HERE I AM and other stories

5. Father

Telugu Original: P.Sathyavathi

English Translation: C.L.L. Jayaprada

         Dark clouds were gathering over the sinking sun with strong summer gales, hail and dust.

         Every last Sunday of the month, Amma and her friend Dr Meherunnisa used to visit the elderly in the old age home, to buy things they had asked for and things they had not. Both used to have long chats with the aged, check their blood pressure and hearts. For years, either I or my partner Ravi helped them in their kind deeds by driving them to the home and back. That Sunday I wanted to go with them, and only I knew the reason. There were signs of imminent heavy rain. If Ravi drove them to the home, he would not have come back in time. Not only would he chat with every elderly man and woman he met on his morning walks, he also chatted with all the residents at the old age home.

         I took out the car and waited outside the gate. Amma had yet to come downstairs. Ravi came out and stood beside me.

         Mahathi, who lived in the house opposite ours, had brought her father home a month ago, after her mother had died of cancer. Ravi had taken a liking to that family. He would watch Mahathi’s children play with their grandfather, her husband dropping his father-in-law off to the park on his scooter for his morning walk and later bringing him back – the old man sitting on the veranda in a reclining chair and Mahathi talking with him, her hands on his shoulders, making him chuckle.

         Ravi was very fond of his father. Whenever he visited their native town, he would wipe his father’s photos hung in every room by his mother, and hang sandalwood garlands on them. He also had a photo of his father on his desk. He would often look into the mirror and wonder, ‘I don’t resemble my father at all; I look exactly like my mother.’

         Mahathi and her family got into a taxi and drove past us. As Amma was getting into the car, I cautioned her, ‘If you don’t finish soon, we shall be caught in a heavy downpour.’ Much like Amma, Meher aunty used to take even more time to get ready. She had to buy a bedsheet for Mr Samuel, light cotton saris for summer wear for Annapurnamma, wool to knit a sweater for someone else, medicines for another, batteries for someone’s transistor, and so on. And of course, fruits and snacks must be taken. Despite my warnings, they stopped the car several times, made me go in all directions and filled up the boot of the car. It had begun to drizzle. At the home, Narasamma, Viswanadham, Christopher and others kept on talking to Meher aunty. One had to pee more times than usual. Another could not sleep through the night. Someone else’s heart was beating rapidly. By the time Meher aunty gave them medicines, comforted them and patted them on their shoulders, promised them to return soon and freed herself, the rain had begun thundering down. How carefully I had to drive these two precious beings home amidst lightning and thunder! Moreover, Amma had to go to Vijayawada by the Krishna Express the very next morning to address a seminar. She had already packed her clothes and kept her papers ready. She had also ordered a taxi so that we were not put to any inconvenience. The rain grew heavier, keeping both the wipers and my eyes busy.

         We reached home and Amma quickly went into the house. I locked the car and upon entering saw a man seated in the hall. His face struck me as familiar. Perhaps he was Ravi’s acquaintance and had stopped by due to the heavy rain.

         As I was about to go in, Ravi introduced me to him, ‘This is Vasantha,’ and added nonchalantly, ‘He is Rammohana Rao garu – your father, it seems.’

         For a moment, I lost grip over my senses, leaned on the wall to gather myself and walked in. Amma had already washed the rice to be put into the pressure cooker. Gasping for breath, I said, ‘Look at the man sitting in the hall. His name is Rammohana Rao – my father, it seems. Go and identify him. Later you may say whatever you like.’ Holding her hand, I dragged her along.

         She looked at him and in a flash returned to the kitchen. Rain continued to beat against the window panes. ‘It’s he!’ she said, added two more fistfuls of rice in the cooker, and sat down. The streams of rain flowing down the sunshade to the window above the counter shone like strings of beads in the lamplight. I shut the window so that the flame of the stove did not flicker in the wind.

         Blue jeans, a white tee-shirt, expensive spectacles, silvery hair and a very fair face. When Ravi introduced me to him, I had not smiled in response to his smile. His face did not betray any disappointment; he did not expect me to smile.

         I recalled that when my friendship with Ravi had deepened and we had shared our personal details, he had commented: ‘Oh! You too don’t have a father! I had hoped that we would have at least one father in our house.’

         ‘At least, you have your father’s photo in your house. We don’t even have his photo in our house. Nor do I know how he looks. Even if we had a photo, we can’t garland it as you do since he is alive. He does not live with us, that’s all,’ I had told him. Ravi’s parents had lived together only for three years. In those three years, the man had become his mother’s living god. She had created a great impression of her dead husband in her son’s mind. She had told Ravi that it was a great misfortune to not have a father; if his father had been alive he would have taken Ravi to greater heights. Ravi did not seem to have taken everything she said seriously. But he said that not having a father was like missing a quadrant in a circle.

         The downpour continued. I changed my clothes and sat in the chair next to Amma. I looked into her face but did not find any emotion.

         She placed four plates on the table. Ravi brought him to the table for dinner. Amma and I sat silently; it was Ravi who served him. After dinner Ravi made a bed for him in the guest room. The rain did not stop. Amma went upstairs to her rooms. The house we lived in was hers. She had asked us to live in it and built two rooms for herself upstairs. There she lived, happy in privacy.

         ‘He wants to talk to you,’ said Ravi.

         Suppressing my emotions and with a wooden face, I sat in front of him.

         He told me that after Lalitha’s death, his American daughter-in-law had taken him to the US. He did not like the life there and had returned to join an old age home in Bengaluru. He had come to the city to see an ailing friend and was staying at a hotel. I was amused. If my brother was there, how would he have reacted? Ravi was kind-hearted and would never insult an elderly man who came visiting us in the rain. We knew some of what he told us, but we didn’t know a few details. In Andhra Pradesh we have many relatives, friends, well-wishers, enemies and talebearers. They spice up the news before feeding us on it. I listened without uttering a word. Saying ‘It’s quite late. Please go to bed,’ I went to my room.

         I smiled to myself. True, he came to see us. But when did he leave and when did he return to visit us?

         Amma seemed to have switched the lights off upstairs and gone to bed. There was no change in her routine. She was no relation of this stranger. She had shut the doors to her heart and wiped off even the residues of the memories of this man. We never heard of him in our house. There was neither hatred nor love; nor was there any forgiveness. His picture had been simply erased.

         I had come to know of the events of her life through Thathayya. Ammamma hated the man and would flare up at the very mention of his name.

         When Mahalakshmi – my Amma – studied for her Bachelor’s in English and stayed in Maris Stella hostel, her father, Subbayya, came down to visit every Sunday with big packets of sweets and snacks, enough for her and her friends. She would go out with friends on Saturdays to Ravindra Cool Drinks to eat fruit salad, borrow Mills & Boon novels from Prabhoda Book Centre and watch English movies at Navrang Theatre. Yet she studied seriously and got a first class. Her father found her a good match – a bank officer – and celebrated her wedding with the requisite splendour. He went around, meeting several influential people, and got his son-in-law transferred to Vijayawada. He took a good house on rent for his daughter’s family and filled it with furniture. Her mother Sarojiniamma travelled by bus once a week and brought vegetables, eggs and tender coconuts for them. She also hired a young maid servant to help her daughter with the household chores. The neighbours said that the family was lucky. It was a happy family, smooth sailing in every respect for four years.

         One day, Mahalakshmi sat in the veranda, reading a serialized story in a magazine that had just arrived. Her threeyear-old daughter Vasantha sat on the mat, playing with her toys. The boy inside her belly was perhaps angry that Amma was sitting for too long without stirring and began kicking. Mahalakshmi thought she would stand for a while.

         Suddenly, her husband returned from the bank in a breathless hurry, saying ‘Lakshmi! I have to go to Hyderabad urgently. It may even take a week for me to return. Ask your mother to stay with you,’ and left with a suitcase.

         Usually, her parents would appear at her doorstep on receiving word from her, taking any bus they could get. Her mother would tidy the house and fill it with the groceries required. She would buy clothes for them on festivals. Mahalakshmi had never questioned her husband about expenses or money matters even though he gave her little. She knew his parents were poor. What objection could she have if he sent them money?

         He did not turn up even after a week. She did not worry until her mother reminded her. He often went on long tours. The routine at home did not change through the week. The child would play and friends would call up. There were books to read, songs to listen to and an occasional movie to watch. The child inside her did not trouble her much at the time.

         ‘What is this? At least, he could have called you? It is ten days since he left. Ask the bank and find out his number.’

         Putting aside the Barbara Cartland novel she was reading, she called the bank. What they told her, came as a shock. He had not gone on office work. He had taken leave. He had sent a letter from Bombay, extending his leave. She took the Bombay address from the bank but there was no response to her letters.

         Subbayya arrived from Vuyyuru. He was furious. He went to Rammohan’s parents and railed at them. He enquired about his son-in-law from his friends, relatives, people known to him and strangers. He wanted to file a police case. Sarojiniamma beat her breast and sobbed, ‘How much dowry did we pour into the wretched fellow’s hands?’ Then they came to know that he had resigned from his job.

         The relatives advised them to not go to the police and to leave their daughter in peace until she delivered her baby.

         Mahalakshmi forgot the magazines and novels and began thinking about life more seriously. Meanwhile, talebearers kept on plying them with news. One day, she told her father, ‘We don’t want him, Nanna! Let “her” keep him. Let him live his life. We’ll live ours.’

         It wasn’t easy for Subbayya and Sarojiniamma to accept this. They took the infant and the young girl into their fold and sent Mahalakshmi to university since they had no concern in the world other than their daughter. They opened the doors of the world for her, helped her overcome fear, and gave strength to her legs, sharpness to her words and freedom to her thoughts.

         ‘My father is a great man,’ thought Mahalakshmi.

         ‘What a fool you are! You didn’t realize that he had relations with another woman until four years after your marriage; you didn’t know that he was going there. You are not worldly wise,’ Sarojiniamma would often say.

         ‘I trusted him just as I trusted you and Nanna. When you say that you are going to Bandar to see Anasuya Attha, do I suspect you are going elsewhere? When I wanted to go on an excursion, you sent me, giving me more money than I needed, without a word. Did you think that I would go somewhere else? We are not in the habit of suspecting people. I trusted him just as I trust you. In English, it’s called “taking for granted”. That’s it. Let’s forget it,’ said Mahalakshmi.

         ‘If it is love that makes a woman blackmail the father of two children into believing that she will commit suicide and take him away, we don’t need such love. We don’t need such love and blackmail. Let us remain the simple rural folk we are,’ she told her parents.

         Mahalakshmi occupied herself with studies, job, rearing children, and with their studies and careers, and developed other absorbing interests.

         ‘Will Atthaya get angry because I invited him in? Pity, it was raining. He is after all an aged man. Hope she won’t get angry,’ said Ravi as he came into the bedroom.

         ‘We would do the same for whoever comes in such pouring rain, wouldn’t we? Why get angry?’ I said.

         ‘He has a flight to Bangalore tomorrow. He will get up in the morning and go away. Couldn’t you have gone upstairs once to see how Amma is?’ he asked.

         ‘Why should I disturb her now? She has to wake up early tomorrow to catch the train. She did not seem to care much about it. He too did not ask to speak to her. He told us whatever he had to. If there was any heaviness in his heart, he unburdened himself.’

         The conversation between Ravi and I did not last long. Each of us tried to sleep. But the man’s words kept ringing in my ears.

         ‘I’m just part of Mahalakshmi’s life. But I’m Lalitha’s sole life. She had no mother. That her father was alive did not make any difference to her life. She had no education, no property and was in indifferent health. She was in love with me for a long time. It was my mistake to marry Mahalakshmi. I married her upon my mother’s insistence. Even when I was with Mahalakshmi, I could think only of Lalitha. I wrote letters to her, met her, sent her money from time to time. I took this decision when I realized that she could not live without me. I was deceiving two women; I had to choose one. Lalitha was unwilling to part with me. Her letters were full of recriminations and threats of suicide. She would not marry someone else, would not try to support herself. She was very weak. Mahalakshmi’s life was ordered and followed a routine. She had her parents, her books and her children. Even if I came home late, she would not worry. If she were hungry, she ate. If sleepy, she told the maid to let me in when I came home and went to sleep. This is not to say that she did not love me. But even if I were not there, she would not want for anything in life. I felt her parents would look after her as the lid guards the eye. That’s why I was prepared for any humiliation and ignominy and went to Lalitha. Perhaps it was a mistake. But I did it. I am responsible for it. I did not come here to explain, apologize or ask you to accept me as family. I just wanted to see you all once. I’m ready to face it if Mahalakshmi insults or accuses me. I will be grateful to you forever for your hospitality and for allowing me to speak to you,’ he said calmly.

         I wonder why I didn’t feel like hurting him with harsh words. I simply heard whatever he said with a wooden face and went out of the room. Is it because I was raised by Mahalakshmi? I fell asleep after a long time. By the time I got up, Amma had left for the railway station. He did not seem to have woken up. While brushing my teeth, I looked at my face in the mirror. Amma’s complexion is dusky. She has curly hair, large eyes, and is of average height – about five feet three inches. I am of a fair complexion, have soft hair, am tall, almost five six.

         ‘Hurry up. He is leaving. I gave him coffee. I’ll drop him at the hotel,’ Ravi said.

         ‘Let me take leave,’ he said, patted my back and got into the car without looking back. He took responsibility for what he had done, good or bad. He accepted the consequences. He did not hesitate to look into my eyes. He did not try to talk to Amma. He remained calm and did not show any emotion even when she was silent and refused to look him in the eye. All this time, I had not known him, could not recall his face. Maybe I will remember him now every time I see my face in the mirror.


(to be continued..)


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