Ramam was walking slowly, watching his steps. He was new to walking on a concrete road. The rain just stopped. The sun was blazing forth in full blast. It was still midday, nowhere near cooling down. The cement road was still wet. Ramam was afraid that he might slip and fall. That’s why he was watching his steps. He stayed on the left side of the street, watching for the buses, cars and ambulances that were scurrying in a hurry on the street. He kept walking, as if it was uphill and the road seemed to be getting longer for each step he had walked. Ramam was slight of stature, barely qualified to be called a young man.
He was gasping for breath. The midday sun was scorching his pate. For a second, he thought of taking a rickshaw. Then he saw the hospital gate, not too from where he was; one more furlong, he would be at the Collector’s office. He wished very badly, oh, God, get me there quickly, somehow, please.
“Orey, Ramam, Ramam,” a familiar voice hollered at him.
Ramam turned around. It was Srinivasulu on the sidewalk across from him and holding his bicycle with one hand; a meals carrier hung from the handle bar. He waved to Ramam from there.
Ramam crossed the road and went to Srinivasulu.
“Hey, when did you come here? Where’re you staying? What’s new? By the way, have you passed the tests?” Srinivasulu asked Ramam.
He was not a stranger to Ramam. They were cousins. Nevertheless it was annoying to Ramam. He was annoyed that Srinivasulu was blasting away all those questions at him non-stop? Why scream on the middle of the street like that? But then there was nothing Ramam could do about it. Srinivasulu was at least ten to twelve years older than Ramam. He had no choice but answer all his inquiries.
“I came here early morning, Bava! Staying with Suryam Babayi. Yes, I passed the exam. That’s the reason I am here now, running around like crazy,” he replied.
“What do you mean running around?”
“What else? Job search,” Ramam said.
“You idiot! You’re hardly sixteen! Who do you think will hire you? You’ve said you’ve passed the high school exam but sure look stupid to me. Did your dad really send you here? Or, you ran away from home?” Srinivasulu kept pouring the questions nonstop.That is how he is. He would guess what the other might say, and come up with both sides of the arguments himself in a rush.
But, Ramam cut him short and gave his reply. It was not what Srinivasulu had guessed. “What is it, Bava? How could you say such things? Dad sent me himself. He was here a few days back. He made me apply for a few jobs here, entry-level positions, nothing big. He sent me now to pursue the same,” he said. And before Srinivasulu could start again, Ramam added, “By the way, where are you heading? Work?”
Srinivasulu broke into a big laughter. “What work at this time of the day? Besides, who would go to work with meals carrier and food in it? I have never worked in my life, and am not going to work ever again in my life. Those idiots pay sixty or ninety rupees at the most. How can I run a family with that income?” he said.
Ramam could not follow his argument, not at all. Before he could figure it out, Srinivasulu seized his arm, and dragged him toward the hospital. On the way, he said, “If we stand here chatting like this, we’ll run out of time. The hospital guard would throw us out saying the visiting hours are over. Let’s go, hurry. Come on. My wife is starving.”
Srinivasulu also told him that his wife gave birth to a baby girl ten days back, and that she would be sent home the following day; he brought food for his wife. At the hospital
gate, he said, “You wait here. They wouldn’t let you in yet. I’ll give the carrier to my wife and be back in a second.”
Ramam couldn’t tell him that he had something else to do.
Srinivasulu took the carrier inside, returned right away and nearly lugged him to his home. Ramam remembered very clearly all the things his father had told him just before
he left for the city. “Orey, don’t go to any place as you please and get into a mess. Go straight to the street where our relatives live. On that street, you can stay in any home; one is as good as another. There is Suryam babayi for one. Or else, Subba Rao and Sita in the front portion of a house at the end of the street, Of course it is not yet finished. For them we are like family. And then, round the corner, Venkateswarlu rented a place, the one that has water tap and almond tree in the yard, you know. You can pick any house you like; they all are as good as our own family. In fact, each one of them is going to insist that you must dine with them at least once; they’re
not going to leave you alone. But, there’s one thing you must keep in mind. Your aunt’s son Srinivasulu lives on the next street. He is a good person by himself, I must give that much to him. I would not have mentioned this, had he not gotten “that woman” and kept in his house. Crowds are crows, as they say. You just keep away from him; mind your own business.”
Before Ramam left for the city, his father had told him lot of things, in addition to that warning. He told him to stay there couple more days, if necessary; meet all the friends he had mentioned and given the addresses of. He told him to behave well, be humble and polite. In other words, Ramam had to approach some people for recommendations; and a few others, beg, if necessary; get a job!
As it turned out, Ramam had to follow Srinivasulu to his home, despite all the counseling from dad. The house was quite small—two rooms, a small front porch, and two small
rooms, more like closets, one for cooking and the second for bathing. But it was separated from other units and thus quite pleasant. Ramam settled down on the bench on the front porch. Srinivasulu put the bike in a corner, and told him, “Have seat. You are looking up beat up by the heat. I’ll get you water.” He went in and returned with water and also a woman. He told her, “Here, he’s our Ramam, Chandram uncle’s son. Look at him, barely, the size of a thumb; he has passed the school final exam and came, looking for a job.” Then he turned to Ramam and said with a smile, “She is one more akkayya for you, Ramam. Her name is Varalakshmi.”
Several conflicting thoughts were nearly choking Ramam. Yet, some sense of decorum from the deepest corner of his brain made him say namaskaaram. She asked, with a smile, as good as a freshly bloomed Jasmine, “Did you eat, Tammudu?”
Ramam was shocked for the way she addressed him. He said, “Yes. I ate at Babayi’s house around ten o’clock.”
“Bring him in. Coffee and tiffin will be ready in about half hour,” she said with the same pleasant expression and disappeared into the kitchen.
“Come on, Ramam, let’s go in. It’ll be cool there. The humidity here is awful, and then this stupid rain.” Srinivasulu went in. Ramam followed him, looking at the little things scattered all
over in the house.
Srinivasulu used to go to Ramam’s village frequently regarding some land dispute. In fact, this Srinivasulu, Suryam, Subba Rao and Venkateswarlu—all these people used to live as one extended family some two or three generations back.
Kistayya, one of them in the village used to have plenty of property and several children, both kind—boys and girls. Eventually, the children grew up, got married, had children of their own, and moved to other own places. Some of them settled down in the city. It even became a custom for the people who had settled down there earlier to help others to find a place and settle down. That’s how they all, the five or six families, happened to settle down on the same street.
Three years back, Srinivasulu used to live under Suryam babayi’s roof. Suryam’s first wife died after their first daughter was born. That baby was the same Suseela, Srinivasulu’s wife, who’s now the new mother at the hospital. She would be returning home soon.
Suryam married again after his wife had died. Srinivasulu was married at the age of 16. His father had died earlier and his mother the following year. His uncle, now father-in-law, took him in. Srinivasulu had inherited huge piece of land, not small by any count—eighty acres of high-yield farm land. His mother-in-law had several children, a baby a year. Srinivasulu too had children, once every two years. Each time a baby was born, festivities like the naming
ceremony were inevitable. Also, they kept playing the host anytime any relative came into town; their house became pretty much a shelter. All these expenses had to be met with from the income on the land Srinivasulu owned. They all wanted the income from the land but nobody was willing to take care of the land; the expenses exceeded income. In course of time, the land started disappearing bit by bit. Part of the remaining land went to the farmers, who were cultivating the land, a result of the new laws that were put in place. After all this had happened, the father-in-law had come to realize that he was not going to get any money from the land anymore. Then he started bickering with Srinivasulu. Finally, Srinivasulu came to his senses, moved out and set up his own family, and started a new life. He and his father-in-law were not on talking terms anymore.
Ramam had some knowledge of this story. Srinivasulu, after getting into an argument with his father-in-law, went to their village, sold the remaining land and started his family in the city. Now, the only thing Ramam did not understand was why did Srinivasulu get involved with another woman, after all this bungling of family relationships? Why did he ruin his own life in this manner?
* * *
Srinivasulu ran into Ramam at noon and did not let him go until after six in the evening. Ramam managed somehow and got out of his grip by evening. His head was totally messed up. What was he supposed to now? Should he go to Suryam babayi’s house? Maybe, not right away; probably, it’s okay if he goes by suppertime; oh, god, those children! Those little devils! They would not even care that he was a stranger; just walk all over him; one boy would reach into his pocket; a girl would climb on his shoulders, and so on. He had it for two hours, earlier in the morning, that was an experience of a lifetime. And then, Suryam babayi’s wife would start squabbling with the maid—good stuff for making a movie. She was so upset, she lost it, she dropped the coffee she was bringing for him, it was such a mess; and it took another hour to bring him another cup of coffee; that didn’t even taste like coffee; it was some odd mix of a drink without a flavor, smell or color.
Ramam started tracking down the street he came by and walking toward the beach. He couldn’t help wondering: what a difference between Srinivasulu’s house and Suryam babayi’s house! It was small but clean; there was even some furniture and a small radio in the second room. Srinivasulu also had five children but it didn’t look like a family with five children. He was old that the older kids had gone to school, and the younger ones were sleeping in the other room. The eldest, a girl, was 11-years old, was in the 8th class. Srinivasulu said the girl was very smart; he was planning to send her to medical school. Ramam thought that’s what I’d call luck. He was smart too, he always scored the highest marks in his class; in each class he ranked first. Yet, Chandrayya, his father never said, not even once, that he would send him for higher studies. Chandrayya had his own way of solving any problem; he could do it in a second. He had gotten rid of his eldest daughter, Minakshi, as soon as she had turned 16; instead of taking time to look for a
good match, he married her to a widower and was done with her. “She’s going as second wife, so what? They are rich, she will be happy,” he said. Then Ramam. As soon as he finished high school, Chandrayya went to the city, went around looking for vacancies, picked up application forms for jobs that paid anywhere from 40 to 60 rupees, and got Ramam to sign them. Then he had shoved 20 rupees in Ramam’s palm, and had sent him off to the city. His father also told him to join right away in case such opportunity came up. Look at Srinivasulu, what’s his status? Chandrayya had that much, no doubt. Yet, Chandrayya had never entertained the thought of sending Ramam for higher education. In his mind, simply living, that was enough.
Ramam sat in the beach and kept ruminating until it got really dark. Why were they all living? But then, was he going to do anything different? This kind of heavy thoughts entered his brain, which was neither raw nor ripe. Then it occurred to him, “Am I really that old? Look at the younger son of Venkatasamy and the oldest son of the mill manager; they are the same age I am, and they are playing marbles on the street.” His brain jumped ahead of his age, and that was scary.
He was beset by the thoughts about Varalakshmi again. Who’s she? It doesn’t matter, she seem to be a nice person, so kind! There was no small-mindedness, not even a trace of it! That thought frightened him again. Suryam babayi had warned him in the morning, “Orey! Remember your brother-in-law, Srinivasulu, Suseela’s husband. He’s taken to rotten ways. Probably, you’ve heard it too. Don’t even set foot on his doorstep. You’re still raw, for starters. His life is rotten; and he’s capable of dragging you down too.” How could Ramam comprehend all this? All he’d known was to achieve top honors in his class. His brain kept questioning him over and again, “Yes, I stayed in their house from noon till evening. Does that comprise ruination of my life?” He had to admit it; he had nothing but respect for Varalakshmi. Based on that, he felt even closer to Srinivasulu. But, if anyone else had heard of it, it would mean bigger trouble. He couldn’t shake away that thought. Therefore, he tucked away all this thoughts in the deepest corners of his heart, and reached his uncle’s home, which felt more like hell.
The next day, Ramam went to several places on business. There was no hope of finding any job anywhere. By the time he reached home it was quite late. It didn’t seem like anybody was home. The entire was dark as hell. In that very second, the little baby started screaming, as if to let Ramam know that he was there after all. The lady of the house lit up an oil lamp, the size of a nail, and assured the baby, “don’t cry, babu. Here, I’ve lit the lamp.” The baby was six months’ old. Ramam was scared to walk even one foot forward in that darkness. He was afraid just in case, afraid that he might step on some nutty cat, unknowingly.
He told the mother, “Give me a matchbox and the lantern. I’ll light it up,” he said, from the porch, without budging.
Suryam walked in and said to Ramam, “Oh, you’re back. I was waiting for you. Look, we’re out of kerosene and matchboxes. Take it from me; your pinni is a real thickhead. Shouldn’t she be taking care of such things while it was daylight? I went to Venkatesam’s house, hoping he would fill the lamp and light it up. But they all went to the movies. Nobody was home. Anyway, give me a half rupee. I’ll be back in half hour, with a wick lamp and matchbox.” He held out his hand for Ramam for the money. Ramam had no choice but give. Suryam was apologetic, “please, don’t get me wrong. I forgot where I put my purse. How can I find it in this darkness, you tell me. Don’t worry about it. I’ll return you money tomorrow.”
In the next three days, Ramam had few more experiences that are unusual. One afternoon, pinni garu served him only dal, rice and buttermilk. She said it was hard to get vegetables in the city, even after shelling down lot of money. As it turned out, that was not a single incident. Almost each day, she served chutney for lunch and rasam at night, while cursing the city for not making vegetables available. From what Ramam had seen, that house had been always wanting in something or other. There was only one thing that seemed to exist there—poverty. Still, they all were living, living with great assurance at that. None of them would admit that they were living in poverty. The husband called it his wife’s thickhead; she called it her husband’s amnesia.
One day Suryam said, “We’re out of rice. I told the storekeeper to send a bagful of rice but that idiot is so forgetful. Give me a rupee, babu, I’ll get rice from the store next door.” Once again, Ramam had no choice but give.
Out of the twenty rupees his father had given Ramam, Suryam babayi pocketed six rupees. He had no hope of ever getting them back. The only thing he could not figure out was: How they—two adults and seven children—could be managing to live, without any income, not even a paisa? Let’s forget the money they did not have. There was no cleanliness either. Ramam was disgusted with their language, habits as well as their behavior.
He could not meet Srinivasulu during the three days but he had to, of necessity, visit with other relatives. Each of the families had been living with a different set of values. Ramam’s father, Chandram, was part of the same genealogy, yet his ways were different. Chandram was an ordinary teacher; yet, he was not hit by poverty, or with filthiness. In his home, nobody suffered any illness. They had enough food to eat and clothes to wear. They did not want anything more. Chandrayya did not believe in radio, gramophone, cinema and such things. Even special occasions, he made sure they were performed on a simple scale as stated in the sastras. He would say, “It’s the performance of the ritual that’s important, not the show.” Chandrayya was convinced, based on his experience, that there was only one aim in life. For him, living meant
having food to eat and clothes to wear. Ramam was raised with that single value. He came to the same city, holding on to the same value—to find a job to meet his basic needs; he had not seen any life beyond that. Under the circumstances, inevitably all these characters—Suryam, Venkateswarlu and a pretend brother like Subba Rao—looked strange.
Venkateswarlu would go to the movies thrice a week, at the least. He would watch each movie twice at least; and would take his wife with him. His income was 70 rupees a month, and he is a father of two. He and his wife would go to the movies, leaving the children in their neighbor’s care. The strange thing about him was he could skip a meal for want of money; so also his wife. They would feed the children pakodi and water for supper; they must watch the movies, there was no compromise there. They were paying twenty rupees rent for their portion. The landlord cut off the electricity because they defaulted on rent. Still, it was not adding up. How could they manage with 70 rupees, even it meant spending only pakodi and the movies? Ramam, with his high school education, could not figure it out.
The rumor was Subba Rao’s father had amassed considerable wealth through his business; but now, it seems, his credit matched debit. Whatever it is, Subba Rao, being a rich man’s son, took twelve years to get through, from the ninth class to the pre-degree level, which he’d never finished. That puts his age somewhere around thirty. Arranging his marriage also took a long time; his parents could not find a bride befitting their status. Just a few months ago, he was married, which put an end to his education forever. His job search is another story. He would not take a small job, since that’s below his status; he’s still waiting for a job that could measure up to his social standing; that’s yet to come. In the meantime, his father had been sending him money, sufficient by his own computation. But, for Subba Rao and his new wife, the cash would last a
week, barely. The movies, boat trips, hotels—all these things would cost money. How’re they managing the other three weeks? – One more question that was perplexing for Ramam.
* * *
Ramam went to see Srinivasulu again, after four days. By then, Suseela had come home with the baby from the hospital. He had seen her in his childhood days. She recognized him right away and greeted him happily. Srinivasulu was not home. Ramam turned around, saying, “I’ll come back later.” But Suseela stopped him, “Wait, what’d you mean? Why act like we are strangers to you? Come on in sit down. Bava will be back in a few minutes. He told me, you came to the hospital.” She went on and on.
Varalakshmi came in with a cup of coffee. How did she know I was here? Ramam wondered for a second. He sat there sipping coffee and watching them. A few familiar
thoughts haunted him. How could these two women live in the same house? What a heartbreaker! Like Venkateswarlu had said yesterday, poor Suseela akkayya must be
heartbroken about this! Just for a second, all his sympathy leaned toward Suseela.
In the next second, he was jolted into the present. Suseela was about to get up to get some clothes for the baby. Varalakshmi jumped to her rescue, “Oh, no. What’s that? Why didn’t you say so, if you wanted something? You’re a new mother, you should stay in bed.” “Well, I didn’t have that kind of luxury even the first time. Why now?” Suseela said gently. There was no sarcasm in her tone, only tenderness.
Ramam was taken aback. What kind of women are these two? Is this all a show for his benefit? His shock did not last long, though. Srinivasulu, who was supposed to be in within fifteen minutes, did not show up even after a half hour. Within those thirty minutes, those two women, who’re known as savathulu, changed several of his opinions dramatically.
He told himself, “Suseela akkayya is not heartbroken, it’s not true. How can anybody, if heartbroken, be so kind and calm? It’s absolutely wrong to imagine that there’s a falling-out between these two women. They are quite happy; why the world is coming down hard on them?
Srinivasulu came home. Ramam told him about all the people he had met and what had been the outcome. While he was telling his story, Venkateswarlu showed up. Venkateswarlu was surprised to see Ramam there, and said, “Are you camping here now?”
“No, just came to see them,” Ramam replied.
Venkateswarlu pulled Srinivasulu to a side and said something. Srinivasulu went in; a little later, Varalakshmi came to the front porch and gave a bill, probably, five rupees. The bill was slipped into Venkateswarlu’s pocket and he disappeared into the street—all this happened in quick succession.
After 15 minutes or so, Suryam’s oldest son came with a handbag. He turned to Suseela and said, “Amma told me to bring some rice from you.” She said, “Ask Varalakshmi akkayya.” Ramam watched as the boy went in and returned with the bag filled with rice.
Ramam was stunned, what about all these people? They would sit on their steps and pour a volley of insults on the same Srinivasulu; and they had no problem borrowing
from the same man again. Strange people, he thought. But he could not hold himself; he muttered, “What’s this, bava! They’re all coming to you?”
Srinivasulu, took a strong puff, threw away the cigarette butt, and said, lightly, “Oh, that? That’s a mysterious riddle. They all banned me from our family circle; but the
banning rules do not apply to money and rice, you know.” And then, he added, “Forget them. What’s your program tomorrow? Would like to go to the movies with me?”
“Movies? No, bava. First, let me be done with the job on hand. I am almost done with the list dad handed to me; there’s one more gentleman to meet and I’m done. He’s out
of town; will be back tomorrow. After meeting him, I’m free.”
“His name is Seshagiri; works at the Collector’s office.”
“God bless you. Seshagiri? Why didn’t you tell me until now? I know him very well. I can get anything done that can be done with his help. Do you know who he is? A cousin of
Varalakshmi. He was my classmate too.” While speaking those words, Srinivasulu looked at Ramam with some misgivings. Ramam read a lot in those looks—I can help
you; and only I can, if anybody, can help you, and so on.
Ramam was stuck in a dubious situation—he didn’t know what to do. Srinivasulu patted on his shoulder and said, “You’re looking lost. You want to ask something; and also too scared to ask. I can see that. You are still raw, a sort of midstream of knowing and not knowing. Yet, you’re also smart. You have some understanding of worldly ways, but not their depth. This is the time for you to get a grip on things. You must have heard a lot about me. You’re curious about her—Who’s this Varalakshmi? What’s the story?” He
looked into Ramam’s eyes as if asking am I right?
In Ramam’s mind, that sounded just about right, at the same time, also like it was wrong. He would never ask Srinivasulu for an explanation, not on his own. However, since Srinivasulu started it, he wanted to know. He was curious.
“But,” Ramam said, fumbling for words.
“All our relatives here said lots of things about me, right? Now, you listen to me, what I want to say about myself. You are still young. Yet, your dad is pushing into the maze of life. Therefore, you listen to me; between the two of us, I am the adult. They all told you that I might be misguiding you, because you’re young. No worry there, I’ve no such plans. As far as I am concerned, in this wide world, each has to find his or her own path. It’s wrong to think that one person could turn into a bad person because of another. Any human becomes a bad person only because of his own stupidity. Nobody takes to evil ways, if he had a grasp of the ways of the world.” Srinivasulu looked at Ramam again, keenly. Ramam was listening to him closely.
Srinivasulu continued, “Let me summarize my life for you. Then you think about it—what is the underlying philosophy of these people? And what happens if we adopt their
philosophy blindly; put all your brains to work and draw your own conclusions. Varalakshmi had a dad like yours and mine. She was the only daughter. Just like all the
sisters in your family; she also was married, at eleven or twelve, into wealthy family. Unfortunately, the man died within a year. At the time, she barely had any idea about
money or the husband for that matter.
“But her father had a very good idea about the value of money. He fought with her in-laws and got 25 thousand rupees. She was still young and had no use for the money.
So he loaned it and collected the interest and thus increased its value. Some friends suggested remarriage but he would not hear of it; “over my dead body,” said her
father, who’s dead as of now. Varalakshmi went to school; she was good in her studies up to high school. Her brothers did not let her go to higher studies. They were worried
that, with better qualifications, she might fly away, and take the stash with her. But she had the spirit of freedom in her blood; and she was alert all the time. By the time she
was twenty, she had a few desires of her own. At the same time, people around started entertaining thoughts about her property.
“It was at that time, I was introduced to her by this same Seshagiri. She came to the K.G. Hospital; some problem with her eyes. Ramam, she was looking for a man who would take care of her and her property. You could say it is a lottery; for some reason, I was that man in her eyes. She said she put her trust in me; and I said, fine, I would not
destroy your trust. I could not. Want to know why? Well, think about it; a beautiful woman, with considerable wealth, came to me, looking for me; am I not man enough not to take it? We’re not married, not because we’re stupid. On the other hand, we both are very smart. We’re aware that marriage would mean trouble for her property. Bigamy is against law, you know; we’d lose on both counts.” Srinivasulu stopped to look at Ramam again.
Ramam was listening without batting an eye.
“Wouldn’t she lose her heart over this?”
To speak the truth, Ramam would not make such comment. He just came to understand that there was no harm done.
But Srinivasulu resumed, “Suseela had come to see that this is one way for us to have a happy life. I don’t think it was patience or generosity on her part. She’s the kind of
those people who would grovel on rich investors. She’s Suryam’s daughter after all. In fact, she went into bonkers because her father ruined my property; she whined more
than I did. After her father lost most of my land, we sold the remaining strip; that money was gone in no time. If Varalakshmi had not entered into our lives, we would have been in the same position as your Suryam babayi. But, see now! Suseela and her children are wanting for nothing. The entire burden of the family is being straightened because of
Varalakshmi.“Let’s check this out, too. Suseela is a woman, after all; wouldn’t feel jealous? People wonder about her. The truth is jealous results from disappointment. Her womanhood has been satiated ever since she was 14-years old; therefore, she has no such disappointments. By the time Varalakshmi came here, Suseela is already a mother of
four. Now her wish is only that her children and she should have a good life, no reason to push away that wealth. She’s very happy internally that now she has got an easy way to have that good life.
“Don’t get me wrong; no reason to wonder why I was explaining all my life in such a great detail. You might even be thinking that what’s my greatness in this? After all, a
wealthy woman walked into my arms freely; and I took advantage of it. No, Ramam, I am not saying this is all my accomplishment. What I am saying is, everybody in the
entire world wants to take advantage of it and use it to his or her selfish ends, without hurting others, if and when an opportunity came their way. I know how their minds
work—all those people who had been cursing me and speaking ill of me. They’re whining because they did not get such an opportunity; even Suseela is aware of it. Tell me, how smart is she? Look at the neighbors; they all keep comforting her endlessly. And Suseela does not have the poise to turn around and say to their face, stop, my husband
did nothing wrong; he is a hero. No, she can’t do that. Therefore, she also joins them, and says what can I do? This is all my karma. Whatever’s gotten into his head and
heaves a desperate sigh. And then, she comes home and says to me, idiots, they’re jealous because we’re happy.
“Let me say this. I won a lottery. They all played it and lost. Know what I did? I turned over my entire financial matters to Varalakshmi. Each morning, somebody or other from those families, will come to my door, asking for something–salt, dal, one anna or one rupee. That’s not loan but begging, if you ask me. They all know that each paisa they’d been spending belonged to that ‘woman’. Each one of them holds out his or her hand, every day, to that very ‘woman’ kept by Srinivasulu. I wanted that happen and for that reason I would not keep even one paisa with me. My entire family, including the baby born last week, and I are the pet parrots of Varalakshmi.
“Probably, you are astonished but that is my story,” Srinivasulu finished his story. He narrated a long story, but without showing any emotion. He narrated it smoothly and
happily, as if he was narrating somebody else’s story.
There are some people in this world; they’re like an inquisitive student who wants to know every little thing that happens in this world. That student feels inexplicable
pleasure after the teacher taught him a new lesson. He goes around telling everybody, hey, guess what, I’ve learned a new lesson today. Ramam experienced exactly the same kind childish pleasure as that student. Not only that until now, nobody talked to him about people and the world. At home, whenever he tried to ask what was happening, all he’d got was the same reply. His mother and father would tell him, no need for you to bother about. The strange part is, the same parents tell him, you’re not a child, and rush him, when it comes to taking up a job, getting married and producing children. On the other hand, to learn about all the worldly matters, he is still too young!
Ramam felt elated. Srinivasulu had no reservations at all; he opened up to him, and told him his entire story. It was like Srinivasulu took him into his confidence, gave him an
even a respectable status! Ramam was buried in books until yesterday; now suddenly he opened up like a bud that was moved into a favorable environment. Now he understood the whole world; that’s how he was feeling, at the least.
The feeling suffocated him. He felt reverential toward Srinivasulu. He couldn’t speak for a few minutes. And then he got up to leave, “I’ve to go. See you tomorrow.”
“What’d you mean see you? Just come early in the morning. We will go to Seshagiri and get the appointment order by evening. After that, you’re going to be a plus for all the
five families here. Pretty soon, they all will perform your marriage with a young woman. That’s the way you are, right? Your father said I’ve put you through school. Now, go and get a job. And here are, looking for a job. Same thing. Your father will tell you to get married and you will get married. In this blessed country of ours, what kind of job you think you can get? Nobody would be willing to pay better than 60 or 70, at the most. Bless god. I am not saying anything wrong with that. But, Ramam, you’ve made a mistake in the past. For the job you’re going to get, you didn’t have to work hard and rank first in school. There is no need for you to earn the title that you were the smartest school in school. You should’ve left that opportunity to another student, who’s planning to go to America or England. Never mind, past is past. Take the job. But never come to me for a five or ten, like Venkateswarlu. If your father arranges your marriage, go ahead and get married. But never live like Subba Rao. Same thing with the way your Suryam babayi live; that’s despicable. And also, you’d better decide how you’d spend the 60 or 70 you’re going to make. You decide how much you’d spend on your royal wife and how much to keep for yourself. Or else, you can choose to take to bad ways, like Srinivasulu, and have a good life. That’s all I am saying. Don’t ever try to live a pious life like all those people. So, are you coming tomorrow?”
Srinivasulu finished his speech and let Ramam go. With this speech, Ramam lost the enthusiasm he had felt earlier; it was like a bolt from nowhere. Suddenly, he felt like his future flashed in front of his eyes. A series of images rose in his mind’s eye—the dark house of Suryam babayi, his children, and the five-year old girl who was stricken with typhoid a year before and who now looks like a skeleton and her sorry face that never recovered. He recalled what pinni garu said at the suppertime; she said the child fell sick and was in bed for 48 days. She could not describe all the suffering they’d been through at the time—the doctors they’d contacted, the money they’d spent, it was endless. For Ramam, that was unimaginable. A few months back, his sister also contracted the same disease; and she was given the new medication recently had come into the market. She was fine in three days. How come this little girl was not given the same medication?
In his mind, it was horrible. How could these families live such a miserable life? And even worse was the way they were covering it up. He started wondering. Does every poor person turn into such a miserable human being? If that’s the case, will he also become one of them? Suppose he would take the job, with 60 rupees, income because dad said so. How long could be happy? What if these relatives arrange his marriage, like Srinivasulu indicated? Could he say no? In fact, there is his uncle’s daughter in the wings. He knew full well that he did not have the guts to protest. Even after he had a job, he would still be relying on dad, what a misery! Like Srinivasulu said, he would be getting 60 rupees at the most, and that would not be enough to run a family. Look at the way Venkateswarlu is living. He earns 70 rupees. His life may not as bad as Suryam’s; but the difference is very little. Ramam knew he was not going to waste on the movies, like they do. But he also knew he could not default on rent for years at a stretch. He would not stop paying the electricity bill. If he were to pay all the bills in time, he would not have anything for food. He had to eat pakodi and fill the stomach with water. But then again, aren’t there many people in this world, who make only 60 or 70 a month and still are alive? Well, maybe they are alive. Probably, that is how some of them are ending their lives. And some of them are living because they could not die. Some of them are dying a living death. What is all this—life, death, loans, bribes—what is the meaning of all this? That’s life. Oh, my god, what a terrible thing this life is!
A host of questions and answers produced thunder, lightning and a huge storm in his head. Amidst that light and darkness, he drew a picture of his future; and he was
scared to look at it. He felt a monstrous shudder, dread and the feel of a ten-year old—all at once.
Ramam returned to Suryam babayi’s home. Before he could step inside, he saw Subba Rao at the end of the street. He invited Ramam to his home. Ramam didn’t like the idea,
but followed him nonetheless.
Subba Rao rented a two-room apartment. In the front room, there was a rosewood chair, from their grandfather’s time; it has ivory lion-heads on both the arms. A cabinet with mirrors was in a corner. The floor was covered with a worn out, expensive carpet. The walls were filled with several photographs of politicians and gods in equal proportion and a few sceneries. The remaining wall was covered with two,
three-years old calendars. Last time Ramam was here, he did not go in. He sat on the front porch. Therefore, he did not have the pleasure of witnessing all this past glory. Then Subba Rao invited him into the next room, “Come in. See our house.” In that room, there was a modern
rosewood dressing table. It was filled with facial creams, face powder, perfume bottles and a silver elephant incense stick holder. Closer to the wall there was a double bed;
and, enlarged pictures of movie stars on the wall. In all, that room was an exemplary bedroom with a mix of old and new. Ramam has no opinion in such matters. Yet, he honestly tried to understand the high-class lifestyle of Subba Rao. His wife, the little young lady, was busy in the dark dungeon called kitchen. Subba Rao called her, “Bring us coffee and tiffin.” She danced her way into the room, with a cunning
smile, and said, “It’s almost time for supper. Now coffee? Have lemon juice.” Then she went in and returned with two glasses of lemon juice. How could it be suppertime, it’s
only six? Ramam had a time swallowing the drink—it was a horrible mix of sweet, sour and bitter taste.
Subba Rao said, jokingly, “Hey, Ramam! How come you went to Suryam babayi’s house? A royal guest there? You didn’t even eat once at our place? So be it, let’s go to a movie, You’d passed the exam, came to the city, you must see one movie at the least. What do you say?”
For the moment, Ramam felt the same thing. Yes, why not go to the movies? He was feeling boggled down for sometime now. “Okay, let’s go,” he replied.
Subba Rao nearly jumped with joy. He called his wife, “Sita, get ready in a minute. We’re going to the movies.” He rushed her; and Sita is always ready for the movies. They all left right away.
On the way, Subba Rao stopped at Venkateswarlu’s house and invited him too.
“Movies? I was thinking of the same thing,” and he joined them. After they all reached the theater, each one of them put his hand in the pocket.
Subba Rao said, “Oh, no. I forgot my wallet. I rushed out fearing that we could be late,” and turned to Venkateswarlu, “You buy the tickets.”
Venkateswarlu pulled out one rupee from his pocket and said, “This is all I have. I didn’t know so many of us until I set out, right?” and put it back in his pocket.
Ramam had to pull out ten rupees from his pocket and purchase tickets for all of them; had no other choice. By the time the movie ended, Ramam ended up paying for drinks,
cigarettes and snacks too. Sita broke into tears while, biting the pakodi.
“What’s the matter, Sita? Are the pakodi too hot?” Subba Rao asked her.
“No, not the pakodi. It’s so hard to watch their separation,” she said.
The story ended happily. On the way back, Sita said gleefully, “What a beauty, that heroine!”
Venkateswarlu said, “Forget the heroine. The pakodis are so tasty!”
They arrived at Subba Rao’s house. “Thanks to you, Ramam. We’ve seen a nice movie.”
Ramam’s head spun like a top. He could not recall what happened at the theater. It was depressing. He did not have pakodi or soda. He was hungry. He dragged himself to
babayi’s house. They all were sleeping. It took a half hour before somebody came and opened the door for him.
“Are you already in bed, pinni garu? I went to the movies. They all insisted. Sorry, I am giving you trouble,” Ramam said.
“What trouble? No trouble to open the door, right?” she said.
“Not that. Serving food at this late hour …”
“Your uncle said you went to Srinivasulu’s home. I thought you’d eat there. Oh, my silly boy! Here, have this,” she said. She gave him a glass of buttermilk. Ramam could hardly
look at the glass, an old, discolored enamel piece. He closed his eyes and gulped the drink. Then he spread his bed on the front porch and lay down, with his knees pulled up to his chest.
Next morning, Srinivasulu was waiting for Ramam. They were planning to go to Seshagiri, together. Ramam arrived a half hour late; he did not come alone. He brought his suitcase with him. His eyes were drawn in; the face was looking beat up. Within one day, he looked like he was sick for six months.
“What’s the matter?” Srinivasulu asked him.
“I’m not feeling good, bava! I am going home. I’ll be back,” he replied.
“Are you running fever? How can you travel like that?”
“It’s okay. I can. I can’t stay here anymore. I want to go home.”
Varalakshmi came into the room.
“I’m leaving, akkayya,” Ramam told her.
“So I heard. You’re not feeling well?” she said, and turned to Srinivasulu, “He never left home, I suppose. It seems he is homesick.”
For some reason, Ramam felt at home in her presence; wanted to talk to her. He picked up the courage and said, “Not homesick, akkayya! It is the people in this town; they can make anybody sick.”
Varalakshmi did not follow his remark; she looked at Srinivasulu. Srinivasulu ignored her and said, “Oh, that’s what it is. Okay, now I’m convinced; our boy is going to do just fine. Listen, you should learn to stay from such sick folks; not falling sick because of them, that is not right.”
“That’s what I’m trying to do; staying away from them,” Ramam replied, and turned to Varalakshmi, “Now I must leave, akkayya! If I ever to come to this town again, I’m
camping here, in your home. Where’s Suseela akkayya? Want to say goodbye to her too before I left.”
Ramam took leave of them all; his rickshaw moved.
* * * *
Ramam went home and announced his latest decision. He had decided to continue his studies—an uncanny result of his visit to the city. Chandrayya heard the decision and, in the next second, he hit the roof. “What’s gotten into you? Whoever’s coached you? What’s there to study more?” he shouted at his son.
“Nobody’s coached me, nanna! I don’t feel working yet. I want to continue studies,”
Ramam repeated his decision once again.
“Do you have any idea, at what age, I started as a teacher? You don’t want to work yet, you say. You’re going to be an adult in a year. Are you thinking you’re still a child?”
Parvathamma, Ramam’s mother, intervened, “Let it be. He is young, isn’t he? Even otherwise, young or old, he is the only son for us. Let him have his way.”
“Nice, you’re supporting him too? What do you mean, harping on, study, study? Why spend ten more years on studies and go bankrupt? Doesn’t it make sense to start
saving from now on? Tell me, who’s going to benefit from this education?”
“Well, he’s saying he would take care of the expenses himself, if you don’t want to. All he wanted okay from you,” Parvathamma said.
“He said that too. He’s lost his brain with this trip, I suppose. So be it. Tell him to go to hell and do whatever he pleased.”
Ramam set out leave, fearing what else he might have hear, if he stayed there any longer. He did hear the last remarks of his father, though.
* * * *
Ramam sat down on the beach at twilight and was thinking about himself. He looked at the sky and the birds flying in the air. He was talking to his father, who was not present,
Nanna, I don’t know how to explain it to you. I am not saying I want to study to save the world or to achieve something big in my life. You’re right about one thing. After visiting the city, my head spun. I saw the people live like frogs in a rut, biting each other, and eating up each other. That environment made me sick to the stomach. I don’t
believe that I would land a fancy job because of my higher education. Know why I want to go to the college? To escape from life; to fly like a bird freely in the sky. Nanna, you
cannot understand this. All those people are amazing powers—the story of Srinivasulu and Varalakshmi; Suryam babayi and his rowdy children; the typhoid skeleton; Subba
Rao and Venkateswarlu; and their extravagant lifestyles—they all opened my eyes. How can I explain all this to you? I need to scrutinize the world with this new vision one more time and make my decision in regard to my place in this world. My education is going to serve that purpose.
(Translated by Nidadavolu Malathi and published on thulika.net, April 2005)
(Telugu original, vaallu paadina bhuupaala raagam, was published in Telugu swatantra, in the early sixties.)