HERE I AM and other stories
Telugu Original: P.Sathyavathi
English Translation: Vadrewu Panduranga Rao
One Sunday afternoon, caught in a drizzle and stepping into our house, I noticed father and mother feverishly busy in the kitchen, cooking and arguing with each other. The debate did not concern cuisine – it was about our educational system. She is a lecturer and he, of course, a professor. She had placed the frying pan on the fire and poured oil into it; she was now mixing the Bengal gram flour in a basin. Sniffling and wiping his eyes, he was slicing onions.
I put my arm over his shoulder and said, ‘Need some help?’ Instantly, my mother pushed the basin containing the batter towards me and said, ‘Fry the pakodi. I have to evaluate the answer sheets.’ And she quit the kitchen. Any other Indian mother, a Bharat mata, would not have shoved me towards the kitchen fire in this manner. I was exhausted, engaged as I had been in research at the university for the last four years.
But then she is a different sort of mother.
‘Could you please help me with these onions?’ father said, and almost bit off his tongue; he even wiped his eyes. He had taken a vow at a very young age, I believe, that no woman in his family should shed tears; he would not allow it, not even while shredding onions. He wouldn’t permit either mother or I to chop onions. If he had to go out of town, he would first chop up half a kilo of onions and store them in the fridge, and only then leave – my dear beloved father. And thereby hangs a tale.
Actually, my father is known in his village only as Cheruvu (tank) Tulasamma’s grandson. Not professor so-and-so. Cheruvu Tulasamma is Mahalakshmi, the great Goddess of Prosperity of my father’s place. Of course her given name is Mahalakshmi, but she is referred to as Cheruvu Tulasamma.
Mahalakshmammagaru had been married at the age of eight; the groom, I believe, was just sixteen. More than a few people waited for the eight-year-old child to come of age, to begin family life – not only her wedded husband, but also his paternal grandmother, and his two paternal aunts, widowed and returned home to their parents, and of course, his mother. At the age of fifteen, and just beginning to cover her shoulders with a paita – a girl’s upper cloth, she stepped (right foot first) into her mother-in-law’s house and commenced family life. Even at that tender age, her husband, his grandmother, his paternal aunts and his mother roasted her the whole day as they would a brinjal or sweet potato. She was bone-tired, what with all the household chores, and heckling and harassment she faced the whole day. When at night, she longed to lie down after pouring a little warm water on herself, even this became impossible because of the great man’s amatory assaults. She could not understand this. Fear, pain, disgust – who could she confide in? How could she write to her mother without having learnt even the alphabet? Not that her mother knew how to read. Only if someone arrived from their village could she communicate her feelings.
The festival of Sankranti arrived at last, after a long wait. Her father came and took them both to his home. For god’s sake, she thought, why should this man also come? But it couldn’t be avoided, could it? The very evening after her arrival, she poured her soul out to her mother and wept, but her mother laughed it off. Life in the mother-in-law’s house – did you imagine that it would be like playing a girl’s game of physic nuts? This is what a woman’s life is. Haven’t we all suffered the same way? You will get used to it, no doubt, she said, and fried a whole lot of snacks for her – chegodi, arisalu, madatakazalu. After that, the girl did not confide her woes to anybody.
When she returned to her marital home, she would sit before the tulasi plant in the backyard after completing all her chores in the evening, and weep to her heart’s content, making a submission of all her travails to benign Mother Tulasi. That the daughter-in-law of the house would sit before the tulasi brick platform, lost in dhyana, every evening came to be known not only to the family members, but to others too. They all believed that she was meditating on Mother Tulasi as she sat there. As she sat there every evening for ten years, her tears formed a tank around the tulasi brick work. This was nothing short of a miracle, both to her family members as well as to outsiders. Her prayers, they came to believe, had melted Mother Tulasi and created a tank. The lady’s prestige grew. Meanwhile, four children arrived. The two old paternal aunts passed away, as well as the grandmother. Giving birth in quick succession to three sons and causing a tank to be created in the backyard brought good fortune to our father’s grandmother. Her prestige grew, at home and outside, as the great pativrata, the devotee of her husband, the Tulasamma of the Tank. Her fame spread to the neighbouring villages. Earlier, the women of the village had to trudge all the way to the tank outside the village to celebrate the lamp festival in the month of karthikam (falling in October–November). Now, they began visiting this tank. A mere glimpse of grandmother’s face was sufficient good fortune, they believed. The housewives bathed in this tank and washed their sacral cloths here. Children came here to swim, but the water was too salty to drink. This was the type of village house that had a thousand-square-yard living area and a backyard as large as Sri Lanka. It could withstand anything – even when a tank formed there or when there were floods. If this were to happen in a city, people would have to move around their rooms in boats, thought my father, and early in his life, he took this vow to chop the onions.
The oil was simmering – mix the onion slices in the Bengal gram batter with a dash of cooking soda in it, drop dollops in the boiling oil and fry them until they acquire a golden hue, drain them in a perforated ladle and take them out. In the process, if hot oil falls on your body, jump and hop around a bit and fragrant, sorry crispy crisp pakodis were ready.
‘You and your stupid vows,’ mother scolded him fondly.
‘Look at your face and nose. Go wash up and then eat these pakodis.’
‘Father’s nayanamma (paternal grandmother) was truly great,’ I said, putting a plate of pakodis before mother. She gave me a look and continued to check examination answer sheets, munching pakodis.
‘I too will check your answer sheets. But first, on a Sunday like this when it’s drizzling outside, please tell me about your own nayanamma,’ I said.
If it were father, asked or unasked, he would have gone on non-stop, recounting things about himself. This lady was different. She wouldn’t say a thing until she was repeatedly asked. But isn’t the person who asks, worthy of the narrator’s contempt? ‘Tell me, thalli, dear mother, please won’t you? What kind of miracles did your nayanamma perform with the glorious power of her husband-devotion? Tanks, rivers or oceans?’ I asked.
‘None of these stories of miracles in their family,’ chipped in the respected professor.
‘My nayanamma considered tears inauspicious. She never shed a tear, except when my grandfather passed away. Even at that time, she hesitated for a moment or two, wondering whether it was propitious or not, and when someone advised her that it would be inauspicious not to weep on the occasion, she allowed herself a quick cry, they say.’
‘She probably had no problems. Everyone treated her well, I presume . . . mother-in-law, paternal aunts, husband’s sisters, the husband himself?’ I interjected.
‘Not at all. She too suffered at the hands of all of them, but when she was being sent off to live with her husband, her mother had counselled her in clear terms. If the lady of the house sheds tears, the Goddess of Wealth will quit the place forthwith. Goddess Lakshmi hates snivellers. A woman should always comb her hair neatly, have the auspicious mark on her forehead in place and always smile. Shedding tears is inauspicious, she said. Therefore, nayanamma, when on the verge of beginning family life, took a vow not to shed tears and then went to live with her husband. Besides, she believed in several other things, very many of them. Early in the morning when it was time for Goddess Lakshmi to knock on the door, the whole house should be kept spick and span. All the people in the house must keep smiling. Afternoon was work time, evening, dusk or asurasandhya was lamplighting time. In this manner, she had a “time” for everything, and during those “times” no one should weep, abuse, use foul language against anyone or utter inauspicious words. Gods hover around – tadhastu (“so be it!”) gods, who promptly make such things happen – when we curse someone, these gods will utter “tadhastu”, “so be it” . . . that is why we should only utter auspicious words. If you don’t have anything else to do, pour some raw rice into your winnowing tray and utter Rama’s name each time you pick out an unhusked grain, and put it aside. Give these unhusked grains away as alms. My paternal aunt lost her husband during her childhood, and so returned to us – she has no children . . .’
As she attempted to rise from her chair, as though she had told me enough, I forced her back into her chair again, ‘Not enough, more, tell me more . . .’
She resumed, ‘One of my nayanamma’s favourite topics was “Go-dhooli time”. I can never forget this, nor will you.’ As I looked eagerly into her face, waiting for her to tell me about it, she got up and brought more pakodis in a plate, ‘Both of you eat these,’ she said, as if she was imposing a sentence on us.
‘Why don’t you eat?’ father said, demanding to know.
‘Have I said I won’t eat? Have I? Any time?’ she crooned to the tune of an old cinema song.
‘Nayanamma did not know the alphabet, nor did she know the numerals. These were of little use to her. If she needed anything for the home, she would tell her children, who would then pass on the word to the grandfather, her husband. On the instant, he would fetch them and drop them at the threshold of the kitchen. She had nothing whatever to do with cash transactions; she couldn’t even identify the denomination of currency. Once a ryot brought a bundle of ten rupee notes, gave it to her and asked her to put it away safely, and this lady put it among in the eaves. When on the third day, her husband asked her for it, he found that it had been nibbled by rats. Those were the days when just one hundred and fifty rupees fetched ten sovereigns of gold, I believe. Naturally, grandfather danced the furious dance of Shiva and when she attempted an explanation, he gave her a resounding slap at “mid-noon time”. She went straight to her winnowing tray of rice of Rama’s name and settled down. When my aunt approached her and sought to show sympathy, saying, “Father has gone too far,” my nayanamma shut her up, “Don’t utter a single word against that maharaju, that great man. If an error is committed, does not even god punish?” She was extremely fair-skinned. Looking at the pink welts on her cheek, my aunt was filled with anger and grief. If she were to weep, her mother would have rebuked her, so she got up and went away.’
‘One evening, surrounding herself with ten hurricane lanterns and sundry little lamps, and with a rag and a handful of lime powder to wipe the glass chimneys, my aunt settled down in the hall.
‘She did this every day for an hour. During this period, mother was busy in the backyard, either chopping the vegetables for the evening meal or serving a meal to the field hand who had returned from the fields, or supervising him as he ground horse gram paste. Nayanamma would sit there next to my aunt, leaning against a pillar. Both of them would chat, sometimes indulging in backbiting against mother, sometimes gibing at each other, at times criticizing or praising someone in the village. This was an extremely “hectic time” – and also the time when we returned from school. “Shall I also clean the lanterns, aunt?” I asked, having just returned from school and swallowed whatever mother had to give me, as well as a snack.
- “Enough of this nonsense, go bathe,” said aunt.
- “Don’t say such things to a girl at any time of the day; it’s wrong,” said nayanamma.
- “Whatever I say is wrong for this lady,” muttered aunt to herself.
- “Have the cattle returned home?” enquired nayanamma all of a sudden.
‘Every day when the cattle returned home, she went to the cow, worshipped her, milked her all by herself, and gave the milk to our grandfather at night. He drank cow’s milk along with his ayurvedic medicine. It was her belief that the field hand didn’t know how much milk he must leave for the calf and how much to take for our use. Our grandpa needed one glass of milk and we needed another to offer to god – you should only milk that much, she would say, and leave the remainder for the calf. She even had a measuring mark in the chembu – the brass vessel – to indicate when two glasses had been milked. She wouldn’t tolerate even an ounce this side or that. You are murdering the calf, she would charge. “What do you call the time when the cattle return home, nayanamma?” I asked in jest. “It is called go-dhooli vela (time) . . . You don’t know even this – are you continuing your education after puberty?” she asked mockingly. Among the matters that were not to her liking was my continuing my education.
- “What does it mean, nayanamma?”
- “When cows come trotting home eagerly at dusk, their hooves raise dust which colours the sky red. That is why it is called go-dhooli vela.”
- “Is it just the cows? Even the oxen come home, the she-buffaloes too, don’t they? Why don’t they say cattle-dust time?”
- “It is important for the cows to return home in time. The calves wait for their milk. We have to milk the cows in time, sufficiently early. After nightfall, there could be creeping things in the cattle shed. Cows have many things waiting for them at home. It is also necessary for us that they return home in time. That’s why they return trotting home on their own and exactly on time,” said aunt.
- “This means that cows are more useful than oxen. That’s why we worship them; right, nayanamma?” I asked. Nayanamma didn’t agree.
- “Oxen plough the field for us, they draw the carts. Without them, where would we get our food! Therefore, oxen are great. The cow is another name for patience, Mother Cow, Goddess of Patience; that’s why we worship it,” said nayanamma, and left to check if the cows had returned to the byre.
‘Go-dhooli time – the term stuck in my mind, I can never forget it . . .’ said mother. ‘Check the totals in these sheets – I have an appointment at five.’ It’s impossible to hold her back even for a moment.
All this happened two years ago.
The last lecture period was still going on. Those of us who had finished for the day sat around in the staff room. Some chatted about the share market, some others about the principal. The Political Science lecturer, Sandhya Rani, kept looking at the clock next to the main gate every now and then. She had to change two buses to reach home; in the rush hour you couldn’t get a bus, and she always had urgent chores waiting for her at home.
‘Botany’ Pushpalata was saying that her son’s fever hadn’t come down; it transpired they had an appointment with a specialist today. When she enquired from ‘Telugu’ Siva Rao garu, he told her that he wouldn’t be returning home directly; he had a Sanskrit tuition on the way. He wouldn’t be home before eight. Until he finished his shopping, until he looked up his circle of friends, he wouldn’t return home, he assured her. ‘I agree with you, brother,’ said another man, ‘Going home and then coming out again is a waste of petrol. Better get done with everything on the way and then reach home. After all, once you arrive home, all that you need to do is to eat and watch the television.’
Sandhya Rani kept looking at the clock. Pushpalata, heartsick, slumped in her chair. Rushing home, picking up her son and then rushing to the hospital – it might probably be too late . . . if she were to miss the appointment, she would have to wait until the last patient had had his turn. Only then would the doctor call her in, and this would be after 10 p.m. How would she manage to cook the evening meal and do the other chores?
At last, the bell rang. Her bag ready, Sandhya Rani crossed the gate in one bound. Pushpalata requested ‘English’ Subbarao, who had just come back from his class, for a lift half the way, and looking triumphant, perched on his pillion seat. Sundara Rao and Suryamukhi, who had been talking about the share market until then, joked about Pushpalata’s request for a ‘lift’ and sniggered. ‘Telugu’ Sunanda and I walked at a leisurely pace to the bus stop. The place was overflowing with women, perpetual anxiety writ on their faces. Even the vehicles plying frenetically on the road belonged to women – they must reach home and as early as possible. There were chores waiting to be done at home, children returning from school, office, college, university – why have you taken so long to reach home! What have you been doing all this while! Don’t you know you should arrive on time! When so many others could get a bus, why not you! Shoving and trampling,
Sudha Rani squeezed herself into a bus. Ammayya, whew! Serious trouble averted for one more day . . .
‘We cannot board a bus in this mad rush, I say . . . let a couple of buses go. We can catch a bus later. Meanwhile, let’s get a couple of corn cobs from that parked trolley,’ said Sunanda, making sure that there weren’t any students around. But then a not-so-packed bus came along and we both clambered on to it.
At this time of the day, wherever you turn, it’s women! Women, we have acquitted ourselves of our official duties for the day satisfactorily. Let us return home without our hearts palpitating, no calling out to friends on the way, no repose on anyone’s face. Hurry . . . hurry . . . vegetables on the way, snacks for the children. If you take an hour to buy medicines for the elders, there will have to be an explanation. If you don’t get a bus, if you call on a friend – no explanations allowed . . . march . . . forward . . . pushing ahead, march . . . treading steadily, march . . . march into your buses . . . climb in sharp . . . umm, more quickly still . . . faster.
‘What is this rush . . . these women frantic to return home,’ I said, as if to myself.
‘Go-dhooli time, of course!’ said ‘Telugu’ Sunanda in a laid-back tone.
(to be continued..)
పి. సత్యవతి గుంటూరు జిల్లా కొలకలూరులో 1940 జులై 2న జన్మించారు. ఆంధ్రవిశ్వకళాపరిషత్ లో ఎం.ఎ. ఇంగ్లిషు పూర్తి చేశారు. విజయవాడలోని ఎస్.ఎ.ఎస్. కాలేజ్ లో అధ్యాపకులుగా పని చేసి పదవీవిరమణ పొందారు. ఆమెకు అపారమైన బోధానానుభవమే కాదు, తెలుగు, ఆంగ్ల సాహిత్యాలపై పూర్తి పట్టు ఉంది. అన్నిటికి మించి తెలుగు సమాజాన్ని క్షుణ్ణంగా దగ్గరనుంచి పరిశీలిస్తున్నారు. అందుకే నాలుగు దశాబ్దాల తెలుగు స్త్రీ, వారి రచనల్లో మనకు కనిపిస్తుంది. వీరి తొలి కథ 1964లో ఆదివారం కోసం రాశారు. దీనిలో ఆదివారమైనా స్త్రీకి సెలవు ఉండాలని, అది వ్యక్తిగతమైన పనులు చేసుకోడానికి అవసరమని వివరిస్తుంది. 1975లో మర్రినీడ కథా సంపుటి వీరిని రచయిత్రిగా పాఠకలోకానికి పరిచయం చేసింది. ఆంధ్రజ్యోతి సచిత్రవారపత్రిక ప్రచురించిన కథలలో పాఠకుల అభిప్రాయాల ద్వారా ఈ కథకు బహుమతి వచ్చింది. పి. సత్యవతి కేవలం కధా రచయిత్రే కాదు నవలలు, వ్యాసాలు, అనువాదాలు కూడా చేశారు.