HERE I AM and other stories

1. The Thieving Cat

Telugu Original: P.Sathyavathi

English Translation: Sashi Kumar

          Keen to reach home before the scheduled power cut, Seetaratnam took a shared auto to her bus stop. She got down from the bus and hurried to her house all out of breath. Her spirits lifted on seeing her husband sitting in the veranda, sipping tea. She wasn’t expecting him home that night as he had gone to drive the bus with the marriage party. Not only was he home, but he had made some tea for her and kept the candles and matches handy. He had also laid out the folding cot in the veranda. The strident ringtone Kolaveri Di, a popular song, blared from the cot and the display of the mobile phone gleamed like a cat’s eyes in the fading light. 

          ‘I thought it was broken. Did you get it repaired?’ she asked in surprise.

          He picked up the phone and pressed the ignore button.

          ‘Light the candle and heat up the tea! Go! . . . On my way home, I also got some vegetable curry and sambar from the curry point . . . Go and lie down for a while,’ he said.

          ‘Didn’t you say you wouldn’t be coming home tonight?’ asked Seetaratnam, wiping the sweat off her face with the pallu of her sari.

          ‘I did. I sent David with the wedding party instead. I took leave for a week. I haven’t told Swarna. I put her sim card into this phone. If she asks you, tell her that you must have swept it away.’

          Their daughter, Swarna, hadn’t reached home yet. Her behaviour was very different this past week. She didn’t respond to any question and had been quite irritable. She was agitated and did not eat well. When she got a call, she went out of the house and would be glued to the phone. When questioned about the caller, she said it was her friend, Soumya. When asked where she was going, she said she was going to someone’s house to work on the computer. This last week was especially bad. When asked to relax a bit at home, she bristled with irritation.

          ‘What can I do sitting in this miserable house? There is not even one emergency light! I have to work on the computer. Sharada’s house has an inverter, I’ll study there. Why – do you think there’s something wrong with that too? Why did you enrol me in this course? It would have been enough if you had bought me a sewing machine.’

          That morning at work, Seetaratnam’s mind was full of anxiety. She asked herself: Why is Swarna reacting this way? Why is she so irritated? Isn’t it because of my work as a seamstress that I could buy her a mobile phone just the other day? Is it wrong to expect a modicum of understanding from a girl who has crossed twenty? As for my husband, he is forever docile, is always busy working, tired all the time – hasn’t he earned the right to lose his temper at least once? If she keeps going to Soumya’s house to get busy on the phone, why is it wrong to know who this Soumya is? How can Swarna behave so aggressively with her parents? How could she smash the phone? Why does she go around with such an anxious face? What’s happened to the girl? . . . 

          While threading the needle, Seetaratnam pierced her finger. Seeing the drops of blood, Bebamma worried that the sari she was stitching would be stained! Fortunately for her, she was threading a fine needle in the well-lit part of the veranda, so no damage was done. 

          When the class X results were declared, all the newspapers in the Andhra region were full of stamp-size photos of the toppers’ faces, and their daughter’s photo had 590 underneath it. Her husband had bought all the different newspapers and cut out all her photographs. Couldn’t their daughter understand the anguish of the man who had jumped with joy, saying, ‘She’s got a hundred out of hundred in maths. Surely, our daughter will become an engineer!’

          The other afternoon, Bebamma was sitting on a chair, as if monitoring Seetaratnam’s work, and chatting about worldly matters – bringing up children and the importance of spending ‘quality time’ with them.

          ‘What does “quality time” mean, madam?’ Seetaratnam asked. Bebamma explained enthusiastically that it was time spent enjoying the children’s company and talking with them freely, without reservations. Was there really a time when everybody could get together and talk? Where will ‘quality time’ come from for people who have to sell their time for a living from the moment they wake up in the morning, pondered Seetaratnam. 

          ‘Madam, children are comfortable talking with educated parents like you. They don’t have anything meaningful to say to uneducated mothers. They don’t say anything. Apart from asking for food or money, they don’t really have anything to share with us,’ said Seetaratnam. 

          ‘Why not? You can talk about movies, about politics, about daily events; you can talk about almost anything if you want to,’ replied Bebamma.

          ‘I haven’t been to a movie in over a year, madam. My daughter doesn’t want to come with me and my husband doesn’t have the time or the interest. I fall asleep if I try watching a movie on television. Anyway, movies are not good these days. I don’t have time for anything,’ saying this, Seetaratnam moved away towards the light to thread the needle. The conversation stopped there. 

          Her daughter had stopped talking to her; maybe she considered this illiterate mother of hers ignorant as well. She spoke only when she needed to buy something. Whatever little respect the daughter had for her mother was because the father used to give his salary to the mother. If he had control of the money, her daughter would have had no need to talk to her at all! How much Swarna had changed! Seetaratnam could bear it if she had just changed or if she had stopped talking, but it was painful to see her fret. Why were they going through this struggle? Maybe it would have been better if they had found a suitable match for her when she reached eighteen years of age, as they did for her elder sister. There was nothing wrong with her sister’s life. After the wedding, her husband enrolled her in a physiotherapy certification course. Both of them earned a bit and lived quite happily. This was because the elder one didn’t score 590. The younger sister wanted to fly because she got these marks in class X. Seetaratnam felt they had got into this trouble because of the people around them. When the results were announced, people in the school celebrated . . . when her name appeared in the papers, faculty from the corporate college approached the parents and said that they would offer her a seat without charging any tuition fees. But since then, how many exam fees had they to pay? Textbooks, notes, bus charges, clothes! The college gave the seat for free, but what about all the other expenses? Rice was a rupee a kilo, but milk was 13 rupees for half a litre, and dal was 80 a kilo.

          ‘Given the work you do and the salary you get, and the burden of the debt you incurred for your elder daughter’s marriage, how do you think you can afford to make this girl an engineer?’ She had asked her husband and he got into a towering rage.

          ‘Shut up,’ he had said. Her EAMCET rank made him as proud of his daughter as if she were already on a plane to the USA. They got a seat with a tuition waiver, in a good college not far from their town. The college had a bus and he paid the bus fare for the whole year. When asked where he had got the money, he said he had encashed his chit fund prematurely. When she bemoaned the loss of interest, he asked her to shut up. He’s always like that – he had also asked her to shut up when she questioned the need to fix a match for the elder daughter with such hefty dowry.

          Swarna had changed. A girl who helped with household chores like heating water or cooking the rice, she had stopped doing anything since the moment she got 590 marks, as if she had instantly became an engineer. She didn’t have time. She would leave the house at seven-thirty in the morning and come back only at seven in the evening. In the first year she used to carry a tiffin box. She had stopped doing that because everybody ate in the canteen. That meant money for the canteen! Her mobile phone needed money for top-up every three days. She had the same demand about everything. ‘All this is necessary for my studies. You can’t afford to buy anything. I have to depend on my friends for everything. I ask for their help on the phone. I use their computers. I’m telling you in advance that I need to buy a laptop next year. If you can’t get me one, you’d better put an end to my studies . . .’

          ‘Let’s struggle; it’s only for two years, Seeta! See, how fortunate we are that our daughter has got a seat like this. People spend lakhs of rupees to get their daughters educated . . . she studied well and got herself a seat . . .’ He would silence her every time with words like these. 

          How could her daughter talk to her father in such an arrogant fashion? A man who reposed so much faith in her, a man who worked so hard, a man who did as much work overtime as possible, without even stopping to wipe the sweat from his brow? Where are these words coming from? Who teaches her to talk like this? Will she go to college at all in the morning? Or will she say that she will discontinue her studies? Will all the money that has been spent so far be wasted? Only the Sun-god has an answer, Seetaratnam had thought.

          The Sun-god rose. Her daughter got up and washed her face. Pretending that nothing untoward had happened, she ate something and went to college. Her father left to drive the bus for the wedding party. 

          Seetaratnam cooked swiftly, ate a little, and set off for Bebamma’s house. She stood at the bus stop, waiting for a bus or a shared auto. Earlier, she had worked in the tailoring section of Vastranandanam, a big textile shop, stitching falls and nets into expensive saris. Bebamma had discovered her there. She had found out that there was a big difference between what Seetaratnam was paid and what the shop was charging customers. They had agreed on a mutually beneficial rate and Bebamma had carried her off to her home and established her there to stitch the expensive clothes for her daughter’s upcoming wedding. She was earning a little more, but there was no such thing as permanent employment for people like her. They have to go wherever there is a possibility of earning more money. And when there was money, there was always something on which it needed to be spent. 

          Anyhow, a skill she had learnt as a hobby was coming in handy. She had often thought how good it would have been if she were educated. Swarna was still not back home. She would come home hungry – she hadn’t had a proper breakfast. Seetaratnam will have to put on the cooker as soon as the electricity came. 

          Glittering ghaghras with zardozi work, silk saris embroidered with pearls and sequins, lehangas with zari borders! All spread on a white sheet over a carpet, the floor washed with scented phenyl.

          Please sit under the fan, Seetaratnam, lest a drop of sweat spill on the cloth and spoil it. This is the onion-coloured sari for the engagement. Be careful, this is a light-coloured sari for the bride’s mother. This one is meant for the bride’s sister and costs twenty-five thousand rupees. Be careful, be careful! 

          Pearls and precious stones sparkle before Seetaratnam’s eyes even when she closes them. 

          Thank goodness! The electricity was back! Seetaratnam hastened to the kitchen. Swarna had come. She dumped her books on the table.

          ‘What have you done to the phone?’ she asked gently. She was not as jumpy as yesterday. Maybe because she had seen her father in the veranda.

          ‘I picked up all the broken pieces and threw them in the garbage bin,’ Seetaratnam replied, also in a quiet tone.

          ‘How could you throw away the sim card? If we had it, we could have bought another phone, couldn’t we?’

          ‘What do I know of these things? Your father said that the pieces may cut our feet and asked me to throw them away.’

          Swarna looked at her mother as if she was an ignoramus and went to bathe. If the mobile phone were still there, so many Kolaveri Di’s would have rung by now. In truth, didn’t she get angry when asked why she needed to go so far away to talk to her friend? I need to keep an eye on her, thought Seetaratnam.

          The three of them had dinner as if nothing had happened. They had given one of the three rooms to their daughter once she had started her higher education. She and her husband slept on folding cots in the front room. To avoid disturbing their daughter, they watched TV from up close and at a very low volume. When her husband had night duty, Seetaratnam watched TV by herself before going to bed. Their daughter was on the mobile phone throughout the time she studied. That day she didn’t feel like watching TV. She was unable to sleep for a long time before she finally closed her eyes. 

          The next morning, as usual, her daughter went off to college. 

          The father looked at his daughter worriedly. She was not the girl she was before she scored 590. She was a second-year engineering student. Her gait had changed. Her talk had changed. She was not the same girl who had said, ‘Nanna, there is no need to spend so much money,’ when she was in the Intermediate and they had bought her four dresses. Now she was the girl who threw a fit when they didn’t buy the 1200-rupee dress she had wanted for her birthday! Now this girl didn’t like her wristwatch or the clothes. She felt ashamed that her mother worked as a seamstress and her father as a bus driver. Why had this girl changed so much? What had happened to the Swarna of old?

          Seetaratnam also brooded over the same question. Was it because, as Bebamma said, they don’t spend enough quality time with her? What control do we have over our own time to be able to spend it leisurely with the children? For people like us, time was like money – one had to borrow it or take an advance against it, she reflected.

          ‘You, at least, should have sense, Seeta! For people of your economic status, where is the need for higher education for your daughter! After she finishes her studies, won’t you have to get her married? Wouldn’t you then have to get a bridegroom who is a bigger engineer? Where on earth can you get one from?’ Her younger sister-in-law had lectured her, giving her a mouth-scorching tumbler of muddy coffee. This was when she had gone to ask for a loan of rupees ten thousand when Swarna was to join college. 

          Swarna’s father took leave for a week and found out about college studies, about friendships, and about how having a boyfriend or girlfriend of the opposite sex was a status symbol. He was aghast at his new-found knowledge, which had cost him a week’s wages. The newspapers carry stories sometimes . . . a rickshaw puller’s son has become an engineer or another poor person’s daughter has become a collector. How? Was there nectar in their sweat and poison in his? He had seen Seetaratnam’s left index finger yesterday – like a sieve made of the needle prick! Will this girl leave a similar sieve in their hearts? He was furious when he learnt that from a high of 590, his daughter’s second year marks had fallen by 50%.

          ‘That was all learning by rote. These studies are different . . . You have to understand the subjects while studying,’ his nephew, Vasudev, had said. What has happened to his daughter? Who has changed her like this? Like Seetaratnam, he too shed tears. In his job, everyday he took hundreds of people safely to their destinations. But he could not figure out how he would take his daughter to hers. When he found out who her friend, ‘Soumya’, really was, she broke the phone and then berated him roundly. When he couldn’t take it any more and slapped her, what an uproar she created! What lies she had spun! How artfully she had created this imaginary ‘Soumya’! From whom had she learnt to be so cunning? 

          ‘Nanna, I won’t take money for the canteen from tomorrow but you have to buy me a phone, no matter how cheap. The college is so far away; everyone needs a phone. I have at least to inform you that I’ll be coming back late,’ she asked him meekly, coming up to him quietly from behind, like a cat. 

          ‘Okay dear. And why buy an expensive phone for a person who has a tendency to break them? Wait for a couple of days and we’ll buy a cheap one,’ he too replied peaceably. In the evening, she came back from college and went to lie down in her room straightaway. She didn’t wash up and sit down to study like she usually did. She didn’t ask her mother to serve her food. She lay curled up in bed, weeping, and didn’t come for dinner, no matter how many times she was called. 

          Just then, the Kolaveri Di ringtone sounded in his pocket! He ran out to the lane so that his daughter would not hear, and answered the phone . . . Soumya calling . . . ‘Why did you lie that your phone was lost?’ scolded the voice on the other end . . . and hurriedly added that if she didn’t come and meet him the next day, there would be consequences . . . what arrogance coming from a bus driver’s daughter! Swarna’s father went back into the house and collapsed in a heap. The engineering student’s bus driver father!

          If she didn’t eat because her daughter would not, Seetaratnam’s stomach would burn due to acidity. Her husband was diabetic and needed to take his medicine. They forced themselves to eat. Their daughter still hadn’t come out of her room. Then he took Seetaratnam out and told her everything. She wept inconsolably and as she lay weeping in bed, these scenes were conjured up before her eyes.

          ‘Who are you, son?’ asks Seetaratnam.

          ‘This man beheaded your daughter with a coconut chopper. This one slit your daughter’s throat with a knife. This one doused her with petrol and set fire to her. This one threw her into the canal. This one raped your daughter and then smothered her with a pillow . . . this one . . .’

          Shaken to the core, Seetaratnam got up with a start. Her body was drenched in sweat and she shivered uncontrollably. ‘Where’s my daughter?’ she looked around. Just then, she saw her husband coming out of the kitchen with a stick in his hand!

          ‘The thieving cat removed the lid from the milk and was about to drink it when I gave it a good whack. It won’t come again. But why did you leave the milk out instead of putting it in the cupboard?’ he asked, oblivious to Seetaratnam’s tears and shivers. 

          ‘Let it be! How many things can you do and take care of? Work, work from the moment you get up. Run, run, run. I’ll fix an iron grill on this window tomorrow and then the cat won’t be able to come in. If it still does, I’ll break its back. What’s the matter, why are you shivering like this? Go to sleep. Go!’ he said. 

          Not listening to any of that, Seetaratnam ran to her daughter’s room. Thank god! Her daughter was there. For today! What about tomorrow? Will she still be there tomorrow and all the tomorrows that follow? Seetaratnam sat slumped against the wall, her face in her hands, weeping. Regaining her composure after a while, she got up and lay down, curled up next to her daughter. As she fell asleep, she felt Swarna trying to nestle against her. Seetaratnam hugged her hard, as if she would never be able to find her again if she let go.


About the Translator:

SASHI KUMAR, born in Hyderabad, is interested in the politics of development, technology and conflict resolution. He has been involved with the not-for-profit sector for over twenty years, before which he worked in banking for a decade.



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