A LODESTAR (Telugu Original: PALALLA by Dr. Kondapally Neeharini

-Padmavathi Neelamraju

          The sky is densely clouded. Heavy Aashada month’s rains are falling intermittently. Sudhakar and Vijaya stopped at Nallakunta road for auto. To go to Bonagiri, one has to board the RTC district bus. Buses are not available till Uppal. He saw an auto passing by and waved his hand to stop it.

          “Don’t bargain sir, it is day beginning, no commuters till now, it’s not auspicious,” said the auto-wala.

          Sudhakar couldn’t say no when Vijaya winked and said, “Let’s get in, no bargain.” Sudhakar’s thoughts are moving faster than the auto.

          “My granny was lucky enough, she died without being bedridden,” Sudhakar said as soon he settled in the auto. “Oh yes and not only that, she died with her sons by her side” added Vijaya.

          “Going to visit somebody’s funeral sir?” the auto-wala said automatically. “Yes, the old lady slipped on the wet floor last night, died on the spot, we set out immediately to condole with family”.

          Auto-wala took the fare, “It is said that nothing such happens without a reason, that’s why the stroke on her breath led her to death, that is better, no suffering with injuries lying in bed at such an old age,” spoke philosophically.

          As soon as he got into the bus, Sudhakar saw a relative. When he heard the sad news, he said sympathetically, “Oh! So shocking, a gentle woman she was, but lucky!”

          Vijaya got a seat in the bus but Sudhakar didn’t. She asked, “Ayyo! Will you stand?”Sudhakar said, “It’s only a matter of an hour and a half, no problem.” The bus hit the road speedily.


          They have a good reputation, many people have gathered in front of the house. As the elder Venkataiah’s wife, Satthemma was very close to the villagers as well as a tongue in the head of everybody in that village because of her kindness.  All the villagers gathered there in respect mourning her death. The corpse was ready. Both the toes of the dead body were tied with a thread. Vijaya and Sudhakar took off their shoes and knelt at Sathemma’s feet and went inside. In her honour, the entire village was shut down that day. The village heads associated with that house paid their respects to Sathemma by placing a wreath of flowers.

          “During the tenure between birth and death, everyone must have a few people for their own self. Nobody will understand this fact. Everybody is worried about only earning money,” said Bhoolacchamma and fell on Sathemma’s corpse sobbing loudly and beating her forehead hysterically. Nobody could take her emotional drama. Is she Sathemma’s child? No! Is she her younger sister? No, not at all. Once she came to this place as a farm labourer for work, no acquaintance with Sathemma. No matter who was truly related to the departed, gloominess prevailed everywhere on Sathemma’s final journey. It seemed everybody had affection for her, even the next door neighbour, Gouramma, who was of her age.  People couldn’t hide their emotions, a phenomenon in the village, they would grieve openly.


          The funeral ceremonies were over. Everyone was retiring for the day. It was 7 o’clock in the evening. Due to a power cut, all were freed from TV, an unavoidable attraction in the village. Everyone was sitting on the porch of the house gossiping for time-pass.

          Sudhakar’s uncle (chinnayana) Ramabhadrayya remembers his closeness with his mother, “My mother was very brave, Sudhakar, compared to today’s times, very courageous, you know. She revolted at her husband, i.e. my grandfather once. One should see her technicality in the farm!  What great perseverance she exhibits!  When my father was angry with a female labourer coming late to the farm, she condemned him”. 

          “You’ll never realise the hardships women undergo. What if she comes late a while?  Why angry? What difficulty does the mother have when the baby is born, do you know? You people never realise how much me-time matters for labour women.   They spend that leisure time looking after their children or old people at home only,” Sathemma spoke in support of the woman farm labourer. She continued, “So what if she would have come late, heavens won’t fall! After all, she must be farming only, nah!”

          “Then my mother passed a rule and insisted on following it, no bar whoever it was. She made all the nobles, land lords, sharecroppers etc., obey this law to protect a mother’s right to go home early to feed her newly born, palalla. Me-time is their right!” proudly smiled Ramabhadraya.

          “Besides, listening to such a lovely incident,” he prolonged, “We feel like nothing before such a lady?”

          “Grandpa, what’s up?” Sudhakar’s niece Mallika asked curiously, “Please grandpa say some more about great grandma’s bravery?”

          He said, “Oh, plenty! One awesome story, my mother told me so many times.”

          “That was almost 60, 70 years ago. Farming was going well then. Paddy, maize, green maize, vegetables… all the crops would be the same. And sowing, weeding, and cutting the crops, all this used to be done in the farm by farm labourers.

          “Once, a young mother was going home because it was feeding time for her baby.” Saying “Palalla? What does that mean, grandpa?” said Mallika.

          “Palalla means the one who goes home during work and breast feeds the baby. Now you can call it the break time or interval. If there is no one to take care of their children at home, some women come along with their infants to do the harvesting. Bring their own bed sheets to make their babies lay nearby while they are in the field.” 

          “Oh grandfather! What a pity!” said Mallika.

          “Yes, indeed, these young mothers too have to do a lot of work with no regular income. They don’t know anything other than harvesting. They cannot stay at home for their child’s sake, especially in the harvesting season.”

          “Sorry Grandpa, I am diverting the topic. I doubt, what connection does great grandma has with these farm workers?”

          Inhaling the smoke of a tobacco roll, he said, “yeah, yeah, yeah! Coming to the point, my mother used to go to the well to fetch water at the end of the day. But when it was evening, my mother used to go to these women labour, seeking those having kids at home, she would tell them to stop work and go home early to feed their young ones.”

          “This morning there was Bhoolacchamma who cried a lot for your great grandma. I think you have all seen her.”

          “Oh! That lady! Is she Bhoolacchamma? Very pitiable! She cried a lot when grandmother’s funeral started. Didn’t she?” wondered Mallika.

          “Her daughter-in-law had delivered a baby boy in her in-laws’ house, but Bhoolacchamma could not stay with her to look after that baby boy for a long time as she had to go for weeding in the field. She carried that small baby to the farm where she was weeding.  She left her grandson lying near a well under a tree near the farm for a while. That’s a very small infant! Suddenly a big snake fell on the child from the tree branch. It was seen by Sathemma. Within seconds my mother Sathemma tied a buoy and hit that snake bravely to save the child. In a splash of movement that snake could have bitten the baby, if my mother didn’t see that snake and didn’t kill it. It would be so disastrous for both the child and its parents, on that day itself the boy would be no more… as that baby was long awaited child for his parents. Yes, he is the same boy who helped a lot today. He was with me until the end.  They have a good acquaintance with my mother and father.

          “You know! Tremendously my mother saved so many lives that way by her word or by action! Supported so many families all through her life?”

          “Yes grandfather, surely our great grandmother was really great. People run away when they see a snake. What bravery she showed! Great!” Excitedly Mallika repeated, “Um, great, great.”

          But when Mallika whispered, “Grandpa, that’s milky …”

          “Oh, no, no palella, means time for feeding their babies, by the time of sunset to go home early” Ramabhadraya said before the words were finished, 

          “Okay, okay, okay, that’s palella,” Mallika smiled and repeated funnily. By then the power resumed.


          “What Mallika! Did you make out what my uncle said? You know what your vijaya aunty said? In those days people followed laws and observed rights even though they were ignorant of these legal rights. They used to maintain a good relationship between the employer and the employee. They have provided time for feeding their children for labour women.” 

          Mallika preceded, “Yes, uncle, I have read in many books, but such good things should come out. Then only such exemplified women come into the limelight. Look, our great grandmother has done such a great job. But it isn’t now known to anyone.”

          Everyone was engrossed in the chat, “Now a lot of facilities are provided to women doing jobs abroad. Maternity leave is given to women for delivery and men are given paternity leave for fatherhood. And also you know! In west the offices provide special rooms for storing mother’s breast milk and cow milk”

          While Mallika was speaking, Ramabhadraya’s son’s daughter joined and sat down beside her, “See Mallika! Maternity leaves are also sanctioned for the working ladies in India.”

          “Yes, yes, they are allowing, they are allowing these days. No matter how many struggles we have faced to obtain these rights, yet under privileged women are still struggling” Mallika stated.

          “I wonder, these changes have come for women by learning from our ancestors only,” shared Sudhakar with a damn-sure expression.

          “How could my great grandmother make such a decision? Why? Was it her life experience?” asserted Swapna expressing her love for Grandmother.

          Even in the village, the night was not quiet, TV noise was echoing from the neighbourhood.

          Ramabhadraya’s wife Chukkamma came out and commanded her husband, “Oh, how long will it take for your gossip, it never ends. Go to bed!”Even though the shades of age are clearly seen, the beauty of Chukkamma’s face has not diminished at all.

          Vijaya and Mallika’s mother Veeramani were busy watching a TV serial. Mallika’s father, who had just arrived from the city, was washing his feet taking water from the big metal vessel kept there in the front yard.  He said to his father Ramabhadraya, “Bapu grandma’s photo frame is done. See, there in that bag.” Mallika ran and took out the photo frame, tearing its paper wrapping.

          “See! Grandpa! It’s so nice. How pretty she was! When was it taken? Aaha! Look how sharp the eyes are,” excitedly, she showed the frame to all the people there.

          This old lady’s story was not an ending, but a beginning for a bright dawn. No death will wipe out the fame of those who have a pure mind and strive for others. Since then, with the blessings of Sathemma, the great grand old lady, even today women of that village have been enjoying the right for feeding time for their children, palalla in that village.

          That day Sathemma lived on in the hearts of all the villagers as a mother, a lodestar forever. The breeze was passing by smoothly whispering the truth.


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