Category Archives: Telugu Stories in English

A Piece of Ribbon by Beenadevi.

 The evening was stretching sluggishly. The sun was tired and left in a hurry but the moon took his sweet time to show up. The breeze was singing softly. The tiny grass blades were waving their heads like esteemed artists.

That was a huge mansion. The lawn surrounding the mansion was filled with several beautiful flower plants. The doctor was sitting on the lawn and watching, entranced, the flowers around him and the gliding clouds in the sky. There were chairs on the lawn but the doctor always enjoyed stretching on the lawn and enjoy the setting. He looked like he was pondering over something but hard to say what it was about. It could be the friends who had not showed up yet. It was past their usual time and getting dark. Or, it could be about the baby he struggled to bring into this world a while ago. Probably none of the above; he was just immersed in appreciating the beauty of the flowers dancing on the tips of the plants at a distance.

Viswam, one of his friends, entered the scene disturbing his reverie, “What’s the matter? Doctor garu is sitting alone, lost in thought?” and added, “I thought I’d be late but I see I’m the first to show up, after all. Anyway, what’s the matter? You lay down here like Sita under the Asoka tree?”[1] Viswam sat down next to the doctor. He believes that he talks humorously. He always boasts of the award he has received for his performance as a comic character in a school play. He speak always things he thinks funny, that’s built into his nature.

Doctor chuckled softly. Viswam said, “What’s it, you are smiling about, doctor garu? Did I disrupt your solitude? If so, I’d go away and leave you alone.” He got up to leave but the doctor stopped him, “No, please, sit down.”

“It’s getting dark so soon now. Where is everybody? This stupid winter, gets dark so soon. By the time we leave office and get home, it’s already time to light up the lamps,” Viswam said again.

The doctor responded only with a chuckle again.

“How come you are so interested in the flower plants? Trust me, even the local parks don’t have this many varieties of plants,” Viswam complimented, watching the plants around.

Siraj, an engineer, came and joined them, apologizing for his delay, “Sorry I’m late. Held up by some stupid contract work.” He crashed next to Viswam. Siraj is well over six feet tall and appears like he is far superior to others, both physically and ethically.

Doctor said, “Oh no. You too are settling down on the ground? We don’t mind, you can sit on the chair. I like to sit on the grass and I’m used to this and like it too.”

“That’s all right. After all, haven’t we been sitting in chairs all day? Let’s relax on the green grass for a while,” Siraj replied, leaning on one of the chairs.

“It seems doctor garu didn’t have much work today. Stretching on the lawn idly,” Viswam commented. Doctor was lying on his stomach and counting the blades of grass. Before he could respond, his wife, Visala, entered like a whirlwind and started talking tensely, “Why wouldn’t he sit there idly? After dumping all his work on me, why not ? No consideration at all! Why can’t he see that the workload is breaking my back? Why can’t he think of helping me out?” She sat down in the chair next to the doctor. She’s used to giving it straight whether it’s right or wrong. The husband and the wife, doctor and Visala, have a very genial marital relationship, despite their contradictory natures.

“You are looking tired,” Siraj said to Visala with concern.

“Tired? I’m nearly dead. Especially these delivery cases, no sense of timing at all. I wish they had a set season or schedule for childbirths,” Visala replied, annoyed.

“Like Gireesam[2] said, maybe you would have less work if we had more child widows,” Viswam said, showing off as usual the sense of humor he never had in the first place.

“Even then, where is the guarantee?” replied Visala.

Doctor and Viswam burst into a big laugh. Before Viswam could understand why doctor laughed, Visala spoke again taunting her husband who was lying at her feet and pleating her saree frills. She said to him, “What’s this, babu! As is, everybody is getting on my case, saying I am chewing you up, treating you like a slave. Please, move away from my feet.”

Doctor ignored her comments and was busy enjoying the jari butterflies cleverly woven into the border of her white handloom saree. “Visala, this saree is really very beautiful. The man who wove this saree must be a poet,” he said with admiration.

“Ha! Don’t I know your crooked mind! How could you see the workmanship of this saree border in this darkness? Don’t you try to flatter me. I know you do whatever you please,” Visala retorted teasingly. Siraj was listening to their chitchat, sitting down with his legs stretched and pulling the blades of grass. Viswam tried to offer his moral support to the doctor, “Isn’t it true that you used to paint in the old days?” Visala cut in, “That’s what I am fretting about, too. You see what it has come down to—he was painting before but stopped after our marriage? Wouldn’t it look like I bungled with his painting career?” Before she could finish, the bald-headed judge garu came rolling in like a ball, and asked, “I heard you say something about painting. What about painting?”

Judge garu and lecturer, Sankar Rao, who came with him, settled down on the ground.

Visala said, “Oh, no. You all are sitting on the ground and here I am sitting in the high chair. I think I should move to the ground too,” but the judge garu did not let her. “Never mind us, amma, please don’t get up. We all were sitting on chairs until our backs nearly broke You, on the other hand, don’t have a chance to sit at all. You do all your work standing on your feet. Besides, we are no strangers,” he persuaded her to sit on the chair.

“It’s so dark, how did you manage to work in that courtroom?” Siraj asked the judge.

“Tell me about it! The whole world is brimming with injustice. The work in the courts equals the volume of injustice in the world. As the sin is mounting so also the work in the courts,” judge said. The judge spent most of his time in the courts yet he could not stand the unfairness. He sees something horrible and new each day.

“Are you saying all you have in your courts are only sin and injustice?” Viswam asked satirically.

“Injustice does not come alone. Fairness and Justice always follow the injustice on its heels. Anytime one person walks in with injustice on his hands the other side brings in justice,” Judge retorted.

Doctor let go of Visala’s saree pleats and started watching her feet from various angles. He asked the judge, “So, judge garu, who do you think is worst hit by injustice?”

“Me,” Visala said abruptly. “Wouldn’t you say marrying a person like doctor garu is an injustice squashed on me?” she asked.

“No, come on, seriously. I think the worst injustice has been done to Rama[1], if you ask me,” Siraj said.

Judge broke into a big laugh, “If you start adoring Rama and Vibhishana,[3] all your people will excommunicate you.” The reference was to Siraj’s religious upbringing which is muslim.

“What else can he do? Here we are highly educated and yet forgetting that it is unfair to attach race and religion to gods,” Visala commented.

“You still haven’t answered my question,” doctor said.

Judge replied, “What do you want me to say? There is injustice everywhere and every action is unjust. Let’s take the case I handled today, for instance. The complainant, about 25-years old and poor; her looks were not bad either. She was educated too, maybe minimally. She was married quite young. After the marriage, her husband never invited her to his house, for whatever reason. She waited and waited until she was tired of waiting. How long could she wait around? Now, after ten years, she filed for a divorce,  demanding alimony.”

“What’s wrong with that idiot of a husband to leave the poor woman like that?” Siraj expressed his concern for the woman, stretching next to the doctor.

“Maybe she has a questionable past,” Viswam commented, showing off that he has made a clever observation.

“That woman must be from ancient times. If I were she, I would have seen the end of him right away,” Visala said angrily.

“That’s not true. Her husband says her uncle did injustice to him.[4] That’s the mentality of some people, I guess. We don’t always need big reasons to call it unjust or unethical. Sometimes what we consider a tiny incident could cause tremendous pain to someone else. We don’t have to hit somebody or even use swear words. Our rude behavior could make a sensitive person suffer,” judge said.

The doctor cut in, “You’re right, every word of it. That reminds me of an episode that happened long time ago.”

“Well, let’s hear it,” Viswam asked.

Visala remarked, “Doctor garu has always stories to tell. I am not even sure why he went into medicine; maybe to hassle me. I think he should be sitting in some corner writing poetry or painting pictures. He can’t even stand it when a patient suffers or his family weeps. He would cry along with them. Luckily, he became a government doctor and gets his paycheck regularly no matter what. Had he gone into private practice, we would be having grass for supper.[5]

“Doctor has a kind heart. He must have done plenty of good deeds in his past life to be born so kind,” the judge said.

“Tell us the story,” Siraj asked anxiously.

“All of you may not like this story,” doctor sounded apologetic.

“Is that meant for me?” Viswam muttered.

“He didn’t say that,” Siraj said crossly.

The doctor began telling his story, “This happened long time ago. I remember the details only vaguely but there is a part in my mind that is indelible.” The doctor stopped for a second and then continued, “I was in my fourth year at the medical college. I always liked solitude and so did not want to live in the dormitory like other students. I rented a room in town. After a while I had to vacate the room, I don’t remember why. Then I started hunting day and night for another room.”

“Probably, that’s the reason you failed one course,” Visala interrupted him.

“No, Visala. That’s not true. My health was not good at the time and so I could not put in enough time into my studies. That was the reason I failed. Do I have to remind you the housing conditions in Visakhapatnam?[6] For want of space, people lived even in garages. I managed to find a room somehow on the second floor of a house. The landlord, a bank representative in some local bank, occupied the ground floor. I hardly felt his presence. God knows when he was in and when out. I saw his wife a lot and his daughter occasionally. The daughter was their first child, and they also had three sons. I never really paid attention to those kids. Very often they’d go out and got beat up; or, stayed home and enjoyed the same pleasure from their mother. The nicknames the mother gave her three sons were: the first idiot, the second donkey, and the little idiot. She did not learn to love her children until after her latter years, I believe. I must say she must have been beautiful in her day, she was fair-complexioned.

“Had she worked on her demeanor and etiquette, probably she would have looked graceful but did not seem like she was bothered about such things ever. She would fix her hair once in the evening and would go around like that until the next day, as if that was not her hair. She looked worried about something or other constantly, always had a dirty dish or a broom in her hand, always on pins and needles, either yelling at the maid or the bank peon. If you hear her voice, all you could think of was the huge drums or the cymbals you would hear normally during sankranti festival. I am not saying she was a bad woman, not any worse than any other woman I’d known. Girl, did you wash the young idiot’s face? Viranna, wake up the first idiot; getting late for school. You, little idiot, don’t touch the milk pan. It’s burning hot; Viranna, go to the market now; otherwise,  you’ll find only rotten vegetables … That was the music I heard everyday for my wake up song as well as for my lullaby at night. I never tried to get involved in their family matters. My only connection to their family was the maid, Rajamma. She used to clean my room.

“It went on for a while; two seasons had changed without any memorable event I could recall or think of. Then ill-health overtook me. Although it was not the kind I should be worried about, it did force me to stay in bed for two weeks. There was no diet problem but a different issue came to the fore. I needed a person to bring coffee and meals from the hotel, and fruits and cigarettes from the store. Rajamma finished the chores in the landlord’s house and my room in about one hour in the morning and one hour in the evening. At her own home she had to cook for her husband, a rickshaw-puller. Thus she was in no position to attend to my needs. So, I asked her to find someone else to help me out with my newly developed necessities. She said, “No problem, babu, I will send my little girl.” The next day the little girl, Lakshmi, came. She was dark-skinned but had a bright face befitting her name. An inexplicable beauty in her face and innocence in her eyes added to her charm. She must not be older than ten at the most, I thought.

“Lakshmi was confused a little on the first day, not knowing what chore first and what next. But she had picked up quickly on the second day and there was no need for me to tell her anything after that. She never showed any signs of weariness or frustration for anything. She would finish any and every chore given to her; she was always up and running zealously. Sometimes I would give her a fruit or something to eat; she would take it but leave it behind when I was not looking. I told her to take the leftover food after I was done eating. She took it home instead of eating it herself. For a while, I thought she was shy to eat in front of me and then it occurred to me that she might be taking it home for others in her family. Then I felt guilty which I would not have if she were not that young. I couldn’t help thinking other children of that age in our families. Our children can’t even feed themselves. What was the sin she has committed to deserve that? She was waiting hand and foot on me for the little cash I paid, why? This sort of thoughts pulled me down, although I was feeling better physically.

“In course of time Laxmi became a source of worry for me, a serious problem. Her good nature pierced me through like a shaft. I prayed to thousand gods, wanted her to make some mistake, display some mean trait that is common for all humans. I would’ve felt elated if she had accepted the food I gave her or took it from my container and ate it. I was hurt and it soon turned into a strange and vicious desire to drag her down into a sinful act. Probably the sickly atmosphere in my room was to be blamed. One day, I left some change out in the open where she could see and went onto the terrace hoping she would steal it. She did not touch even one paisa. Assuming that she did not see it, I did the same the following day, put some change on the window sill. She simply moved it to another place on the sill while cleaning the windows. On another day I gave her money and told her to go to a movie. She said she would take it when a good movie came to town.

“I accepted my defeat gladly. I was pleased that the sin of causing her to commit a sin did not touch me. After that, I could not treat her like a stranger anymore. I accepted her as a friend close to my heart and recognized the divinity in her character.

“Days went by like ripples in water. Laxmi was employed by me but the landlady was making full use of her services. In return all that Lakshmi would get was only yelling and cursing from her. I recovered completely but continued to get meals from the hotel, maybe because I was still feeling a little weak or maybe because I wanted to continue paying her whatever little I could. Then came the sankranti festival. I decided to go to my village for the holidays.

“Before I left, the landlady’s daughter showed up along with Laxmi. The landlady’s daughter was all dressed up like a fully-blossomed marigold. She came to show me her new outfit she got for the festival—a bright green skirt and a red blouse. I looked at her and the first thing I noticed was a piece of light blue ribbon in her hair, nicely folded like a butterfly, and visible from both sides. The ribbon also has small bugs with wings on it. I told her that her outfit was beautiful. She left feeling elated.

“After she left I looked at Laxmi, standing there in her tattered frock and shabby hair and I could not forgive myself. That poor child possessed qualities most of us are sadly lacking. She brought my carrier meals from the hotel as usual. I told her I was leaving town and she could take the food. We two went onto the terrace. It was seven in the evening. The night was driving away the evening. The people on the street were roaring like an ocean. While I was locking the doors, Laxmi stood leaning on the wall. I noticed an unusual anxiety and despair in her eyes. I never felt this bad, not even when I left my hometown, leaving my kid sister behind. For a second my heart missed its regular beat. I was even annoyed with myself for leaving my cozy, comfy attitude and getting into this mess. And then my pity for her doubled by way of  reparation for my annoyance. I could not hold back anymore. I stroked her cheeks gently, although the cheeks were smeared with dirt.

“What do you want, Laxmi?” I asked her.

“She looked me with her sad eyes and asked for one half rupee. It felt like I’ve got the heaven in my palm, like the moonlight spreading blindly on the terrace acquired a fine aroma, and that I was blessed. I quickly pulled out one half rupee from my pocket and gave it to her. She clutched it tight in her fist. I walked towards the stairs silently. I was overtaken by the fear that she might spend that money on her younger brothers but my curiosity got the better of me. “What are you going to do with that money?” I asked her as gently as I could. She replied meekly that she would buy a piece of ribbon, like the one the landlady’s daughter had. I felt relieved. I was proud of myself that I could help her to fulfill her only wish. I told her I would be back on the following Monday and that she should bring carrier meals for me that evening. She shook her head, looking very grateful. I thought about her in the train. She did not ask for silk outfit or gold jewelry. All she wanted was a piece of ribbon. I can never forget the ribbon pieces and half-rupee coins I saw in my dream that night.

Sankranti festival came in colorful galore. My entire family was very excited. But I was down as if I lost something valuable. Each time I saw a young girl in new clothes, Laxmi kept coming to my mind. On Monday morning I was getting ready to leave. My mother insisted that I stay one more day since my visits were not that frequent. I left in the evening and for the first time in my life I felt good about leaving home. There were also other things that bothered me as well. Vadina who treated me like her own brother came to the railway station; and, my brother reminded me affectionately that I should come for the christening ceremony of their soon-to-be born child. They were going to have their first baby after ten years of marital bliss. I was touched.

“The train arrived two hours late. By the time I reached my room it was past 8:30. I was climbing the stairs wondering whether my brother and sister-in-law would have a boy or girl. I saw Laxmi sitting next to the parapet wall, curled up; my heart stopped beating for a second. The street lights were shimmering on the stainless steel container next to her. It was biting cold. She was trying to pull together her worn out frock desperately protecting herself from the cold. It never occurred to me that she could sit there waiting for me. I opened the door and asked her why couldn’t she wait downstairs on the porch. She did not reply. I told her that she could wash the dishes the next day and sent her home.

“After that, I got very busy with several functions at our college and so I did not think much about my room. I was totally immersed in the college plays, directing duties, and sports events. I couldn’t help noticing a change in Laxmi’s behavior though. Her eyes were filled with despair and sadness in place of the usual glimmer; the smile on her lips vanished; and she was dragging her feet heavily. It took me four days to realize completely the extent of the change in her. I asked her why she was down and she said there was nothing to talk about.

“Three more days went by. Then I remembered the ribbon Laxmi wanted so badly. “Did you buy the ribbon for yourself” I asked her hoping for the best. She shook her head meaning yes. “Why aren’t you wearing it” I asked her. In response, two drops of tears rolled down her cheeks. “What happened Laxmi?” I asked her coaxingly.

“Laxmi said that her mother was not well on the sankranti day and so she went to the landlady’s house to do the chores. After finishing the chores, she sat down on the front porch and wore her new ribbon in her hair. The landlady saw that, claimed it was her daughter’s and snatched it away from Laxmi’s hands; she called the girl a thief, and even commented that that was the mentality of all low class people. Laxmi tried to tell her that she bought it herself, and the landlady’s daughter was wearing hers which could be verified after the daughter returned home. But the landlady would not hear a word of it.

“I wanted to tell Laxmi, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll get you another piece of ribbon,’ but my college friends showed up out of nowhere like a herd of goats before I could say it. I’ve promised them earlier that I would stay with them in the dorms for the next three days to help out with the college functions. So, I told Laxmi I would not be needing carrier meals for that night and the next three nights, packed some of my clothes and left.

“Look at that! Wouldn’t you say that it was gross injustice? In what way, Laxmi was inferior to the children in our families? Our children cry for chocolate and biscuits and she wanted a piece of ribbon, worth a paltry half rupee. God gave her even the opportunity to fulfill her desire through me. Her wish was granted but she was denied the pleasure of enjoying it. The landlady appeared as Kali and snatched it away like a piece of sacrificial offering. Probably the landlady did not think of it on those lines. Probably, it is only a small, a very ordinary, incident for you all. For a person who earns one thousand rupees a month, one half of a rupee is worth a broken shell. But for Laxmi? Can you say in good conscience that an irreparable damage has not been done to her? I can’t imagine how much mental agony this apparently small incident could have caused her. But can anyone of you say that her trust in humanity has not been killed forever? Wasn’t the action of the landlady unfair? Can we forgive her? Didn’t she have a responsibility to verify Laxmi’s claim before snatching away her ribbon? Even if she had acted rather rashly, shouldn’t she have returned the ribbon to Laxmi after realizing her mistake? Wasn’t her action the same as robbery? Isn’t that unjust and unfair or not? What would you all say?” the doctor stopped, feeling heavy at heart.

Nobody could respond right away. The darkness spread thick. Suddenly a strong wind blew and the telegraph lines at a distance made harsh sounds. An owl on the tamarind tree nearby screeched and flew away batting her wings.

“That’s a strange story,” Viswam expressed his opinion.

“Looks like there is a second part to this story,” Siraj said.

“You have it if you want it, or else, no. Personally I wish this story had ended there,” the doctor said and continued his narration, “On the surface, I was acting very excited, singing and dancing for the next three days but the thoughts about Laxmi kept bothering me. I was anxious to fix the wrong that has been done to her. I would’ve bought another piece of ribbon and ran to Laxmi but I was afraid that my roommates would laugh at me. The dorm felt like a jail cell and my roommates jailors. Finally the day came when I was freed from that jail. I left the dorms, bought a ribbon on my way and came to my room. That day Rajamma came instead of Laxmi. She said Laxmi has been ill for the past three days and assured me that she would bring my meals from the hotel herself. I told her I could eat at the dorms until Laxmi recovered. After she cleaned my room, I gave her the ribbon and told her to give it to Laxmi. She looked out the door for a second, turned to me again and asked me harshly, “Did she ask you to get it for her?” I was taken by surprise, a totally unexpected turn of events. I was scared that she might hurt Laxmi and that made me lie to her. I told her that Laxmi was totally unaware and that I wanted to give something to her.

“Two more days went by. I kept asking Rajamma everyday and getting the same reply—the fever did not go down. I asked her about medication. Rajamma said that the fever was caused by some sort of scare and so she had the soda shop owner recite a mantra.[7] I could treat her but at the time my knowledge of medicine was minimal. I was convinced that if Laxmi had fallen sick out of fear, the entire sin must be accredited to the landlady. What else could I think when she attacked a little, innocent child and called her a thief for no reason.

“But it never occurred to me that Laxmi’s situation could take a turn for the worse. Not until the third day. Rajamma knocked on my door at two in the morning and woke me up. She seized my two hands and started crying. “I’m lost, my world is crumbling down, Laxmi’s condition is getting worse. Please help me, save her,” she said between sobs. I could not move for a few seconds. I did not expect things to go wrong this bad in such a short time. I knew very little about treating patients, plus I had no tools even if I wanted to. I told Rajamma to wait, ran to the next street and got hold of a house-surgeon [resident]. He was a nice person. He immediately followed me with whatever medications he had.

“We two followed Rajamma to her house. After I became a doctor, on innumerable occasions, I ran to save patients who were dangling between life and death but the pain I suffered on the way on that particular day was beyond words. All the roads stretched out dark and endless like adiseshu.[8] Each furlong felt like a mile and my watch seemed to be moving too fast. I cursed my feet for not being able to walk faster. For the first time, I’ve realized that this city had too many narrow paths and they all were very dirty. The streets were empty and quiet like graveyards but for a couple of donkeys standing like statues and representing the patience of the animal world. But this was not the time to describe the surroundings. Laxmi’s house was just one room located next to a sewer. I could not tell where the sewer ended and her house started.

“Two children lay in the mud on the floor like pigs. Laxmi lay on a saggy, jute-rope cot in a corner. She was covered with a tattered blanket. Although she was covered, I could see her two eyes, peeking through the blanket, emaciated and staring at the ceiling with frightened looks. Her face turned crimson and the fever-stricken eyes took over her entire face. They looked like a torch that would start the fire soon and turn her into ashes. She could not keep her eyes on any one spot steadily. The two red eyes were like a swing rocking back and forth between life and death. The dim lamp in the corner was casting ominous shadows. It felt like death was hiding in that dark corner.

“Within a few minutes of our arrival there, Laxmi’s temperature went up further and she started shivering. Although my medical knowledge was limited, I could understand her symptoms. Her two hands and feet were jiggling as if the god of death was dragging her but she was refusing to give in. I hid my face in my two hands and closed my eyes tight. It was like the death grabbed my shoulder and was challenging me that there was nothing I could do, death was waiting for me there. For once, I got so close to death and experienced what our philosophers and intellectuals preach. I came out of myself in that moment and looked at myself the way others and God would look at me.

“Despite all my flagrant display of sympathy for Laxmi, what have I done for her, really? In what way I was better than my landlady? The only difference was she called her names and I did not. Is that a virtue? Didn’t I have a higher responsibility towards the girl’s health and welfare? If I had, did I do my duty? I paid her a few rupees and had her wait on me hand and foot while she was still a child! Was I not accountable for her poverty and despair? How many Laxmis are starving and sacrificing their lives so that I and people like me could enjoy a comfortable life? This is not a matter about Laxmi alone. This is a problem without solution and relating to millions of innocent Laxmis in this destitute world, and to numerous inept people like me who are convinced that they are in fact kind and generous, and women like our landlady who could not recognize the innocence of young hearts. Who knows how many Laxmis need to be ruined before this problem is resolved.

“While I was pondering over the subject, the resident doctor continued to examine Laxmi’s condition. Laxmi’s mother was weeping quietly. An old woman from next door, with one leg in the graveyard, was consoling her. The resident doctor finished examining Laxmi, gave her a shot and told me that we should wait for a half hour and see. At the end of half hour there was no change in her condition. Then he suggested that we must take her to the hospital, there was nothing more we could do here. Laxmi’s father went out to get a rickshaw. I could not control my distress. The next door neighbor brought his rickshaw also.

“After the rickshaws arrived, Rajamma removed the blanket and picked up Laxmi, overcome with pain and sadness. Laxmi’s hands were hanging flaccidly over Rajamma’s shoulder. As I saw the hands my head started spinning and the earth shook under my feet. The ribbon I gave her was hanging down from her hand like the noose of Yama.[9] Poor Laxmi, the only wish of hers—she  got a chance to have it fulfilled, lost it and got it again but never had the satisfaction of wearing it. That piece of ribbon was like a crumpled wick. But she held the ribbon tight as if she was afraid that the landlady would come and take it away from her again.

The two rickshaws started out for the clinic. Laxmi’s father was pedaling the rickshaw and the mother sat inside holding the child. It looked like the God planned it that way—that the two persons who brought her into this world were also instrumental in returning her to Him. The resident doctor and I followed them in the other rickshaw. Normally I don’t believe in omens but my heart flinched when I heard a tituvu bird[10] chirped as we set out to leave.

“The entire world was in deep sleep. A few persons with injured noses and crushed faces were making fire with their fingerless hands[11] to protect themselves from cold. We could bring Laxmi to the hospital soon enough. The physicians and nurses in the emergency room did all they could to help Laxmi through out the night. It was time for the sun to rise. The physician said he could not say anything for certain for another twelve hours at the least. There was nothing I could do. It was not in the hands of the humans anymore, only God could save Laxmi. I returned home at about 8:30 in the morning. Rajamma’s husband was overwhelmed with gratitude and offered to take me home in his rickshaw. I declined politely and rented another rickshaw.


Up until now the doctor was smoking. Unwittingly he swallowed a puff of smoke and choked.

“Oh, Lord Rama! Probably that girl had died! Please, tell us the rest of the story,” said Siraj.

Pch! I wish there was no second part to this story,” the judge passed his judgment.

“I don’t know. I wish there was no story at all, a story of this sort, if you ask me,” Visala said. Although her words sounded satirical, the doctor understood her sensitive thought underneath her comment and stroked on her knee gently but nobody noticed it in that darkness. Actually the reason for their harmonious relationship, despite their apparently conflicting mentalities, was the sensitivity in Visala’s humor and the doctor’s good nature which is appreciative of her humor.

“There’s nothing more to tell,” the doctor continued, “My only thought on my way back to my room was to avenge the injustice done to Laxmi. I had several thoughts like skipping payments of rent for six-months or setting fire to the landlady’s house but couldn’t come up with any plausible plan. As I opened the gate and entered the premises, I saw that the landlady was talking to somebody in a voice filled with kindness I never heard before. She was saying, “Come on, you silly, come. I warmed the milk for you and kept it in the kitchen. Go, have the milk. I was waiting for you.” I wondered who she was addressing, turned around and saw a stray dog. The dog was at the gate, saw the landlady, and walked away with her tail between her legs.

“With that incident, my abhorrence for my landlady rose to a new height. I always hated, even from my childhood days, the women who would talk to dogs and crows. I went into my room and got busy with rearranging my stuff. The landlady’s daughter came in with a magazine she’s borrowed earlier. She was wearing two ribbons in her hair like two butterflies. I could see right away that one of them was Laxmi’s. At once a thought occurred to me like lightning—an opportunity to settle the score. I must seize the ribbon that belonged to Laxmi. Although I believed Laxmi’s story completely, I also wanted to verify the truth on my own. “The ribbons are nice. Did you buy them yourself?” I asked her. “My mother bought one and I bought the other myself,” she said.

“When did your mother buy?” I asked her again. “On sankranti festival day,” she replied.

“I was in a dilemma whether I should grab the ribbon or not. My landlady settled it for me. I heard her shouting, “Viranna! That bitch Rajamma is ‘no show’ today too. She goes on saying that her child was sick and ducks the work here. Stupid child wouldn’t die and the mother wouldn’t come to work. Come on, you clean the dishes.” I was enraged by her language regarding a child who was fighting for her life. I decided to take the ribbon.

“Come here, let me see the ribbons. They are really nice. I want to hold them in my hands,” I said smoothly. She gave them to me without hesitation. “Which one was bought by your mother?” I asked her. She laughed at my stupidity and shrugged, “I don’t know.” Probably she thought I was crazy and ran away.

“I stood there for a couple of minutes wondering whether I should be happy or sorry for what I did. I never gave in to my frustration to that extent, never before and never again. I lost totally my sense of right and wrong. I couldn’t tell what I was doing and what will I do next. In the meantime, the landlady walked in dragging her daughter, like a sacrificial lamb to the temple. I saw her coming and went to the terrace. She said with a smile, “How can you play games with a child? Never mind. Return the ribbons to her.”

“I wasn’t playing games. I took them for real,” I said. “Why did you do that?” she asked.

“You tell me politely which one is Laxmi’s and I will return the second one,” I said. “Are you stealing my child’s ribbons?” she shouted. “How could you steal Laxmi’s ribbon?” I said. “Are you calling me a thief?” she said with her eyes popped out.. “Not just a thief. You’re a highway robber,” I said.

“The landlady’s voice was heard in the entire neighborhood and all the neighbors gathered on our terrace. She saw them and became even more belligerent. We both exchanged strong language. “I shouldn’t have rented the place to a mean thief like you,” she said, with her face turning red. “I shouldn’t have rented a room in the house of a mean thief like you,” I said. “Watch out. I will make you pay for this,” she said. “We’ll worry about it later. If anything happens to Laxmi, I will crush your head for sure,” I replied.

“My landlady got scared by my words. She called out for her husband for support. Up until now I didn’t believe that he could get angry ever. He came upstairs, stood on the last step and said, without raising his voice, nonetheless harshly, “You fool! Swearing at women?” I jumped like a cobra, “And you’re a man? you worthless idiot.” The neighbors held back until then but could not control themselves anymore, I believe. They burst into a big laugh as if a bunch of porcelain cups and saucers flew into the air and fell on the floor. “You don’t know anything. You shut up,” he ordered his wife for the first time in his life. She took his orders for the last time in her life.

“Both of them went downstairs along with their daughter. Our neighbors extended the same kind of support the audience would extend to a stunt hero in Telugu movies and left the scene somewhat unwillingly. I went into my room regretting my unwarranted action. Then came the landlord’s servant. Even amidst all that commotion, I could not help wondering if the landlord thought I was crazy and I chuckled. The servant had a hard time conveying the message from the landlord but the gist of it was I should vacate the premises in three days.

“Why would I stay three more days in this wretched room? Get me two rickshaws now,” I said. He ran out of the room like a race horse. As soon as the rickshaws came, I put all my luggage into the rickshaws, threw the rent I owed them to-date at the servant and moved to a friend’s apartment. From the moment I started walking down the stairs until I got into the rickshaw, I kept waving the two ribbons as a sign of my victory and causing the landlady’s eyes turn red. Leaving that house was like having a refreshing shower. Laxmi also recovered by the grace of god in about a week and went back to her house.” The doctor stopped the story.

“Forget the story. You’ve created a lambadi[12] scene here,” Siraj commented.

“The comic ending is interesting,” the judge said, joining the rest of the crowd in their laughter.

“I knew even from the start that this is how it’s going to end,” said omniscient Viswam.

The doctor was annoyed and said, “Then tell me what happened next.”

“What’d you mean? Is there a fourth part for this story? It’s like the Republic Productions’ 24-part full-length serial movie,” Viswam ducked the challenge.

“Okay, you tell us what happened next,” the judge asked the doctor.

“This part has nothing to do with Laxmi,” the doctor said as he proceeded with the story, “After about 15 or 20 days after I moved to my friend’s room, I was getting ready to leave for school. A young police officer showed up at the door and saluted me. I wondered whatever I could have done to warrant his appearance. He handed me the summons and asked me to sign on a piece of paper acknowledging receipt. He explained that the delay in delivering the papers was due to tracing my whereabouts and the case was scheduled for that very day. He also told me that the magistrate was very strict in enforcing the law and that I should be present at the court at 11:00 a.m. sharp. I asked him what the case about was about. He said that the bank representative and his wife filed a case against me claiming I used abusing language and stole their daughter’s ribbons.

“I was really upset. She called me names and so did I. She took Laxmi’s ribbons unjustly and I took their ribbons openly. The account has been settled right then and there. I was disgusted with their attitude and appeared in court. It was nearly 11:00 by the time I reached there. The court looked like a house after a dead body was removed. The magistrate just learned that he did not get the promotion as expected. His staff and the lawyers were disheartened for him. I stood outside on the verandah, worried that my case should come up at that ill-fated hour. Some police constables stood under the tree smoking cigarettes. Some felons were also there. A couple of old felons were smoking bidis[13] with a greater flair than the police constables. The younger felons looked scared and apprehensive. I did not realize until then that women also were brought to the courts. Some of the female felons were dressed up as if they were on their way to the movies or beach, chewing paan and fooling around with the police constables. The smell of liquor at the court was unbearable and I started feeling sick in my stomach.

“Suddenly, the police constables threw away their cigarettes and the felons their bidis. The women spat out their paans. Everybody turned towards the gate. The magistrate entered like royalty. The peon in front told everybody to make way for the magistrate. An older peon walked behind him carrying a heavy box, and without looking on either side but watching only the magistrate. The magistrate kept walking and waving his hand up and down. I saw the way he was getting respect and I wished I had the job myself.

“The magistrate took his seat as soon as he entered the court. He looked calm and collected. The fact that he did not get the promotion was not showing on his face. The court clerk called out the cases one after another and mine came up after one half hour. The court clerk handed the papers to the magistrate. He looked at the papers, then at me for a second and said, “I am postponing your case to tomorrow. You can bring a lawyer if you want.” I told him that I was going to tell my story the way it happened and therefore there was no reason for a lawyer. After that, I posted bail and got out for the day. I tried to read the court papers but couldn’t understand a single word of it. They must have used a carbon paper that was in use for the past six months. I couldn’t even tell in which language it was written.

“The next day also I went to the court in time like a good boy. My case was called out. The complaint stated that I used swear words with reference to the bank representative and his wife and stole their daughter’s ribbons. The  magistrate asked me, ‘Did you commit the felony? What’d you say?’ I thought I was supposed to give straight answers and so told him, ‘Yes. It was true that I called them names and took their daughter’s ribbon.’ I was waiting for him to ask more questions so I could narrate the entire story. The magistrate looked down and kept scribbling something. After a few minutes, I started getting worried about the sentence I could be handed. I did not know what to do. “That’s not correct, sir. It’s true I took the two ribbons but one of them was not theirs,” I said.

“Then a man in khaki pants and black coat came in, that was the assistant public prosecutor, I was told. He said, “You’ve agreed that one of the ribbons was theirs. That’s enough.” It was like I gave him something. The magistrate delivered his ruling. He stated that I was found guilty under section so and so; this however being my first felony, I was freed on one year probation; and during that one year I must not commit anymore felonies but behave myself.

“Thus ended the story. Does this mean after the probationary period is over, I could go around committing any number of felonies, or even murders and that would not be considered illegal? I wondered. I found a bailer and got him sign my release papers,” the doctor wrapped up the story.

“Are you saying you too had the experience of the heat from our department?” the judge said, laughing.

“So Laxmi escaped death but you lost an eye,[14]” Sankar who was quiet all this while said.

“Can we sing janaganamana[15] now or is there more to it?” Viswam asked as he got up to leave.


(The Telugu original, Ribbanu mukka was published in Jyoti monthly in 1965 and received Rachakonda Viswanatha Sastry award in 1999.

Translated by © Nidadavolu Malathi and published on, September 2003)

[1] The epic hero of Ramayanam..

[1] Female protagonist in the famous epic, ramayanam. The episode under reference is Sita was abducted by the evil king Ravana, and held her captive under the Asoka tree.

[2] A famous character from a Telugu play, “Kanyasulkam.”

[3] Rama was the protagonist in the famous epic, ramayanam. Vibhishana was the younger brother of Ravana, the anti-hero in the same epic, and a devotee of Rama.

[4] The narration is not clear here. My understanding is the uncle under reference is his father-in-law and the woman’s father who probably arranged the marriage against his will.

[5] Eating grass, gaDDi tintaam in Telugu, is a common adage, meaning nothing to eat.

[6] A city on the east coast of Andhra Pradesh. The medical college in Visakhapatnam provided the setting for many stories in Telugu.

[7] Like being possessed by a devil, all kinds of irrational arguments are offered and a mantra is a kind of recital invoking the ruling gods and praying to fix it.

[8]  The thousand-hooded cobra from Hindu epics.

[9] Yama was the god of death in Hindu mythology.

[10] A common belief among our people, the teetivu bird’s chirping brings bad luck.

[11] Possibly lepers.

[12] Lambadi people are nomads, who go around performing on the streets.

[13] Tobacco rolled in a kind of ebony leaf.

[14] A popular proverb, chaavu tappi kannu lotta poyindi, meaning escaped death but lost an eye, normally with reference to the same person. Here the speaker stretched it to include two people, Laxmi and doctor.

[15] India’s national anthem.

So ended the Story by Kodavatiganti Kutumba Rao

Gopalam is a well-known story writer. His stories have stuff. But not many seem to have noticed the fact. As for myself, I would read anything and just say “This is good and that is bad”. I am unable to explain why I like or dislike anything I read. I had tried to analyse as to what should have been done to improve the story but my attempts never really took off.

This was because whenever I read Edgar Allan Poe, stories about impossible events seemed be the best ones. Sherlock Holmes stories would make me believe detective fiction was the thing. At other times, romantic stories appealed to me. Jacobs’ stories attracted me to maritime themes. On occasion short stories would interest me and at other times, I felt that stories should be at least forty pages long! With my opinions changing constantly according to the situation, it became impossible for me to come to any conclusion.

Meanwhile our short-tempered friend “Durvasa” met me one day and asked me to introduce him to Gopalam.

“What on earth for?” I asked.

“I have some work with him” said he.

“What kind of work?” I was curious, naturally.

He began to hem and haw.

“No, nothing really…To tell you the truth…Not that I can become a writer overnight…Once you get the knack of it…Gradually one can practise…If you know what I mean…” he dithered.

“No, I don’t” I said bluntly.

At last he came out with it. He too wants to write stories. If only Gopalam could lend a hand, he is confident he can get on with it successfully.

“Oh my dear Durvasa” I exclaimed.

“Don’t you call me names” he said with anger. The poor fellow had never shown temper until he got the nickname. That’s life for you. There is no justice!

There was no escape. We both found a convenient time and went to meet Gopalam. To avoid blame I forewarned him that Gopalam was no ordinary fellow and could land him in trouble

Gopalam lost no time in getting my friend to prattle.

“Sir, I find it devilishly difficult to describe anything in my writings, be it a person or a house” said Durvasa.

Gopalam said, “Please don’t bother. Just go ahead without any description. I too find it a difficult task. So I try to manage without it”.

“Really?” said Durvasa in surprise.

“Please believe me” said Gopalam.

Durvasa was visibly happy.

“There is another thing. For the life of me I can’t find a theme. I tried twice or thrice but it all boiled down to events in my family and my in-laws’. Can’t think of a theme” said he.

“My problem exactly! Neither can I put together a good theme. Perhaps you might have noticed. I just pick up events that I observe here and there and cook up a story”.

“You don’t say?” said Durvasa with a smile.

“Trust me” said Gopalam with a straight face.

By now Durvasa lost all his nervousness. He started believing that he had joined the ranks of story-writers. Only in one respect was Gopalam different. Gopalam has already written some stories while he will be doing so shortly. Imagining himself to be one of the tribe, Durvasa started talking as if he was on par with writers like Gopalam. Having thus encouraged my friend initially, Gopalam started deflating him gradually. Being a fool, my friend could not notice.

“You see, the whole problem lies in the fact that if you take up someone’s life story, you cannot narrate it from the beginning to the end. Life is full of stories that keep happening. The story may end within the day or may continue over a period of ten years. It is not possible to include all that happened during the time in our story. A writer must have the skill to find it out for himself” said Gopalam.

“What was that again? What did you say?” asked Durvasa.

“The writer should know where to start, and what to avoid. Then there are improvements here and there, we could call them changes”.

“Yeah. If we don’t change names and things we may get into trouble”

“You are right. One should also know thoroughly what to change and even how to end the narrative”

“Absolutely” said Durvasa.

“It is more difficult to end a story than to begin it. Some beginners ask me ‘Sir, should we end it when the leading lady gets pregnant or after a son is born and everyone is happy?’ I tell them ‘Why bother about all that, just fade it out even as the hero and heroine start kissing each other’ ”

“That was a very good suggestion”

“Comes with a little experience. Ninety-nine per cent of the readers can tell when the story has ended. In the movies, even the lower class audience starts leaving well before The End title appears”

“That may be true but as for myself, I always feel the movie has ended too soon”

“Never mind that”

“So you think I too can write stories?”

“No doubt. Since you have taken the trouble of coming here all the way, why waste time? Let me show you how stories are embedded in our lives. Just keep prompting me to continue. As soon as the story ends you will simply stop doing that. My story can also serve as a sample”

“Please go on” said Durvasa.

Gopalam started the narration and my friend started responding.

“I had a school-mate named Sankaram. A well-to-do chap. He didn’t really need formal education, or employment. So he stopped with matriculation. His family was dominated by women and he was influenced by that. As you know, our society is riddled with both the masculine and feminine culture.

“As time went by he got married and his wife came to live with him. Sankaram had never read any romantic classics. Forget the romance; he wasn’t even capable of being friendly with his wife. We don’t know about his bedroom manners, but otherwise he used to treat her like a stranger. Wouldn’t allow her to touch his clothes, his things, suitcases etc.  But the lady was fond of teasing him. Having noticed his reluctance, she would frequently indulge in pranks, just to irritate him. If for some reason he stepped into her room during daytime, she would follow him and bolt the door. What would people think?”

Durvasa turned to me “That’s characterization for you. He has already established the fact that the fellow came from a family dominated by women. Please sir, go on”

“What made the girl most suspicious was the fact that this Sankaram fellow would never allow her to open his suitcases. Could some women be writing letters to him secretly? With that thought, her mischievousness turned to grim resolve. One day, in his absence, she opened his most prized box and what did she find in it? The photograph of a good-looking woman.

“All hell broke loose. She was angry and unhappy too. She wanted to tear up the photo at first but, on second thoughts, wouldn’t she relish her husband’s consternation when she confronted him with it suddenly. She put back the photo carefully and repacked the suitcase.

“The same night she dropped the bomb-shell. Sankaram saw the photograph and was totally ill at ease. That confirmed his wife’s worst fears. She started crying; scolded herself, berated him, was herself completely confused and confused him too. In the confusion Sankaram forgot to find fault with her.

“That was their first quarrel. From then on, there was bad blood between them. There was no point now in blaming his wife for having opened the suitcase without his permission. He was aware that she was suffering for no reason. But he wouldn’t dare explain to her about the photo or how it came into his possession. He was scared of sharing that little secret lest she should lose all her respect for him for ever. So he kept mum for a few days.

“Then he had a bright idea. He told his wife it was his sister’s photograph. But she knew he had no sister. He said to her defiantly, ‘You can see the resemblance’. She couldn’t deny that either.

“His wife was really flummoxed. She was ready for compromise; but on one condition. He should tell the truth about the girl in the photograph. But the stupid fellow refused to oblige.

“Well friends, I happened to visit them at that moment. I asked him in his wife’s presence ‘Hello Sankaram, will you play the female lead for our Anniversary or have you lost your old enthusiasm?’ His wife responded at once ‘Oh my dear, won’t you let me watch you in a female role?’ ”

Durvasa was all ears and started prompting Gopalam “Hm, hmmm…”

Gopalam placed a cigarette between his lips and began to fumble in his shirt-pocket for a match-box.

I said quietly “The story has ended. Shall we make a move?”


Telugu original published in Andhra Jyoti, Dec 1935.

[Translator’s comments: It is exactly 25 years since my father passed away in Madras on 17th August. He was about 26 when he wrote this story.
My father’s Telugu stories first made their appearance in 1931-32 when he was about 22. He was barely 26 when he wrote this story. No doubt that resulted in the easy readability and smooth flow of words and ideas. He belonged to a generation that had lapped up the humourous writings of many Telugu stalwarts and English classic writers as well.
As in most of his early stories, technique seems to come to the fore here. Also, the brevity that marked most of his writings shows the influence of British authors like Conan Doyle, Wells et al. The narrator ofthe story is himself reportedly familiar with several British and American authors which indicates the easy availability of good foreign literature in the smaller towns in Andhra region those days.
The main point in this story seems to be the fundamental principle that as any tale is narrated, the listener responds with a sound like Umm which would prompt the story-teller to go ahead. As soon as the story ends, so too does the prompting. That is the most natural way the story would end but it would require proper story-telling and proper understanding on the part of the listener. – Kodavatiganti Rohiniprasad.]

(Originally published on, July 2005)

Futile life by Kodavatiganti Kutumba Rao.

Twenty-five years ago Markandeyulu and I studied together. I knew him very well since then. He is intelligent and a good person at heart. In fact, he has nearly everything one needs in life. But he seems to lack something necessary for living happily. All his childhood, everyone gave him the same advice, “why don’t you mind your own business?”. That was one thing he never learnt.

Don’t think he interfered in everyone’s affairs always! He was really not interested in others’ lives and affairs. He only put his head on roll when he felt there was some injustice going on.

When we were both in seventh class in our village school, our school head-master’s son, Nageswaram was in the same class with us. All the teachers gave him marks generously since he was the head master’s son. Telugu teacher lovingly gave him the first mark in the whole class! But the fact was that Srirammurthy was the cleverest boy in the whole class who deserved to be the first in class. (He is now a lecturer in a college!). He and Nageswaram were quite friendly. Once however in the half-yearly tests Nageswaram stood first in Telugu while Srirammurthy scored lower. Srirammurthy was very offended at this. He took Nageswaram’s answer book and compared with his own. There was no comparison between the two! He showed both the answer books to everyone among the friends and we all sympathized with him and left it at that. But Markandeyulu went to the head master with both the papers and complained “Just because Nageswaram is your son, Telugu teacher gave him the first mark while there was someone else who deserved it.” The head master did not bother to see the answer books and instead gave a sound thrashing to Markandeyulu with a warning “don’t interfere in the affairs that are not yours!”

The other outcome of this incident was that Nageswaram and Srirammurthy continued to be good friends and jointly avoided Markandeyulu!


What I don’t understand is Markandeyulu’s utter abhorrence to injustice. He must have inherited that attitude from either of his parents. As far as I know, people remain happy and peaceful if they ignore the injustice that goes on around them.

There is no proof required to say that he did not prosper in life. What is more difficult to know is whether he was happy! I never saw him regret his attitude or his scuffles with people. So, perhaps even if he was not happy and comfortable, he must have been ignorant of that fact.

All through his student life he clashed with fellow students and teachers. One of the principals gave him a transfer certificate and threw him out of the college.

His fight for justice troubled him in several ways. All the people around him not only avoided him, they poked fun at him. If he ever felt the mistake was his, he always apologized sincerely. Just as he could not stand others’ follies, he was equally scrupulous with his own behavior. This also made him the butt of many jokes.

Markandeyulu was not from a rich family, so he had to look for a job as soon as he got out of the college. In profession and work place too he had the same problem. He could not stick to any job for a long time. Slowly over the time he also started fighting for peoples’ rights. He understood the close, subtle relationship between justice and rights and as a result he was always clashing with different people for his rights and those of others.


Markandeyulu got married, eventually. His wife came to live with him as soon as he was out of college. His parents-in-law were not extremely rich but were certainly better placed than him financially. They helped him often as he moved from one job to another, His wife’s uncle worked as a sub-inspector in the police. He one day asked Markandeyulu to attend selection process for the post of sub-inspector in the police force. Markandeyulu critised the entire British raj and the police and finally concluded that he wouldn’t attend the selection process.

“My uncle works for the police. What do you mean by such criticism? What would he think of you?” his wife protested.

“What would he think, indeed? Why, he would think that I hate the police. What else?” replied Markandeyulu naively.

“How can you insult the elderly man who is only trying to help us?”

“”When did I insult him? Do I have to praise the police to show my respect for him?”

“Oh no! You should show your respect to him by critising his job, I guess.”

“Please don’t think that you are the only sensible person in this world. I would not have spoken about the police if he had not advised me to join the force. I believe that police force today is very inhuman. He wouldn’t be working there if he had the same belief. I am just trying to tell him something, which he didn’t seem to know. Why does he have to do such a mean job and expect everybody to appreciate him?”

“He did not boast about his job!”

“Then why did he ask me to get into the police force?”

“What is your problem? You could have just refused without argument..”

“Then he would ask me for my reasons.”

“You could have just said that you do not like it.”

“Then what if he asks me why I hate the police?”

“He wouldn’t ask like that.”

“He would, if he were a real well-wisher.”

“Oh come on! Why should he care about your opinions?”

“I thought he did care and so he was thinking about my job. It looks like he just wanted to get a good name among the relatives. In that case, it doesn’t matter even if I have hurt him.”

“You will argue to any extent just to prove that what you’ve done is right!”

“Perhaps you would be happy if I meekly agreed with you, without any discussion! Tell me, do I never own up if I ever did a mistake?”

During such endless arguments, his wife would stop the discussion out of sheer frustration.


It is very difficult to gauge Markandeyulu’s love for his wife. Certainly, he is not somebody incapable of love. The issue is how far his wife loved him! Indeed, only really loving can be loved. But it is rather difficult to love a person who seems to love abstract principles. Hence the very great artists and people who love principles go about without being loved. There would be nothing surprising if his wife could not love him. It seems he never even felt that she understood him completely, leave alone loving him. The lack of children only widened the emotional gulf between them.

The five and odd years of the war (1939-1945) were really difficult for Markandeyulu. His parents-in-law’s family, however seemed to prosper during this time. His brother-in-law earned heaps of money with their uncle’s help.

Six months after the war Markandeyulu was his usual jobless self. In the past six years he managed to save one hundred rupees, which disappeared quite fast.

One fine day his eldest brother-in-law came to his home and discussed about their future.

“Why do you struggle with these jobs? Come to our home. Help us with our business. You will be well off. Of course, Swamiji is there to enlighten our minds. He is so detached from the world. He never visits anyone’s home. But he comes to our home at least once in ten days.”

Markandeyulu never had a chance to meet this particular Swamiji but he heard a lot about him.

A few years ago on the Krishna-Ashtam[i]i this Swamiji proclaimed himself to be the Lord Krishna and indulged in the “Rasa leela”. As the devotees were deeply intoxicated with devotional singing, he insisted that all the ladies present disrobe themselves like the cowherdesses. Luckily few people had their sense about them and they managed to politely drive him out of the village. Being a Swamiji, he escaped a thrashing from the villagers.

“I believe neither in black marketeering nor in Swamiji. Just leave me alone to live my life my way””, he replied to his brother-in-law curtly. He refused to look at his wife during this conversation. Instinctively he could feel the horrified look on her face.

“Oh, yeah! We know how principled and straightforward you are. Unfortunately you are not alone in your life. My sister happens to be tied to it. I guess you don’t remember that.”

“In our wretched society a woman cannot do anything other than mutely taking part in her husband’s life,” he replied philosophically.

“Exactly! And you are taking advantage of that without doing your duty towards her!.”

“So you want me to discharge my duties by involving in black marketing and cheating!”

“You are calling it as black marketing, but.”

“What would you say about your business?”

“What I would say is why should my sister who can lead a relaxed life at my home should suffer in your home? Your pig headed ness is going to ruin her!”

“You seem to be thinking that I am wallowing in poverty just for the sole pleasure of starving your sister! She is free to go away from here on the day she feels her life as unbearable. I might have not given her physical comforts but I never denied her personal space and rights.”

“That day too is not very far off!” grumbled his brother-in-law


Within a week after the Mahatma’s assassination, Markandeyulu and his wife moved to her parents’ home. A fortnight earlier he had lost another job. Being in that depressed state, he did not protest about moving to their home.

Swamiji also seemed to be living at his parents-in-law’s home. The house was a like a thoroughfare with people coming in to see the Swamiji. Most of the devotees were well employed, well educated and rich. The entire show with Swamiji, his discourses, and the devotees turned Markandeyulu’s stomach. He felt the entire atmosphere revolting. He found the Swamiji’s discourses absurd and ridiculous.

Swamiji would speak only on few issues, and for any length of time. One of them was his super natural power! He said he could reduce anyone to ashes, if he wished to. He declared in front of all the Government officials that it was indeed he who decided that the Mahatma should be assassinated. The other issue he loved to talk about was about the heaps of gold he made with his occult powers. He declared that since he had no need for the gold, anyone who wanted it was most welcome to take it. Strangely, he never seemed to tell where exactly the heaps of gold were and no one ever seemed to ask about them.

But his most favorite topic was women. He could speak untiringly about women, childbirth, breast-feeding and their menstrual periods!

He seemed to think of himself as omni potent who could get the devotees jobs, promotions, money and difficulties if the devotees proved to be less faithful!

First time when Markandeyulu heard Swamiji’s discourse, he wondered if Swamiji though all the people around him are fools! After an hour the doubt disappeared. Indeed, all the people listening to the Swamiji, and believing it without a question were fools, he decided. Whatever Swamiji would blabber, they would receive it, believe it.

“How can people be so ignorant? What happens to their thinking faculties?” He wondered.

After a few sessions he got the answers to his questions. People who go to Swamiji are not going as seekers of knowledge or truth. They have taken leave of their senses and they go for the very worldly possessions of prosperity, fame, etc. Their intellectual faculties are slaves of Swamiji and so they cannot question, criticize or rebel against Swamiji’s commands. Swamiji was a clever man who realized that society has been crumbling, man’s social conscience is decaying and individual selfishness is all set to rule the world. The monk seemed to have understood the reality better than any politician. He has them all in his grip now.

“I am going home. Would you like to go with me?” Markandeyulu asked his wife.

“But we arrived here only today morning. Why leave so early?”

“We can take the night train. If you don’t go with me, I shall leave alone.”

“Tell my brothers about it.”

He did so, adding his opinion of the Swamiji.

“Why don’t you take Swamiji’s permission before leaving?” his brother-in-law suggested.

“How can you believe in such trash?”

“Of course I believe in Swamiji! I have seen his divine powers with my eyes.”

“I don’t need his permission. He is not my guardian.” He replied vehemently.

“He is the guardian of the God Himself! I shall ask his permission for you, if you don’t,” the brother-in-law said and left to ask Swamiji on his behalf.

“Your sister doesn’t have my permission to leave. Soulless bodies may leave if they want to,” replied Swamiji gravely.

“Ï am leaving. What about you? Markandeyulu asked his wife.

“Oh no! I am scared” she replied. Markandeyulu left by train the same evening. On the way to the station he was pelted with stones, which missed him. He was amused to see that Swamiji had enough power to throw stones at him, but lacked the power to make the stones hit the mark!


Markandeyulu’s wife stayed at her parents’home after that. A year ago she delivered a child. His brother-in-law says Markandeyulu came to their home ten months earlier and stayed for a night. He demanded for some money, which Swamiji has given him kindly. Swamiji seemed to have given lot of jewelry to Markandeyulu’s wife.

On the day he came to know about the delivery Markandeyulu came to my home. He told me about all the events in his life, in detail. He borrowed some money and left the next day morning without telling me his destination. Nobody knows where he is now. He did not drop a letter to me. I have no hopes about him. I consider his life as a closed chapter.

“Why does life end up like this?” his question echoes in my ears as long as I live. I wonder if he was thinking about himself when he asked that question.


(Translator’s note: This story titled Vyartha Jeevitam appeared in Andhra Jyothi in May 1950.

What is amazing about this story is it seems to be pertinent even today. Even today we see courageous people who struggle to live their lives according to what they believe is justice while others around them and the life itself are doing their best to pull them down.

Thanks to Sri Rohini Prasad gAru, on behalf of the author, for his kind consent to translate this story from Telugu and publish on Thulika. – Sharada)


(The story has been translated by © Sharada, Australia, and published on March 2005,

[i] The day Lord Krishna was born.

He Is I by Malladi Ramakrishna Sastry.

The young man was aboard the train heading east. The train was moving slowly and gracefully like the Karnataka damsel of Srinatha.[i] The train left the depot the day before. It kept stopping at each and every station, hardly a few miles away from each other, and people were getting on and off. The young man could not get a wink of sleep through the entire night for all the commotion of the passengers.

At one station, a Swamiji got on board with his luggage. He looked like Bala Gandharva, the Maharashtra musician, in appearance. He sat down in a tribanghi[ii] posture like Yadavalli[iii] in the role of King Dushyanta.[iv] It was the posture when King Dushyanta was leaning forward curiously and listening to the story of Sakuntala’s birth. Swamiji looked at the young man. The young man stood up, tied his upper garment around his waist as is the custom, gave a brief account of his lineage, touched Swamiji’s feet reverently, and beseeched him to visit their village and bless his home. Swamiji laughed like Madhavapeddi[v] playing the role of Duryodhana. He cast sidelong looks at the young man and spoke, “Look, young man! No need for this fuss. I will gladly come to your home, not just for a visit but for a full meal. I am not any swamiji, just a sanyasi. This saffron-colored outfit is only for a show. I wear them as the occasion calls for it. You know the saying—the mind runs wild while  the heart is stuck on the wife. I am not lying! Don’t you get it? You seem to be a good man. Have any children? Not married yet? Aah! Does not matter, not really one way or the other. Nothing wrong if you are married and no big deal if you are not either. Being alone is a good thing if you ask me, nobody to bother you at home. If you go home in the middle of the night or even later, nobody is going to pester you with questions, pressing for details. Tired of cooking? You can always find a hotel to eat in and a nook to doze off. You can live like a prince wandering around like a jolly good fellow. Tell me, am I right or not?

Young man, don’t think that this old man with a big beard is blabbering some ancient philosophy. I am neither crazy nor stuck on any dogma. I am not saying this to tease you or give you a hard time. This is the real truth. Let me explain why I became like this and then you will understand it yourself. You will have all your doubts cleared. I used to have a house, family and all that in our village. I had a wife, my uncle’s daughter, who was superb in managing the house. She was perfect looking like the famous actor, Avadhanla Purushottam, in a female role. She had a good heart and was gorgeous even without jewelry. She had such an impeccable honesty, the neighbors would bow to her in reverence. You won’t find a woman like that, not one in a million.

Our relationship was exemplary. The entire village admired it. My job was only to stay home and enjoy the wonderful life. Unlike others I did not have to go to the farm nor return home late. I was not the type to meddle in others’ lives and was not interested in any chitchat. I was practically nonexistent in my village and that was fine with me. But the others in the village couldn’t take it. That was especially true of Bapamma vadina. Who’s Bapamma? Well, she was the grandchild of one of my grandfathers, thrice removed. She was married when she was three-years old and became a widow within three months. Her husband died in the floods. As far as I could remember, I saw her only in her widow’s outfit—draped in white sari and her head covered, as was the custom in those days. She kept herself busy ordering people around always. Not a thing escaped her notice. Her mouth was never shut and her legs never stayed steadily in one place. I am not saying  that she was asking for trouble. She was just that kind of person. She could not help it, she had to keep looking for problems. Are you asking me why I was talking so much about some widow? Well, you would not understand without this lengthy introduction.

Bapamma, the widow, came to our house one day while I was cooking my supper. My name is the same then and now—Chidanandam. I changed the last syllable making it Chidanandudu. I thought  ‘am’-ending sounded too much like a  family-type. Anyway, she came and said, “Look! Alludaa! I asked the other little boys but nobody would come to help me. Could you come in for a few minutes and pick some leaves for me?”

I couldn’t say ‘no’ and so I went to her house. She made me pull the entire cluster of leaves from the tree and then started cajoling me, “Look, I am old enough to tell you and you are young enough to listen. You used to pour me water wearing barely a loin cloth. Now you have grown this mop of curls and became a big man. You have grown big all right but not word comes out of that mouth. You stay home and follow your wife holding on to her sari frills, how come? Are all your peers living like this? Good god! Do you think you are the only one who loves his wife? Aren’t other men having a good family life? People are laughing at you for sticking around like this! You keep this up and soon you will be reduced to nothing in your wife’opinion. And that is so unbecoming in our families! Take your thatha for instance. He was never at home, not even for a second. Think of the villages he was trotting through—Kapramapalem today, tomorrow to Kauthavaram. The following day he would be in Kunderu and then he’d show up in Valluru and move on to Vanukur. Your thatha was always on the move, each time moving on to another farm in another village. That does not mean that he was wanting for anything. He was never worried about returning to his own home. He was not turning cold on his own wife either. He had four girls and six boys. Tell me, my boy, how come you did not inherit his ways?

Let’s forget thatha for a second. What about your father? Your father may not be a match for your thatha but was not bad either. Wherever your father had ten-acres of land, he went there and made himself comfortable, without of course anybody noticing it. Don’t get me wrong. Your father was a gentleman to the core at home, no comparison in the entire world. You know the old adage, a woman’s life is ruined if she goes out and a man’s life is ruined if he does not. Look, my boy! Don’t think that I am asking you to take to evil ways. All I am saying is if you want to be happy in the years to come, this is not the way. In a few years nobody is going to feel this free to talk to you in this manner. You had better start thinking for yourself. If you stay where you are, like a smear on the door frame, how could your wife have her fantasies fulfilled?

You might think that you know how a woman’s mind works. You and I may think that a woman mulls over things like, “My man left two days back and is not home yet. Usually he returns home by the time the evening lamps are lit, no matter how busy he is. It’s three days since he has left. He did not return the same day, not yesterday, and not even today. He would not stay out unless it was a matter of life and death. I have seen them all. I have had him tied at my sari end.” You might think like that. The truth is any woman would want to break her heart mulling over a man who went out, wonder what her man is capable of—which woman might have caught his eye. … And after he returns, she would want to jump on him like a hungry lion, let her hair down,  spill some fake tears, do some song and dance, threaten to starve herself, make him squirm for a while, force him to beg with her chin in his palm, make him promise a  silk sari for the next festival … At the end, she would want to tuck jasmine flowers in her hair, come down gradually, step by step, and surrender to him after midnight—that is what any woman would crave for, don’t you think?

   What’d you say? You can’t go out and prove you’re a man? All right. At least watch the others and learn something from them. The reason I am telling you this is because you and your wife shouldn’t sit across from each other for the rest of your lives and get sick of each other. Go, my boy, go out and be a man …”

She kept badgering me on and on. I was upset and also amused. If I said “no way,” she would come back at me with renewed vigor. It was clear to me that I could not escape from her grip for the evening. I nodded, “okay,” and managed to walk away after a while.

I got away from that place all right but I was beset with an internal strife that was beyond my comprehension. She was not crazy, not the kind of person that would go against the grain. Actually I think she meant well; was only interested in my well-being. She has no grudge against me. I kept reflecting on what she has said. Several quotes from the classics came to my mind. Some scholars have stated swabhaaryaayaam ca yauvanam.[vi] Others, Kalidasa for instance, stated yauvane vishaishinaam.[vii] Not only Krishna but Rama also had the same reputation. Even Vatsayana had made a special note of paaradaarikam.[viii] Considering all these opinions expressed by great scholars I have come to believe that there was some truth to Bapamma’s words. I debated further in my head and concluded that I must follow her advice. But that was something I was not used to. Where do I start? In general, I was shy and nervous. Each time I put my foot forward my heart was pulling me back.

Still struggling, I decided to check it out and went towards the lake one evening. Fearing that somebody might recognize me, I wrapped my uttareeyam around my head, pulled up my dhoti frills and tucked at the waist. As I was walking I saw somebody come toward me, carrying a bale of straw. I squinted my eyes to take a good look and noticed that that person was a woman. She came closer, looking like Sanjeeva Rao’s Chitrangi[ix] in that dim light. I managed to say, “You, girl!” She stopped there, looked around and giggled. I picked up my courage and approached her. She looked at me and said, “Sir, you?! Are you lost in the dark? Come with me, sir. I will walk you home.” I started trembling. I mumbled hastily, “You go, just go, go away,” and I ran across the fields in a rush. I heard her laugh behind me, which was even more distressing. I wandered around for a long time, I don’t know for how long, and finally returned home.

My wife was standing at the door with a big smile! As I was about to enter the house with my head lowered she stopped me. “Emandi![x] If you feel like going out for a walk or something, why didn’t you start out early? Why do you have to run across the fields? Why get stuck in the darkness? The woman you saw in the fields was our Lakshmaya’s daughter. She told me about you and advised me that next time I should send somebody along with you and with a lantern. Silly girl! I was about to send Bapamma but then you showed up …” she said in a coaxing tone. I asked her quickly, “What did Bapamma say?” I was shivering in my shoes.

“It doesn’t matter what she said. Never mind that. If you are really so disposed, why don’t you go to the next village and try. There are women like Rambha and Urvasi[xi] there. If you think you are that good you should go there and save the reputation of your ancestors. That would be a great amusement for me too,” she said, laughing.

She was getting under my skin. “Don’t you think that I am not capable of it. I can take the entire village if I had a mind to. I am just trying to be civil,” I replied.

“Who asked you to be civil? Go as you please. I will pull out the best dhoti with contrasting borders and hand it to you. Put it on and also take a couple of hundred rupees. Remember! When that woman offers to apply perfume, don’t tell her that you are not used to it. If she sprinkles perfumed water, don’t say you will catch cold. Don’t hold back a few rupees from the amount you took with you. Don’t dicker with them. You might even want to give them a little extra. If you don’t have enough cash, just send word to me. If you find someone very interesting, don’t hesitate to bring her here. I will also have some entertainment. What’d you say? Why waste time?” She went on like this and got to me like never before in all my life. I said, “Okay, bring it.” She brought the dhoti and money. I left for the village. I went to the same village my wife had mentioned. I have heard sometime back that there was a woman by the name Rakenduvadana in that village. I went straight to her house. I went there all right but I was not sure how to start the conversation.

“Sir, what’s new? Why are you here?” she asked.

Not a word came out of my mouth. I pulled out the stash of bills I had tucked at the waist and put it in front of her. “I will stay here for the night,” I managed to say.

She looked at me for a second and laughed. “What’s the matter? Upset with your wife? Is this your first time? I can see that very clearly.”

I sat there totally lost.

“What is it, babu? who tutored you on this one? I am asking since I am not seeing any sign of this conduct in your blood. Come, tell me.” She came closer and sat down next to me, taking my chin into her palm. She threw me off completely. I told her the entire story. She listened to me and advised me, “Foolish boy!  Any  parrot talks only the language of her habitat.[xii] This is not something that comes with practice but has got to be in your blood. Let’s see about what you’ve said. Did the great sage Vatsayana go around the country looking for the experience so he could record it in his book? No. He could envision the entire science because he was an intellectual. If Rama had the makings of a romantic hero, why would the poet Valmiki spend so many chapters describing only Rama’s grief? It is senseless to assume that there is no happiness at home. It is idiotic to think that there are women as gorgeous as Rambha in our neighborhood. It is foolish for persons like you to resort to a display of prowess in this manner. Please, get on the return train and go home.” She finished her speech, shoved my money back into my palm, threw in an extra rupee and sent me away with some fellow named Ankaalu.

I boarded the train all right but was worried about showing my face at home. But then, where else can I go? Should I go to another village and knock on another door? Well, what if I have to hear the same song and dance—all the eighteen chapters on good behavior—one more time from one more woman?

I went home straight. I must be really an idiot; I told my wife the whole story. She laughed again. “Your face is such that even a prostitute would take pity on you. You keep this up and go around the country, you will soon turn them all into worthless sanyasis. Maybe that is what your horoscope is saying! Womanizing is not recorded in your chart. You might as well behave from now on.”

Oh, Lord Srihari! I am reduced to nothing even in my wife’s view. And I’ve been living with her for so long! Even she is treating me like a child. I tried to be nice and this is what it I get in return? I was ticked off and told my wife, “I will not live here any more.”

“What else can you do? Where else can you go? No matter where you go, you are looking at nothing but a dead-end,” she replied and laughed again. Don’t ask me how I felt. I reiterated, “I am  leaving.” She nodded, still smiling. She looked at me as if she were saying, “Don’t I know you?” I was scared a little but walked out, gritting my teeth. I walked out all right. And then what? Given the kind of person I am, what can I do? I cannot sleep except at home. I can’t relish food unless she served it. Evidently, I need to straighten out these things first. Whenever I was hungry, I ate fruits, bread and butter, and milk. At night I started watching two movies, one after another. Are you wondering where I got the money for all these? I took care of it before leaving home. Anyway, I got my craving for home under control eventually. My desire for revenge on my wife also softened a little. I felt annoyed with myself at times though. I had everything one could ask for. Why did I get into this mess? Should I just go home, holding my head high or low? No I couldn’t, my pride was still lingering around. I know I was avenging myself on my wife. But what about that clan of prostitutes who drove me to this point? I could neither declare war on them nor could I be a romantic hero in this life. My only alternative was to go one step further and teach them a lesson.

Here’s what I did. I went around, town after town, village after village, city after city and confronted the prostitutes. I lectured to them, “God bless you all. You’ve got to save your reputation. Guru Bharatacharya[xiii] was your mentor. He made you perform “samudra mathanam[xiv] at the court of Lord Devendra in ancient times. Isn’t it true that, if there were no prostitutes, Rushyasrunga[xv] would never have got married? Pleasing male population has been your heritage for centuries. That was your talent, exclusively and predominantly. Haven’t we heard that our rulers got resorts of romance built for travelers? And that is only because they had realized that the males with experience with prostitutes would have good familial relationships. Our present government, knowingly or unknowingly, may have told you to throw away your ankle-bells, get married and get stuck in a corner like respectable housewives. Is that a vedic prescription? How could you take that word and forget your duty to the public? In fact, all women, then and now, even the women in the royal families, have been learning the teachings of your ancient guru Bharata. So what? Could they be as talented and fearless as you are in their expression and physical movements? Could they be available as readily as you are? Your well-being is in your hands. The country’s well-being is in your hands and under your control. Take my word, trust God, and save the world as has been your custom. Some pundit may create pointless havoc in the name of “eradication of prostitution” and belittle you in the process but how could you keep quiet? Don’t you see that the same people are also calling it “honoring the fine arts,” an d begging you to go to the felicitation meetings? You’d better see the crooked game they are playing and make the best of your lives. I stormed them with my speeches, like the floods of the Ganges. They all listened and  said they would agree but not one person came forward openly.

Then I went around and contacted a conscientious government official. I threatened him that I’d go on fasting unto death if he refused to find a way out for these women. He heard the entire story and laughed. He said, “Mister, I have no time to be concerned with such things now. I am not in a mood to listen to this. You come back after the elections. Take your time. Write down briefly whatever you want to say. I will submit it to the members here and then forward it to the higher authorities. We will see what they’ve got to say. Are you asking me what happens in the meantime? You don’t want to wait? All right. You can go straight to the central government and worry about it yourself. If they say, “yes,” we will not say “no.” Even if we say “no” and they will take our “no” for an answer, then again we will have no choice but agree. This is All India. The states have no power in any matter. Besides, it looks like you didn’t understand the word, democracy. Unanimity means the chairman tells something and all others raise their hands indicating their assent. How long do you thing this rule lasts if every one screams personal freedom and expresses his personal opinions? Look, you can do anything you want as long as it is not illegal. We don’t feel a thing, not so much as an antbite. We may come to know about it but we don’t care. If you cross the line, you are bound to be punished. Understand?”

“Yes,” I said.

   It was obvious I could not get this done by running after them. The only way was to chop it from the other side as the saying goes. I had to take this to the legislative assembly. For that, I needed to find the right person. Do you remember the woman, Rakenduvadana? Well, now she is known as Rattamma. Never mind that. She is the right person for this job. I decided to find an auspicious day and go to her and tell her, “Amma Rattamma! You must run for a seat in the legislative assembly, get elected and go to the center. You must pound on the table with all your might and express your concerns. That is the only way to save your race.”

Swamiji stopped for a second and asked the young man, “What do you think?”

What could the young man say? He said, “If you are talking about the woman, Rattamma, no need to go to her village. She will be coming to our village. We have arranged to honor her in our village. It would be great if you could preside over the function. Of course, there is also an about-to-become minister attending the meeting. He would say a few words first for the sake of formality. But the presence of a swamiji like you is important. Besides that strengthens your movement too.”

Swamiji replied, “Excellent. I will be there for sure.”

“Young man, no reason to hide this from you. The truth is I am tired of this drifting. I am convinced that I’ve done whatever I could. Ask me what did I accomplish after all this traveling. Nothing, to speak the truth. The more I think about it, who am I after all to save others? People have to take care of themselves. How long can we keep pushing them? As I said, I would go to that village one more time, and shift the entire responsibility to Rattamma, and wash my hands of it. She is a super achiever, I am telling you. By the way, who went to invite her? Did you go? Are you coming from there now? How did she receive you? Did she wait on you, you know what I mean, really? Young man, you don’t have to hide it from me. Come, tell me.”

The young man described his visit with Rattamma in great detail. Swamiji nearly jumped with joy and screamed, “Oh, my, you are incredible! Lady Luck smiled on you. You look very naive but obviously you have a way with words. You played your part and she pretended to believe you and served the best way she knew … Aah! I must say you were born fortunate. So be it. How else can you have your desires satisfied? Young man! after listening to your story, I know now how deluded I was all these years. What am I doing, going around like this? Nothing. Actually, I was planning to go home straight this time, I mean, after visiting Rattamma. Yes. I must go home.”

The train stopped at the next station. The passangers inquired and found out that another train was coming from the opposite direction and their train had to move on to the other set of the tracks. Swamiji thought, “If I hop on that train, I will be home by eight this evening.” The other train came on time.The passangers watched as the other train arrived. As soon as the train went past them, Swamiji looked up with a jerk. He pulled out a dhoti and his uttareeyam from his bag hastily and changed his clothing. He took some money and left the rest of the things right there.

“The train stops here for about ten minutes, right?” he asked and continued, “Here, keep my baggage with you. I will take them when I come to visit you. It does not matter even if they are lost. There is some money in the bag. Use it anyway you please. I am going back. My wife is on that train. She is returning from her mother’s home, I believe. My father-in-law is also on that train.” He laughed and jumped out of the train.

The young man felt happy for Swamiji. The other train left. So also the train the young man was on .


Translator’s note:

This is a peculiar story with two narrators, besides the author. The author used, for the first narrator, a third person reflexive pronoun ‘taanu,’ for which there is no equivalent in English. Normally the use of ‘taanu’ implies that the story is narrated from the perspective of that person. In the current story, the first narrator appears as taanu only in a few places. I replaced ‘taanu’ with ‘young man’ for the purpose of clarification. Most of the story is told in the first person by Swamiji also known as Chidanandam.

Translated by © Nidadavolu Malathi.

(The Telugu original, soham was published in the anthology, Malladi Ramakrishna Sastry kathalu – 2 published by Navodaya Publishers, 1986)


[i] Srinatha was a 11th century poet, known for his amorous depiction of female characters.

[ii] A dance posture.

[iii] A famous actor known for his extraordinary performance in the role of King Dushyanta.

[iv] King Dushyanta and Sakuntala were the parents of Bharata, whose name India inherited.

[v] A famous actor known for playing the role of Duryodhana, the Kaurava king in maha bharatam.

[vi]Lit. Enjoying physical pleasures with one’s own wife during youth is appropriate.

[vii] From a famous kavyam of Kalidasa, “raghu vamsam,” the story of Rama’s geneology. Kalidasa seem to imply that enjoying physical pleasures during one’s youth is acceptable, not necessarily limited to marital bliss.

[viii] Reference to a chapter on the extra marital relationships in Vatsayana’s “kama sutram.”

[ix] Sanjeeva Rao was famous for his role as Chitrangi, a female character.

[x] In some families, wives do not address husbands by name as a mark of respect. For want of a better term, they just say some thing like ‘hello’ inviting their attention before starting a conversation.

[xi] Rambha and Urvasi are divine damsels, known for their extraordinary beauty.

[xii] A popular Telugu proverb, e guuti chilaka aa guuti paluke palukutundi meaning the ideas expressed denote usually one’s upbringing.

[xiii] Bharata or Bharatacharya was the first exponent of the Indian classical dance, bharatanatyam.

[xiv] An episode from the famous epic, maha bhagavatham, the story of Lord Vishnu. The story refers to the churning of the ocean by the gods and demons in pursuit of finding the devine nectar.

[xv] A sage in the epic Ramayanam

Bilingual Kid by Nidadavolu Malathi.

I come from a country where anybody could speak two or three languages easily, even those who are considered illiterate for demographic purposes. They possess working knowledge of more than one language.
When I first came to this country I resisted all the attempts of my well-meaning friends to teach me the perfect American accent as much as I could. Assimilation was not in my agenda. I did not want to fit into the mainstream. But that has happened anyway, and without any effort on my part. Probably I could say it was the new way of brainwashing. It slowly seeped into my brain like the sunlight at daybreak. You can not pinpoint the specific moment when it happens. I can’t remember the specific moment when I stopped thinking in Telugu and started thinking in English.
Sometimes I feel like this language issue is no worse than the colonization I have heard so much about in my childhood. I feel like somebody else is telling me what to say, how to say, and even to think in what language. And they say it is my choice!

In fact, there is something else that led me to think on these lines. That was long time ago. I turned the TV on. The movie “Roots” was showing. I watched it only for a few minutes. It was too violent for me. The scene I watched, however, made a permanent impression on my mind—it was about the captors telling the young man to change his name to Tony. The young man took all the whipping and kept insisting his name was Kinte Kunte. I understood, for the first time, what identity meant. The name, the face, the color, the language, the customs—they all come in one package. That is one’s culture.
You can see why the language issue is a sensitive subject for me. English, ubiquitous as it is, is one of the millions of languages of the world. Some people miss this point for some outlandish reason. I have come across people who look blank when they hear a sound that did not sound like English. Even a personal name never heard before becomes a challenge for them.
The family next door arrived here a month ago from another country. They came to America in search of freedom and better life, as always. It did not take long for me to figure out that they did not speak English. That was their first major hurdle.
It was early November. The temperature was falling rapidly. I was sitting in my living room with a blanket in my lap and a book in my hand. I heard a knock on the door.
I opened the door and saw the woman next door standing with panic written large on her face. She gestured to the puff of smoke rising out of the chimney across the street and mumbled something. I managed to understand that she thought the house was on fire. I smiled and tried to calm her down the best I could. I tapped on her shoulder gently and said it was okay. I am sure the words were lost on her, but my gestures conveyed the message. My English did not come to my rescue, for sure.
The father was working in a gas station and the mother as a cleaning lady in our neighborhood. They bought some 1970s Dodge for $500. The car needed new tires, new battery and new carburetor. I could not but help wondering about their dream.
Then came the time to admit their nine-year old son in school. Since the parents spoke no English, I went with them and walked them through the process. They signed wherever I told them to sign. The signatures were in their language, and so, I witnessed their signatures. And as God is my witness, they had no idea what they were agreeing to and I had no way of telling them so. The principal heaved a sigh of relief feeling good that we have managed to protect the system!
Jenina, the teacher, was very kind. She took his hand and walked him to his classroom.
“Here is a new boy in our class,” she announced to the class and asked him, “What is your name?”
The boy did not reply. The teacher could not recall the name she had seen on the registration form. She remembered the first syllable of his name and came up with the idea.
“We will call you Phil. Okay?”
The boy was either confused or protesting, he just pursed his lips tight.
“Hi Phil,” the entire class shouted.
We left the boy, Phabwugin at the school for the day. The only blessing in all this was the school was within walking distance. He could walk back to home.
Next day Phabwugin or Phil refused to go to school. The parents argued with him, yelled at him, and made him go to the school.
A week later I went to their apartment to see how they were doing. I returned after a couple of hours. My brother Gopu, a sophomore in a local college, was waiting for me.
“Where have you been?” he asked me. He was so accustomed to seeing me slouched on the couch watching TV, he was surprised I was not home at that hour.
“Next door. Chatting with the mother,” I said.
He laughed. “You two don’t even speak the same language. What were chatting about for two hours?”
Gopu, 15 years younger, is pretty much next generation. He is a city-bred, a product of English medium school, and a borderline bilingual kid at best.
“Well, if you can talk to a dog or a plant, you can talk to a human too,” I rejoined.
I noticed that Phil was putting up a fierce fight each day to go to school.
One day he came back with a bloody nose, and the next day with a black eye.
The following week, Jenina showed up at their door. It was a no-brainer to see she could not get very far with the parents. But she was a kind and caring person. She had read books, attended workshops, and presented papers at conferences on teaching English as a Second Language. She had mastered the art and science of ESL. She had been trying hard to teach the perfect American English to this kid. She wanted him to be her success story.
Jenina spent extra hours with Phil. Developed tools exclusively for him. Eventually Phil came to like her. He did not mind spending time with her after school, but speaking English was a different story.
Things were getting tougher. Everyday I saw Phil with a black eye or bruised arm. Then came the big blow. The principal was thinking of expelling Phil, or suspending him for a semester. Phil brought a kitchen knife to the school.

Jenina talked to the principal and told him that she would talk to the parents.
For a second time ,she came to pay a visit to the parents. This time they all made sure that I was home. She explained to me, in great detail, the steps she was taking not only to teach Phil English, but also to instil into his little head the importance of learning English. Her efforts included making flash cards to suit his specific needs—which meant making cards carrying the name of his country, fruits and vegetables grown in his country, his gods, his festivals… I could see she was sincerely trying to help him.
Phil was not interested in those cards for the obvious reason. The other children in his class were not interested in those things. For them, the words were weird. Phil understood that, despite his lack of English language skills.
Then she switched to the local culture. She prepared cards exemplifying the life in America-the movies, music, hip-hop, national heroes, local stories … Phil did not appreciate that, either.
The teacher was getting frustrated. What would it take to make this little boy speak English?
Jenina gave him children’s books. He did not find them interesting. She gave him audio cassettes of children’s songs and told him to sing along. He was too old for those songs. He did not say so, exactly. The way he looked at those pieces said so.
She kept talking about the virtues of being a bilingual. Once he mastered the English language, he could be the proud speaker of two languages, a perfect bilingual kid.
“May be you could speak English at home also, as a way of reinforcing what you have learned at school,” Jenina suggested.
“…..” Phil blurted a word I would not care to repeat.
We were stunned and stared at each other. The parents said something to the effect that he should watch his language. At least, that was my understanding of the words they spoke to him.
“There! You want English, you got it,” I said. I knew it was not nice of me. But my point was—children would pick up the language much faster than we think, and at the places we do not think of.
Jenina kept insisting that they all should speak English at home. I was losing patience.
“But you know the parents do not speak English,” I said.
“Tell them to learn English. You know language is one of the most important survival skills. They need to learn English if they want to live in this country,” she tried to be polite as she spoke. But the words sounded harsh. They sounded harsh to me, at least. She had a point. That annoyed me even more.
“Explain to them,” she said again.
I copped out. I had to. “I don’t have the language skills at that level to explain your opinion to them,” I replied, struggling hard to be polite.
“But you do communicate with them,” she insisted.
That ticked me off. “Remember what you’ve said earlier about being a bilingual kid?”
“Yes. Why?”
“The way I see it, language is culture. Home is the only place where they can keep their language and their culture. If you insist that they should speak English at home, you are asking them to ignore their own language and their own culture. Then, you are not making him a bilingual kid. You are making him English-speaking monolingual,” I said, struggling with my own emotions.
I told them I had something to do and left in a hurry.
I was beside myself. I was fretting and fuming all evening. The rice was burned. The curry was too salty. The soup turned out more like an industrial strength paint.
“What is wrong?” my brother asked me, pulling out TV dinner from the freezer.
“The teacher is so keen on making him ubhayabhasha praveena[1]In Andhra Pradesh the term ubhayabhasha praveena refers to an accreditation of specialization in Sanskrit and Telugu. In this context, the term is used to mean simply expert in two languages. … Continue reading
“And what’s wrong with that?”
“That is not making him a bilingual kid. That is destroying his culture. God knows he will master English soon enough.”
“You don’t mean that,” he said. He was referring to the phrase ‘destroying the culture.’
“Well,” I growled and went into my bedroom. He did not follow me. He knew better .
I looked out the window. The boy was hanging around in front of our apartment, but not too close. I wondered what was he doing there? What did he want?
After a few minutes, Gopu went out with a basketball. He was throwing hoops. Then he gestured the boy to join him. The boy responded quickly. They were throwing the ball into the hoop. I was watching them. The boy was good. There was not much of a conversation but for a few words like ‘wow’ and ‘good’ from Gopu. The only words I could hear were the sounds of the heart; from one heart to another—that universal language!
Gopu did not have to go through this three-ring circus. He came from home, well-prepared, all set, ready to go. He had arrived here fully equipped. His Telugu was just one notch above the level of Phil’s English.
Language is culture. Home is the only place where they can keep their culture-the last resort of human yearning for identity.
I know these kids will start speaking English soon enough–watch TV, the movies, hip-hop, football, Miller light, Apple pie … the all-American dream.
Gopu had no problem assimilating in to the local culture, because he was groomed from his childhood. I am sure one day Phil will speak only English, watch only Hollywood movies, sing rock and roll, or pop … He probably would become one of those computer geeks, get a job, or start his own small business, and will earn big bucks on the Wheel of Fortune or Family Feud, Wisconsin lottery or Ho Chunk Casino. I am also sure he would have no idea of his culture, none whatsoever, I mean in the real sense of the term. In his school and outside, he will be labeled bilingual, although his vocabulary in his mother tongue is limited to a few colloquial phrases! I can easily assess the extent of his vocabulary. We, the first generation adults, speak English. But when we lose our temper the choice phrases from our mother tongue spring gushing forth from our mouth. Our children pick up this phraseology faster than the words for polite conversation. Mother tongue becomes the language of insults. I have seen my brother draw from his Telugu terminology in addition to a few English phrases which I would not care to repeat. Well, he is discreet in my presence, but I am fully aware of the extent of his language skills in Telugu.
My heart sank tumbling down into the bottomless pit. I have no words to explain for this sadness. I am overwhelmed at the thought that these two kids would draw from two languages only when they are upset.

Translated by Nidadavolu Malathi, published in December 2002.


1 In Andhra Pradesh the term ubhayabhasha praveena refers to an accreditation of specialization in Sanskrit and Telugu. In this context, the term is used to mean simply expert in two languages. Specialization of scholarship in two languages.

The Drama of Life by Madhurantakam Rajaram

“Aah! Aah! What a performance! What can I say, Swamy! The audience went into a trance as they listened to your narration!” Venkatadri Naidu, the village head, said.

“Is that right? Is it that appealing?” Harinarayana Sarma Bhagavatar responded modestly.

“You are making it sound very ordinary, sir. The truth is each word hit us like a piece of diamond. You might think I am saying this to flatter you. No sir. I swear on Draupadi amma. I have heard it so many times in my life, this is the twenty-second. I have seen persons narrating Rajasuyam, Vastrapaharanam] and even Vishaneellu But I’ve never heard anybody narrate the dice story with such a fervor and so lusciously …”

“That’s good, Naidu! I was hesitant at first. You know why. Your accent is different from mine. If your people fail to follow my language, it is of no use, no matter how much I scream. That’s fine. You are speaking from your heart. I am so happy I could be riding an elephant. You might be wondering why I give so much importance to the story of dice. I do have my own reasons. Sit down. I will tell you why. Let me first go into the yard and wash my hands and feet. I will be back in a second.”

“I will wait here, Swamy!” Venkatadri Naidu said and sat down in a chair on the porch. Harinarayana Sarma hung up his gold-threaded upper garment on a hook, changed from his silk dhoti to an ordinary one and went into the backyard.

During summer it is common for the farmers to celebrate Bharata yajnam in the villages. When the summer sun is blazing, the water in the well hits rock bottom, and the trees shed all the leaves. The farmers, while waiting for the rains, would hold such performances. Usually they would have “daytime stories” at noontime and plays at night. The occasion was an eighteen-day celebration corresponding to the Great War fought for eighteen days according to the epic Maha Bharatam. But then what is so special about this celebration? Who does not know the story of Maha Bharatam? Even an old hag who has no knowledge of even one letter of the alphabet can tell the story. Imagine how superb one has to be to narrate it in a way that could capture the audience—a story that is well-known to everybody, from the littlest child to the oldest in the entire community, a story that is infused into the lifeblood of the entire race. The narrator should have several qualifications like scholarship, worldly knowledge, good timing, melodic skills, a sense of humor and more. In addition, the ability to answer the complex questions and explain the finer distinctions of dharma is also important. Venkatadri Naidu was searching for a Bhagavatar of that distinction and he heard about Harinarayana Sarma.

“I have been listening to these narrations since my childhood days. Are you saying this Bhagavatar is better than Erpedu Subbarama dasu, Santapeta Tiruvengada dasu, Sompalli Surnayarana sastrulu? In what way he is superior to all these bhagavatars?” Venkatadri Naidu quesioned him.

Now the time has come for the other person to “save his deposit.” He said, “Look, Naidu! Do you think Harinarayana Sarma is my relative or something? No! But can I eat sugar and call it bitter? That is the only reason I mentioned it. Where is the need for me to argue in his behalf? What is the point in describing the sweetness of a mango in words? You will know only if you taste it. Have you heard Adibhatla Narayanadasu ever? He is known as the grandfather of harikatha [stories of gods]. Narayanadasu was a bhagavatar with a moustache. This Harinarayana Sarma has no moustache. That is my introduction to him to put it briefly. If you want me to, I am prepared to give you a longer version. Harinarayana Sarma does not wear all that jewelry all Bhagavatars wear traditionally—like the gold bracelets with lion head decorations, rings on fingers, and such. But then, don’t you think he has no jewelry. He has bundled them up and thrown them into the attic. He looks like a stupid brahmin for all appearances. In fact, he is like that magician who plays the flute and all the children follow him. When Sarma opens his voice, it is the same way with the audience. Do you want to know how I came to know about all this? Once I went to Palnadu to buy turmeric. On my way I stopped in Vinukonda for the night. Somebody told me about the harikatha [performance] and so I went there. The organizers probably wanted to test the skills of the Bhagavatar. They asked him to present the story of Sita’s wedding with sorrow as the dominant rasa. The audience were surprised wondering how could a wedding be described with sorrow as its dominant theme. You know what Sarma did? He opened with the anecdote where the father, Janaka, sends off Sita to the in-law’s house. Trust me, he squeezed our hearts out. There was not a soul that did not shed a tear.”

Venkatadri Naidu’s determination is like that of a mongoose. He would not sleep until he accomplishes his aim once he sets his mind to do something. He took Appoji Reddy, the ex-munsif [village administrator], with him and got on the train, the Tirumala Express, and arrived in Vijayawada. From there, they reached Gudlavalleru by bus. Harinarayanadasu lives in a small village two kilometers away from Gudlavalleru. They reached there and found that Harinarayana Sarma had gone to another town, Annavaram. It was brahmotsavam time in the Annavaram temple.

“Appoji! Swamy is not here. What do you think we should do now?” Naidu asked his friend for his advice.

“What else is there to do? Why not find out where that Annavaram is? We have come all the way here, why go back?” Appoji said.

They both got on the train and reached Annavaram. By now four days of the performance were over, with three more to go.

“Look Appoji! The hill, temple and the lake are beautiful. Shall we stay here for the three days and listen to the story?” Naidu asked.

“Let’s do that. We can visit the god at dawn and dusk as well. At night we can listen to the story. Nothing more pleasurable,” Appoji supported the idea.

The three nights flew away like three seconds for them.

On the final night, Sarma finished the show with the usual mangalam and was about to leave the stage. Naidu, along with Appoji, rushed forward and stood in front of Sarma holding out a tamboolam for Sarma.

“What is this?” Sarma asked. Naidu’s attire appeared strange. Naidu has a bushy moustache, and a long namam on his forehead. He wore a long-sleeve shirt and had a cane in one hand while clutching the frills of his dhoti with the other hand.

“I will explain to you, Swamy! Please, accept this tamboolam,” Naidu said.

Sarma garu took the tamboolam and said, “What’s this for? Tamboolam with money? You are being silly, why?” Sarma asked, surprised.

“Swamy! Please, I am imploring you,” Naidu cleared his throat and continued, “Accept this, Swamy! We are from Chittoor district in the Rayalaseema area. Our village is called Bugga agraharam, 15 miles south of Tirupati township. My name is Venkatadri Naidu. He is Appoji Reddy. We have Dharmaraju temple in our village. We have the tradition of performing Dharmaraju yajnam [vedic ritual] each year—narratives of epic stories in the daytime and outdoor stage performances at night. We were discussing who we could invite. By chance, we heard your name. We set out right away, went to your village and then heard about your performance here. We came here three days ago. For the time we took, we were able to pay a visit to the Lord and also listen to your narrative on the temple porch. My education is very little. I am not qualified to describe your excellence. This time you must come to our village for our bharatam celebrations. We cannot worship a mountain-size Lord with that big heap of flowers. We will show you our abilities and our respect for you. We have heard your narrative but that is not enough. All the people in our area must listen to your story. Swamy! That is what I am begging for.” He stood there with folded hands respectfully.

Sarma was quite taken by Naidu’s demeanor, his appeal and the way he presented it, but was a little apprehensive. He put his hands on Naidu’s shoulder and said, “Your manner is impressive. You have stalled me before I could object. My heart would not allow me to refuse the tamboolam that has been given to me on the temple premises. But you must know, I have never been to any place beyond Nellore for storytelling. I have no knowledge of your traditions. There is a striking difference in the manner you and I talk. I don’t know if your people could follow my narrative style.”

“Please, Swamy, do not think on those lines. We have been listening to your narrative for the past three nights. We could understand, why could not our people? Swamy! Don’t they say all the forests are the same for a lion to roam around?”

Sarma laughed aloud. “You say you are not educated but you do have a way with words. I don’t know how but you have gotten my assent. Good, Naidu. I will be there. Tell me how to get there and when.”

“We will give you all those details before we leave,” Naidu said.

That is how Harinarayana Sarma happened to arrive at Bugga agraharam.


Sarma was satisfied with the arrangements Naidu has made for him. Naidu got the building that was vacated by the headmaster after his transfer to another place. He got it remodeled with all the amenities, like a small size travelers’ bungalow. He also got a chef from Tirupati for cooking food. Sarma was especially impressed by the scenic beauty and also by the interest the local people have evinced in the epics of Maha Bharatam and Ramayanam.

The village was surrounded by mountains. Along the mountain slopes, there was a river flowing incessantly. On either side of the river, there were several trees with a variety of fruits and stretches of green farm lands. Amidst the valleys there was mound on which Bugga agraharam was situated. The Dharmaraju temple was just outside the village and in the middle of a tamarind grove. Huge tamarind trees, standing tall, encircled the temple. The temple was situated close to the periphery and faced the east. Although it was referred to as a temple, in reality, it was a compound for carts. In that nine-acre building, one fourth of it was used as a porch and the rest of it was used as temple. Inside the temple, there were statues of the five Pandava princes and Draupadi. A little further away, the statues of Krishna and Potharaju were situated. All of them were made of wood. Outside the temple, the villagers put up a temporary roofing with matted coconut leaves on a one-acre area. They brought in sand and poured it on the ground. Across from the tent, at about one hundred meters distance, they raised a stage for the performance. On either side of the stage, they also built huts with thatched roofing in semicircles. Some of them were used for selling sweets, cool drinks, and snack shops.

Sarma stood on the stage and looked around. The entire scenery was breathtaking. In great excitement he felt as if Vyasa bhagavan and the trinity of poets had entered his spirit. Sarma opened his narrative of the fifth veda [maha bharatam] in a reverie. It took the entire first day just to sing the praise of the Maha Bharatam. In the next five days he covered Menaka Viswamitra story, Sakuntala Dushyanta, birth of Bharata, Ganga Santana story, Bhishma’s vow, and Satyavati’s wedding and moved on to Khandava dahanam and finished the first of the 18 segments. Then followed Rajasuyam and Sisupala vadha. On the seventh day, he was to present Maya sabha, maya dyutham [crafty dice game] and Draupadi mana samrakshanam [saving Draupadi from public disgrace]. Sarma however felt like he needed to level the playing field before he could proceed to the dice game and so stopped there. Usually, most narrators would finish the story in about ten minutes. Sarma spent one and a half hours and kept the audience spellbound the entire time.


“Tell us, Swamy!” Naidu asked with curiosity.

Sarma lay back in the armchair.

“Naidu, do you know why Janamejayudu did the Serpent yagam?”

“Oh, wouldn’t I know? His father was bitten by a snake, wasn’t he? For that reason, he was hell-bent on destroying the entire species of snakes …”

“That is true. In the same way, I am enraged by the dice game. I am angry up to my neck. Of course, there are lots of evils that are destroying our country. Among those destructive elements this gambling mentality tops the list, I think. Human beings do have weakness, I agree. That is natural. But the family, educational institutions and the government must take the responsibility to eliminate those weaknesses, instill plausible values and make them responsible citizens. On the other hand, if the fence eats up the farm where do we turn for help? Here is my question. Aren’t you all, indirectly if not directly, in deed if not in words, spreading the message that, ‘You idiot, obvviously it is unreasonable to hope that you could climb the ladder with your hard-earned money in this world. Therefore you had better find some shortcuts.’ Don’t you know the name of this game? Lottery! Every state–Haryana lottery, Andhra Pradesh lottery, Manipur lottery, Meghalaya … in fact where is a state which is not running a lottery? Some hundreds and thousands of people burn their hands so one person could become a millionaire. They claim that they can create a happy, contented Rama rajyam, based on this philosophy. Look Naidu! Don’t these arguments drive you crazy? I am losing my mind. I have a younger brother who got caught in this mess of the lottery and got burnt …”

“Oh! Is that true, Swamy! You are so knowledgeable. Could you not talk some sense into him?” Naidu said, express sympathy.

“Whoever tried to talk sense to him, each one of us, became his sworn enemy. Only those who encouraged him to buy lottery tickets were his dearest friends. His dream was, by the grace of God, if he would win some three hundred thousand rupees in some lottery, he could build a huge mansion, put the rest of the money in a fixed deposit, and quit the stupid job he had. In his eyes all the other things like the happiness of his family, future of his children, his accountability on the job, even his own pleasure appeared to be insignificant and despicable. God knows how many tickets he bought and how much money he spent. He was always in debt. His life was revolving round buying the lottery tickets and waiting for the results. The bus bringing the newspapers arrives at midnight to the village where he was working. And this idiot would be there at the bus station waiting for the bus. He also found a friend who was equally crazy about the lottery. At one time they got into an argument and the friend said, “Even if you pray standing on your head, you will not get the first prize in this lifetime.” That depressed my brother. He grew a beard and moustache. Then he got a huge amount from his office as some sort of backpay. He went and bought hundreds of tickets with that money on some bumper lottery series.”

“He did not get the prize even after buying so many tickets, Swamy?”

“He missed the chance of second prize just by one number.”

“Ohh! …”

“He would have taken it well, if not for something else. I mentioned earlier about another friend of his who was taunting him. He got the same prize my brother missed by one number. That was an insult my brother could not take—it was like Duryodhana in Maya sabha. He felt like he was being fried in the fire of humiliation. That was the last of him. Nobody ever saw him again.

Nobody knew where he went. We have reported to the police. We have engaged people to find him and took even ads in the papers. The result is nil.”

Naidu went on listening without a word.

“The worst part is we could not even say that the winner was happy. He kept his prize ticket in his pocket and went into the city. He consulted several people about depositing the money in a bank. Among the people he consulted there was also a topnotch pickpocket. He was so good—he could remove the eyeball while the eye is wide open. That smooth-talking thief picked his pocket, replaced it with a phony ticket and disappeared. This friend found out about the deception and cried his heart out. He kept going to the police station for about a month. After understanding that it was of no use, he hung himself right there and ended his life. …”

“I am sorry …”

“Sorry for what? The people who run these lotteries must take the blame. You have the power. If you put your mind to it, you can stop this depravity, this injustice and all evil paths. But it does not look like you have such humane thought. You are saying that there should not be class distinctions. At the same time you are creating these evil ways suitable for each of these classes. Horse races for the high class, the lotteries for the middle class, and the matka games for the lower class. … Let us not worry about the high class. Let it be. What about the matka? The rikshaw driver, the errand boy in the tea stall, paan shop owner, the compositor in the press, the little businessman in the market, waiter in the small hotels, the servant in small stores … are not they all ripped off through these games. They work all day to earn the money and spend it on the games at night. By dawn, they come out losers. Again go to work, earn money, again play the game, get robbed … Does this vicious circle have to keep spinning eternally? Would it ever stop?”

“Don’t know, Swamy! It is doubtful if it would ever stop.”

“That is why I hate gambling. The gambling habit has spread all over the world like a horrible, contagious disease. It has seized the society like a forest fire. The human race is bitten by its vicious fangs and is distorted like the emperor Nala who was bitten by the snake Karkotaka. People like us can only find imaginary solutions but can do nothing in reality. Let me share with you my thoughts. Sometimes, I feel like performing a vedic ritual like Janamejaya and invite into the sacred fire all those who create these games—those who invite the players and those who encourage gambling.”

Sarma kept quiet for a few minutes and then said, “I just remembered. The story of tonight’s play is about gambling, right?”

“Yes, Swamy! You must watch that play. Did I not tell you that the players are Kanga troupe. They are very famous in the area for their presentation of the stories of Bharatam.”

“I have not seen their performance but I heard a lot about it. And you have set up microphones that could shake even the mountains. I think I heard their play on the radio. But then one can never really experience the essence of it unless one watches it on the stage. Let us satisfy that craving too. You be here by nine-thirty. We can watch for about a half hour or so and return. …”

“We will do that, Swamy!” Naidu said and got up to leave.


The Bharatam mound was like a huge tent built with dark curtains and huge flood lights flushed in. The light bulbs hanging from poles, beams, and the branches of trees were looking like buds. The noise from the crowds was resounding—incessant, hollow and baffling—in all the directions like the great ocean on a full moon day. People from all the neighboring villages came in huge crowds, bringing their jute mats, spreading them and the settling down in the open arena. A festive mood spread all over. They were shouting at the top of their voices. Laughter was spreading like flowers thrown around.

Naidu brought Sarma, showed him a place to sit making sure he was seated comfortably. Yakshaganam performance was just starting at the other end of the arena at the same time.

The announcer came to the stage, fully dressed in the traditional garb. He was wearing a long shirt, a glittering vest, a scarf round his neck, and a stick in his hand. He alerted the audience that the performance was going to start.

“Beware, audience,

Beware, beware.

Be alert,

The king is entering the court!

Here is the King!

Here, the King has arrived!”

He ran back and forth on the stage looking in all the directions—a way of creating a sense of reality of the King’s arrival. Sarma could not contain a laugh. He burst into laughter and said, “This is great. Your actor is really living it.”

“Oh, You have seen nothing yet. You wait until Addala Munusamy comes. Then you will know,” Naidu said.

“Who is Addala Munusamy? There is no such character in bharatam.”

“Addala Munusamy is the person who plays the role of Duryodhana. When he comes on the stage, wearing dark sunglasses, glittering coat, wristwatch and sandals, even the dozing audience would get up and sit straight.”

Sarma slipped into a reverie. Not even Vyasa could have imagined a Duryodhana wearing dark sunglasses and wristwatch. But then there is something we have to remember. The art form changes according to the times. It is not a problem as far as this presentation of Bharatam goes even if the costumes were not appropriate, props were absurd, and delivery was unacceptable. It is enough if persons were inspired by the original message of the Bharatam.

The attention of Sarma was shifted from the performance to the crowds. People were standing like walls at the stalls on the either side of the stage. Some of them were enjoying the hot snacks straight out of the frying pan and blowing to cool them. Glasses of tea were changing hands nonstop. Items like paan leaves, betel nut, beedies, cigarettes, balloons, stainless steel and aluminum pans, and ribbons have become hot items. It is common for such things to sell well at festivals and on religious occasions.

Sarma was however astounded for one reason. Opposite these huts, there were bigger huts with dazzling lights. From the looks of huge crowds going that way, it would appear like something very special was going on there.

“Naidu, are those huts also shops?” Sarma asked.

“How could they also be shops? There are other things like lungaru, pin-board machines, tamarind seeds game, both inside and outside …”

“What on earth are they?”

“You have never seen them before?”

“I have no idea what you are talking about. How can ask me if I have seen them or not? Tell me this first, is it worth seeing at all?”

“Let’s go. You can see them for yourself.”

As Naidu moved forward, the crowds split and gave them way. Naidu took Sarma to a place where the crowd was very dense, like a crop that grows thick because of sumptuous supply of manure. A huge tree was providing the roof. Some ten to twelve petromax lamps were blazing bright there. Near each one of the lamp, there was a spinning wheel, eight inches above the ground. People gathered round the wheel.

“Look at it, saar! There is no deception, no illusion. Prize based on luck. See the five pictures—elephant, camel, horse, cow and lion. You may bet on whatever picture you like. If the wheel stops at the picture on which you have bet, I will double the amount—quarter for a quarter, a half rupee for a half rupee, a rupee for a rupee, a five for a five and a ten for a ten. Just luck saar. Come on, saar. Come on. Play saar.”

The person running the show was shouting in the megaphone like a thunder. Money was pouring in like hailstorm. The wheel was spinning fast, and slowing down and then coming to a stop. Those who bet on the picture where the needle stopped were getting paid. The rest of the stakes on the other pictures were going into the organizer’s box.

“This is called lungaru. Sometimes they can change the pictures and or colors. The game in general is the same.”

“This is called lungaru?” Sarma’s voice sounded weak like from the depths of a well. “So what is happening in that hut?” he pointed to another hut.

“That is where they play the pin-board game, Swamy!” Naidu walked toward that hut.

Sarma followed Naidu reluctantly. In that hut also the crowd was so thick, if you threw sand on them it would not reach the ground. Sarma looked over their heads and noticed a wheel near the bamboo partition, and it was spinning like a table fan. One can see clearly the colors on the wheel only when it stopped. While rotating all the colors mix up and become blurry. The players were throwing arrows on to the wheel like one would throw knives at a woman propped up against a wall.

One man bet five rupees on the red color and threw out three arrows. Two of them hit the white color. The third one hit the yellow color. Within minutes the five rupee bill went into the box of the manager.

“Bet, sir, bet. If one arrow hits the color you bet on, twice the returns, if two arrows hit, you will get two times four, and if all the three arrows the color, your returns are eight times your bet. Eight rupees for one rupee! Forty rupees for five, eighty for ten, … bet saar bet!”

“Naidu! Are all the other huts the same?” Sarma asked.

“Oh, no swamy! There is no comparison at all between these games and the games there. They are high stake games. The one in that booth is tamarind seeds game …”

Words from that booth were being broadcast through a megaphone, “Sir …forty-five … twelve … twenty, nine … four … thirty-three …”

One of the players shouted, “Stop, stop. It is over. Game! Game!”

Naidu continued to explain, “Twenty-four persons can play the game each time, Swamy! They have benches to sit on, like in a snack shop. In front of the benches, they will have desks for the players to play the game. Each desk carries 24 boards. Each board contains eight times eight, sixty-four squares. Each square contains random numbers. The manager pulls out a card and calls out the number written on the card. The players keep placing the tamarind seeds on the numbers called out. Whoever gets the tamarinds eight in a row first, either top to bottom, across, or corner to corner, is the winner. The charge to play is one rupee and the winner gets eighteen rupees. …”

“What about the other six?”

“As usual, the manager keeps the other six bets as his commission …”

“That’s enough, friend. I have heard and seen enough. I am starting to get a headache.”

“There is one more game, Swamy! That is the biggest game around here. It is called in-and-out.

They play with a deck of spades. That is played only by two persons. The people standing around can also place their stakes, if they feel like it. One of the two first cuts the stack of cards. Let us say he pulls a joker. They keep dealing the cards to those two persons. Whoever gets the joker first is the winner. One could win one hundred rupees in one minute. He might lose as much too.”

Sarma turned round swiftly and kept walking toward the main road. Naidu was shocked to see him walk away like that. “What happened, Swamy? Is your headache getting worse?” Naidu asked him and rushed to catch up with him.

Sarma arrived at the main road as if he was possessed by a ghost and was unable to control himself. It was like some heavy winds blew him away from that place. Then he stopped suddenly and turned around and looked.

“Swamy! Is your headache very bad? I can get you some pills,” Naidu said.

“Forget the headache. I have a question.”

“Tell me, Swamy?”

“You are the chief administrator of this temple. What is the idea in running these games during the same time as the maha bharatam festivities?”

“What is the idea? Swamy! Without those games there are no festivities either. Are you not aware of this? Do you think we let them have their stalls here for nothing? They must pay the rent strictly according to the agreement. The lungaru wheel pays ten rupees per day. The pin-board machine manager pays two thousand rupees for the entire 18 days. The tamarind game contract gets us four thousand. The game of spades yields us seven and a half thousand rupees. If we had not gotten that twenty thousand in total, how do you think we could manage these celebrations? The drama company alone includes six families. Just for their food alone we need one hundred rupees. In addition, they charge six thousand for the performance. The workers for putting up the tents and for the materials like the poles, beams and such the expenses are a little over two thousand. The electricity costs us one thousand at the least. And you know, the police need to be paid on the side so they would easy on us. And finally you. I know you did not insist on a specific amount, but we do have to make sure you go back happy, right?”

Sarma kept staring at Naidu without batting an eyelid, like a new-born baby staring at the world in amazement. It took him a few minutes to shake off the astonishment that shrouded him. Then he lowered his head and started walking towards the village as if he was a lonely soul up against the entire world.

From behind, the song of Nakula warning Dharmaraju was going after him.

Please, do not, do ott play the dice game

Do not play. It will cause only downfall.

Why play now? Do not be stubborn

Do not play, do not play  dice

I swear on the Lord of Vemulapalle,

Please, do not.

Next day, early morning, Naidu took a stainless steel pot full of cow’s milk and went to Sarma’s place. He saw at once that the house was empty. He called out, “Swamy! Swamy!” There was no response. He looked toward the main entrance. He did not find Sarma’s sandals. He pushed the door open and saw that Sarma’s suitcase was gone. He started quivering and his entire body was wet with sweat.

Within minutes, the news of Bhagavatar Sarma’s disappearance spread through the entire village. In the next few minutes, they all gathered at the building.

While each of them was entertaining his own theory, Appoji Reddy pulled out a note from the cupboard. “See this! Looks like a little note for us,” he said, scrutinized it for a few seconds and said again, “It seems like Swamy has gone.”

“Read it, tell us what did he write?” Naidu asked, sounding desperate.

Appoji Reddy started reading.

“To my friend, Sri Venkatadri Naidu,

With my warm wishes for a long and happy life, …”

Yes, that is what I need, his blessings, … Naidu mumbled to himself.

Appoji Naidu continued, “You may not know this but I am reputed for my foolhardiness. That is true also. Good or bad, I do have certain set opinions about life. For several reasons, our society has become confounding. Take any field, we don’t see any relationship between words and actions. Politics are devoid of sincerity. The people without moral values are teaching mores. Newly built buildings are crumbling down. Education has become a market commodity. Each and every form of art has turned into a piece for sale. The people who are expected to save us are swallowing us. A good person is considered a worthless person. The worst of crooks is the most honored person. We may not be able to fix all this chaos but I strongly believe that we can at the least raise our small voices and express our protest. It is true the life has taken the form of a drama. Since we do have eyes and for that reason probably we do have to be the audience. But we do not have to become characters in that play. I did not realize that you were using the same gambling income as a means to have the Maha Bharatam narrated and played on the stage, despite the fact that the very message of Maha Bharatam is to bring to light the evil effects of the dice game. And as for me, this is the only way I could register my protest against such practice. I am leaving early in the morning by the first bus that leaves at 5:00 a.m. I am begging you not to seek me out. I will consider it a favor if you leave me alone. – Yours, Harinarayana Sarma.”

“Aah! What a stupid thing to do! What was I thinking? I was so stupid to take him to the play. Now he left us in the middle,” Naidu sat down, feeling crushed.

“Whatever. Look Naidu anna! He has scribbled some dumb note and left—acting like a child who bites the hand that feeds him. Why play band for a wedding that is over. Let’s decide what next?” Appoji Reddy said.

“Oh God! I don’t want this leadership, I don’t want it. And I don’t want that temple management either. I have done as long as I could. Swamy seem to be telling us there is some perversion in this. He knows what he was talking about. Please, you all do me a favor and leave me alone. Now on, one of you should take the responsibility and take care of things,” Naidu said.

Appoji Reddy jumped in right away, assembled several people and sent them in several directions to find another Bhagavatar, as Sugreeva sent messengers in search of Sitamma It is not clear which one of them turned into a Hanuman but his effort succeeded. By one thirty in the afternoon, he got down from the bus with Syamasundara Bhagavatar. As soon as he got off the bus, he went straight into his room, and applied face powder to his face so it would shine, applied sampangi oil to his curly hair, and perfume on his clothes. Then he went up the stage with all the perfumes emitting strong aroma all around. He took the entire audience by surprise with his quixotic gestures, half-closed and dreamy eyes, and provocative movements of lips and other body parts. Hardly 15 minutes passed by. He switched to cheap songs, like “The village dame walked in with her pot, she broke my heart,” with or without relevance, and jumping around. The entire area resounded with clapping, whistles, and shouts of ‘once more.’ Encouraged by their response, he became even more garrulous.

Let’s set aside for a moment the reality that the audience who came to listen to Sarma was different from the present audience. The one thing that was strikingly obvious was that the size of the audience now was twice as big.

The Maha Bharatam festivities in Bugga agraharam continued as usual, without break.


(Telugu original, “Jeevana prahasanam,” was published in Jyoti deepavali monthly, 1988 and later included in the anthology, Madhurantakam Rajaram kathalu,” published by Visalandhra Publishing House, 1991.)

Translated by © Nidadavolu Malathi and published on, June 2003.

Kamakshi’s story by Bhanumati Ramakrishna.

The name Kamakshi says it all; she is very beautiful. She has big eyes that capture anybody’s attention. Soon after she started working in our house, I noticed a marked difference in the behavior of our domestic help. Our cook, Muthu, the errand boy, Reddy, and the gardener, Nagappa are so taken by  her beauty, they kept messing up their jobs on hand, and for that reason, were getting  plenty from me and my mother-in-law, fairly frequently.

Our maid Sayamma fell sick and was admitted into the hospital.  We started looking for another maid.

The milkman brought in Kamakshi. He said, she is new in town; came from Coimbatore. He filled us in on other details about her family, too: her parents and brothers run a fruit stall in Coimbatore. Kamakshi, also, was selling fruits from a cart, going from street to street. People would jump to buy fruits from her, which was very annoying to other fruit vendors. They would comment, that people were buying from her, only because of her beauty, and not because of the quality of the fruits. In fact, the fruits in her cart were all rotten and spoiled, they’d say. Still, the fruits would go so fast whenever Kamakshi stood by the cart. On the other hand, for some reason, if her sister stood there in her place, not a single fruit would be sold. Not one person would stop to buy from her sister. Kamakshi’s brothers would comment that her beauty was their enemy. They would get into trouble with somebody or other, claiming that that fellow said something about Kamakshi. They beat them up, and get beaten too.

If it were not the fruits season, Kamakshi would find work as a maid in somebody’s house. On one occasion, she went to work for a Chettiar. He asked her to rub oil on his hair and back. She quit right away. Kamakshi wears no jewelry. Her only jewelry is her sharp tongue, and her agility. We asked her why she was not wearing any jewelry, not even earrings. She said her husband pawned her earrings and the nose-ring.

Kamakshi never smiles. She keeps herself busy, with her chores, and with a grim face. On a rare occasion, if she smiles, her face lights up like the full moon, and the dimples on her cheeks add to her beauty, immensely. She is hardly 25. There is a streak of sadness in her eyes. Her husband is sick with some disease, she said. They rented a small hut nearby, for 10 rupees per month. Her husband used to work in construction. He couldn’t get any work, anymore, since he was coughing too much. He stays home, supposed to be taking care of their 3-year old son. Instead, he spanks him, all the time.

Kamakshi leaves home at 6:00 in the morning, and returns late in the evening. The neighbors told her about her husband’s assaults on the child, and advised her to take the child with her to work. That is when, she decided to send the boy to her mother’s home. She found somebody going to her village, and sent him away, with them.

I told her, that she could bring the child to work, at our house.

She replied, “No, ma’am. If I keep him here, he will miss school. My mother will take good care of him.”

I was a little confused. Why would a father beat up his own child? She said, “’Cause the child won’t call him dad”.

My mother-in-law intervened, “What’s the problem? Why won’t he call him, dad?”

Kamakshi explained her situation, “My man says the child is not his, ma’am. He sent me away to my mom’s home, and was living with another woman. Me was giving me hard time all my life. He is okay, though, as long as he is not drinking. Usually, he gets drunk, comes home, and beats me up. My mother never liked him, and that’s why she took me back, to her home. I gave birth to the baby at my mom’s place. I was okay there; and made my living, selling fruits. How would the child know who the father is, to call him ‘dad’? I was always in mother’s home, as long as he could remember. Just, recently, my parents straightened out things, and sent me and the child, back to my husband. My mother did not like it at all. The man is caught up in another woman’s trap, and gave her my gold chain and my wedding saree, you know!”

My mother-in-law was shocked, and surprised at her patience.

Kamakshi is still afraid of her husband. She would just quit whatever she was doing, as soon as the clock strikes 6:00, and rushes home. “I have to go,” she would say.

“What is the rush? Why don’t you finish the job on hand?” my mother-in-law says.

“You don’t know ma’am! My man is very suspicious, by nature. If, I am late, even by a few minutes, he would come here, and wait for me at the gate. He would beat me up right there, calling me all kinds of names. Please, let me go. I’d finish it first thing in the morning.” she would beg.

“Where is your husband? Bring him here. I will show him his place,” my mother-in-law would say.

“Oh, no, ma’am! One look at him, and you will throw up. He looks like a dry stick, for all his drinking, fretting, and fuming, all the time. Always carries a knife with him,” Kamakshi said, with some concern.

On hearing the word ‘knife’, my mother-in-law changed her mind about teaching him his place, and stopped asking Kamakshi to stay past six. Instead she would rush her to leave quickly.

Her annoyance shows in her other comments, as well. “Wherever you got him? Is he is a rowdy or what! What a headache!. Go! Go! Leave as early as you want. Make sure he does not come near our door,” she would say, anxiously.

And, then, she would turn to me, and continue to express her concerns, “Let’s look for another maid, a better person… We can’t have someone walking around our house, with a knife, can we? Talk to the watchman at the gate, in Hindi, and tell him not to let him in, no matter, however desperately, he pleads. I almost forgot. The watchman also has a knife, right?”

I could hardly contain my laughter, as I try to calm her down, “Yes. The watchman has a knife. We don’t have to fear anybody.”

“Isn’t it sad that such a beautiful girl, like Kamakshi, should end up with a sick fellow like him? On top of it, he whacks her, too. What a jerk; and she is such a delicate darling. How could he have the heart to beat her with a stick?”

Muthu, our cook, the errand boy, Reddy and the gardener, Nagappa saw the scars on her body, and were worried, as if, they had sustained the wounds themselves.

“That jerk of a husband should be chopped into pieces,” Reddy said.

“If you see him, you will know. He could not be her husband; should not be. It is not fair, that donkey should be her husband,”  said Muthu, wailing at her misfortune.

“She is so beautiful, almost, like a carefully, carved sculpture. How can she have a sickly, and worn-out, man like him, for a husband? Disgusting rascal. Did you see his eyes, blazing red, like charcoal? It seems he drinks varnish*! That is why he keeps coughing all the time,” Reddy said, with suspicious looks.

“Yes. That is true,” Nagappa added.

“Then, Kamakshi might contract it too,” Muthu commented sadly.

“What a misery? Poor Kamakshi! Poor loser!” all the three expressed their deepest sympathies.. They were so lost in their discussions; Muthu didn’t serve our lunch until 2:00 p.m. on that day.

Reddy started talking to himself, dwelling on the misfortunes of Kamakshi, and would heave deep sighs.

One day Kamakshi was delayed, by about a half hour. Her husband came, and was waiting at the gate for her. My mother-in-law heard that he was at the gate, and became a nervous wreck. She hollered for Kamakshi, and told her to go home. “Go, go home,” she kept hurrying her..

Kamakshi begged my mother-in-law not to insist. “I can’t go home, ma’am. Please tell the watchman to throw him out.” She added that, she is tired of her husband’s attitude, and was scared for her own life, in case, she gets the same disease from him. She dabbed her eyes, as she expressed her fears.

Reddy supported Kamakshi’s claim. “That is true, ma’am. What if, she also contracts the disease?” he said.

My mother-in-law cast fiery looks at him, as spoke, “What do you care? Why are you so bothered about her husband? How many times, do I have to tell you not to intervene in her affairs?” she reprimanded him.

“Why do we care, ma’am? We are only sorry for that poor woman. That’s all. She is suffering from that ailing, good-for-nothing, scoundrel. That’s all we care about.”

“Is that all? Really? That’s the only reason for your worry? First, tell me this. Why should you all worry about her, or any other woman, for that matter? Tell me that? I can’t figure it out, you rascals! You explain to me,” my mother-in-law took them to task.

“Really, ma’am. What is, in it, for us? We are just concerned, since we all are working for you, in the same household. Otherwise, why would we care? We heard that his disease is contagious. What if she get it too?”

“Ha, that is what is bothering you?  Don’t you worry about it. You just mind your own business,” she said, and then switched to the next subject, “What do you mean contagious? Who says there is anything contagious between a husband and wife*? How is that possible? You stupid fellows! Stop talking about her and her husband, and mind your business,” my mother-in-law would chide him.

Reddy pretended to leave, was standing behind the door, to listen, what Kamakshi has to say.

Kamakshi stood there, like the very incarnation of innocence, and rolling her eyes every second, like the beam of a lighthouse, and heaving deep sighs. Obviously, she was having the time of her life, with all the attention she was getting for her helpless situation, I thought.

My  mother-in-law hit the roof at her attitude. She did not appreciate Kamakshi’s request to get rid of her husband. At the same time, she was, also, aware that it was not a good strategy to show too much anger. They would have a problem finding another maid! So, she toned down her fury.

In the meantime, Kamakshi’s husband sent for her, again. My mother-in-law became frantic.

“What should we do now? She is really a pest, I would say,” she whispered in my ear.

“Just let’s keep quiet, and watch,” I suggested.

“Fine. What if these idiots go out and say something to that scoundrel? You know, he is high. He might create a scene. And then, the police will show up; and it will turn into a three-ring circus.” She is getting wild by the minute.

Kamakshi was standing there, with a little pout. My mother-in-law was like Vasudeva in front of a donkey*, started begging her to leave.

“How can I leave, ma’am? I’d beg him to go to the hospital; he won’t listen. He has no intention of getting help. He says he won’t leave me alone, says can’t trust me. What can I do, you tell me, ma’am. The doctors say, I might contract it as well, if we continue to live like this.”

In the meantime, Reddy, Nagappa and Muthu went out to see her husband, who was waiting for her at the gate. He was hardly in his senses. As he saw them approaching him, he pulled out his knife. Reddy, Nagappa and Muthu instantly snuck behind the watchman. Kamakshi’s husband started screaming, that those three men were standing in her way, and stopping her from coming home. He challenged them to step outside. He said he would chop each one of them, and make a minced meat of them.

Then on, the three men wouldn’t go out, not even to a movie, for fear of getting killed by him. Reddy used to go to the second show. Now, he is afraid to go past the gate. “Who knows, what he is capable of? The rascal is never sober. And on top of it, he drinks that cheap varnish. Who can tell what is on his mind, what he might do for vengeance? It’s like a stone in the hand of madman; nobody knows where it falls, when he throws it.”

Nagappa also changed his habits. He used to go out for tea, on the hour. Now, he hardly leaves home. Somebody told him that Kamakshi’s husband visits the same tea stall! Kamakshi did not go home, for two days now. Her husband is showing up everyday at the gate, and sending for her. Reddy, Muthu and Nagappa would not go anywhere near the gate.

Kamakshi’s husband wrote her a note saying that he would swallow poison and kill himself. Reddy, Nagappa and the cook, suggested, unanimously, that we should let her go right away.

Kamakshi was preparing the dough, on the grinding stone, for breakfast. She saw the note, and broke into tears. She washed her hands, and said she would go out, and talk some sense into that stupid husband of hers. Nagappa, Reddy and the cook begged her,  not to go with him; they made sure that my mother-in-law was not watching them while talking to Kamakshi. Kamakshi gave them her word. They were very anxious to hear what she would say to her husband, but would not dare, fearing the knife he was carrying. They were pacing up and down the hallway, like the cat with a burnt foot. They kept casting uneasy looks at the gate, every few seconds, and waiting for her to return.

Kamakshi came back, wiping her tears. All the three gathered round her, like the flies on brown sugar. “What happened,” they all asked her, anxiously. She was silent for a while, kept heaving deep sighs, and rolling her big, beautiful eyes pitifully. She sat down, and resumed grinding the dough.

Reddy sat down, near the door, and across from Kamakshi. “So, what happened? Did he agree to go to the hospital?” he asked her.

Kamakshi shook her head, a negative.

Nagappa made himself at home, on a nearby bag of chaff, and said, “Of course, he wouldn’t. He’s sworn to harass her.”

Muthu was near the door, leaning on it. He said, “May be we should ask our saar* to pull in his weight, and get him thrown in the hospital.”

Reddy is vexed with all this. “In one word, tell us. What is his problem anyways?” he said.

Kamakshi broke into tears again. It seems, he is willing to go to some hospital, stay there for a year, and get help, provided she gives him two hundred rupees. She has no way of raising that kind of  money.

Nagappa, Reddy and the cook looked at each other. Next minute, Reddy is all sympathy for Kamakshi, and started comforting her, with great concern.

“He is stupid. What kind of a man would ask his wife for money? How could a woman raise so much money?” Reddy said, losing himself in a reverie.

“What if he does not leave, even after getting the money?” the cook expressed his doubt.

“He is not going to go, anywhere, without Kamakshi. Probably, he would throw away that money on his drinks, and would be back in no time. No point in humoring him,” Napappa said, sounding desperate.

“No. He will not be back. He said, he won’t. Even if he comes back, I made it clear, that I would not leave this place. He said he would give it, in writing. I don’t want that kind of a husband,” Kamakshi said, looking down.

With those words, the cook, Reddy and Nagappa were happy. They, nearly, started jumping up and down, that Kamakshi is, finally, free from all the hassles. They all, decided to show their big hearts, and donate their savings, and help her out.

The next day, Kamakshi’s husband left town. After 4 days, she received a telegram saying that he got sick, drinking varnish, and she should go there, at once, to visit him.

Kamakshi, tearfully, threw herself on my mother-in-law’s feet. She said, she has to go to see her husband in the hospital; or else, the world would not let her live, and, that, at least, for the sake of saving her face, she must go. My mother-in-law made her promise, that she would return in two days, and advanced some money, from her paycheck.

Kamakshi took the money, and asked me if I could spare an old saree, since all her sarees were worn out. I gave her a saree.

At the time of her departure, Reddy, Napappa and the cook gathered around her. They told her not to go near him. They said, that she should visit him, only from distance, and return home soon. Kamakshi took the money, their life’s savings, and left to visit her husband in Velur.

One week passed by;  and then, two weeks. There was no sign of Kamakshi. Reddy, Nagappa and the cook started getting nervous. They were getting worried sick about her. We all were, pretty much, worn out, while waiting for her return.

One day, my mother-in-law asked the milkman, “When, do you think, she will return from her village?”

Kamakshi and the milkman were neighbors. “What do you mean ‘returning from her village’? She and her husband never left town. They are here, all right. Kamakshi is working in some other house,” he said.

Then, he added, that Kamakshi and her husband are used to playing games like this; that they are not really married; and that they earned considerable amount in this manner.

My mother-in-law went into a shock, kept beating her forehead, thinking about the money, she advanced her. “Shrewd, shrewd,” she kept saying.

Reddy, Nagappa and the cook heard this, and collapsed. The money, they gave Kamakshi, is not small. They felt, like the thief stung by a scorpion*. As if that was not enough, my mother-in-law handed them a punishment. She said, they have to finish the chores of Kamakshi, until they find another maid.

Reddy, Nagappa and the cook were, anxiously, waiting for a new maid.

My mother-in-law is searching for a woman with gray-hairs, and without encumbrances.


(Originally the Telugu story w published in a collection, Attagaru- nakshalaitlu).

Translated by © Nidadavolu Malathi and published on March 2002.

Illusion by Rachakonda Viswanatha Sastry

Murthy received his law degree. He stood in front of the senior lawyer with humility. Then the senior lawyer gave him a valuable advice. He told Murthy to remember one important thing. He stressed that that was the only way to succeed in this world.

The senior lawyer spoke somberly, “The English man said that the early bird catches the worm. In other words, you have to wake up early if you want to catch the worm. The English man is not an ordinary man. He never says anything unless and until he has scrutinized its pros and cons thoroughly. He never does anything unless there is something in it for him. Therefore, you wake up early everyday, go to the court and have the doors opened. In the evening, wait until the court doors are closed and then go home. Make sure you are present in the court each and everyday. Prostitutes wait at the door. Foxes hang round the graveyards. The cranes linger by the shores. I know the similarity is not a pleasant one. Yet that is what we need to do. If you want to climb up the ladder, you will have to hang around the courts. You may play hooky, giving flimsy excuses—the cricket match at noon, a matinee in the afternoon, or some other errand, and so on. If you do that, I am telling you, you will not succeed as a lawyer. That is for sure, I am telling you from experience. Do you know what the term “court” means? It is a jungle. Do you know the Telugu word for hyena? dummulagondi. Hyena’s laughs sounds like that of humans. If you approach him, mistaking him for a human, he will eat you up alive. That is the way in the courts too. We have to entice the parties that come to the court. That is our job. What can we do but act like the hyena? We can’t blame him for eating up the man who approaches him. It is the man’s fault to go to the hyena. Are you listening? In fact, it is not only the hyena. There are other bigger animals as well. They maul us if we are not careful. Therefore, we have to be on guard all the time. If we are not, the parties eat us up. The truth is that is how the whole world moves. You and I cannot do anything about it. The English man had drafted the law in accordance with the principles of this stupid world. Never forget that he, the English man, handed down all these things to us—these courts, the law books, the law degrees, and the witness procedures. There so many courts for the parties to choose from. There are as many precedents for the judges to draw from based on a ruling the judges prefer to give. And there are just as many rascals in the country to get upon the witness stand and give their statements anyway you want them to. We are here to train the witnesses. Whether it is a criminal court or civil court, they are concerned with only the statements of the witnesses but not with truth. You can throw in all the sizzling terminology like ‘justice,’ ‘duty,’ and ‘truth.’ But remember that this is all just an illusion. That is the way the system is and we are acting within the purview of the system. That being the case, how can they call our action a sin? No, the sin will not touch us. If there is anything that can be called a ‘sin’ that goes to the judge who gives the ruling. The parties bear the expenses. The witnesses and the court clerks are entitled to bribes. We are entitled to our fees. That is the law the English man had laid for us. The officers take the apples and the people rake the leaves. The rules are the same whether it is our country or theirs. That is what he had taught us. Sweating is for the workers and profits for the owners. If anybody questions this rule and rebels, we have the courts to support us. And then there are jails. Without these things, there is no regime for the English man to call his. He is a great illusionist. Just imagine what a great magician he has to be! Look what he did. He came to our country, sold our own salt to us,[1] and turned around and taunted us, ‘You ate my salt. How can you not be loyal to me?’[2] He’d gotten the courts and jailhouses built for us, and beautiful mansions for himself. And what did he do at the end? He suspected that the stupid laborers might seize power—like the way it had happened in other countries. He was afraid that it could turn into a total disaster. So, he handed over the regime to his fellow businessmen and disappeared quietly behind the curtains. What an amazing showmanship! What a magnificent performance!”

The senior lawyer finished his speech. He always goes into raptures when he recounts the merits of the English man. He speaks with his eyes half-closed and lost in a fit of reverie. If he were a woman, he would have run away with some English man long time ago.

Murthy was baffled. He did not realize until that moment that the crooks carried such a huge clout in this world and that there would be gentlemen who could go into raptures at the mere thought of those crooks.

The senior lawyer noticed it and said, “Don’t think I am being cynical. I just spoke the truth. Drop the veil and that is what you will find anywhere anytime. No confusion there.”

Murthy still was not convinced of it, despite the detailed analysis by the senior lawyer, his guru. He had not experienced the revelation yet. He could not digest the lessons the seniors had tried to teach him. As a result, in this one year, his eyes sunk in and he lost weight. It looked like somebody would have to come forward, give him a massage and pull him up.

One day, he was on his way home, dragging his feet sluggishly. Somebody grabbed his shoulder from behind and stopped him. He turned around with a jerk and nearly fell. The man behind him stopped him from falling.

The man was looking like an eagle. He spoke quickly, “Babu! It, I mean the case is about a woman. The police arrested her and put her in jail. It is not a big case. A small liquor case. You have to get her out on bail. Here, this fellow and I are the bailers. Here are our legal documents pertaining to our properties. Our village munsif did not put the pen to the papers until after we had shelled down five hard rupees. This fellow is the defendant’s husband. He will pay you something. Please, Babu! You have to get her out.”

The second man, also looking like an eagle, was standing next to first. He was the second bailer. The defendant’s husband who looked like a sleepy fox was standing a little away from the two bailers.

The two men yelled at him, “You! Give Babu something now.”

The husband was a little tipsy. “Tell him to get her out first,” he said.

“How can he get her out without getting paid?”

“I am not falling for such games. Ask him to get her out first.”

“You put down the money. He will get her out.”

The debate went on for a while. Finally Murthy drafted the bail papers, got them signed, got her released, distributed the funds and was about to leave for the day. The bailer stopped him.

“What?” Murthy asked him.

“Come here. I have to talk to you,” he said.

“Okay. Say it.”

“Just come here.”

“I did. Tell me.”

“Babu! Where do you live?”


“I will bring her to your house.”


“You can take up her case.”

“All right.”

“Don’t accept less than one hundred rupees.”

“Can she afford it?”

“Why not? She is loaded.”

“All right.”

“Don’t go lower than fifty under any circumstance.”

“That is fine.”

“Just you stay put on that number I’ve given you. I’ll make sure she pays. She will. That idiot husband of hers won’t let go of a penny but she is not like that.”

“All right. Tell them to come tomorrow.”

“Sure. I will put her in chains and drag her if I have to. You do have to remember us though.”

“What for?”

“What for? Like you don’t know!”

“What do you mean?”

“You keep your share and let’s have ours. You don’t have to give it to us today. What do you’ve got to lose. I am talking about tomorrow.” He set out to leave and stopped again. “One more thing. Tomorrow she will say she is poor. I will also say ‘yes, Babu, she is poor.’ But you stay put on your number,” he said and left.

The next morning Murthy was sitting in a chair on the verandah. It was 8 o’clock. He smoked half a cigarette. The bailer showed up, with the woman behind him.

“Here Babu! She is the woman I told you about yesterday,” he said.

She could be about thirty-years old. Probably she was beautiful long time back. She must have put up her long hair in a fancy bun during that period. The black sari she was wearing now probably was new some time back. In all probability, she was eating well and was robust way back then. She sat down on the floor a little away from the backer. She kept staring at Murthy with piercing eyes.

“What did you say your name was? I forgot,” Murthy said.

“Muthelamma. I’d been to the court several times,” she said and came straight to the point. “I’d been to the court several times, retained famous lawyers and paid them huge chunks of cash. But those days are gone. I am not that Muthelamma anymore. I am crushed to the dust. My business is crushed. For every one liquor store in the past, we have ten stores now. Now the police are selling the liquor themselves. I am leveled to the ground. Forget the stories about my husband and me for a second. I can live with a slug of rice broth. My husband will not touch it without a drink. And then the children! One child died just two days back. I have two more. I am having hard time feeding those two kids. So, what I am giving is not money but my blood. Now tell me what is your rate for settling this case. Look at me, take a good look, think about and then tell me.”

“Can you pay one hundred rupees?” Murthy asked feebly.

“No Babu! I can’t raise that kind of money, even if I sell myself, and everything I have. I can’t give you one hundred, not even fifty rupees. I will if I had the money. I do have to have the money to give to you, right? You tell me the truth. Probably this bailer fellow told you to ask one hundred rupees. What does he care? He’ll say ‘give, give,” even if you’d asked two hundred rupees. If I paid you a paisa, he will take one-half of that. I know all these things very well. I can’t tell you how much I’ve learnt after starting this liquor business. Here! Listen to me! I will not trust anybody, not even if you swear on your life. You show a man and say, ‘here is a good man,’ I’ll not trust you. Not you, not this bailer, nobody, I trust nobody. Nothing is certain in this world except money. Take the animals. They can’t talk. Yet they have morals but not us. I’ve been to any school and I have no ethics. You have education and you have no ethics either. The entire world is prostituting itself for money. I am selling alcohol for money. You are selling education for money. The police are selling the law for money. You go to the hospital for drugs; they sell the drugs and beds for money. The streetwalkers are chasing rickshaws and cars and selling their bodies for money. You go to the temple, give them half a coconut and a paisa. They will sell you god’s grace for money. Lawyer Babu! in the elections this bailer, you and I, all of us are sold for money. Sale! Sale! Sale! There’s nothing but sale in this world. I have no schooling yet this is the truth I’ve come to see. Tell me if I am wrong. you prove it to me. I’ll listen.”

“Yesyes,” said Murthy.

“You can’t prove me wrong. I know that too, lawyer Babu! I’ve seen them all. I’ve got nothing to look forward to, no reason to live. I am tired. I have no faith in anybody—the man I was married to, the child I gave birth to or anyone for that matter. I have reached that point that I don’t care anymore whether I live or die. Life and death are the same for me. Why are you staring at me like that? You think I am talking philosophy? No, Babu. This is what I’ve come to see and understand. I am not saying this to confuse you.”

That’s true. Murthy was baffled by her outpour.

“Babu! Sometimes I see my life and think it’s better to die than live this way. After starting this business, I have seen the worst. When I was little, I used to work for daily wages. Money was not much in that but not this horrible either. Then, greed took over and got me into this mess. Am I rolling in riches? No. All I’d done was only to support the police and the others. I did not earn a paisa for myself. I got into this liquor business and ruined the drunks and myself. I am ruined every which way. Babu! At home, I have nothing to cook but the grill. In the grill, there is nothing but the ashes, not a splinter to start fire. It is more than a week since I had a sale. In the past one week, I did not have a drop to sell. I am living only because I could not kill myself. Then this head constable shows up. He raided my place twenty times because he had not received his kickback. That drove me crazy. Last time he showed up, that was it. Seen the waves rise in the ocean; that’s how the throbbing in my stomach flared up. I have a bad mouth even on ordinary days. On that day, I hit the roof. I had a couple of rounds liquor too. Babu, mine is a wretched life. I couldn’t think straight, I picked up the pestle … it was awful … the head constable ran away, didn’t even care to pick up his red cap, which fell off in the scuttle. He ran away on that day and yesterday he did this, locked me up. Lawyer Babu, I am heart-broken. I buried my daughter last week, exactly a week from today. She just turned six. That’s it. Why was she born? Why did she die? Who could tell? Who cares about my pain? I cried and cried. My life is a living hell. Lawyer babu, you did not see her but I am telling you, even girls in your families are not that sharp. You may not believe this. During last peerlu festival, she played a lion. The entire village came rushing to watch my little girl play the lion. During other festivals also she went up the stage and performed the dances from all the movies. I was hoping that some day some big man would come and take her into the movies. But, babu, it is my liquor business that ruined my life and home.

“My girl used to sit at the corner of the street from dawn to midnight watching the police. As soon as she spotted them, she would come in calling out, ‘Amma, dogs, dogs are coming.’ At once, I would pick up and hide away all the tubes, beakers, glasses and the rest of the stuff under the trash in the backyard. The same thing happened that day too. It was about a month ago. She came rushing in and calling out, ‘amma, the dog … the dog bit me.’ I thought she meant the police as usual and got busy hiding away my liquor stuff; I did not look at her. My girl was scared and kept saying the dog bit her. At first, I panicked. Then I calmed her down, ‘its okay, just a small scratch. It’s all right.’ I did not realize that she was bitten by a mad dog. I buried my own child in the dust. I buried my pearl, a doll of gold. Lawyer Babu, I was busy hiding the liquor tubes but not my own child. What kind of life is this? My husband was lost to the liquor; my business has gone to the police and my daughter to the dogs. Ccha. What kind of business is this? What kind of life is this? I was feeling rotten with all this and now this police officer slapped this case on me only because he did not get his kickback. Yesterday I’d not had one gallon of liquor, not one glassful, not even a drop. All I have is two more children. I am swearing on their lives. You may or may not believe me. The head constable handed down this to me only because I attacked him the other day.

“Therefore, lawyer babu, I will give you not one hundred rupees, not fifty but twenty five. Even for that, I will have to sell my man, my kids and myself. There is no other way. Yet I will make sure that you will get your money. Would I ask you to work for me without paying for it? If I can’t pay you cash, I will work; wash dishes in your house. How much will you pay for washing dishes, tell me? Probably four or five rupees if I work for one whole month. That is it, right? This case takes one hour for you if settled on the first day. Or you may ask for continuation for second and even third time. No matter how many continuations you seek, you will spend only one hour for arguing this case. For that one hour of your time in the court, I will wash your dishes for six months and settle the account. I know nobody should rob others of their labor. Do you think I don’t know that? I know. You argue my case. I will certainly repay you. Until then you keep this ten rupees.”

Murthy felt embarrassed to take the money from Muthelamma. He took it though. Muthelamma got up to leave. The bailer did not move. She told him to get up too. “I will pay for your coffee. Don’t ask Babu for money,” she told him and dragged him out from there.

Murthy decided that he must get her out somehow. He was convinced that the case was fabricated. He talked to the head constable and got him to admit it. The head constable admitted, “True Babu. This is cooked up. But you didn’t hear her language on that day. Shouldn’t she show respect for the red cap at least? I wanted to show her place. What do you want me to do? You go ahead and argue your case. You do your duty and we will do ours.”

On the day the case was presented, the entire courtroom was filled with hustle and bustle. The head constable and a police officer took the stand and gave their statements. After that, first Muthelamma and then Murthy walked out of the court.   Muthelamma pulled Murthy to a side and asked him, “Babu, what do you think will happen?”

Murthy felt he had a strong case but did not have the courage to say so. “They said they would give the ruling by the end of the day,” he said.

“What did the police officer say?”

“He was firm.”

“And the Head?”

“He fumbled. His statements were fuzzy. We have a good chance,” Murthy said. He was in fact very excited that he caused both the witnesses botch during his cross-examination.

“Does that mean the head constable’s statements are no good?”

“Yes. We have proved his statements wrong.”

“That is what I thought too.”

“What made you think so?”

“I just thought.”


“Why? Here is why. Yesterday the head constable came to me. He said, “Let bygones be bygones. What do you say?” What can I say when he says like that? He agreed to falter and I agreed to pay him his cut. The truth for the courts is different, babu. I’ve been there so many times; I know it very well. For them all that matters is the witnesses’ statements. What if the head constable also stayed put like the police officer? I will do the jail term. These witnesses may go up on the stand one after another and give their sworn statements. But the reality is they would have their stories corroborated with each other long before that. Also, they would listen to each other’s statements from verandah. They would stand at the window and sign to each other. If the witness at the window were forced to leave the premise, somebody else would take his place, listen to the first witness and fill in the second witness. It doesn’t really matter whether they have listened to each other or not, they all belong in the same side. Even otherwise, they’ve seen thousands of cases like these; they know the process only too well. They know what to say. Let’s see, what questions would you ask normally? Something like this—When did you leave the police station? How many of you went there? Did you wear plain clothes or uniforms? Did you walk or ride bicycles? Which one of you saw her first? From how far? Did you measure the liquor? Did you smell it? Did you do the routine check up although it was considered a liquor store? That is what you would ask too, right? Yes, Babu! That is really nothing for them. The judge listens to all this and says that everything is in order. ‘No loopholes in the witnesses’ statements. Even if there are, they are minor ones. Therefore, you pay the fine. Or else go to jail.’ That’s what the judge would say. Babu, I paid fines three times, two hundred rupees each time—that was my blood, Babu, my blood! Therefore, Babu, I thought what the heck and paid him off. I was worried though. Worried wondering—what if he goes back on his word and tells a pack of lies on the witness stand. He did let it go after all. Good. No problem,” Muthelamma told Murthy reassuringly.

She was quiet for a few seconds and then said, “You were very good too! You were very tough in your cross-examination. I was a little scared at first, thought you were new at this sort of things. But you did good. When you questioned the first witness, he nearly fell apart. The head constable also wouldn’t have crumbled like that if you hadn’t been that tough. I heard everything and I saw everything. I was right there watching you. You’ve come down hard on them.”

Murthy was disheartened like a fizzled balloon. He understood now why the entire case was cleared up so easily like the morning fog. After the case was dismissed, Muthelamma came to pay him the balance. Murthy felt embarrassed and refused to accept it. Muthelamma had no choice but to leave with her money.

For Murthy the whole thing looked absurd and illusive. It was like a magic show. There was no liquor. But the police brought charges against her on the pretense that liquor was found. Then again, they dropped the charges saying liquor was not found. Actually, it did not happen. They said that had happened which in reality did not happen. They said what really did not happen had happened. It is and it is not. That is one heck of an illusion. But …

Murthy went on thinking about Muthelamma. “What a heartrending pain in the midst of all this illusion!” Then the senior lawyer came to his mind. Evidently, the senior lawyer had recognized only the nature of the illusion but not the pain. Then again, did he not know about the pain? Or, knew but did not care? Did he not really know that, in this world of illusions, there are also people like Muthelamma? Did he know or not?

Good God! Why not? Of course, he knows definitely, just does not care; that is all!

(The original in Telugu, “Maya,” was published in the 1950’s and later included in the anthology, “aaru saaraa kathalu.” [Six liquor stories]. Vijayawada: Visalandhra Publishing House, 1962.)

Translated by © Nidadavolu Malathi.

[1] During the British Rule, the government imposed tax on salt and the Indians protested, famously known as Salt Satyagraham. The famous salt satyagraha led by Gandhi in 1930 was a crucial part of Indian Freedom Movement.

[2] A famous adage in Telugu, similar to ‘biting the hand that feeds.’



The Cottage Goddess by Kanuparti Varalakshmamma.

It was fourteen days since the kartika month began. The moon was waxing each day and his intensely chilling beams were making the whole world shiver.

For the rich who were living in their exquisite mansions it was not a big problem. They would close all the windows and doors tight, put on wool clothes, and enjoy deep sleep, curled up under warm rugs. However, for the poor who had no clothes to cover their bodies well in this severe cold and no well-built house to live in, the life was tormenting.

In that cold winter night, when the poor, the mendicants, and the wanderers were miserable, Ramalakshmi lay down on a palm leaf mat in a hut with her two children on either side of her. The roof was run down diminishing its value as roof.  She was crying and wiping tears with the tattered end of her saree. The tears were flowing endlessly. The children were complaining “mother, it is cold,” and she was trying to reassure them in a husky voice, “Hug me tight my children. In this world all you have is this wretched mother only.”

It was past three in the morning. The blistering winds were blowing horrendously. Ramalakshmi and the children rolled closer to the wall; they lay there facing the moon. The moonbeams crept on them. The blowing winds and the cool moonbeams together made the cold even more severe.

Ramalakshmi’s younger son, Rangadu, screamed, “Amma! I am cold.”

“Don’t cry, my child” Ramalakshmi said, pulling him closer. His body felt cold like a stick. Ramalakshmi became nervous and yelled, “Oh, no. He is like a stick, oh god, what happened?” She called out worriedly, “Ranga! Ranga!” a few times. Ranga did not respond.

Ramalakshmi was drained up. “Oh, my child, why don’t you talk to me?” she started crying loudly.

The eldest son was woken by mother’s cries and asked, “Mother, why are you crying?”

“Son, your little brother is stiff; he is not talking. It seems he is not alive,” she said, crying. What else is there to say? Mother and son kept crying loudly, calling “Ranga, Ranga”.

The neighbors were woken by their cries. “Poor Ramalakshmi, she is crying. We do not know the reason though,” they told each other and came running to her.

“Ramalakshmi, why are crying?” they asked.

“What can I say? My family has gone from riches to rags, my husband died, yet I am living only for the sake of these two babies. I thought that these two boys are my wealth. Today god pokes my eye, robs me of even this bit of luck. He set fire in my heart,” she said, showing Rangadu and wailing.

“Alas,” some said and approached the body and felt his pulse. What’s there? Just a stick.

Somebody suggested, “Maybe it is the baby syndrome[1]. He will come back to life if you burn his forehead.”

Somebody else dismissed it saying, “How can the baby syndrome afflict a seven-year-old?”

A few others defended the first argument, “Sure it will. The baby syndrome may afflict a child even at ten or twelve-year.”

“Alright. Let me burn him with my cigar,” one man came forward with his cigar lit up.

An old man stopped him and reprimanded all of them, “Have you all lost your minds? Why brand him? Look around. The cold blast is freezing our cheeks. See how the moon is spreading his cold beams; the boy is lying on a nippy mat with no sheets under or over him. Especially tonight it hopelessly cold! Poor child; he is freezing. No need to burn him. Make fire with dried palm leaves and give him some warmness. He will wake up.”

They all agreed that the old man’s words sounded right. Immediately, they made fire, and applied warmth to the child’s body using their palms as heating pads. After ten minutes, the boy’s body softened slightly. He moved a bit. People around felt relieved. They said to the mother, “Ramalakshmi! Your child has come to.”

After a few minutes, Ranga opened his eyes and said, “Amma, why is it hot in here?”

“Oh, my little child, you are alive,” Ramalakshmi said and hugged him with immeasurable joy.


For several generations, dyeing had been the family calling for Venkataswami, [Ramalakshmi’s husband]. In the past, it had been a small business in the times of his father and grandfather. His father and grandfather had never been to the coastal areas to do business. In their time, they dyed the yarn and the clothes given by the businessmen in their own village and returned to the same people after they had finished dyeing. Because they were pliant, they were able to make a little money; they never suffered huge losses. They had owned a little land and chattel, which earned them the title, “respectable family.”

Ramaswami was twenty-year-old young man when his father died. He was studying the Intermediate first year along with the other Vaisya boys in his village. After his father’s death, the family business became his responsibility. Venkataswami took up the family vocation. His friendship with the Vaisya boys helped him to develop an interest in business and his English education contributed to foster independent views.

After he started in business, Venkataswami did not appreciate the independent contract system, by which he bought the dyes from the local merchants and used them to dye clothes and returned them to the same merchants. He entertained another thought—he could buy the dyes and the clothes from merchants in Bombay, produce clothes in various colors, imprint several beautiful designs and borders with dots and vines, and not only sell them in the Telugu region but also export to other areas like Bombay, Hyderabad, Rangoon, and Simhalam [Sri Lanka]. At once, he took out several thousand rupees in loan and made arrangements to go to Bombay, with great enthusiasm and without knowing consequences—a trait so common in youth.

Several of his friends and relatives tried to dissuade him. They said, “You are young and unfamiliar with the tricks of the trade. These kinds of huge business dealings are befitting only to those merchants but not for us.” Venkataswami was so excited about his business prospects he would not listen to any of their pleas.

Venkataswami went to Bombay, made arrangements to have bundles of clothes and dyes delivered to his place, paid a sum in advance and returned home. After he returned from Bombay, his aspirations for business became even keener. He got carried away by the business acumen he had noticed in the merchants in Bombay. He decided that if he wanted to become rich, the only way was to do business on a large scale.

After he returned from Bombay, he set up huge stalls in the open area on the outskirts of the village. He went around to other cities like Bandar [Masulipatam], Nellore, Kakinada, and Madhurai and recruited workers highly skilled in dyeing beautifully, and creating fascinating dotted designs and borders.

By the end of the first year, the decorated clothes produced by Venkataswami became popular all over the country. Big advertisements in magazines such as, “Fast colors that stay even after the clothes are worn out; lightweight clothes; and, reasonable prices” made his name spread even more. Usually, things do not stack up to the ads in the papers and for the same reason people do not trust them. In the case of Venkataswami however it was different. His clothes were as good as the ads. There was no compromise in the colors or the prices. For that reason, merchants and the public trusted him.

Venkataswami was successful because of his integrity. The loan he had taken was paid off. His business grew like the waxing moon, and much to the dismay of those who had ridiculed him at the outset.


Ten years went by like this without fail. The dyed clothes of Venkataswami & Sons company were famous all over the world. His business started with a loan of five thousand rupees, and everybody said, as if their blessing for him was fail. “Sure to fail, sure to fail”, they said yet his business spread even to the remote villages in all regions. Venkataswami’s painted clothes adorned every gorgeous woman and every dandy man.

Where is the shortage for money when the business is booming? Venkataswami became a wealthy man with all the things he would wish to have. His old home with tiled roof turned into a three-storey mansion. It was filled with several modern fancy items such as silk sofas, full-length mirrors, tape cots, swings, tables, chairs, silverware, brought from big cities like Madras and Bombay. The beauty of the house was enhanced by several exuberant items. That being the case, no need to mention the ornaments the wife and children had on them!

Now Venkataswami was a prominent businessman. In the hallway of his house, you would always find two clerks sitting with two boxes in front of them and busy noting down the income and expenses related to his business. Venkataswami would sit in a chair in front of a desk, spending his time answering the business-related questions asked by the clerks, talking with the people who came to pay a visit to him, and giving donations to the people in a befitting manner. Recently, based on his wealth and influence, Venkataswami was also given some positions in local organization, although he never asked for them. He carried out his duties in those positions courteously and thus earned the respect of one and all.

Ramalakshmi was a befitting wife to Venkataswami. There was some resemblance between the two possibly because they were cousins. Ramalakshmi was just as honest as Venkataswami. She was as modest as her husband; and, was just as generous as he was.

The hungry might not get food anywhere else but they always received food in Ramalakshmi’s home. Babies might not be able to receive milk in other houses but their stomachs were always filled in Ramalakshmi’s home. There was no dearth for chattel in their house. She would pour buttermilk to every one that came to her door. Thus people from all castes were getting something or other every day from dawn to dusk when they came to her home. Thus the young couple had good life with limitless riches, and the good qualities untainted by pride or greed. Everybody in the village, young and old alike loved them.


Two more years passed.  It was the year …. [Sic.]. The horrendous war started in Europe. In India where the country was dependent on other countries for everything, even for a small thing like a pin, every thing became more expensive. Especially for the dyes made in Germany and the clothes made in Manchester and Lancaster, the prices went up exceedingly high. The Mull cloth, which was sold six yards for one rupee earlier, was now selling one yard for one rupee. The dye bottles which sold thirty rupees a piece were now three hundred rupees.

In big businesses, there are not many variations. If you make it you are a prince, if not, you are pauper. One must possess the quality needed to weather these two variants.

Venkataswami was flabbergasted by this unforeseen disaster in prices. He had guaranteed the same price for three years to the merchants in Bombay. The merchants had paid advances for the same. Therefore, regardless of the high prices he was forced to pay for the dyes, he was required to sell the clothes for the same price previously agreed upon. Venkataswami’s heart flustered as he mulled over of his situation. On the other side, he had made the same kind of arrangement with the people from whom he was buying clothes and so he would be able to pay the same cost for the clothes as well. He felt a little consolation in the thought that he might be able to break even if not earn profits. His business continued thus for a while.

In the face of unfavorable winds, the sail would not go as smoothly as one would hope for. He thought he would be paying high prices for the dyes only and would be buying clothes at the old rates. But when the prices for the dyes went up several times higher, how could the business be as usual? The boat called ‘business’ was caught up in the upsetting current of the capital and began encountering hurdles. As the heat from the battle became unbearable, how could the rivulet called ‘cash’ go on? When there was no enough water, how could the boat stay afloat? For a few months now, Venkataswami’s heart was sinking. He went on mulling over endlessly.

His rivals who could not relish his success reveled in the thought that he was nearly crushed to the netherworld.

His friends felt sorry for him and said, “Poor man! Sad he had to go through these hardships.”

When the Lord Siva was on his side, there was no reason to think of the other minor gods. But now Siva himself became his challenger.

Venkataswami was a smart man. One could even say that his business acumen was much better than that of any Vaisya boy. Venkataswami came up with an idea. He thought that this would be a good time to revive the locally grown blue pigment crops. The local pigments were neglected up until now because of the recent craze for the foreign dyes. Venkataswami decided that using the local blue pigment would help him in carrying on his business without break. He started using them, and also came up with a few other tricks but nothing helped him to regain the success he had enjoyed previously.


It was half-way through the Vaisakha month. The summer days were blistering hot. It was not letting people to show their faces outside even at four in the afternoon. The sun was spitting fire. The wind was sizzling hot.

On one such scorching hot day, Venkataswami lay on his expensive bed, fanning himself with a palm-leaf fan and sipping cold water from the clay water jug. A vetiver [khas] mat hung from the top of the window was kept wet by water sprinkled on it. He was enjoying the cool breeze coming from the mat and was lost deep in thought.

Ramalakshmi sat close by on a small mat. Her eldest son was sleeping next to her. The second son would not sleep. She sat him in her lap and was playing with him. She did not want him to run into the sun outside.

Suddenly they heard footsteps on the staircase. Ramalakshmi picked up her little child and stood up to see who was coming. Venkataswami, jolted out of his thoughts by the footsteps, sat up on the bed.

The man came in. He broke into sobs and said, “Ayya! Somebody set fire to our dyes sheds. The flames are overwhelming.”

“Ah, God! What is this? A ringworm clobbered by a pestle,” he said and collapsed on the bed.

“Oh god!” said Ramalakshmi and collapsed on the floor.

Ramalakshmi’s life was somehow saved after people sprinkled water on her face and fanned gently, but Venkataswami’s life ended.

The bundles of the Mull cloth stacked up to the roof, bundles of yarn and the dyed clothes—all were burned to ashes along with the pigment barrels. What a heartbreaking occurrence!

“Oh God! Both the life and the riches are gone in one stroke!” they all cried. Not only Ramalakshmi but the entire village, the young and the old alike, wept inconsolably. Venkataswami’s life spelled out the transient nature of wealth and breath. Those dim-witted people who pride themselves on their earthly possessions may take a good hard look at this occurrence and open their eyes!


There were debts to collect and the debts to pay. Some of them were given as hand-loans (unsecured loans) and others backed by promissory notes. Some of the down payments were paid while others yet to be paid. Venkataswami expanded his business to all corners of the country and breathed his last.

The woman was wailing miserably. She was helpless and vulnerable. Poor woman! What could Ramalakshmi do? Her sons were still babies. Who could protect Venkataswami’s property?

Bombay merchants were extremely shrewd. After Venkataswami died, within a week, they came and auctioned everything down to the pans. They dragged Ramalakshmi, who’d never been exposed to the sun, into the street along with her little kids. They seized the mansion, the gardens and the fields.

Amidst this horrific scene, there was not one person Ramalakshmi could count on. What a heartrending situation! Neither Venkataswami nor Ramalakshmi had parents or siblings. Ramalakshmi had a step-brother but he was a farmer; he had no knowledge of business dealings.

Ramalakshmi had given a few items to the neighbors for safekeeping and they disappeared on the spot. The pieces of jewelry left in the care of relatives were gone the same way. What happened to all those friends and relatives who had groveled for help in the past? Not one person came to her door and consoled her. In these frightening times, even the Brahmin accountants who had worked for Venkataswami grabbed as much as they could. Additionally, they gave away various details of his possessions to his creditors in exchange for gifts. Is it not what we call swamidroham [cheating the benefactor]?

In all, the ultimate result was, there was nothing left of Venkataswami but Ramalakshmi and her two sons. His riches were wrecked one hundred thousand times as fast as accumulated.

Thus the entire world of Ramalakshmi crumbled. While she was careworn thus, a man came to her door.

He said, “Amma! Your husband had a great heart. When I was struggling for money to perform my son’s wedding, he gave me five hundred rupees. He did not ask for a note but I accepted it as a loan only. I could not repay him while he was alive. Now your family is ruined. I feel comfort in the thought that I have repaid his debt if this money helps you any way.” So saying, he gave her the five hundred rupees and three hundred more in interest. Of all the debts Ramalakshmi was supposed to receive, this amount of eight-hundred was the only one repaid. Ramalakshmi received it not as a loan repaid but as a huge gift.

Out of the eight hundred rupees she had received, she spent one hundred rupees to buy a strip of land, and another hundred to build a small hut and buy the necessary pots, pan, rice, dal and other items for the home. She moved into her the hut. She found a man she could trust and handed over the rest of the money to him for safekeeping.


There is no way to describe the hardships the poor in India suffered because of the severe shortage of food and clothing caused by the European War. For those who could barely afford the grains at three sers [quantitative measurement] for a rupee, it became even harder to buy clothes. The poor people suffered unbearable pain; they wore tattered clothes, wrapped straw mats to cover themselves, even jute rags at times.

In these horrendous conditions, Ramalakshmi and her children who had enjoyed a wealthy life before had to anguish beyond words. They had a few rupees but how long that money would last for a mother and two children? The children had been raised with tender loving care up until now; they were still green. So they would bother the mother for this and that. Poor Ramalakshmi, she would try to tell them with tearful eyes that they could not afford those things anymore.

Ramalakshmi was a gentle woman who cherished her dignity. She was waited on by others but never waited on others herself. She had given things to others but never asked others for anything. It was so hard for such a woman of high self-esteem to go begging. Yet, bad times befell her. As the saying goes, stomach knows no bounds and poverty knows no shame. She had to do whatever it took to protect her children. She was able to manage for one and a half years with the six hundred rupees she had. After that, she had to accept whatever work she could get; it was like selling wood in the same town where she sold flowers. Now she was going door to door and beseeching housewives, “Amma, I will grind flour for you or sew blouses. Please, let me do whatever work you can and save my children.”

The women, who had seen Ramalakshmi in the best of times, were moved by her entreaties. They agreed to give her work and pay her accordingly.

Ramalakshmi’s and the children’s clothes were all falling apart. Where could she find the money to buy clothes? It was hard enough to eat, how could she buy clothes? On top of it, due to the gusty winds and the rains at the beginning of the kartika month, some of the palm leaves on the roof were damaged. Was Ramalakshmi in a position to have the roof repaired? Was it not the reason her child turned stiff? Oh readers! Do you remember the incident that had been described in the first chapter?


In the morning after her child had thus become stiff, Ramalakshmi woke up early, cooked food and gave it to the two children; she was constantly worried about their situation. She was grinding flour for money. She was deeply perturbed about her stressful circumstances, “I do not have a red paisa to buy a sheet to cover my kids. If I do not buy the sheets, how can I protect these little kids from this treacherous cold?”

For Ramalakshmi, to step outside seeking day-labor was humiliating but grinding flour was not an easy task and the money was not much either. Ramalakshmi being weak could not grind more than two sers of grain a day. For grinding one ser of the grains, the pay was one anaa. The pay was the same for sewing a blouse; for ordinary blouse the charge was one half of an anaa; for buttoned blouse one anaa; and, one anaa for a small shirt. Even if she worked day and night, she wound not be able to earn more than two anaas. She could not make even three anaas in all yet three stomachs were to be filled. See how terrible their situation was!

Ramalakshmi was grinding flour and brooding over her heartrending conditions. She heard the sounds of drums from outside. Lost in her own misery, Ramalakshmi did not pay attention to what the drummer was shouting about.

Her two children, each holding a piece of paper, came in running. Each was screaming jubilantly, “Amma, see, paper … paper … I got it from the drummer.”

However difficult the situation is, for mothers, seeing their children’s faces is always a relief from sorrow!

Ramalakshmi asked the little one gently, “Ranga! Am I not your mother? Won’t you show me your paper?”

Ranga held the paper to his chest tight and said with a pout, “Why can’t brother show you his paper?”

The older son showed the paper in his hand and said, “Here is my paper, read this first, Amma!”

Ranga who had said mother should read the brother’s paper first infterfered again.

Ramalakshmi was touched by Ranga’s mischief, pulled him to her bosom and said lovingly, “Ranga! You are such a naughty boy.”

Ramalakshmi was good at reading. She hoped that the paper brought in by her sons would provide some respite from her penury conditions.


That was … [Sic.] year. In Andhra Pradesh, the passive resistance movement was at its peak. Whichever way you turned, there was a khadi society! Wherever you laid eyes, there was a handloom industry set up; anti-liquor protests were everywhere; schools for nationalist education; village fairs for indigenous items, meetings; charka, spindles, and cotton yarn in every house— everywhere that was all one could hear about!

This movement which had spread through out the country reached naturally Ramalakshmi’s village also. A branch of nationalist movement was established in her village too. They started a nationalist school also. A khadi industry was set up. Flyers distributed all over the village. The flyers stated that they would supply the spinning wheels, yarn, and spindles; also promised to pay a quarter of a rupee per veesa [measurement by weight]; they would also pick up the finished products themselves. They also promised one more quarter if the if the whorls were wound, more if the yarn was fine; they also offered to teach those who were new at the wheel. They announced that the spinning wheel would be a golden opportunity, a wish-granting tree, for the poor women who preferred to stay home and make a living.

The papers Ramalakshmi’s sons brought into the home were the same flyers. Ramalakshmi read it and thought, “I work all day and yet cannot make two annaas. I may make that much by working on the wheel. Also, if I work on the spinning wheel, I will be spared the trouble of going from home to home, bringing the grains, grinding and again going back to those homes to deliver the flour. If I work at night and spin more yarn, maybe, I will have clothes for the children too. Therefore, let me try and see what happens!”

Ramalakshmi reflected on these lines and had a letter drafted by Ramu (the eldest son) saying, “I am willing to work on the spinning wheel. Kindly send me a spinning wheel, whorls, and a person to teach me how to use it.” She sent the letter with Ramu to the industry office.

The next day, Reddy Kotamma brought a spinning wheel and cotton whorls to Ramalakshmi’s house. Ramalakshmi learned how to use the wheel from that woman in ten days. Even the first day she laid hand on the wheel, she could spin the thread easily.

Ten days passed by. She became quite skilled at her work. The handloom officer noticed the very fine thread Ramalakshmi had produced, was very happy and sent word to Ramalakshmi, “We would display your yarn in the khadi exhibition at the national conference to be held in Ahmedabad in a couple of months. You use these two months to practice to produce very beautiful yarn.”

Ramalakshmi continued to work on the spinning wheel with great enthusiasm. The industry office started paying more money for Ramalakshmi’s yarn. Ramalakshmi put her children in the native school. Since she did not have to go around door to door collecting grain and grinding flour, she stayed home and kept spinning yarn continually.


It was Sankranti day, the festival day of all festivals. In our Telugu country, Sankranti is a joyous festival. This is the time when the farmer brings the produce, after a year-long hard work on the fields and sees the results of his labor; this is the time the poor who yearn for rice will have a good meal. This is the festival when the rich and the poor feel contented equally. During this festival, the walls are painted, the doors are decorated with turmeric and kumkum, and mango leaves are hung on door frames—each house is made to look a delightfully welcome place. This is the time people can watch the abounding riches and the unparalleled beauty of nature and revel in. The extent of this festival is seen more in the villages than in the cities.

All the houses were dazzlingly beautiful. Everybody was happy. The festive spirit was obvious all over the place. Yet, the hut of our Ramalakshmi remained the same. It was still the hut with tattered roof, and her clothes the same worn out rags. There was no difference.

It was nine o’clock in the morning. Ramalakshmi was at the spinning wheel. The little son was hanging on to her back and whimpering, “Amma, won’t you get me a new shirt? Won’t you celebrate the festival in our home?”

Ramalakshmi was trying to persuade him, “My child Ranga! Don’t interrupt my work on the spinning wheel.”

The little boy would not listen. “You won’t make sweets for any festival, and no new clothes either. All the others have new clothes,” he started crying aloud.

Poor Ramalakshmi could not control her grief. The thought of good times in the past came to her mind. Her heart anguished immensely, like the great ocean subjected to riotous, gusty winds. The sorrow within her rose like the waves in the sea. With tears streaming down her cheeks, she hugged her son and said, “Child, what can I do? By the time you are old enough to ask, my hands are like this, helpless. If your father was alive, he would have rewarded many Brahmins in the name of our forefathers, would have donated clothes to several people, food to the poor, and clothes to many more. Brahmins used to come to our home for gifts even from the neighboring villages. I don’t know what happened to all the blessings showered by all those Brahmins in his time. Where are the fruits of those charitable acts—those donations of clothes, foods and money. Today the children of that generous man are wanting for clothes and a piece of sweets. He was a born king; that is why his life went well. God took him away in a snap so he did not have to suffer poverty. They say that a man’s way of dying speaks for his good deeds. Your father’s death certainly vouches for his integrity. How can we, the wretched, receive that golden state? We barely have gruel to eat; how can we expect sumptuous meals and new clothes?” So saying, Ramalakshmi broke into huge sobs. Ranga also started crying along with his mother.

Poor mother! Where are the people who would comfort her?


Click here for informative article on Kanuparti Varalakshmamma garu.

(The Telugu original, kuteeralakshmi, was published in Andhra Patrika, ugaadi issue, 1924.)

Translated by

Nidadavolu Malathi

Nidadavolu Malathi


Nidadavolu Malathi and published on, January 2009.


[1] The Telugu word is chinna bidda gunam, an ailment similar to tetanus. In India, it is common practice to burn the child’s forehead with cigarette in an attempt to revive him.

The Escaped Parrot by Achanta Saradadevi

Big chunks of clouds are scurrying around in the sky as if they are in a hurry. A small white fleck of cloud slithers one way and another baby cloud another way. Then the two chunks stop in the middle and merge in to one piece. In a split second, they break up and each goes its own way. They are taking over the sky and changing into different shapes … like scattered cotton balls, or jasmine buds that slipped through the fingers.

Kamakshamma sat by the back door, watching the floating clouds. She is depressed. How quickly the clouds are changing shapes! … Even before one has gotten used to one shape, it is changing into another! They all are slithering away so beautifully! Embracing each other snugly and breaking away the next moment! Momentary attachment, she told herself.

The Sun is going down. There is no telling how much quiet this house and this garden become by dusk. Of the two servants in the house, for one, it is to start cooking, and for the other, it is time out. The rest of it is just absolute silence, but for the leaves rustled by the wind!

The schedule for Kamakshamma is just to sit there everyday by the door facing the garden, lost in meaningless thoughts, and watch the clouds, the trees and all around. There is no change in this ever.

This house is located on the outskirts of the town, with three mango groves on the three sides of it. Green leaves and green parrots happily chirping come and go freely, as they please. The gardener works in the garden during the day and goes away in the evening.

Kamakshamma’s husband Sundara Rao inherited this garden from his father. He acquired the house himself. He has some business in the adjoining city. Kamakshamma never asked what kind of business he is in. He will not tell, even if she asked. He believes it is not necessary for women to know such things. There is no need to mention separately, that like playing cards and roaming around with friends are parts of his business.

Everyday, one train comes in the morning and goes in the evening sluggishly. There is no specific time, it arrives sometime after seven in the morning and goes to the neighboring city. It returns in the evening sometime after seven. Sundara Rao travels everyday by the same train. He leaves in the morning and returns home at night. The station is two miles away from his home. In the morning he eats his breakfast and walks to the train station. If he has something to carry, Sankaram, the servant, takes it and goes with him. The train is very much used to Sundara Rao’s travel. No matter how late it is, the train will not leave the station until he got on it. Sankaram goes to the station again in the evening and returns along with Sundara Rao. That is the way it is every day.

Fourteen years back, Sundara Rao felt like having a house built in the midst of this garden and live a life of solitude. He told himself, “What is there in the cities but for the dirt and murk. On the other hand, it is so peaceful. The city is close by. I can go there each day and take care of business.” He had the house built here. However, only Kamakshamma is experiencing that solitude presently. She did not ask for that solitude yet she got it. That is how the life is. One person wishes for it. Another person gets it without asking for it. They do not need it yet it becomes unavoidable.

When Kamakshamma came to this home first, she used to say to her husband, “Your business is in the city day in and day out. Why live here?” Sundara Rao did not listen.

He would reply, “How can you get this solitude and peace in that city?” He leaves home while it is still dark returns after the Sun is down. Only he should know what kind of solitude and peace he is enjoying. Kamakshamma does not understand it yet she says nothing about.

At first, when Sundara Rao had the house built, there were only he and the two servants, the cook and Sankaram. Even then, his schedule has been the same—leaving the morning and returning in the evening. After two years, a thought occurred to him. He thought it would be nice a thing called wife was in this house. As soon as he got the idea, one of his friends suggested Kamakshamma to hi, He agreed.

Kamakshamma’s parents are ordinary folks. Her father’s income was enough for food. There was no desire to put aside, no hope there would be some to put aside. Kamakshamma was their only daughter. They had an unruly son. He ran away from home. The parents did not buy jewelry for Kamakshamma but raised her fondly. They put her through school up to eighth class.

In her younger days, the one wish that had not been fulfilled was wearing jewelry. Nancaramma, who lived across from them, was Kamakshamma’s friend. Nancaramma had jewelry head to foot. She used to be jealous of Kamakshamma’s golden complexion. Kamakshamma would look at the jewelry on the dark skin of Nancaramma and wished she had them—a wish she could never control. She would pester her mother for jewelry. Her mother would reply, “How can we get jewelry for you? You may get them after you grow up, get married. Maybe your in-laws will have ornaments made for you.”

Therefore, in Kamakshamma’s mind, an uncanny relationship between marriage and jewelry developed ever since she was a child. For that reason, she had no other choice but to wait for that moment.

After Sundara Rao had decided to marry Kamakshamma, mother said, “He looks fine, has good property too. They say he has mango groves, fertile land, and some business. However, you are fifteen and he is thirty. What do you think?”

Kamakshamma did not pay attention to anything her mother had said. She asked, “Will they give me all the jewelry head to foot?”

Mother was surprised. “I don’t know. We did not ask. If we look for another groom, we will have to pay dowry. You know we don’t have it” mother murmured.

Kamakshamma was down. She was tense for three days. She had been waiting all these days for what, marriage or ornaments? On the third day, the mediator-friend brought the news. He said Sundara Rao had in his possession lots of his mother’s ornaments. They all would be transferred to Kamakshamma, no doubt. Kamakshamma’s face lit up. Mother suppressed all her suspicions and smiled. The wedding was performed.

Kamakshamma did not think it odd as she stepped for the first time into this solitary home where the parents-in-law and brothers were absent. Whatever environment we walk into feels right. We get used to it. Kamakshamma has gotten used to solitary life. Except on rare occasions, she is not bothered by that loneliness.

At home, she has no work. Servants take care of everything. After she came here for the first time, she used to dress up every evening, comb her hair, and put on all the jewelry of her mother-in-law. She would look at herself in the mirror again and again and feel good about it. She would walk around in the garden, wait for her husband. The day passed by.

It has been twelve years now. Still it is the same. The difference however is the jewelry is not giving the same pleasure now. She puts them on as a matter habit but they feel heavy now. She does not feel like taking them off though. The attachments we invite into our lives become heavy in course of time. Yet we cannot severe those tries since we have gotten used to them.

In the evening Sundara Rao brings a magazine as he comes home. After he is done with bathing and eating, he hides his head in the paper for an hour, sitting on the porch facing the garden. Kamakshamma rolls the pan leaves into parrot-shapes and stacks them up. Sundara Rao takes some. Kamakshamma sits there idly shredding the rest of the pan leaves and glancing around. Nothing comes to mind for either of them to talk about. At the end, Kamakshamma asks the same question as a matter of habit, “What is new in the city?”

He continues to read the paper as he replies, “What is there to say? The same as always.”

That’s it. Silence prevails again. Kamakshamma says something again. She keeps talking without expecting a response.

“The jasmine vine has two sprouts.”

“The red rose may bloom tomorrow.”

“The mango buds are falling to the ground, I wonder why.”

“Ghosh! It rained so hard earlier in the evening. The garden was nearly submerged. They say untimely rain is not good.”

She keeps talking this or that. He keeps saying “ha” and “ho” heedlessly. From the tone, we cannot tell whether he is listening or not. At the end, he says, “Maybe there is some good program on the radio. Why don’t you listen to that?”

That is the end of it. She gets up and goes in. In the bedroom close by there is a battery-operated radio. Kamakshamma turns it on. Sixty varieties of sounds burst forth. Amidst of those sounds, she hears a low-toned song. The terrible silence is broken in one big stroke. She finds comfort in the thought that there is somebody. She falls asleep while thinking the same thing. He turns off the radio when he comes into the room.

Yes, that is how the time passed by. In her life there is hope and no disappointment. No overwhelming pleasure, no drowning grief. Her life has been barely moving boat in a serene river.

Only once the boat rocked. She a taste of the cool breeze. The withered branch sprouted. She became alive. Kamakshamma laughed.

That day the Sun was hot. It was about one o’clock in the afternoon. Kamakshamma was taking a nap in the bedroom facing the garden. Kamakshamma, half-asleep, heard a flutter in the front porch was scared at first. Then she assumed that some bird might have come from the garden into the verandah. She closed her eyes. There was the flutter of the wings again from the verandah. She decided to go and see what it was.

She saw a parrot in five hues, snuck on the railings in the verandah. It was looking at Kamakshamma furtively. It was gorgeous displaying several hues of red and yellow on its body between its wings and red nose. Kamakshamma had never seen such a beautiful bird before. She kept gazing the bird, enthralled by its beauty. The parrot tried to escape. It flapped the wings a little and remained in the same place, looking at Kamakshamma pitiably.

The bird’s leg was broken. It could not move. She was worried thinking, “Oh, no. What could have happened if a dog or a cat had jumped on her?’ She called Sankaram, the gardener. He picked up the bird easily. The bird did not object.

Kamakshamma closed all the doors in her room and kept the bird caringly. The wound on the bird’s leg healed in three days. In the meantime, Kamakshamma had a cage brought in from the city. The bird became a prisoner permanently. Kamakshamma got plenty now to spend her time on. Unwittingly, a bonding happened.

Now she is busy, has no time for anything else. Each minute she is worried what the bird might be doing. Is the cage clean for it? Hope no cat entered the room? Did it eat the fruit chunks I put in the cage?—the same thoughts and concerns all the time. She named it Chinnari. She is under the illusion that some day the bird will learn how to talk and speak sweet chirping words. Fantasizing that, she kept chirping herself in front of the bird for hours on end. She was not even aware how the time passed by. In the evenings, she used to walk around the garden, holding the bird carefully so it would not fly away.

Now she has plenty to talk about with her husband also. She waits anxiously for her husband to come home. As soon as he is home, she reports in a hurry all the day’s happenings:

“Chinnari did not take milk, not even one mouthful.”

“Ate only two chunks of fruit.”

“It escaped from the cage and went around the room twice. Luckily, the window panes were closed, or else.”

“Chinnari is learning to speak. It is learning fast from me. This morning I said, ‘akka’ and it said ‘akka’ too.”

Like this, she keeps saying, some sadly and others with great enthusiasm. Sundara Rao also listens curiously. Some kind of passion has swept her away. A shade of it has crept on him too. So also to the servants. The entire environment at home has changed totally.

Kamakshamma’s heart has experienced the bliss for six months. Chinnari’s heart has agonized, being imprisoned in the cage. Smiles danced on Kamakshamma’s face. Chinnari’s wings beat up on the cage wires, got tired and let go of it.

That day, it rained heavily all afternoon. The rain water seeped through the window sills and filled the room. The rain stopped in the evening. The sun-rays glimmered through the wet leaves.

Kamakshamma has the room wiped clean and opens the window panes to dry the room. She talks to the bird. Opens the cage door and puts fruit chunks. She finishes eating and lies down on the bed, waiting for her husband. Sundara Rao has not arrived for a very long time. While thinking, she dozes off. Sundara Rao comes late and decides not to wake her up.

The next morning, Kamakshamma looks lazily at the bed next to hers. Sundara Rao is asleep. Turns to the cage. Chinnari is not there. The cage is empty. Kamakshamma jumps out of the bed and looks again. The cage door is open. The window panes, opened last night, are open.

Grief overtakes Kamakshamma. What happened to the parrot? Probably, after opening the door last night, forgot to close? Is it possible the bird flew away? Or, the cat came through the window and took it away? She shivered head to foot with panic.

She calls the servants and asks them. They know nothing. They are also surprised to see the empty cage. Worried, they search the entire garden and do not find it. Not knowing what else they can do, they give up. They tell Sundara Rao as soon as he woke up. He says, “ayyo” and leave it at that.

Six months back there was no parrot. There is no telling where it came from and why. Now again, we do not know where it went. There is no way of knowing it.

Kamakshamma stares at the empty cage and goes into a fit of sobs. Sundara Rao says, “Are you crazy?” Sankaram put away the cage. That is all. After that each gets busy with his or her own chores. The cook starts cooking. The gardener gives water to the plants. Sundara Rao gets busy so he will not miss his train. That is all. There is no sign of another life existing in that house, none whatsoever.

Kamakshamma sits there staring into the emptiness for a long time. Nobody understands the bond she has developed with the parrot, or what she has gained and lost in the process.

“I lost the buttons for my coat. Do you mind fixing them? It is getting late for my train,” Sundara Rao says.

Kamakshamma takes the coat without a word. That is it. After that, she never mentions the Chinnari’s name again.

Several days pass by. The bare trees start sprouting. With the arrival of spring, even without invitation, birds arrive chirping noisily into the garden. The aroma from the mango sprouts pervades the entire garden. Kamakshamma’s heart once again wakes up.

She feels peaceful as she watches the birds chirping and flying all around in the garden.

The gardener notices that Kamakshamma is watching the garden zealously again after a very long time.

He approaches her and says, “See amma! So many birds came as soon as the mango tree started sprouting. See how beautiful they are! If we hang the cage in the garden just for a day, we will be able to catch a parrot. We can raise it.”

Kamakshamma shudders. She says, “No, no. Do not do that. See how happy and free they are! Let them live happily like that. They come and go as they please. That makes me happy. I can sit for any length of time, watching them. Aren’t they all ours? Why capture one bird, lock it up in a cage and in the process invite trouble for ourselves? Needless bonding.”

The gardener does not understand her comment.

The birds in the garden chirped merrily at once.



Translated by Nidadavolu Malathi and published on, September 2008..

(The Telugu original, paaripoyina chilaka, was originally published in the early 1960s.)