HERE I AM and other stories

4. City of Spells and City of Charms (Part-1)

Telugu Original: P.Sathyavathi

English Translation: Lakshmi Gudipati

          I seek to uncover treasured sculptures among ancient ruins.

          I enrich the soil around the once mighty, hacked remains of trees, hoping desperately for new saplings to sprout from the roots.

          My daughter Gita says such activities are a waste of time. As a college student, she dedicated her time and energy to students’ rights, women’s rights and human rights.

          She doesn’t waste her time even now. She is always focused on maintaining an impeccable house, a slim and trim body, a healthy bank balance, and a flourishing career in the country of opportunities. She has urged me several times to visit her dream home and see her well-settled life. Finally, I yielded to her repeated invitations and frustrated reprimands, and arrived in this ‘country of opportunities’.

          As a member of her family, I’ve accompanied her to several parties at her friends’ places. That is how I ended up at the house-warming party of Radha and Ramesh. The fourbedroom, single-family home stands on a huge plot with a beautifully landscaped garden. Every room is decorated tastefully with handicrafts from different countries.

          It is no exaggeration to say that celebrations and parties in this country are no ordinary affairs. The ritual prayers are being held in the living room. The couple is performing ‘satyanarayana vratam’. Decked in diamond jewellery and a gorgeous silk sari, Radha looks as radiant as the goddess Lakshmi. Her husband Ramesh is equally well dressed in a silk dhoti and shirt, with a shining gold chain around his neck – in the manner of a newly elected legislator who visits Tirupati to worship Lord Venkateswara. Their little girl, dressed in a traditional silk skirt and blouse, is loaded with gold ornaments.

          Gita and I join the guests in the living room. Several of the women there are Gita’s friends. Some of them I have met previously. Their conversation covers a range of topics – from real estate, the stock market, job layoffs, to what to buy during trips to India. Among the guests are several mothers who have come to this country to help with their daughters’ pregnancies. The parents begin dreaming of visiting Niagara Falls and the Pittsburgh temple as soon as the children finish high school.

          ‘Where is Srividya these days?’

          ‘Perhaps, she has gone in search of Srinivas, poor girl.’

          I’m right here. Srinivas is no longer in my life. He disappeared as soon as I lost my job. Recently he got his green card, so why would he waste his time on me? He’s busy courting Sravani. Not too long ago, he used to mock her appearance and call her unattractive; now that she has a steady job in an American company, he directs his attention to her. I dated him only because my parents were looking for a groom working in America. If it had not been Srinivas, it would have been someone else whom I don’t yet know.

          To be frank, there are Manus in this country too. Look at poor Jyothi. Her husband is a compulsive nag. She is also invited to the party today, though I wonder if she will come.

          Of course I’m here. My husband works for Radha’s company. Also being from the Andhra region in India, we cannot avoid attending the pooja. Look at me: I’ve come with my two-year-old in tow – she looks like a four-year-old, I know – with a diaper bag on my shoulder and a six-month pregnant stomach. My dear husband doesn’t care to share the burden! I’m not lucky in the marriage department. Unlike Gita’s husband, mine does not help in the household chores. He never makes friends with families where men share the responsibility of raising the children. Did he help me learn to speak English fluently or teach me to drive as other husbands do? Of course not! I’m in his life only to cook dahi vada and chilli chicken. When he is home, he demands that I keep the child quiet and not to disturb him. I have no life but as his wife. To be honest, I would like to go back to India and have my second child there. But no! I cannot even think of that option. We cannot deprive the child of ‘the right to be an American citizen’. I ended up in this marriage because my father wished for a well-placed son-in-law; otherwise, why would he offer twenty lakh rupees to send me off to this country? I blame my father for my fate – all I did was go for a movie with the boy next door; what’s wrong with that? It was for this reason that my father made me quit studies after the twelfth grade and got me married. I was just eighteen years old. Now I am reduced to cursing my fate and wallowing in self-pity. I can’t do much else.

          The celebrations at Radha and Ramesh’s were splendid. After the pooja, we had a great feast with traditional Andhra sweets and savouries: ariselu, bobbatlu, ulavacharu with lots of cream – the list goes on. To top it all, each family received a silver bowl as a parting gift. Apparently, performing grand ceremonial poojas and giving expensive party gifts is now customary here. A swamiji recently performed a yagnam at Ramani’s house. I wouldn’t be surprised if I got to attend rituals that are not commonly performed even in India, such as the lakshavattula pooja – the pooja of lighting one lakh wicks!

          All’s well with the world with Satyanarayan Swamy here with us.

          Since we had a heavy lunch at Radha’s this afternoon, we’re skipping dinner tonight. If someone feels hungry, they can take some of the leftovers from the fridge. Gita and her husband are busy with weekend chores – girls’ haircuts, weekly laundry, vacuuming, and what not. All I need to do is to stay out of their way. I can read a book and relax.

          I, Srividya, have been restless since I lost my job. How long can one while away time, browsing and chatting on the net? I did find a guy who seemed interesting, and I need to pursue the conversation with him. Hmm . . . my cousin Gita is nice. She has offered to let me stay at her place while I look for a job. And my aunt Jhansi is here visiting her daughter Gita. My aunt is very engaging and has a great sense of humour. She is a great storyteller too. She is reading; maybe I could ask her to tell me a story!

          You want a story? Okay, on one condition: only if you promise to listen to it till the end. Deal?


          Okay, here we go.

          Long long ago, there was a family that lived in a typical house in a village. The house did not have a single window, making it very dark inside. One day, a girl child was born into the family. Her mother named the baby Anasuya. Baby Anasuya was like all other babies, male and female, when she was born. Her first wail was normal like any other baby, but something changed soon after and her voice began to sound like that of a squeaky mouse – high-pitched and almost inaudible. Not only that, she grew to be only two feet tall by the time she was seven years old. She would not or could not hold her head straight; if she tried to lift her head and look straight ahead, she suffered from severe neck pain, so she found it easier to keep her head down. She could not speak normally either; she would make an attempt to speak to some people, and with others, she would not even dare to try. She was able to talk quite freely with her mother but she could not talk freely with her father or brothers. I told you that their home was dark. There was one interesting feature, though. In the house was a room where they kept their grandfather’s strongbox. It was only in this room that there was a tiny hole in the wall. A ray of light fell on the strongbox through that hole in the afternoon; it was always in the shape of a small circle, almost like a halo! Anasuya discovered this secret and took a fancy to the circle of light. Every afternoon, she would go and lie on top of the strongbox. She positioned herself so the light would fall on her abdomen. You see, it was probably because she could not tolerate light falling on her eyes; after all, she was not accustomed to light in a house filled with dark shadows. Moreover, she was not allowed to step out of her house. As a matter of fact, no woman was allowed to cross the threshold of the house. All of them, including the little girls, had to finish their daily ablutions in the pre-dawn hours before sunrise, pick flowers for the daily pooja, and decorate the front yard with muggulu. This was the tradition and custom of their home.

          Anasuya was married off when she was eight years old. Obviously, she had only glanced at the groom’s feet. When she was fourteen years old, she attained puberty and was sent to her in-laws’ home.

          Her in-laws’ home was no different from that of her parents’. Here too there was only one room which had an opening big enough to let in a ray of light; only here, the light fell on the floor. Used to the experience of reaping warmth from the sunrays, Anasuya quickly noticed the spot and began to lie there every afternoon. This way, she continued to experience her secret bliss. In essence, the only part of her body that knew natural sunlight was that spot on her abdomen.

          At her in-laws’, she bore nine children. Her short height, the fact that she was near mute, and her inability to make eye contact did not come in the way of her fecundity. Of the nine, only four survived – three sons and a daughter. The daughter was the youngest. Anasuya had nurtured many hopes for her daughter – she should not be dwarfish like her, or walk with a bent head and have a neck that ached constantly, and she should be eloquent in speech. She prayed to all the gods every day that her hopes for her daughter would come true. She watched her progress with eagle eyes. The girl was named Krishnaveni by Anasuya’s mother-in-law.

          When she turned a year old and started to walk, Krishnaveni would constantly try to step outside the threshold into daylight; Anasuya was always afraid that her husband would discover this habit of her daughter and punish her. By the time she was five years old, Krishnaveni grew to be taller than her mother. This pleased Anasuya immensely – never mind that she could not see her daughter’s face, what with her own limitations! By the time Krishnaveni was six years old, she argued with her father and forced him to buy her a slate and chalk – just like he did for her brothers – and forced him to admit her in primary school. Anasuya literally fell in love with her daughter’s slate and chalk; she would frequently, but always secretly, hold the slate close to her heart and place gentle kisses on it. She never spoke to her husband directly, face-to-face; when he approached her, she felt chills go down her spine and would become a nervous wreck.

          By the time Krishnaveni was twelve years old and entered the seventh grade, Anasuya had become very pale and walked with a bent back and head. The doctor traced her deterioration to her lack of exposure to sunlight. He suggested that they construct a window on a wall and place her bed in a spot where light would fall on her through the window. The doctor also found that her blood was completely devoid of red cells. So, she had to have a new routine. In the evenings she would have her bed moved into the backyard in the shade of a tree, so that she could breathe fresh air and feel the warmth of the setting sun. Each day, she noticed that every time she wiped her face with the edge of her sari, it would turn red. She thought it was the tint of the sindhur on her forehead and did not pay it much heed, but when the doctor told her of her low red blood cell count, she made the connection. Her body was emitting red blood cells along with her sweat. How was she to know that this could happen, and even if she had, what of it? Not that she could do anything to remedy it.

          Anasuya’s husband was not inconvenienced by his wife’s illness at all. Their eldest son was already married and the daughter-in-law could attend to the household work. His widowed sister, who had returned to her maternal home a long time ago, could look after the external work such as the upkeep of the garden and livestock. Finally, there was no restriction on him in the matter of seeking gratification for his sexual needs out of wedlock!

          The one thing that bothered him was the conduct of his daughter, Krishnaveni. His wife, though dwarfish in size and not attractive in appearance, was an obedient woman. She used to do all the household work without protesting or slacking off. She never forced him to pay attention to what she said; all she would do was look down at his feet and mumble incoherently. Nonetheless, he gave her a full wardrobe and plenty of jewellery! Sadly, Krishnaveni didn’t take after her mother. She was as tall as a flagpole and disrespectful when she spoke to her father. On being advised that stopping her education would cure Krishnaveni of her arrogance, he barred her from going to school.


(to be continued..)


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