HERE I AM and other stories

12. The Awakening

Telugu Original: P.Sathyavathi

English Translation: Gorrepati Samyukta

          The old man was about six feet tall, and wore a clean white, ironed dhoti and shirt. A few silver strands shone here and there on his head. Holding his little finger was a five- or six-year-old chubby-cheeked child. They always crossed his path around the same time every day. In fact, he had seen the old man sometimes sitting as a pillion rider, scooped up like a bird behind a ‘25-30 something’ lady. Got it! ‘Chubby-cheeks’ must be the ‘25-30 something’s daughter! The poor old guy must be living with them. He had seen him carrying vegetables sometimes . . . He wondered how such an old man had such a young daughter. That day, the old man greeted him with a smile. Perhaps he didn’t have anyone to talk to . . .!

          ‘Are you Susheelamma’s husband?’ the old man asked. Acknowledging this with a nod, he said, ‘Susheela is my wife.’ The old man seemed amused by the reply and started talking about himself. His granddaughter, Kavyamma, lived on the top floor in the same apartment building. Chubby-cheeks was her daughter. (Poor old guy – he didn’t seem to have a son or daughter-in-law . . . he lived with his granddaughter!)
‘Oh, so you are staying at your granddaughter’s house?’ he asked with a touch of sympathy.

          ‘I am not staying at my granddaughter’s. I am staying with her,’ the old man corrected him. ‘To be of assistance to her,’ he added with pride. Chubby-cheeks chirped something.

          ‘I am very indulgent with this little one . . . Why don’t you come into our little nest? I will give you good tea and we can chat a bit?’ the old man suggested.
Once they find someone to talk to, old people do not let go of the person easily, do they? Won’t the granddaughter get irritated when asked to serve tea? She might think that to top it all, this old man has brought his friends too . . . He thought he would go, but would refuse the tea.

          The granddaughter didn’t seem to be home. The old man opened the lock and switched on the lights. Chubby-cheeks let go of the old man’s finger in an instant and plopped down in front of the television to watch Tom and Jerry.
‘Kavyamma’s husband was transferred to Mumbai. It has been two months since I came here. Someone has to be there at home when Her Highness returns from school. That’s why I have come here. Her husband would have managed somehow if he were here. I get bored; I sit and watch all the cartoons Her Highness watches! Browse through these books. I will make you some good tea,’ the old man said.
‘Oh no, sir! You, and making tea!’ he mildly protested.

         ‘First drink my tea and then comment,’ the old man said, smiling, and went into the kitchen.

         Agh! Unnecessarily, he had put himself in this situation . . .

         In five minutes, the old man returned carrying a tray with two glass cups and even some salty biscuits.

         ‘It was your Susheelamma who suggested that this green tea is good. What do you do? Oh, by the way. I didn’t even ask your name . . . I have been referring to you as Susheelamma’s husband. I’m sorry . . .’

         ‘I’m Easwar. I was working until recently. Just retired . . .’

         ‘I know that. Susheelamma told me. But what have you been doing these days?’
‘Morning walks, evening walks, television . . .’ The little one murmured something in the old man’s ear. He went in, brought a chocolate and gave it to her, warning her that this was the last one for today. She tickled him and giggled.

         ‘I should tell you the truth. This is indeed our favourite programme. This mouse is really a clever one!’ the old man confessed. He went on and on and talked a lot about himself.

         The mobile phone in his pocket rang. His face lit up on seeing the caller’s name.
‘It is my Janakamma . . . from Bejawada . . .’ Janakamma seemed to be someone the old man liked very much.

         ‘Okay, you carry on. We shall meet again.’ He got up to go.

         The old man continued talking and took the tray back into the kitchen.
He got into the lift, closed the lift doors and took out the house keys (the door locked by itself so he always had to carry the house keys in his pocket). The house was filled with an irritating, nauseating darkness.

         ‘Why sit in the dark? You can at least switch on the lights.’ Saying this, the light of the house (Deepam) switched on the light.

         He pulled up the easy chair near the window. Vehicles were collecting in the parking lot one by one – like rats in their holes. Mickey and Minnie Mice. Little mice bent with the weight of knowledge. Young mice with fingers weathered by pressing the mouse all day . . .

         ‘I am making some tea. Do you want some?’ the Deepam asked.

         ‘I just had some. Your friend gave me tea today.’

         ‘Oh, so you visited Venkatramayyagaru? I have been thinking of inviting him over for a long time . . . but time just passes,’ she said, as if a great crime had been committed.

         She did not ask him what Venkatramayyagaru had said, and went into the kitchen to make herself tea.

         Someone pressed the doorbell. If he does not respond within two minutes, the Deepam will attend to the door. But she too seems to have thought the same because she didn’t respond until the fourth bell. He did not know when she had changed into a fresh sari, when she had washed her face and when she had worn the lipstick of smiles, but she did go to open the door. ‘Leave the door open. Anu and Padma are also expected,’ she said, and let the visitor in.

         The tambura started playing the shruti. The visitor cleared her throat and said, ‘Shall we talk for some time until Anu comes?’ The same chatter – about the film that had been watched the day before yesterday, about the book that had been read yesterday, about this and that . . . laughter . . . the Deepam, especially, cannot control her laughter – she goes on and on until tears roll down her cheeks and her stomach twists in pain. She never laughs like that in his presence.

         ‘Sri Rangapura Vihara . . . is my father’s favourite krithi. Brindavana Sarangaragam. He always wanted to hear Subbulakshmi sing it. But he has been unwell these days. I am planning to take leave for ten days and bring him here. Do you have that record?’ the visitor asked. She had been learning music from the Deepam for the past month.

         So, she plans to take leave without pay, bring her father and even make him listen to his favourite music . . . what a nice daughter! We too have children . . . they don’t have the time to call even on Sundays . . . Everyone has their own life, said Adinarayana this morning. Apparently, his daughterin-law celebrated her father’s birthday grandly, but did not even bother to wish him on his birthday, even though she was beside his son when he called. Somaraju’s son-in-law doesn’t talk to him properly when he visits their home. Ramarao’s daughter! She celebrated her parents’ golden jubilee with great pomp. She even bought gold bangles for her mother. Oh! ‘All is well with everyone; why are our lives like this?’ Somaraju lamented. Oh yes, the forever complaining Subbarao is not to be seen during walks nowadays. He seems to have stopped going for walks. Or perhaps he is sick . . .

         The Deepam does not like such ideas. ‘Why should we always lament that others do not care enough for us? Shouldn’t we simply care for others?’ she says. She doesn’t have expectations; she works like a machine.

         Then came three more people who wanted to sing SaPa-Sas. They wanted to learn only Annamacharya krithis. Ah, this craze for his krithis! People have these fads about something or the other – today it is this. Now he needs to draw his chair up really close to the television. If the volume rises, her glances will pierce his eyes like arrows. But really, what’s on television anyway? Four people sit and talk about the same old nonsense. Annamacharya suddenly stopped inside and there was laughter again . . . How she laughed like those youngsters – in fact, even more! She gave Annamayya a break and moved on to some light music. The microwave too announced that its job was done.

         Someone came in again through the main door . . . it was the dark girl, Meethi, from the next flat, with a box of sweets in her hands . . . She looked just like her mother. How fair her father was! He chose to marry a dark monkey and called her Payal. And this little one, god knows what her name was – she is called Meethi. Why did she bring sweets, though . . .? The Deepam loved sweets. Perhaps that’s why she loved Meethi!

         ‘Thathayya! Please take some. It is my mother’s birthday. I got them on my way back from school – they are fresh,’ she said. ‘Thanks, but I don’t like sweets,’ he turned his face away, as if he did not want to see her.

         He hated both mother and daughter. They were enthusiastic and always laughing. The little monkey even had braces. The Deepam was friends with both a nine-year-old and a ninety-year-old.

         The song had now changed. It sounded good. It was the Deepam who was singing and the song gently pierced the soul. Wonder how she saved this sweetness in her voice all these years! Back to Annamacharya again. When he thought of Annamacharya, he remembered the movie and immediately his stomach churned. They threw him out on the streets – the poor soul!

         The music stopped. Chatter once again . . . Padma’s sari is great . . . Anu’s aunt is taking voluntary retirement from her job and going to the US to take care of her granddaughter. Would it be better to take voluntary retirement from life? he thought.
Toothbrush, coffee mug, razor, lather, a shower; abuseful newspapers; oil-less breakfast that did not increase cholesterol; afternoon lunch, evening tea, artificial sweetener; a little beer in the night. Dinner that is cold, a microwave to heat it; the problems of the ‘walking mates’ – their knee pains, BP and ups and downs in sugar levels, prostate problem, denture problem, globalization problems, sighs that human values are at an all-time low, thankless children, the notso-easy-to-get good maid servants, wives’ illnesses . . . Phew! Lucky that the Deepam had no health problems!
The Sa-Pa-Sas got up to go. The Deepam immersed herself in television serials. She complained about them, but still watched them. She had her own computerized daily routine. She loved it. The wise ones say that what cannot be cured must be endured. Nowadays he’s reminded of the wise ones a lot. Where were they all these days?
The phone rang. He waited for another four rings for her to pick it up. She too seemed to have thought the same. Her look said, ‘Won’t you pick up the phone? Are you that lazy?’

         ‘Is Susheelakka at home?’

         Freedom at last! She switched off the television and went to the other room with her cordless phone. He got his beer bottle out from the fridge. She would kill him if he smoked in the room. He hurried into the balcony with the bottle. Either fight or flight. He chose the latter. The sisters’ conversation will not end too soon; he can sip his beer at leisure. Sister-inlaw was good. She always called at this hour. He could even chill another bottle. At the shop, he had got the new carton’s seal broken, bought four bottles, wrapped them in a cloth and hidden under his clothes. Life without freedom, eh?

         The beer had chilled well. It tasted good and fresh. The Deepam seemed to have finished with her phone call. She covered her nose with her pallu, peeped into the balcony and went in. She will have her dinner and go to sleep with a book. All was well with her. ‘What about you!’ asked his Inner One. He felt like crying. He castigated his Inner One and went in. He suddenly felt nauseous. His left hand felt numb – was it due to the cold glass he was holding? His body swayed, as if there was an earthquake. Something was happening to him . . . Hope that fellow at the shop had not given him stale beer . . . The Deepam seemed to be having her dinner . . . Perhaps he should join her. But he did not feel like eating. It didn’t seem a good idea to vomit in the wash basin now since she was having dinner . . .

         He started sweating profusely while walking towards the bathroom. Something was happening. He collapsed on the sofa and closed his eyes. Had he not just been thinking about ‘voluntary retirement from life’? Was it coming now, all of a sudden? In the Deepam’s presence? She will get on well, she can withstand anything, she is very capable . . . she will call the children in seconds. ‘Dispose of the body,’ she will tell them. It will save her the burden of checking on him now and then.
But she did check and reached for the mobile phone at once.

         Sleep, intoxication, some dreams, memories . . . Had she always been like this? She had not changed all at once; it had happened gradually. She was neither well educated, nor good-looking. All his family members had fair complexions. Actually, none of the women in his family was well educated, but they still looked down on Susheela. The Susheela who was quite a conformist initially had suddenly boarded the first bus to her parents’ house and come back with her tambura. ‘Your people are just proud because of their fair skins,’ she had said.

         ‘Phew! Having to hear her sing every day,’ his mother grumbled. His sister made faces behind her back. After cooking and cleaning, Susheela would go up to the terrace and practise her music. She put up a name plate on the gate that said ‘Carnatic Music Taught Here – D. Susheela, Diploma in Vocal Carnatic Music’.
‘Our family name starts with a P, not D, no?’ said his elder sister, who came visiting one day.

         ‘But in my diploma certificate, my name starts with a D, no?’ she said innocently. Susheela not only had a diploma, she was diplomatic as well.
sasa rere gaga mama papa dhadha neenee sasa . . .

         By the time he would come back from office, one, two, three, ten voices could be heard practising.

         ‘Got selected in the radio audition’, ‘Taking son to the hospital’, ‘Got to get the homework done’ . . .

         ‘Taking kids to the cinema.’ . . . Run . . . run . . . Books, studies, exams . . . ‘Graduated with a degree!’

         ‘It’s impossible to stop her,’ said his mother.

         ‘Why stop me?’ she said. ‘I have got a job in our children’s school. If I stick on for two years, they said they could even pay for my BEd, for which I could study privately. I am joining the day after tomorrow. You know why I got the job? Because they felt I could also teach the children songs for their cultural events!’

         ‘He too has been promoted. His salary has increased. Why do you have to take up a job? Is it not enough if you take a few tuitions at home?’ asked his mother.
‘Doing a job is one’s dharma, is it not, Attaya? You would have heard that even the harvest that was ridiculed bears fruit. Haven’t our expenses too increased with his promotions?’ She looked straight into mother’s face to make it clear what the expenses were. Who could then stop her?

         No fights and arguments . . . yet a thin glass wall rose between the people in the house. Everything looked normal. It seemed as if you could see and hear the person on the other side clearly. Only if you went closer, the wall hit you and your nose. You may hurt your face, but this wall would not break – it was strong . . . His business acquaintances who poured Scotch on promotions, the ahas and ohos, the dinner parties, the extravagance, the tours . . . suits, ties, the numerous pairs of boots and socks . . . the bubble burst when he blew harder. Perhaps it was like the tired clock that stopped and was not sure if it could work again even after a repair.

         His eyes tried to open, and then closed.

         A girl in a yellow chudidar was sitting right in front of him – like a field of chrysanthemums in winter. Next to her was sitting the-girl-with-braces-on-her-teeth.

         ‘Amma has gone to the canteen for coffee . . . Meethi, go get the nurse, quick!’ said the field of chrysanthemums. When the mobile phone on the stool rang, she picked it up and said, ‘He has opened his eyes. Here, talk to him.’ She held out the phone. Won’t the children be anxious? Indeed, they did seem to be, judging by what could be made out from their voices. The eyes closed again . . . opened again. The door opened and a light green sari came in. In came some light with her.

         ‘Go now, Payal. Poor girl! You have been with me in the hospital the last two days. Go to your office today at least. Venkatramayyagaru said he will drop by after lunch . . .’ the green sari said, looking like a newly transplanted paddy field. She loves green. She has a sari in every shade of green!

         Haritham, the green one.

         ‘You must rest. Don’t talk,’ she started reading a book.

         Sometime later, the door opened to admit a man dressed in white. ‘How are you?’ he asked, feeling his forehead with his palm. His hand felt warm.
‘We can go home the day after tomorrow,’ said Haritham.

         What should he do after going home?

         ‘I will watch over him. Go and eat. They don’t allow food from outside, otherwise Kavyamma would have sent some food,’ said the One Dressed in White. He drew the chair closer, sat down and began turning the pages of a book. If one were ready to listen, he would start talking about a good many things – about the movements he had been involved in, the punishments he had undergone, the good deeds he had done for his village, his love for his fields . . . how he had saved his own little house from being sold by his own children. And yes, his Janakamma! How she had supported him all through . . . Now, his Janakamma’s legs hurt and he massages them every day. She is in Bezawada now, to help her daughter, who has just undergone an operation. And he is here to help their granddaughter.

         ‘So what if we live separately? Each of us has a mobile phone and we talk every morning and night. Then, we served our nation, our village. Now, we should assist our children, should we not?’

         He goes on and on. If he glimpses irritation in the listener’s face, he says, ‘Okay, tell me the news at your end.’ How did this man lead eighty-two years of his life with not a dull word issuing from his lips! What is the secret of his zest?
Doesn’t Haritham feel bored? She has bathed, wears a crisp starched sari with pinned up pleats, and has even brought a book along. Isn’t she tense? Such a steady woman . . . it looks like there is no escape from going back home. He must ask her about this when he gets home. But perhaps he should thank this Sati Savitri first? She is very particular about these little formalities. Why did she have to hold on to his hair and bring him back to life? Does he have to thank her for this? Perhaps not. Suppose he says, like Akkineni Nageswara Rao in the old films, ‘Why did you have to save me from death, Susheela?’ how would she react? He knew what she would say. ‘Won’t your spirit hang around the beer bottles you’ve hidden? You need to be around till you are done, is it not?’ There are arrows ready to shoot from her tongue, not just her eyes, anytime – a limitless quiver of arrows! A quiver full of arrows. She left to have lunch.

         He opened his eyes.

         ‘You seem to be fully conscious now. Should I call for the nurse? She might give you something to drink,’ said the One Dressed in White.

         He shook his head. ‘I am really bored. Why did I have to go all the way till the boundary and return like this?’

         ‘You did not go all the way. You went only a little far. That’s why we could grab you and bring you back. My Janakamma is bringing a help for the naughty child. Once we drop you at your house, we are leaving for our village,’ he smiled.

         The door opened again. An apparition in black trousers with a tucked-in white shirt – Subbarao! The-one-whodoes-not-know-how-to-smile was smiling broadly, his face bright, as if he had just recovered from an illness. The old man brought a stool for him to sit on.

         ‘What happened to you all these days?’

         ‘The headmaster of the government school on our street has been worrying that his class X students are weak in mathematics. So I volunteered to coach them and have been doing so in the evenings since last week. Their teacher seems to be on leave, the poor kids. They are also very poor in English. Walking in the mornings should be good enough for me. I wanted to ask Susheelagaru if she would be interested in teaching them English. And then this happened! Good to see you are well again.’

         He got up and propped himself against the pillows.

         ‘What English does Susheela know, except for SaPaSas? All her education has been private. It is I who studied in the English-medium school since my childhood. I always stood first in English. I will teach . . .’ he said suddenly.
Subbarao looked at him in surprise.

         Again someone entered – Meethi, in school uniform.

         ‘No school today! I wanted to spend the day with Ammamma . . . Should I stay or go home? Oh, Thathayya seems to be fully awake . . .’ she said. Her smile seems quite nice.


(to be continued..)


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