HERE I AM and other stories

2. Damayanti’s Daughter

(Part – 1)

Telugu Original: P.Sathyavathi

English Translation: Sashi Kumar

          I usually pull the window blinds down on Sundays to keep the sun out. But my roommate Sneha, who gets up at six in the morning – be it a Sunday or a work day – cherishes reading every single Telugu and English daily along with its supplement, leisurely sipping her coffee, with old Hindi songs playing in the background. She does not permit me the luxury of sleeping late into the day.

          ‘If you sleep like a lazy cow, I shall have to drag you out,’ she warned, and I knew she would drag me out if I dillydallied. So I quickly got up, washed my face and brushed my teeth. With a dramatic gesture, crooning the lyrics of a Hindi song, Aao huzoor tumko, sitaaron mein le chaloon (Come, Sir! Let me take you to the world of stars), she placed the coffee mug near me.

          Before she finished the last words, the phone rang, like a stone plopping into still waters. It was my paternal aunt. ‘Don’t look for alliances for me,’ I had told her bluntly so many times, but she would not listen. ‘Listen! Santosh’s parents from Samalkot liked your profile. The boy also liked it. I have already spoken to them. All of us are coming there on Thursday. Apply for leave and be ready. Okay?’ She issued the decree. I thought Thursday was far enough from Sunday and I could concoct some good excuse to escape.

          ‘I asked the beautician to come here at nine-thirty to give me a massage. After that, let’s go out for the day – roaming around, eating out, gossiping, etcetera, etcetera . . .’ proposed Sneha.

          Before we could chalk out our plans about where we would go, what we would buy and who we would call on, another stone created ripples in the still pond. 

          ‘I want to talk to you. Tell me when and where I can meet you.’ This was none other than the Santosh from Samalkot, who my aunt said had liked my profile.

          ‘I neither want to meet you nor talk to you. Is it enough if you have liked my profile? Don’t you think I should like yours, too? Besides, we will be meeting on Thursday anyway. 

          What is the hurry?’ I said.

          ‘It’s a very important matter. Please!’ he pleaded.

          ‘Let him come. We can have some fun. Ask him to come here right now. Let us decide the issue ourselves. I am here, don’t worry,’ reassured Sneha. I told him to come.

          Santosh from Samalkot had the same qualifications as I did, and was as decently employed as me. He dressed neatly and wore Brut body spray (he had probably even gargled with mouthwash). He arrived, perfuming the air as he entered the room. After the preliminary courtesies and exchanges were over, he came to the point. He said that his mother had a sudden and unsettling doubt last night – had Damayanti died or had she run away? He added that she had been disconcerted and anxious since then. To be fair to him, he did not use the words ‘run away’, but used the same clichéd, wellworn, outdated word which our relatives and neighbours, and those who did not have access to Brut, mouthwash or scent, used over and over again.

          ‘I’m sorry, Mr Santosh. Well, no, I can’t please you by hiding the fact and saying that Damayanti has died. Can you recall the word you just used to describe what she did? Elope. Yes, that’s the very word. It was exactly what she did. And I am her daughter. Does this satisfy you? Tell your folks this, the truth,’ I said. His perfume was nauseating.

          ‘No. No. It’s not that exactly. I’ll convince my people. I’ll tell them that your colleagues in the office spoke so well of you. I was asking about you casually . . . that’s all.’

          ‘But I haven’t enquired about you in your office or at any other place. Why should you be so condescending to me, and what for? Sorry, Mr Santosh, we are not compatible. Please tell your elders to stop at this. I’ll tell my aunt too.’ I bade him goodbye.

          ‘Bring your aunt here. If she stays alone there, she will not be at peace and will go on bothering you with one match after another,’ suggested Sneha.

          ‘Hmm! Her son and daughter-in-law are already under the impression that I am living off all her money. If I bring her here, they will start thinking that I brought her here for her gold and property. In fact, it was she who told everyone that I am a motherless child. She should have told them the truth. Anyway, I can’t hurt her sentiments. After all, it was she who brought me up.’

          ‘Even so, can you tolerate it if some Santosh or other comes and disturbs you every day? This is just impossible!’ said Sneha.

          I was not hurt by what Santosh said.

          Such words no longer moved me to tears. True, I had wept hearing these words when I was a child. Perhaps, I had shed enough tears for a lifetime. Later, I struggled to contain them within the threshold of my eyes. And only of late had I realized that tears are precious and except in times of emotional turmoil, they should not be wasted. I entreated my friends – the tears – to retain their dignity and not come out so often into the open. They understood, and were loyal to me.

          Yet, who were these people to stigmatize Damayanti and burden me with this stigma? Who were they to pity or condemn us?

          As if god had created her just for me, Sneha became my classmate. Later she became my colleague. When we took this apartment, she became my friend, philosopher and guide. She was the one closest to me after my brother. Sneha was a warm, overwhelming river; melting my prolonged silence, helping me to overcome my diffidence and setting me straight. 

          She taught me how to laugh once more and put the song back in my voice. She inculcated the habit of reading in me.

          As Sneha surrendered her head to the beautician, I sat there silently, lost in a reverie. A montage of black and white images played on my mind’s canvas.

          When I returned home after my music lessons with Soundarya’s mother, the day had already receded, rather reluctantly, from the horizon. Yet I found no lamp alight on the veranda. Father was fretting and fuming with anger in the translucent darkness. There was a piece of paper in his hands. Leaning on a post, my brother was wailing. I wanted to ask my mother what was wrong. I searched all the rooms but they were all dark. There was no light even in the kitchen.

          ‘Where is mother?’ I asked my father. There was no reply.

          He shred the paper in his hands into pieces, piled them in a heap and lit it with a matchstick. When my brother hugged me and wept, I wept bitterly too, without knowing why. Mother did not turn up. Nobody cooked food. We slept hungry and exhausted from the crying. The next morning, I found my paternal aunt in the kitchen. I did not like her.

          ‘Where did my mother go?’ I asked her.

          ‘To hell,’ she answered.

          I did not feel like going to school that day. But when father ordered me to go to school in anger, I had to because I was afraid of him. I went to school praying that my mother would be back home by the time I returned. But no, she didn’t come. Days passed . . . two . . . three . . . four. My mother did not come. I developed a fever. I craved for her touch. When my aunt tried to give me medicine, I pushed her hand away in disgust. The fever abated after ten days. As I was reluctant to get my hair combed by my aunt, it was matted and infested with lice. My aunt bought a crude comb and started delousing and combing it roughly. The comb grazed my scalp and it started burning. She began speaking foully about my mother and cursed her intermittently. I was so furious that I wanted to hit her on the head with a pestle and throw her out of the house.

          ‘Get out of my house,’ I shouted at her. I snatched the comb from her hands and scratched her hand in anger. Her blood spilled. I thought she would hit me back or complain to father so that I got beaten. But she did neither. Instead, she took me in her arms and said, ‘If you want, I will leave this place this very instant. But the moment I go, your father will remarry as he needs domestic help. Whoever comes will not comb your hair, or remove the lice, or take proper care of you or give you medicine, putting up with all your tantrums. You are a poor innocent child, hardly ten years old. You can’t understand worldly things. But one thing is for sure: your mother will not come back. She has left you. I came here because your father asked me to. I am here only for your sake.’ She was living alone in Vijayawada – away from her son and daughter-in-law. Mother used to say that she was not on good terms with them.

          I asked my brother, ‘Are you sure that mother won’t come back?’ He said yes. He was only four years older than me, but he knew many things and took good care of me. Whenever I refused to eat, he would persuade me to eat.

          After a month, he packed up his belongings and joined a hostel in Hyderabad. To be fair to him, rather than saying that he left, I should instead say that father and aunt sent him away, reasoning that as a boy he should study hard and the atmosphere at home was not conducive to his studies. How bitterly I wept at his absence and at my helplessness!

          Returning home from school, I would run up directly to the kitchen every day in the fond hope that I might find my mother there. Every day I would be disappoin- ted and would break down in tears. Refusing the glass of milk offered by my aunt, I would try to leave the place. She would get angry at first, then try to cajole me, and finally she would break into tears herself. Seeing tears in her eyes gratified me, for I had the feeling that she was somehow responsible for my mother deserting us. Once she wept, I would drink my milk coolly and sit idly in the veranda.

          ‘Go to music class!’ my aunt would say. But I no longer liked music. Soundarya’s mother was bad and would talk ill of my mother, like my aunt. I no longer liked to learn music from her. I stopped playing badminton at school. I failed in all my subjects during the quarterly examinations that year. I rarely spoke to my father. In fact, he had become such a recluse that he had stopped talking to anybody. But on the day he saw my progress report, he called me. He was not angry as I had feared. He calmly explained the advantages of a good education and promised to educate me as long as I wanted to study. But when he asked me to forget my mother, I burst into tears. I held his hands and wailed uncontrollably. Maybe he too was touched; he left the place in a hurry. My aunt hugged me and ran her hands down my back affectionately. She gave me some water to cool me down. How could I forget my mother? I would still absentmindedly search for her sari to wipe my mouth when I hurried out after eating; whenever I noticed the first bunch of blossoms appearing on the jasmine shrub, I would hop in delight, waiting to inform her, forgetting that she was no longer there; I would still leave my soiled school shoes in the belief that she would clean them. Many a time I struggled hard to keep myself from breaking down when my teacher reprimanded me and I recalled my mother and her absence.

          My brother wrote a letter to me, to my delight. He wrote that it was fine at the hostel and he had made good friends. He advised me to study well without unnecessarily crying for my mother, and promised to write whenever he found time.

          One day as I involuntarily wiped my mouth on the edge of my aunt’s sari, she turned, laughed and pinched my cheeks. That summer, my father was transferred. My aunt said that he had opted for a transfer. She introduced me as a ‘motherless child’ at the new place. I was furious with her for saying so. ‘My mother is not dead. She will return. I will not tolerate it if you say this again,’ I warned my aunt. She laughed at me and kept quiet. 

          People said that my aunt pitied me greatly. I did not like anyone pitying me and did not want to talk to such people. My classmates at the new school also started pitying me. I decided not to talk to anybody. For that matter, I did not want to make friends with anyone. I wanted to keep to myself, study well and stand first in the class. I was slowly getting used to my mother’s absence. But how could I forget her? Whenever I looked into the mirror, I would remember her – my curly hair and my eyebrows and even my complexion – these were all hers, they said. If I had not left for school that day, perhaps my mother would never have left. She, in fact, even bade me goodbye that day, standing at the gate!   

          Just as we were getting used to the new place and people, and I to the new school, father went on a tour for one week. Before he left, he gave my aunt my mother’s chain and a pair of her bangles, asking her to keep them safely for me. Aunt appeared to me to be very sad then. And when my father returned, there was a woman with a big suitcase beside him.

          My father asked me to treat her as my mother. ‘Come what may, I won’t do that,’ I said to myself. One day I saw my aunt packing up. When I asked her where she was going, she said that she was going back to her place. I caught hold of her legs, fearing that she might really leave and begged her to take me with her. Father objected, saying that I would miss my school. Pining for my mother and my aunt, I fell sick and ran a high fever. I wanted to die. My aunt came to see me. I hugged her lest she should leave me once more. This time, she took me with her and enrolled me in a school there. When I would look for a towel with which to wipe my hands after eating, she would offer the edge of her sari. When I wanted to place the plate in the sink, she would ask me to leave it and put it away. She bought a smooth new comb from the market to straighten my hair and arrange it into neat tresses.

          Every week, she gave me a bath with soapnut; she took me to the cinema and offered to share her bed with me. I couldn’t behave as playfully with my aunt as I had with my mother . . . I couldn’t make her run around for me after she had oiled my hair before my bath; or run in another direction, saying, ‘I’ll be there in a few minutes’ when she would call me for lunch; or leave the glass by the window after drinking milk to make her mock angry with me. I was afraid that my aunt might send me back to my father and to the woman he wanted me to treat her as my mother if I angered her with my behaviour. So I implicitly obeyed her. Whenever nightmares troubled me or thunder or power failures frightened me at night, I would want to nestle close to her but would refrain from doing so. She herself would then draw me close to her. Remembering the woman my father had asked me treat as my mother, I would snuggle closer to my aunt. Well, even if I missed my mother’s touch, I felt that my aunt’s touch and caress were the next best.

          People would say, ‘Who will take such good care of a motherless child?’ and I thought it was true. They advised me not to make my aunt angry. I agreed. After all, it was she who was sending me to school and treating me like her own child. She was very good at heart. But she always abused my mother and I did not like that. Gradually, I learnt to hide my displeasure and leave the place whenever she did this.

          When blood stained the back of my skirt one day, I ran home wailing. She reassured me, explaining what it was, and said, ‘Now you are a grown-up girl! You should not wail about every silly little thing. You are my darling.’ She celebrated the event and bought me new clothes. Despite all of this, she could not replace my mother. But she loved me the most, and this kept me alive. I was able to study well. ‘After all, I am not alone; I have my aunt,’ I felt.

          My father and the woman he had asked me to treat as my mother came and introduced a boy and a girl to me as my brother and sister. I decided that I would never treat them as my siblings. The woman also presented me with new clothes and caressed me on my head. She was my stepmother. Many people, including my aunt, said that stepmothers do not have genuine love for their stepchildren. So I did not like her even when she brought me new clothes and caressed me.


(to be continued..)


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