HERE I AM and other stories

8. Equations

Telugu Original: P.Sathyavathi

English Translation: Raj Karamchedu

          How she laughed when I stood behind the camera and made crazy faces! Bachi uncle grabbed that laughter and turned the whole house into a festival of lights. Placing the sparkle of that laughter on the picture of the Niagara Falls, which he had just visited, he created a beautiful photo. She filled the house with so much brightness and joy! Now all that’s left is just that – a cascade of jasmine-flower laughter! The laughter that makes you want to hide it in the cusp of your hands . . . Grandmother should have named her Vennela (moonlight), but she gave me that name. The orange sari, the red-stone earrings, the curls on her forehead that shook in the breeze – all this enhanced her beauty. What a beauty my mother was! How calming her smile! What brightness she possessed! In my childhood, father used to sing songs, humming long-drawn-out melodies. When Amma wiped her damp hair after a shower, he sang old popular poems sung by the famous singer, Ghantasala:

          Shall I weave her plait

          As she, bathed and bright

          Sits, drying her damp wet

          hair with fingers like tender leaves.

Yes, it was . . . Nanna indeed!

          I stood staring at that photo with the light near it, at the Niagara beauty wearing the rose garland, trying to believe this garland and this light were real.

          The previous evening, half opening the eyes that were being drained of life, she said, ‘Take good care and forgive me, child, for leaving you like this! I am helpless.’ She stared with dried up eyes. It had been a few days since dampness had sunk beneath her eyes. I placed my hand in hers. That hand used to be always warm – now it feels very cold. The winter of death . . . now or in a little while! This was evident. All of us were getting ready for it. Chitti propped her up and sat behind, leaning on her. The half-inch hair just sprouting, the sunken cheeks, those chemos, the radiations, the drugs, the vomiting, the fevers – was it just one thing? The body that gave in to torture. What did Amma do to be punished like this? Amma, who hadn’t even turned fifty? The woman in the picture that took up a quarter of the wall in our living room, was Amma. This was not she. Amma, lying on the bed, shook her head, perhaps to say, ‘Don’t cry.’ I ran into the balcony and cried for a long time. Chitti came out and said, ‘Go sit with her, she may not be with us for long.’ All night, and that was all . . .

          All manner of rituals and observances . . . the sobs . . . the eulogies – she was that good or this good. We didn’t need to ask relatives for advice or suggestions. They were ready with them, like frogs waiting to jump out of the bag, no matter what the occasion or context. I was surprised when it appeared that even father listened to their words. Someone was speaking that way to grandmother, too. She wasn’t taken aback as I was. She listened quietly and then left, without cursing the woman who had spoken to her – ‘What kind of words are these?’

          Chitti must have heard them too. But she never talks back to anyone. She just doesn’t react. Chitti is Amma’s sister, our youngest aunt, ten years younger than Amma. In the middle is Bachi uncle and the older aunt. While both Amma and our older aunt took after grandmother and were tall like grandpa, Chitti grew to only grandmother’s height and inherited grandpa’s personality. She was short and had a dark complexion. She was not bright in her studies. She worked as a nursery teacher in the same town. When we learnt of Amma’s ailment, grandmother arrived. When it got worse and they started thinking that it might not get any better, she couldn’t watch Amma’s suffering and called for Chitti. When grandmother left, worried on account of grandpa’s health, Chitti stayed back to become a mother, sister, nurse, maid and counsellor to Amma. She would stay up all night, keeping a vigil, but the disease tricked her and took Amma. After the funeral rites, Chitti started to leave along with everyone else, but grandmother stopped her.

          ‘Stay with Vennela for a while – such a big house, and she can’t live here all by herself,’ and she left without Chitti.

          ‘Do you want me to stay for another ten days?’ asked Chitti.

          ‘My final exams will be through in a month anyway. You will stay until then, won’t you, Chitti?’ Like everyone else, I am used to calling her Chitti.

          It suited me fine that Chitti should stay with us; I could talk to her. Nanna had taken it hard. It was I who sat by him and spoke to him sometimes.

          That was when he said, ‘I spoke to Amala auntie. I asked her to look for a cook who can stay with us the whole day. I thought you needed help. Besides, it’s not right to bother Chitti any more. She’s been here for six months already.’

          True, I thought. Still, I wanted Chitti to stay and told him so. ‘No,’ he said. ‘Our grief isn’t for just one day,’ and walked away.

          At ten in the night, Chitti was speaking to grandmother over the phone. I couldn’t follow what grandmother was saying, but Chitti was saying, ‘I am coming back the day after tomorrow. Don’t say anything more.’ Then there was silence. ‘Shut up!’ said Chitti angrily. She then put the receiver down. Two days later, Chitti left, telling father, ‘I will see you then. Send Vennela over for a few days after her exams.’

          ‘She would have stayed a few more days if you had asked her,’ I said, perturbed.

          Nanna sat close to me and said, ‘You are past twenty – old enough. You ought to know why I asked her to go.’

          ‘Tell me, Nanna.’

          ‘Your grandmother has plans to put up Chitti here permanently. Of course, I will not agree. It is not so many days since Amma has been gone and already so many suggestions. That same day, even our relatives suggested this. Why do we need this trouble? So I sent her away.’

          I was stunned. Tears came rushing to my eyes.

          ‘We have to get used to this new life, day after day . . .’

          Until then, I had wanted Chitti to stay a few more days, but now I couldn’t want this anymore. I had only thought she could stay a bit more as my mother’s sister and as my aunt, but I had not understood my grandmother’s plan. We had to get on with our lives with maids and cooks. With Chitti gone, the house seemed empty. Nanna and I spent days listening to Amma’s voice on tape, watching videos of her and having dinner together.

          I would be appearing for my exams and Amma, with her hair gone, would stand in front of me. When trying to sleep at night, I would see her as she moaned, back from chemotherapy with unbearable pain in her legs. I would stand near the cascade of jasmine-flower laughter in the living room to erase that image from my heart.

          The days crawled on, empty and hollow.

          ‘He is barely a year or two over fifty! A stable job, a good house and a single daughter who’ll be married and gone any day now.’ I kept hearing people talk like this about Nanna. A well-qualified widower! I didn’t do well in my exams, unable to get a good score, so I couldn’t get admitted to the university and had to stay at home that year. I resumed the music practice I had given up earlier.

          Soon, it was Amma’s anniversary. Grandmother came, relations arrived. Again, the advice and more advice.

          ‘Chitti is honest and patient in her ways. Besides, she is Vennela’s blood relative. How long are you going to live in this empty house? Who will light the house when the girl leaves?’

          ‘There is a widow who lost her husband two years ago. Just one son, still studying. She herself has a good job too. Do you want us to look for a match? You are not retired yet. Don’t you need someone to take care of you?’

          It was the same unceasing din. When I confronted Nanna, he said, ‘What do you expect? You will leave for university soon. Will I not be alone then?’ I was surprised and saddened and reported this to Chitti.

          Chitti smiled. ‘That’s just it! You shouldn’t really expect such a huge sacrifice from your father. Okay, let’s say he won’t marry again. Then are you going to put an end to your studies and stay here as his companion? One can’t stop you from leaving, can one? Then how is he going to live alone?’ I did not have the courage to ask Chitti, ‘Okay then, so why don’t you live in our house?’ I understood that she wasn’t keen on the idea. Nanna had been opposed to it from the beginning.

          When I asked her, ‘Don’t be angry – why don’t you like living in our house?’ she replied, ‘I have my little job and I live my life. I don’t like people taking pity on me. I don’t want to get married. I am happy like this – dark and short, with my little job. If you ever need anything, tell me and I’ll land up at your place, but not as your father’s wife.’

          Before grandmother left, she told me, ‘Your father said that he doesn’t want to marry Chitti! She’s your mother’s sister; she’ll take good care of you and your mother’s jewellery and her things. She’ll give them only to you. Would any outsider look after you like that? Your parents decided that having you was enough. As it is, Chitti won’t have children, so you are all that’s left for them both. Speak to your father; you are not a child.’

          I think grandmother was upset with me because I wouldn’t recommend aunt to father. I was already plunged in sadness, and hearing her speak to me in this fashion made me very angry. Amma used to say one should never pick a quarrel with elders, so I kept my mouth shut.

          A relative kept on bringing up the ‘lady who lost her husband, with a son still studying, and herself working too’. I took betterment exams and prayed to Amma to see that I got a university seat quickly. Amma took pity on me. I decided not to opt for a college anywhere nearby and instead, went to Delhi.

          ‘I know why your Nanna won’t marry Chitti,’ said grandmother, when I visited Chitti for a few days before I left for the university.


          ‘I don’t know – she isn’t that pretty, didn’t study much either. Even a second-timer has desires, is it not?’ She twisted her mouth wryly.

          Chitti laughed aloud. ‘Until yesterday, he was the handsomest man and now he’s become a second-timer!’ Grandmother walked away in anger.

          You want a person to set your house right and she still has to have so many qualifications? Must one’s own kin be easy on the eye too? I told Chitti this. She said, ‘If it’s a person who is supposed to just take care of the house, then wouldn’t any maid or a cook do?’ I like Chitti – soft, calm and warm.

          Such conversations were repugnant to me. I had gone there to stay for four days, but returned after just two.

          The matchmakers of the ‘lady who lost her husband, with a son still studying, and herself working too’ arrived.

          ‘My daughter,’ introduced Nanna.

          ‘Had you married her off within a year of her mother’s death, you would at least have received the fruits of having given away the bride,’ said the silk-wrapped elder.

          ‘She has to study further. Why talk of her marriage now?’ said Nanna. On occasion, he does speak up.

          ‘What are you studying, girl?’ spoke the Gadwal-sari clad elder woman. I told her. She was about to say something when Nanna signalled a warning to her.

          They stayed for two days. Nanna said the wedding must take place before I leave and insisted it would have to be a registered one. Back and forth went the arguments. In the end, Nanna’s arguments prevailed. He has been like that from the beginning. He never listened to others. Once in a while, he used to heed Amma’s words, though she never really crossed him; she simply worshipped him.

          The ‘lady who lost her husband and has an only son’ and her son came over to our house.

          My new brother. Nice to meet him. Frequent comings and goings. A new family…

          Why did father fancy this lady? I asked Amala aunty, who came to sign as a witness. She was a good friend of my mother’s. ‘She has her own son, so there are no worries about having more children. And she can go with your father to parties and functions. They do look nice together. Moreover, she is educated, and with the son around they won’t feel bored by themselves. The house won’t be quiet . . .’

          During the few days that I stayed, my new mother spoke to me freely. She told me that I could call her by whatever name I wanted. My new brother addressed me as ‘Sister’. Nanna came with me to see me off to Delhi.

          Sitting on the window seat in the plane, I asked that cascade of jasmine flowers visible in the white clouds, with wings like those of the goddesses, ‘So then, Amma, when I return for my next holidays, will you be smiling on the living room wall? Or will you move to another room?’


(to be continued..)


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