. I am only waiting for the Lord Siva’s command. As soon as he says go, I will go. Please, do not be mad at this foolish Attayya garu.
With kindest blessings,
Siva Rao turned the paper back and forth, looked around for the envelope, and looked into Sumana’s face. He moved close to her, and asked caringly, “I am a little confused. You wrote this? Why?”
“I was not nice to Attayya garu. I should know better, should have known where she was coming from. She was asking questions not because she was inquisitive, but her world was small; that was all she could talk about. It was not her fault. I should have just answered her questions and made her happy. To make myself understand that, I wrote this letter. This is the letter she could have written, if she knew how to write.”
“This is nice. It reflects her mode of thinking and her situation fully, as if you were holding a mirror to her heart. The wording is hers. I am glad you thought about it.”
Sumana could not, however, feel reassured. “I wish I was nice to her,” she spoke softly, as if she was talking to herself.
“Stop, you should not feel guilty like this. Recognizing something about a person and admitting it is just as important. Do you know how many people cannot or will not even see that?” And then, he said, in an effort to lighten the air, “You made me a drunk and a flirt in your letter,” bringing his face close to hers.
Sumana bit her tongue, squinted and smiled, leaning on his chest.
The phone rang.
“Pch, bummer,” he said, went and picked up the phone. He listened and said, “Oh, no! I am so sorry. Yes. I will tell her. You take care,” hung up and looked at Sumana.
Her face fell. She was staring at the paper in her hand. She kept circling the phrase “the Lord Siva Commands” mechanically.
Siva Rao walked up to her, sat next to her, and said, “Attayya garu suffered a heart attack last night. They are conducting tests, no need to worry, he said. She may not need surgery.”
Sumana said not a word. She could barely see the words Lord Siva Commands through a film of tears gathered in her eyes. Suddenly, she grabbed her husband’s hand and said in a husky voice, “Let us perform Satyanarayana puja.”
Siva Rao was startled. This was the first time he heard it from her. He managed to hide his surprise and said, “Of course, we will perform the puja. I think Paurnami [Full moon] falls on next Saturday, good day for the puja.”
This story is interesting to me on several levels. First and foremost, In my childhood (10-14 years of age), I visited regularly a charming old lady in our neighborhood and listened to the stories, she narrated to me.
In her memory, I created this story to drive an important point home. In our culture, the concept of privacy has been introduced, maybe, in the past 2 generations. Accordingly, readers’ comments focused on the importance of privacy. Readers, however, seem to forget the characters set in the past should be viewed from their perspective.
In this story, the young woman rooted in Indian values and traditions meets the elderly lady, whom she respected as a storyteller and mentor in her childhood. The story addresses several layers – two women from two generations developing closeness, the changed attitude of the young woman after coming to America, her discomfort with the older woman’s inquisitive questions, and finally, understanding where the older woman had come from, and how natural it was for her to ask those questions.
In Telugu, I have written two versions. This is a translation of the later version.
The links for Telugu versions on Telugu thulika:
Sivudaajna (ver 1) http://wp.me/p9pVQ-9G
Sivudaajna (ver. 2), http://wp.me/p9pVQ-b6
Published in 2008.