Tag Archives: R. Vasundhara Devi

R. Vasundhara Devi


Vasundhara deviIt was recognized all-round that Kalindi’s husband Vijayarama Rao was not a practical man, but nobody said it in so many words. Everyone seemed to respect him. When he spoke about worldly affairs, they listened attentively.

But Kalindi felt a vague unease. It took some time for her to understand that there was a problem. People were mainly interested in material success, but Vijayarama Rao was happy discussing abstract values and philosophies in life and had not much to say about moving up in the world!

That wealth was the measure of a man’s worth was an issue that frequently came up for discussion when Kalindi visited her parent’s home. But Kalindi could not understand the full implications of it. She was content with her own understanding of life. “They don’t know!” she used to think with a superior air.

Since her father’s death, Kalindi’s mother, Kanthamma, lived alone in the village. Like Kalindi, her brother and sister had married and left home. On occasions when she visited her mother, they talked about many things casually.


Kanthamma sat on the floor with a winnow, cleaning rice, while Kalindi relaxed on the bed, with a book in hand.

Suddenly she put her book down and said, “I wrote three letters to him. He never cared to reply! He sends a greeting card on new-year’s day but he never writes. He has grown lazy!’’

Her mother didn’t reply. Kalindi was irritated.

“What is with Raji?” she said, ”She never writes either! When I press her, she says that she talks to him on the phone whenever she feels like it. She tells me to get a phone in my home. She thinks writing letters is boring! See how they have changed…To think that we are all children of this family!”

Kanthamma was silent for a while. Then she felt impelled to respond to enlighten Kalindi.

She said in a gentle voice but in her usual blunt way, “maybe they are a little indifferent because you are not well-to-do!’’

She was being frank. After a pause she continued, “that is my worry too…if only your son had some luck! Habits and attitudes go with affluence and you can’t blame them!’’

Kalindi didn’t quite grasp what her mother had said. It was a shock, which she slowly absorbed. She suppressed her emotions within herself and was silent.

Memories crowded her mind. As an elder sister, she had narrated stories to them, taught them lessons and cleared their doubts. Childhood memories of caring intimacy and togetherness alone remained with her…Maybe she had not followed the changes in their attitudes with the passage of time. Even now, she could not convince herself that the `I`, the focal point of human emotions, paid court to riches. But now, the attitudes of her own siblings challenged her. The uncertain future of her son, Sasi Babu, questioned her assurance.

When Kalindi was taking leave of her mother for her return journey, Kanthamma gave her two hundred rupees to buy a sari as she usually did. At the sight of the money Kalindi felt irritated and wanted to refuse it. Her mother seemed to insult her by offering that money. She didn’t need it, she told herself with disgust. But she controlled herself and quietly put the money in her purse. It was mother’s habit to give money to her daughters in lieu of the customary gift of a saree every time one of them visited her. By rejecting the money this time, she would only expose her pique!

She had learnt a bitter truth and returned home with a heavy heart.



Returning home from school, Vijayarama Rao announced to Kalindi that Shyamal Rao and Rajayya would be arriving at six p.m. They were his old college-mates. They had hailed from a village near Guntur and had rented a room in the town near Vijayarama Rao’s house. The three of them had always been together back in their college days. Vijayarama Rao and Shyamal Rao were bright in studies, while Rajayya was just average. Rajayya admired Rama Rao and used to constantly be around him. After college, Rajayya entered politics and became an M.L.A. and was considered a successful man. Shyamal Rao started as a salesman of automobile spare parts and he too went up the ladder of success. Both of them had purchased land together on the town outskirts and had laid out house sites, amassing jointly a crore of rupees. Vijayarama Rao, working as a teacher in his old high school, earned a good name and was now the head master of the school. With his salary, he was able to make both ends meet and lived a simple, happy life. Even now, whenever Rajayya visited his constituency, the three of them invariably met in Vijayarama Rao’s home.

Kalindi thought these visits were pointless as the three of them had very different attitudes to life and as their lives had taken different directions. Now she started on a sarcastic remark but desisted and said instead, “this is our Sasi’s last chance for taking service commission exams, considering age-bar. For people like us, a government job is the only straightforward way to make a decent living these days. A first class M.Com., he should have found a good, well-paid job long time ago, if there had been fair play. You should mention this to your friend Rajayya and get something done about it. Otherwise what is the meaning of this friendship?”

“Well, let us see!’’ said her husband.


That gave Kalindi some hope. She started making preparations to offer them coffee even though he didn’t ask her to. Sometime ago, he had asked her to serve coffee to a visitor, and she had replied: “I have the responsibility to provide a wholesome diet to this family from the meager allowance I get from you. I find it hard enough. How can we keep up extra formalities and proprieties when our income is so limited?’’ He became thoughtful and said, “Perhaps you don’t have milk?” Of course she had milk! A middle-class housewife is so resourceful and discreet she can supply coffee to visitors today and make the next day’s buttermilk thinner with water. Or she can say, “I don’t feel like drinking coffee today and I don’t need buttermilk tomorrow because I am in for a bad cold!” Or she can tell her youngest son, “You have been so good today! I will give you your favorite tea instead of milk!” She always could manage, but that day, she had been in a carping mood when she had said it. Since then he had not asked her to serve coffee or snacks to visitors…

When the three friends assembled, many topics came up for discussion.

“A man is born. He dies. He is forgotten, if that is all there is to it, why live? Is life utterly meaningless? These days I am afraid to find myself alone. Thoughts like these trouble me,” said Rajayya morosely.

“You are only fifty, and it is too early for such resignation. When you reach seventy, you may consider that aspect. For now, you should concentrate on becoming a cabinet minister so you may serve the community better!” said Shyamal Rao, trying to cheer him up.

During the recent apportionments of ministerial posts, Rajayya’s name had figured prominently twice in the newspapers, but he hadn’t made it. Instead he was doled out a corporation chairmanship. He was affronted by this disdain shown by those in power but was quietly biding his time.

Now Rajayya perked up and said, “The first fundamental requisite for democracy is equality of opportunity. It should be open to all men in a proper setup. When it is not so, the great ideal of democracy degenerates into organized self-aggrandizement. Any position of power—a mere clerk or officer or a cabinet minister–becomes a means to promote oneself, one’s family and one’s caste. The higher the position, the greater is the harm to society. Therefore those in the highest posts should not be allowed to be stay put. No minister should stay in office for more than five years!” Rajayya spoke with vehemence.

The speciousness of the argument amused Vijayarama Rao. Rajayya had started with the roots of democracy and ended up with an implied claim for his ministership! He noticed that Rajayya was fast molding himself into an accomplished politician. Earlier, he could never have spoken with such a gloss!

“Look here, a lecture like this is for the masses. Now you have to think about what to do to improve the situation. My view is this: there is The Blessed Lord, the all-giver. If He wills, everything becomes possible. If you really desire a minister’s berth, make your request with a promise of a substantial offering to the Lord and go for it!” That was from Shyamal Rao, the practical, no-nonsense man.

“If the Lord grants all that you ask for, he is the blessed all-giver! If he doesn’t, then he is not?” said Vijayarama Rao with a smile.

“Well, if one’s desire is fulfilled, it is a blessing. Is it not?” said Shyamal Rao with irritation.

“You appeal to God, collect all the good things and call him the blessed all-giver. Those who miss on the good things, what should they call him?” countered Vijayarama Rao. “God is the cause of all happenings, wished for or not. So blessedness can only be found in understanding Him as the giver of all experiences – not just boons. Asking for boons is a kind of relationship with him certainly, but understanding Him as the universal supreme Blessedness is a different matter altogether,” he explained.

In the next room Kalindi was listening to this discussion with impatience. She had been waiting for her husband to mention their son, but he hadn’t. He went on talking philosophy! She despaired and grew angry.

Shyamal Rao said impatiently, “Rajayya has no children, no bothers. Philosophic speculations overwhelm you, Vijayarama Rao, and you don’t bother about worldly matters. My mind is filled with worries–how to secure a college seat for my boy, how to put him in the way of earning, how to get my son-in-law promoted in his job …I will have peace of mind only if Rajayya gets his ministership by the time my son graduates!”

“It’s true I have no children. But I have my brother’s family to look after. Even a yogi who has renounced the world has the welfare of the world at heart. My nephew, Shekhar, has finally gotten through his B. Com. He wants to join the commercial taxes department or become a bank officer! He is not interested in other common jobs. I have to see what can be done for him!” said Rajayya.

“Ah, Shekhar! He is a genius, smarter than Gautama Buddha! Did he not suggest, when he was a little boy, that Gautama should have stayed in his palace and still gotten his enlightenment by going occasionally into the forest in his golden chariot? He is a very shrewd fellow, no doubt about it! You take up his case this year, but you must help my boy next year!” said Shyamal Rao, clinching the issue with a flourish of his hand.

Kalindi stopped listening. Her eyes turned on the wall opposite where a fat gecko waited, calmly meditating, with its whole concentration on a moving, little fly. The unwary insect flitted about singing, flapping its diaphanous wings, unaware of danger. Suddenly the gecko made a dart across the wall, grabbed the insect between its jaws and resumed its contemplation. The insect’s flutter stopped. The lizard moved its jaws three times earnestly, tenderly, and solemnly. There was no insect any more. The lizard moved away to resume its meditation elsewhere…

When the outcome of the recruitment was finally announced after an inordinate delay, Sasi came home silent and crestfallen. He failed to get a selection. Rajayya’s nephew got his lucrative commercial taxes job.

Kalindi stared out of the window with a vacant gaze–the men on the street in front of her, the trees and plants in her front yard, and their unmoving leaves–all frozen into a picture that she did not take in or perceive.

When Vijayarama Rao returned from school in the evening, Kalindi said sneering, “On that day you took a lot of trouble to explain to your friends about God’s blessings. Please explain that to me now, I will be enlightened. Has it anything to do with fair play and justice?”

Vijayarama Rao in a tone of mild admonition said, “ Look here, Kalindi, disappointment and sorrow are private and personal. They could become gifts and enable the mind to explore its own depths and gain clarity. But a mind fixated on the `fruit of action` gets tossed about. Hope and despair, success and failure, ups and downs—these dualities become demons gnawing on it. It’s not free to laugh. It is a long time since you have laughed, do you realize that? If there were an inevitable link between worldly success and laughter, most people in our country would never dare even to breathe, let alone laugh! But the wonderful thing is, the capacity to laugh still exists with the lowly—the failures in life, according to you!

”You ask me to explain “blessedness”. God or truth can be felt by man; but not understood by mind through words. Because word is only a symbol for some idea or thing and it is for the mind to grasp its import. It understands only through contrast. It defines Blessedness as non-unhappiness, non-frustration and non-sin; it defines purity as non-pollution; even the word ‘I’ is defined as ‘not the rest of the world’.

I am `I` because I have my own individual presence! I do what comes naturally for me and move on. About Sasi, I am not worried. I am sure he will find some good way to live in comfort. You may think that I am not doing my duty properly as a father. But only if you stop thinking that way you will be able to understand what I am saying.”

“He thinks his responsibility is over!” she thought unhappily. There were several sharp retorts she could make in reply, but somewhere deep inside she seemed to appreciate what he had said and was troubled. What good are this inner order, this good faith, and this moral certainty in practical affairs? He doesn’t understand! Could it get her son a job according to his merit? Nirmala could hear her mother admonish: You can’t blame them! That is the way of the world! I hope your son has some luck! Luck!

“There is a whole practical world out there! It will never show any respect for people like us!” she shot back bitterly.

“A person’s life is his very own. His actions proceed from his own sanctions. If the world can come to understand and approve his ways, well and good!” Vijayarama Rao’s response was immediate.


She knew him. She knew his way of thinking. She knew well enough that that was the only answer he could give! Her problem and its solution were no part of this reply but the words coming from his mind were clear and firm. The power in them touched her.

Vijayarama Rao looked at her unhappily. ”I know you are not happy with my way of thinking and this quiet way of life. You are not happy.” His tone was now uncertain. “I don’t know how to be different. Times might change, I hope, for a more forthright social Order!” He stopped and looked away.

Listening to his halting, hesitant words, Kalindi felt a tender affection flooding her. What is he apologizing for? Of-course he is right, she thought, as a warm, protective impulse seized her.

She became aware of something she had lost sight of—a connection that superceded the dichotomy in thought, that something universal and at the same time intense and personal, a sweetness, a trust, an affirmation, a far-away music…

With this connection restored, the heavy burden that had been weighing on her now lightened. Culture and its mores are changing things. I don’t have to be enmeshed in an uncritical scramble unless I choose to. And I would hate myself if I did! Realization of this simple truth came as a surprise and a relief for her.

Kalindi sighed and smiled self-consciously. “Of-course, Sasi will find some proper way to make a living! We know how to live modestly…we will get by…” Her words were gentle. “You are a teacher with a simple answer for every problem!” She concluded, laughing.

The world outside the window had come alive. Kalindi saw some men bustling along, talking and laughing. She could hear the burr of an auto-rickshaw and the tring-tringing of a hurrying cyclist. Inside the compound, a group of sparrows busily twittered, picking on the ground. She absorbed the yellow merriment radiating from the small patch of chrysanthemums. She fondly observed the jasmine creeper confidently hugging the trellis, the white laughter of its maiden flowers peeping through its greenery. By the compound wall, two coconut palms stood proudly erect… Kalindi took this blessedness in and hastened to the kitchen to start on her evening routine.




 Published on thulika.net, July 2004.


(The Telugu original, KALYANA MURTI translated by the author, published in the Deepavali special issue, JAGRITI, 1983.


“If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music he hears, however measured or far away.   — DAVID HENRY THOREAU.

I knew some people in India–just normal people–who lived and felt the way Vijaya Rama Rao felt about life and the right way to live.

Maitri, a sharp New Yorker, born 1986, had this comment to make about the content of this story: “The husband, when he is explaining to the wife his outlook on life, he seems to be more preaching than explaining to someone who is on the same intellectual level as he is. The reader sympathizes with the wife, and the reader wouldn’t want the wife to be condescended to. Maybe it’s just me being slightly feministic—but I don’t really like the concept of the husband “teaching” the wife the way to live her life.”

Back then perceptions were different. Generally, Women were mostly homemakers and were raised to accept man as more worldly-wise and men called it “joint decision making” [Socratic style?] –Vasundhara Devi.) 


Published on thulika.net, July 2004

R. Vasundhara Devi

Shadows by R. Vasundhara Devi.

There was only one scene visible all around – a hardened expanse of red soil.  Some red mounds and hills lay scattered here and there.  A small signboard next to one of the hills said “DOKKA  SEETHAMMA’S  SHELTER” in rounded white letters.

Along the slopes of that hill, several people hung around, playfully. Their sport was tearing up each other and chewing the body parts. One man was running around actively; he was of thin build  and wore dark blue pants and a blue shirt. He was laughing with his mouth wide open and for no perceptible reason. As he laughed, his strong set of teeth and his red gums enveloped half his dark, long face. Still laughing, he broke off the left hand of the man standing to his left and started chewing on it. At the same time, his right hand plucked off the entrails of the man on his right. He moved around briskly and preyed on everybody around him. His movements were precise. There was no fumbling, no flaw. He got whatever he reached for.

A few feet away from this ghastly crowd, a baby girl sat on a stool, looking like a sandalwood statuette. She had a radiant face and a sparkling glow emanated from her. Her large dark eyes followed their movements with an innocent look. Suddenly, some of the group noticed her and trotted over toward her, jovially. The dark man was leading them. He was almost there; he could extend his arm and reach her. His arm shot out…

Nirmala woke up and sat up on the bed. Her heart was beating rapidly. She was terrified of getting caught by him. It took ten minutes for her to realize that all this was just a dream. She had a strong feeling that she was the baby in her dream, and was greatly alarmed. In a world, where selfish people were chewing up others, Nirmala was that little child.

Based on the features of the dark man in her dream, she had no doubt that he was the very same Bhaskaram that ran errands for her. He worked as a janitor in her husband’s office. He had been doing a good job, no matter what kind of work was assigned to him. Since he was terminated from several of his previous employments in the past, he was afraid that he might lose this job as well and for that reason he was being cautious all times. That was the reason he was assigned to work at Nirmala’s house. In general, there were not many who could finish a chore to her satisfaction. Bhaskaram finished each job thoroughly, meticulously, patiently, and neatly. Nirmala was impressed with his work but she could not bring herself to like him.

Bhaskaram came from that ethnic group who had suffered patiently all the hardships meted out to them out of communal prejudices, and continued merely to exist. That’s how it had been for them for generations. Nirmala noticed that his undershirt looked like a rag thrown away after cleaning the grime off a greasy machine, and similarly revolting underpants while he did the yard-work. But he would put on a clean shirt and a not-so-objectionable pair of pants over them when he was “on duty”. He was twenty-five and already a father of three children. Although skinny, he did his job with great zeal. He listened attentively to people while they talked, but never expressed his opinion except for an occasional ‘yes’.  It was in his nature to be silent. He was skilled though in entering into the innermost recesses of the other person’s mind –as easily as water slithering under a mat. Since he had understood very well that the power that made any man act was the need born out of selfishness. Therefore he could identify their needs; he knew what pleased them and what annoyed them. Whenever he could, he would go and undertake odd jobs for ‘important’ people; sometimes because he was asked to and at other times on his own.

Every such acquaintance developed into something of value within a short period; he was showered with gifts that were useful for his living. Even Bhaskaram was never sure of what things he would receive, when he would get them, and from whom; things like used shirts, pants, children’s  clothes, left-over foods, last year’s pickles, sarees, and empty wooden crates came to him unasked. But these oddments could never match the labor he had put in, in an attempt to earn their goodwill. People stopped short of recognizing his ability to intuit their needs; they didn’t appreciate his concern for them.

When nobody else was home and Nirmala was taking her bath, he would sit in the yard on the other side of the bathroom wall coughing and clearing his throat and spitting it with a rude cackle. Nirmala would interpret the din as meant to assure her that he was sittingoutside and did not enter the house to steal things. When she was in the kitchen, dining room or bathroom, he poked into the sewer pipes connected to that particular room from the other side and scraped them with a grating noise. For Nirmala, his actions seemed to tell her, “I am doing this cleaning work unasked; you’d better make a note of it.”

Sometimes, when she was busy with something and turned around, she would find him standing right behind her with a smile on his face, as if eagerly waiting to help her, to please her and simply to exist in  a matter-of-fact way. On such occasions, Nirmala would be alarmed and shudder at this startling presence. His very silence would become a huge roar in her heart. She would get annoyed, angry, afraid and despondent. She would think without thinking: this subservience is a gimmick to hang on to his job and to serve his own ends. He would not hesitate to smash my head if he thought fit and he would have no compunctions if the world and me disappeared without a trace – I, me and my living, my living and me – that’s all there is to it. With such thoughts, her misgivings about Bhaskaram grew rapidly. True he lied at times, but everybody lies. He did not steal or do anything wrong. He never said ‘no’ to her command anytime. Yet Nirmala’s mistrust continued.

There was another reason for Nirmala to be apprehensive about Bhaskaram  – that was his shadow. Nirmala did not like any shadows for that matter. She was scared of them; she hated them. Shadows possessed a peculiar trait. They would sneak upon and into each other; diminish the value of things and blotch them; give us the impression that there was no concrete object that could be authenticated; the only verifiable object was the Sun existing at a great distance and making rest of the entire array of objects in this world—animate and inanimate—into a bunch of lies.

There was also another reason why Nirmala disliked shadows—the way she perceived them. When a person behind her walked towards her left, she would see the shadow moving towards her right; and when he moved to her left, the shadow moved to her right. Nirmala was not in the habit of seeing a person straight; she noticed only his shadow. When a servant went into the house and she would wonder about he might be doing inside, then she would turn around only to find him outside. Or, when she thought he was busy in the backyard, she would see the same person coming from inside the house. This confused her very much.

Bhaskaram’s shadow baffled her even more. Was he intentionally trying to confuse her? Did he have the habit of walking sideways like a crab? – many such thoughts had crowded her mind in the past. Not that she was an unjust person. She never liked suspecting people without proof and without questioning them first. She believed that all persons deserved respect, every person was entitled to self-esteem, and the entire world was divine.

“Our Nirmala is pure-hearted, befitting her name. She is literally nirmala – pure and untainted” her father said once in her childhood days. She would never forget those words. To her, her father equaled God.

In looks, Nirmala resembled her mother. A mother of two, short and burly, Nirmala looked like a bulb. She had a big head. But her eyes, nose and mouth were delicate, as if they did not belong to that big head. She was always in a rush, running around with an easy gait despite her size. Because of this agility, people mistook her for one under thirty, which was her real age. She wore expensive clothes but put them on rather carelessly and shabbily. Her resemblance to her mother stopped there.

Ever since her childhood, Nirmala had a low opinion of her mother. Her mother was not educated; she was not sophisticated; and she had no principles. Nothing in the world mattered to her except her family and their well-being. She did not have the sense to recognize others as human beings. Nirmala was convinced that her mother was coarse, that she behaved rudely, especially toward servants. She yelled at them constantly and found fault with their work. Anytime something was missing, she blamed them even without proof. There were times when the missing object was found in some corner in the house. Wouldn’t that mean that the person was blamed unwarrantedly! Even when the thing was really stolen, only one of the four servants questioned was the real thief; the other three were innocent. That was not right, not fair and it was even a great sin to disgrace people in that manner for no fault of theirs. Nirmala did not appreciate hurting people for small losses. Why in the world one stupid little thing is valued higher than a human being’s self-respect, she would wonder. In such situations she would attack her mother; and her father would support Nirmala. That kind of honesty, principles of social justice, and higher values strengthened the father-daughter relationship between them.

If God came to her and asked her, “This is your final moment. So, decide what you want to be in your next life?” she would have given the same answer, whether it is right away or after thinking it over for one long year. She would have said, “God, let me be born as nirmala, with a pure heart and an untainted existence.”

But Nirmala was confronted with tribulations after she got married and assumed family responsibilities. It was getting harder for her to live according to her principles. What should she do when a thing disappeared from her house? Unlike the stuff at her parent’s home, all the things she possessed were very valuable. There was not a single thing about which she could say it’s gone, so be it. She did not like suspecting somebody without proof either. At the same time, she could not let go of things either. Unable to figure out how to proceed, she developed a habit of not ‘seeing’ the problem. She could ignore things she did not ‘see’!

With this disavowal, a second profile started taking shape in her mind. That second self noticed things that Nirmala would rather not ‘see’. She told herself that she had nothing to do with that second self. But this caused problems for her. Things showed up like shadows in her mind; they were neither real nor unreal.

A stainless steel mug disappeared from the bathroom the day before. There was no clue as to how it happened or who might have taken it.  A shadow crept up in her mind; it was the incident that happened the day before. As she was passing by the bathroom, Nirmala had noticed the new servant-maid, Chandra, hanging around there. The maid saw Nirmala; she cringed, quickly picked up a bucket, and started cleaning the gutters. Nirmala did not ask herself this is not her usual cleaning time; why is she here now? She did not ask the maid; she walked away without ‘seeing’ it. Therefore she could not recall for sure that Chandra was there at that time. It was a phantom shadow of a memory. Did she see Chandra there at the time? No, she was not sure. So, what happened to the mug? Did Chandra take it? Or, was it Bhaskaram? She has realized that the mug was missing but she did not question anybody yet. Whom could she ask? Everything was so hazy.

Nirmala fretted over the mug for a long time the night before. While she was in her natal home, she was never worried about such things, not things like steel mugs. But Nirmala got this steel mug because she wanted it!  She had given a street-vendor two gold-threaded silk sarees, almost new, in exchange for that mug. If she were to buy the same kind of sarees again, it would cost her god knows how much! Not only that. What if tomorrow a bucket disappeared the same way as the mug was lost today, a few more dishes the following day, and then jewelry…Nirmala saw this idea of people’s nature to steal mushroom to a point that would swallow her up totally. Probably that thought lay behind her dream, she reasoned with herself.

Nirmala’s father-in-law came for a brief visit. Even as she hurried to finish the extra chores, she came to a decision – she must settle the mug business one way or the other soon. Chandra and Bhaskaram sat quietly chatting in the yard. She went up to them and said curtly, “A steel mug is missing from the bathroom. Nobody goes there except you two. Between the two of you, you decide who’d taken it, and bring it back.”

“I know nothing about that mug” Chandra blurted out right away.

Bhaskaram stood up silently. Chandra said she was done for the day and left. Bhaskaram who had been standing there lost in thought, suddenly said, “Saar’s shirt is hung outside. Please ask him to check if any money was stolen.”

A sum of fifty rupees was missing!

“I‘ll go and get Chandra”, said Bhaskaram and ran out in a hurry.

With several things disappearing from her home, Nirmala lost her equanimity.

Chandra was already halfway to her house, but he brought her back.

“How would I know anything about your money!” Chandra protested vehemently. She went to a corner, loosened her clothes, and shook them off to prove her point. Could she have hidden the money in her bushy hair? The thought crossed Nirmala’s mind, but she could not demand, “Undo your hair and let’s see.” She watched helplessly as Chandra left, still entertaining her suspicions just the same.

Within five minutes, Bhaskaram returned with five ten-rupee bills, neatly folded, and handed them to Nirmala. He said he had noticed that Chandra had gone behind a tree briefly on their way back to the house. While she was disrobing and proving her innocence, he went to check behind the tree and found the stash. “Honest people like me lose our jobs because of crooks like you” he had told Chandra, spat on her face, and returned, Bhaskaram informed Nirmala pompously.

Chandra returned with a group of her relatives within fifteen minutes and said, “I am not the only one working here. How would I know about your mugs and money? Who knows who took them? I don’t want to work for you any more.”

Bhaskaram stood there quiet, watchful.

Nirmala was upset. Is this the same man who had called her a crook and spat on her face earlier?

Bhaskaram went and stood at the back of the house. Chandra followed him, conferred with him in a low tone, and waited there.

Bhaskaram returned and said, “She came only for her wages, madam.”

Nirmala called in Chandra, paid her up and sent her away.

Nirmala was puzzled. She could not make sense of the incident. What could have transpired between Bhaskaram and Chandra? Why did Bhaskaram ask her to pay off Chandra? If he were really an honest person, why would he confer with a thief behind my back? How is it possible for the good and the bad to commingle! Her suspicions of him, and the feeling that he was somehow behind the entire incident grew stronger.

Now the second self in her mind raised an even more disturbing suspicion: how did he know that the money in the shirt pocket was missing?

Although there is no proof, he too must be a thief; Or, a partner in crime at the least!

It takes a thief to catch another thief.

Even if he had not committed the crime, he possesses the same mean quality for sure. That’s why he could catch her. …

The second self from within continues questioning on these lines.

Then, Nirmala was beset with another frightening question. It has been proved that Chandra had committed this theft and not Bhaskaram. Then, the question is, how did she herself suspect that it was in Bhaskaram’s nature to steal? What made her suspect him?

This new line of inquiry troubled her a great deal. She tried to calm herself by thinking, why should I compare myself with that low life? Why should I bother so much about a stupid steel mug?

Where do these thoughts come from?

Where is the origin for these shadows that plague the mind?

Is it not possible for a person living in this world to stay pure?

What is the relationship between man and the world?

What makes the inconsequential things important?

What is the meaning of  nirmala ?

Nirmala was unable to find the right answers for such questions. She struggled to find the point of her whereabouts in the intricate web of existence and gave up.


(The Telugu original needalu has been translated by Nidadavolu Malathi and published on thulika.net, October 2010. A modified version of it has been published on cerebration.org.

The Telugu original is included in the anthology R. Vasundhara Devi kathalu.)