Change(Story)

Original Telugu story Maarpu by Ari Sitaramayya

Translation by Ari Sitaramayya and Ramana Sonti

The man on the radio launched a tirade against France. “The French are good for nothing. They are cowards. If our armed forces hadn’t bailed out their damned country during the Second World War, there would be no France today. If the French continue to oppose us at the UN, we should boycott their cheese, their wine, and stop using anything French,” he spewed forth forcefully.

Ever since the eruption of the recent round of hostile rhetoric between the US and France, I have been thinking about the days when I first met Sandhya. Those days, I was living in Detroit, working as a part-time clerk in the Patel Brothers grocery store. One Friday, around noon, a woman came into the store. She was about thirty, with a strikingly beautiful, tranquil, and luminous face, one that you would like to look at again and again.

Acknowledging my greeting with a smile, she picked up a shopping cart and pushed it to the back of the store. My eyes followed her. She picked up a few packets of lentils, a bottle of pickle, and two packets of instant idli. Then she stopped at the refrigerator stocked with vegetables. Though I had a book in my hand, my eyes were on her. Suddenly she turned around as if to ask a question, and my eyes darted back into my book. She didn’t say anything. A few minutes later she came to the checkout counter pushing her shopping cart laden with purchases.

I rang up all her items and told her that it came to forty-three dollars and fifty-four cents and she wrote out a check for the amount. Looking at the name on the check, I asked her if she was Telugu.

She smiled. “So you’re not afraid to ask. Not bad!,” she said in Telugu. “I haven’t seen you before. Whenever I have come before, Mr. Patel has been here..

“I joined here only three days ago, as a part-time clerk. I’ll be working Mondays, Thursdays and Fridays.”

“Very good. So I’ll see you at least once a week.”

“Do you shop here every week?”

“I’m here for vegetables every Friday.”

“Are you off work on Fridays?”

“Not really. Your Patel brings fresh vegetables on Thursdays, so I come Fridays to pick the best of them. Usually I come early in the afternoon before the rush of customers, so I have a good choice.”

“Good. It will be nice to see you every Friday,” I said, wondering why I said that.

She smiled coyly and asked, “You seem to be reading about France. Are you planning a vacation?” looking at my book on the counter. 

“No…yes… I bought this travel guide a while ago. I was planning on a vacation, but then things changed. I started reading it again…just like that.”

“Good. Have a good read,” she said, picking up the bags of her groceries in both hands. As she walked out of the store into the street, I looked in her direction to see what  car she drove. But she didn’t stop at any car in the lot. Maybe she didn’t come in a car, maybe she parked somewhere close by. 

The following Friday I waited anxiously for her. It was two o’clock, and she hadn’t shown up yet. The previous week she had come to the store just after noon. I tried reading the book in my hand but my eyes constantly drifted to the door.

Finally she arrived just after three o’clock. Though I had seen her only once before, her face looked very familiar. Cheerful, with that same gentle smile.

“How are you?”

“Fine, thank you, and you?” I asked.

“I’m doing well, thanks. You still reading that book?”

“No, no. This is not that book. That was just a travel guide. This one, I borrowed from the library – A History of France.”

“Oh. Good. Enjoy it.”

She pushed a shopping cart to the vegetables at the back of the store. There she carefully selected okra and tindora, collected them in plastic bags and chose a bunch of coriander leaves. As she walked back to the checkout counter, I pretended to be lost in my book.  

“So how far have you progressed in French history?” she asked.

I closed the book and laid it on the counter top. “Napoleon has just declared war on Austria.”

“So you have read quite a bit. What did you think of the French Revolution?”

“I don’t know…I’m not really sure. It was hard to tell who the good guys were. I couldn’t take sides.” 

“Not bad at all!  At least, you’re not a close-minded person. Enjoy the book, and when you are done, read the part about the 1789 Revolution once more. Then we will talk,” she said with an impish smile.

“This is interesting! You’re giving me homework like I give my kids, and on top of that you are threatening me with an exam!”

“Well, it’s not really an exam. I thought we could just talk. So how many kids do you have?”

“Oh, this semester I have thirty.”

“You are a teacher then. What do you teach? Where?”

“I teach chemistry as a part-time instructor at Oakland Community College, I teach on Wednesdays.”

“Good.”

She laid her purchases on the counter. I rang them all up and she wrote a check.

“How about you?” I asked. 

“What do you want to know about me?” she retorted.

I couldn’t quickly think of what to say. She certainly wasn’t a simple person. Seemed pretty shrewd. 

I came up with a lame question. “What do you do?”

“Well, you know I buy good vegetables. I take them home and turn them into good curries!”

“Good,” I said. Apparently she doesn’t like to say anything about herself. There is no point in trying to converse with a person like this, I thought. 

“See you next Friday,” she said and left with her bags of groceries.

Again, she walked through the parking lot, and didn’t stop at any car.

The next Friday she arrived earlier, closer to noon. As usual, she looked cheerful and glowing.

“Were you waiting for me?” she asked, as she entered the store.

“No, no… yes, I was,” I said, my eyes downcast, like a student caught cheating.

She pushed a shopping cart to the back of the store and came back in about ten minutes with Italian eggplant, snake gourd, beans and a bottle of pickle. I rang them up and said $14.29, and she wrote a check. 

“So what did you think of the French Revolution? Still not taking sides?”

“Actually, I haven’t yet finished the book; I was rather busy this week. I couldn’t find any time to read, but I borrowed a couple of books from the library on the French Revolution. Once this book is done, I’ll read them, and then you can give me a test.” 

“Alright. Finish them soon then,” she said and left with her groceries.

The following week I gathered enough courage to ask, “Don’t you want to say anything about yourself?”  

“What do you want to know about me?”

“What do you do?”

“I already told you — I am a good cook.”

I was eager to learn more about her, but she didn’t seem the type to give a straight answer to any question. Maybe all this savvy was just to hide something. But that couldn’t be. How could a beautiful, peaceful, luminous woman like this have anything to hide?

I was determined to engage her in a conversation the next Friday. There was a lot to find out. Was she married or not? She would be about thirty. How could a thirty-year-old woman not be married? Yet, somehow I wished she wasn’t.

I didn’t have to wait till next Friday. My hopes were dashed a couple of days later on Sunday at the ugaadi celebration organized by the Detroit Telugu Association. I was chatting with some friends in the dining hall when I saw Sandhya at a distance talking with another woman. She had not seen me.

I tapped the friend sitting next to me on the shoulder, “Do you know who that is at the entrance? The woman in blue sari?” I anticipated that he would say he had no idea, and then I could brag she was a good friend of mine.

“Don’t worry about her. She is the keep of a Patel guy,” he said casually, as if it was common knowledge.   

Hahn,” I said, like a deflated balloon.

Could that be true? Was that what she trying to hide? I wondered.

The following Friday my eyes looked for her eagerly, but my mind was desolate.

Walking into the store, she asked, “Why are you looking like that today? What’s the matter?”

“Looking like what?” I retorted, irritably.

“Like your mind is elsewhere, like something is bothering you.”

“Nothing like that. I am fine.”

“Good then.”

Should I ask her or not? I debated, watching her from behind the counter. She picked vegetables and soon came back to the counter. I rang them all up and she wrote a check.

“I will ask you a question. Will you give me a straight answer?”

“Well, it depends upon what you ask, the reasons for asking, and the way you ask it,” she said, pursing her lips, mischief in her eyes.

“What do you do for a living?”

“You asked once before. I said I cook well. Don’t you remember? Or don’t you believe me?”

Was she telling the truth? Or was it just a cover for her low life? I could not decide quickly.

“What are you thinking about? Do you need a cook?”

“No, I too can cook reasonably well.”

“Good then. Is that all? Or do you have any more questions? Can I go now?” she smiled. 

“You…”

“Yes. What about me? Are you scared of me?”

“Why should I be scared of you?”

“Well then, ask me whatever it is you wanted to ask.”

“A friend of mine… said… you … Everybody is saying that you are the keep of a Gujarati guy.”

“Why do you look down? Look me straight in the eye, and say whatever it is you want to say. It’s true. It’s true that he keeps me.”

What could I say to a shameless woman who talked openly about such things?

“Is that it? Or do you have anything else to ask?”

“Couldn’t you do anything else for a living?”

“Like what? Like what you are doing? You are also kept by a Gujarati. Aren’t you?”

“Me? I am employed here. I am not kept by anybody.”

“So your work is employment and my work is debauchery?”

“I don’t sleep with him like you do.”

 “Did I tell you that I sleep with him?

“You just said that he keeps you.”

She was silent for a fraction of a second that appeared much longer. “Didn’t you say you read two books on the French Revolution? We are both kept people. Just because your friends made some wild allegations against me, my job doesn’t suddenly become dishonorable and yours virtuous. Read about the French Revolution once more. This time, read it like you want to learn the truth, not like you are reading for an exam. Goodbye.” She walked away fuming.

She didn’t come the following Friday. 

Maybe she would never come again, or at least as long as I worked here.

Maybe she was really a housekeeper for the Gujarati family. The rumor about her relationship with the man was probably just that. It was awful that I insulted her asking such an outrageous question. What business did I have to ask her a question like that? Someone else in her position would have called me names rather than answer my question! Maybe she had a soft corner for me.

I was pleasantly surprised when she came to the store three weeks later. This time, however, the smile was missing and her face wasn’t radiant. She looked like a soldier with shattered armor. I couldn’t help feeling sad.

“I hope you are doing well,” I said to her.

“Yes, thank you, and you?”

“I am well, thank you. You didn’t come for a couple of weeks. I thought you would not come again. I am sorry.”

“So you think my anger has subsided now, and that’s why I have come back?” she laughed aloud. I felt relieved. Now she looked like the familiar Sandhya I had known.

“I looked for you all these days and thought that you might have been angry with me and may not come again. I behaved like an uncivilized brute, I am sorry.”

“Wow! So you do know big, big words!”

“You are once again talking like you used to. It makes me very happy.”

“You are a true gentleman. Now can I go pick some vegetables? Or would you like to keep me standing here?”

“If you don’t mind, may I ask you…”

“Another question? This time I won’t come back for a month!” she broke into peals of laughter. “Alright, go ahead, ask me.”

“Are you married?”

“Yes.”

“Sorry.”

“Sorry? Why sorry? Because I am married? Is marriage  such a dangerous thing? I wish you told me that earlier, maybe I wouldn’t have married then.” 

“You are an unusual person, madam, I have a difficult time understanding you.”

“Oh, come on, my sister used to say that I am an open book, and you say that I am difficult to understand?”  

“If you are married, why are you living with those Gujaratis?”

She remained silent for a long second.

“Oh, that is what you are wondering about. It’s a long story. Would take a long time to tell you. I’m in a hurry today. Why don’t we talk about it another time?” she asked.

I nodded in agreement and she walked toward the vegetables in the back of the store.

Our acquaintance gradually grew into familiarity, so much so that I could talk to her easily, without trepidation. She was married five years ago. Before that she had been working as a lecturer in economics at Osmania University. Her parents found an NRI match for her, celebrated her wedding at great expense and dispatched her to the United States. Apparently her husband had been involved with another woman for some time, and he continued that relationship even after marriage. When Sandhya questioned him about it, he asked her to go back to India. Unable to put up with his abuse, she divorced him eventually with the help of Sakti, a local women’s group. It was Sakti that found this house keeper’s job for her with the Gujarati family.

I told her about my past, too – that I had come to the US after doing a PhD, in India in petroleum chemistry, and worked as an assistant professor at Wayne State University for six years. Unfortunately for me, I could not get tenure and, when I was laid off, I found part time jobs teaching at the community college and working as a store clerk in Patel’s grocery store.

One day I mustered enough courage to invite her to my apartment for lunch and she accepted.

I was quite eager to impress Sandhya with my cooking though I knew it wouldn’t be easy to impress a woman who cooked for a living. Even so, I did my best preparing an Indian eggplant curry, fried potatoes, and spinach pappu. I had purchased yogurt at the store.

She arrived at eleven thirty, simply dressed in a light blue sari and carrying a bright smile as usual. She brought me a bunch of red roses. Nobody had ever brought flowers for me and I realized that I did not have a vase in my apartment. I put the roses in a tall glass.

I opened a bottle of French wine that I had bought the previous day and handed her a glass.

“Sorry, I don’t drink wine. Actually, I don’t drink any alcohol,” she said bringing her palms together in apology.

“I can’t believe that a Francophile like you doesn’t drink wine. Just a little bit,” I tried to hand her the glass one more time.

“Did I say I liked France? I don’t remember saying that. I do like the French Revolution, though.”

“Why do you like it so much?”

Ayyo, you don’t know what you are getting into, with that innocent question of yours. It is a dangerous question!” she said with a broad grin. “If I start talking about French Revolution, you will regret you ever asked!”

“No, I won’t. Go ahead, tell me why you like it so much.”

“Well, it really has nothing to do with my liking or not. In my college days, my older sister was researching the French Revolution for her Ph.D., and whether anybody in the house paid attention to her not, she would jabber about it all day. So, as you can imagine, everyone in my household became an expert on the topic of the French Revolution!”

“Interesting. I don’t know, I read two books about it, but I couldn’t find anything interesting in it.”

“I don’t believe it! Maybe you read some lousy books. Some writers think history is an account of who killed whom and who conquered what and stuff like that. You shouldn’t be reading that kind of garbage. Read history books that examine the reasons behind events. Then you will understand what the French Revolution really meant.”

“Ok, I’ll try to find some good books, but maybe you can tell me briefly what impressed you most about French Revolution.”

“No, you can’t escape so easily. You read first and then we can argue about it,” she said as if she couldn’t wait to argue with me about it.

“I will definitely read, I promise, but you can at least tell me what it is we should learn from the French Revolution.”

“Oh, there is plenty. France went through many revolutionary changes over those four or five years,” she paused briefly, reflecting. “But few lasted long. However, similar changes have occurred in many countries since then, and 

I am sure they will continue to occur in more countries for hundreds of years to come.”

“What kinds of changes?”

“For example, in Paris and many other cities the French experimented with direct democracy in place of rule by representatives. They abolished religious practice. Imposed price controls on bread and other essential products. Demanded liberty and equality for all. Demanded freedom for women. Imposed taxes on the rich and on the Royals.…Is that enough? I am being a bore, am I not?”

“Of course not. Go on. What else happened?”

“Well, they killed the king and abolished monarchy. Put an end to feudalism and slavery. Common people were allowed to enter museums and libraries. I don’t know whether you know this or not, it was during the French Revolution that the metric system in use today all over the world was first implemented.”

“It is not in use all over the world. We don’t have it here in the States.”

“You’re right, but they can’t keep it out forever.”  

“You are probably right. But I am surprised to hear all these things about French Revolution. The two books I read, they did talk about the killing of the King and about some queen who told poor people – if you don’t have bread, eat cake, something like that. But all those other things, I don’t remember reading about them.”

“So my guess is right…the books you read were indeed lousy.”

“Looks like that. But that’s fine. I will try to find some good books the next time I am in the library and then we can talk about this some more. For now, I have a request.”

“What is it?”

“If you are hungry, you can see how my cooking turned out.”

“Oh yes, I am not too hungry, but we can eat.”

We moved to the dining table which was already set and I served her. Maybe she was just being courteous, but Sandhya complimented me on my cooking. “You sure know how to cook. If you were married, you would have made your wife a very happy woman.”

Though I had never been able to tell in the past whether she was saying something in earnest or in jest, her approbation today of my cooking sounded genuine and sincere.

Overcome by a sudden spurt of joy, I proposed to her, “Why don’t we get married?” 

“Why?” she asked nonchalantly, looking straight at me.

“Why! Why does anybody ever get married? Same reason.”

“I did get married like that once. If I marry again, I feel there must be a better, more compelling reason. Why do you think we should get married?”

“I don’t know, I didn’t think of any reasons. I respect you very much. That’s all.”

“Thank you. You are a good man.”

“You see, I am close to thirty. When I lost my job at Wayne, I felt quite lonely, like I was all alone in the world. It would have been comforting if I had a todu – a companion.”

todu — such a beautiful word, isn’t it?”

“It is.” I hesitated for a second and asked, “Don’t you feel the need for a companion? Don’t you want to have children?”

Oho, I see now, you want children! But why do you want children?”

“Why does anybody want children? To raise them.”

“You like raising them, or do you like making them?” she asked with a smile, a question and an impish look on her face.

I was shocked. “I can’t believe you can say such vulgar things!” 

“I’m sorry, I was just joking. So you like raising children. Then what?”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, why do you want to raise children?”

“To see them grow up.”

“And then?”

“To educate them.”

“Why do they need education?”

“I am not sure where you are going with this. But let me see, why should they get educated is the question. I would say, to get good jobs.”

“So they could be kept by good companies. That is what you mean, right?”

“Yeah.”

“So the main goal in life is to get a good job. Is that what you are saying?”

“Of course. How else are you going to live if you don’t have a job?” I felt I was on firm ground with this argument.

“If you don’t mind, I would like to ask you a question,” she asked calmly.

“Sure.”

“Did your grandfather have a job?”

“My grandfather? In his time my folks lived in a village. My grandfather never worked for anybody. He lived on his own.”

“But you just said one can’t live without a job. How did he live?”

“That was a long time ago. He had some land and he was engaged in agriculture.”

“How come you aren’t engaged in agriculture?”

“There is no way I can live off two acres of land today!”

“Why not?”

“Why not! Because of all the development all around us.”

“So when there was no development people could live freely. Once you have development, people can live only if they work for somebody. That is what you are saying, right?”

“I don’t know, Sandhya. Now I am afraid I might be walking into some kind of a trap if I say yes.”

“No, don’t worry. There is truth in what you said. Even in the old days, some people had to work for others to make a living. But as what we call Development advances, most of the population will have to work as employees. Some of them will have low wages and some, high, but they will all be kept. To put it differently, people are but the fuel for development.”

“I never thought of it like that.  Maybe it is your economics background that makes you think like this, or does it have something to do with the French Revolution?”

“I don’t know. Why don’t you read a good book on the Revolution and find out for yourself? In fact, that is your homework!” she said with a pleasant smile.

I got up from my chair and handed her the glass of wine. She did not resist.

I could not bring myself to ask her again about marriage, but I felt confident that if we continued to meet like this, she would consent one day.

*****

Please follow and like us:
error

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.