HERE I AM and other stories

13. The Seven Colours of a Rainbow

Telugu Original: P.Sathyavathi

English Translation: B. Shyamasundari

          Returning home after working in the vegetable garden, Swarna saw a group of women in front of her house, clustered around Premalathamma’s scooter. Neigh-bours, aunties, grandmothers – they were all there. There was invariably a meeting when Premalathamma came. It looked as though the meeting had not yet concluded. ‘I request all the mothers to get together and think about what I said,’ Prema lathamma started her scooter and whizzed away. Swarna did not stop and entered their home. Amma seemed to have forgotten all about the old lady in the excitement of the meeting; the air around her was stinking. As soon as she saw Swarna, the old lady beckoned to her.

          Swarna felt prickly all over from plucking tender ladies fingers all morning. She badly wanted to take a bath, but she took pity on her grandmother and approached her. She changed the bed clothes – empty plastic manure bags stitched together to make a sheet, a quilt stitched with old rags and these covered with an old sari. Except for the gunny sheet, everything was sodden. Cursing her mother under her breath, she changed the old lady’s sari, wrapped a clean dry one around her and went to bathe.

          She did not enquire about the meeting until dinner, when her mother began, ‘Mr Subbarao has started an agency which trains girls between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five in nursing, then places them with old people who need help. The girl’s food and lodging are taken care of. Moreover, they get a salary of four thousand rupees. There is no need to do any other housework – only taking care of the old person. Twenty girls from our district have already completed this training.’

          Father was surprised. ‘Can they find placements for all the trained girls?’

          ‘What do you think? There is a great demand for such work. People with money are ready to employ these girls,’ mother said with excitement. ‘Premalathamma says these people usually do not have time to take care of their old parents,’ she continued.

          ‘Does that mean the girls will have to take care of the old people’s toilet needs too?’ father asked.

          ‘Of course! It is nothing more than what a nurse does in a hospital. It is a similar job. Apparently, nurses in private hospitals earn the same amount. For us, the advantage will be that there are no additional expenses. We need to take care of only the girl’s personal needs. One can earn more than three thousand a month. If we save for a year, it will prove useful whenever the need to spend arises. What do you say, Swarna?’ Mother turned to Swarna.

          The influence of Premalathamma’s words was evident in Amma’s manner. ‘I’ll not go anywhere. I’ll join college next year. Why should I take care of other old people, leaving the one at home unattended?’ Swarna said loftily.

          ‘Enough. Don’t talk as if you take care of her. I am the one who attends to her needs. Just because you changed her bedclothes one day doesn’t mean you are taking care of her. Your aunt, who has a pucca house and a husband who earns well, does not keep her mother even for a day. If it were not for us, who would care for the old lady?’ said her mother.

          Premalathamma came every week. Her words worked like magic. About ten girls joined Subbarao sir’s agency.

          ‘This indeed is good work. Serving the elderly is a virtuous deed and will earn good points for the future births,’ nodded the mothers sagely. The obvious benefit of the scheme was that the girls could work within the four walls of a home with little stress and no fear of harassment from men. They could earn their living and save money for their own weddings.

          ‘These days, even close relatives demand dowry. We never dreamt that the costs of a wedding would go up to lakhs of rupees! The demands are endless. In addition to dowry, they want the girls to be fair and beautiful.’

          ‘When we try to educate the girls to avoid the obligation of getting them married early, they are unable to pass even the tenth standard. They get stuck at that point and do not move ahead.’

          ‘One wonders what they learn in school these days. They reach the tenth standard but are unable to read a simple letter. Since we cannot afford to feed them while they sit idle at home, we have to send them to work in nurseries and vegetable gardens. They get sun-tanned, working in the open. Who will marry them if they become dark?’

          ‘Once the television entered our homes, our needs multiplied. One cream for cracked lips, another for becoming fair, one cream for the day and another for the night. We have to come to terms with the realities of the times,’ pondered another mother.

          ‘This is all because of the goddamned television! Homegrown soap nuts are no longer enough. Shampoo from the shops is a must. In our childhood, we would pick mehendi leaves for occasions; now, it’s a fashion to use cones of mehendi all the time. It’s not just one thing. The malaise has spread across our entire lives. Our snacks are old-fashioned; they want noodles. Seeing all this, I think it’s better to listen to Premalathamma and let the girls work for some time,’ opined another mother.

          The girls were given a mobile phone to keep in touch and a sum of five hundred rupees for occasional expenses. Swarna’s father got an FM radio installed in her mobile phone and even got her a pair of earplugs. Swarna spent the money on a fairness cream, hair-nourishing oil, bath soaps that claimed to give the user a young look, packets of conditioning shampoo, sanitary napkins, talcum powder and a couple of hair clips.

          Very little of the money remained after these purchases.

          Fully equipped, Swarna came to live with an old woman. When speaking to her friends about the lady, she used the term ‘gachchakaya mamma’. The gachchakaya is the grey bonduc nut and the old lady wore only grey saris. She was eighty-five years old and used to stay with her son. The daughter-in-law had gone abroad for her own daughter’s delivery and left the old lady with her daughter. The daughter had a well-paying job; she was always dressed smartly and dyed her hair. On returning from office, she drank tea, made at least ten phone calls and then settled in front of the television. The TV could be switched on only after she returned, as she locked the room during the day. Swarna did not know what the old lady’s son-in-law did. But he always had a nice word for grandma. Apparently, the daughter would be retiring in three months.

          A border of the colour of fresh raw turmeric and a deep ruby-red body, the border adorned with rudrakshas and small temples . . . I am not fair, will this sari suit me? How much I dilly-dallied over it, but how beautiful it was once I wore it! In those days, even a Kanchi silk sari was sold at one fifty rupees . . .

          Gachchakaya mamma was talking to herself. Swarna, who had completed her tenth standard in the Telugu medium, could not grasp which colours had been mentioned. The old lady went on talking. Occasionally, she read poems aloud and hummed, too. Swarna, who had her earplugs on, nodded her head now and then, as if listening. Once, the old lady noticed this and beckoned to Swarna.

          ‘I asked for a glass of water. You cannot hear me with those things in your ears. From now on, I will signal to you by gestures; it is enough if you stay close by. You can listen to your songs,’ she said quietly.

          ‘It’s time for your red pill,’ said Swarna, giving her the pill and water. Granny began again about a sari . . .

          ‘Please take the medicine, granny,’ snapped Swarna. Tears came to the old lady’s eyes. When she wore a sari, she could use the pallu to wipe her tears or nose, if necessary. Now, with a night gown on, she could not do so.

          She began, ‘My old voile saris – how soft and comfortable they were. Whenever I wiped my nose with the pallu, my mother-in-law scolded me. She left this world wearing her favourite manugaya (green and black) sari, with a zari border. I used to comb the sparse strands of her grey hair and coil it up.’ She looked for the pallu of her sari. Then, remembering the gown, she searched for a handkerchief.

          ‘How long should I stand? Take this medicine, granny,’ said Swarna irritably. She knew that if the old lady started on manugaya, she would not stop.

          ‘I need a handkerchief to wipe my eyes,’ she said in a choked voice.

          ‘There are no handkerchiefs here . . .’

          ‘Let it be, my tears will dry up. Give me the pill.’ She swallowed it and lay down on the bed.

          ‘Do not go to sleep now. You have to eat. Madam told me to give you lunch after giving you the pill . . .’ Swarna brought the food without looking at the old lady’s face.
‘Girl! I cannot eat today. I do not feel well. You do not have to say anything to your Madam. Just give me some rice with buttermilk. Throw the rest of the food out.’
Swarna did not say anything. It was enough if the old lady ate something. After she had eaten her food, she said, ‘Please bring me the tender-banana-leaf-green Mangalagiri sari from the cupboard and cover me with it.’ ‘It’s so humid,’ Swarna protested.

          ‘I need to be covered in a sari. I don’t like it otherwise. Do as you are told. If you find it stuffy, switch on the fan,’ the old lady said.

          The granny for whom Swarna had worked earlier had loved nightgowns. She said she had always wanted to wear one when she was younger, but her husband did not like it. She was very happy that she could wear them freely now. She used to say, ‘How pleasant my body feels in this nightgown.’

          ‘It is my fate. I am also growing old, staying with these old people,’ thought Swarna. The old lady would not trouble her until 4 o’clock, when she would have to give her a cup of coffee and a couple of biscuits, or unless she had to visit the toilet in between. She sometimes could not control her urges till she was taken to the bathroom. Oh! What a stink then! Swarna’s stomach churned for at least three days and she lost her appetite.

          ‘My poor grandmother! How I silently cursed her when I had to help her. Poor thing! I wonder how she is,’ mused Swarna.

          Granny worried about losing control over her urges. She stopped eating or ate very little. ‘Sorry, my girl! My condition has become such that I have to trouble you too,’ she said, tears in her eyes. She became weak because she ate less and less, and was soon not even able to talk. Madam got angry and shouted at Swarna. In the previous house, the granny she had been taking care of had harassed Swarna. The others in the house had also been unkind and did not feed her properly. They were not kind to the granny either. They always shouted at her. ‘We are foregoing ten thousand rupees a month because of you,’ they used to say. True, they spent ten thousand rupees every month, but how much of it really came to her, thought Swarna. Subbarao sir gave her only half of that. Unable to put up with the harassment, Swarna had pleaded with Subbarao sir until she was shifted from that household.

          This was a better place. The only thing she had to put up with was the bathroom stink. But one has little choice if one has accepted a placement. ‘Ask for gloves and a mask,’ Subbarao sir scolded her. Of course, money was being spent on the care of the old lady and her needs had to be seen to. ‘After the old lady’s daughter-in-law returns from abroad, I will go back home,’ fretted Swarna. ‘What kind of a job is this? Working on the farm or in the nurseries is so much better.’
The old lady started talking to herself again. She always rambled about colours – brick red, chilli red, moong dal yellow, peacock green, maroon, lemon yellow, brinjal purple, orange, yellow, dark blue, banana flower pink . . . ‘What a world, what language!’ Swarna was amazed. Anyway, she did not have to bother. The old lady had said that she needed to come only when called for.

          The mobile phone rang, interrupting Swarna’s reverie. It was Suneetha. The old man with whom she was working cursed her when she called him ‘grandfather’? ‘Who do you think is your grandfather? Call me sir.’ He rolled his eyes angrily. Suneetha laughed as she related this. She nicknamed him ‘grandfather sir’.

          ‘ “These patients are like your own grandparents. Look after them with love, never get irritated, always smile,” says Subbarao sir. ‘It’s all bullshit. He steals half our money and gives us moral lessons. It seems I work here to make that man Subbarao rich. After this month is over, I will take my salary and leave,’ Suneetha rambled.

          ‘I’d have gone crazy if not for this mobile,’ thought Swarna. She spent her time until the evening talking over the phone. When there were no calls, she listened to the FM radio.

          ‘Why did you cover Amma with a sari. It’s stuffy,’ complained the daughter as soon as she came into her mother’s room in the evening.

          ‘She asked for it. She asked me to do as she said and not ask questions,’ Swarna said.

          ‘When my husband died, my younger brother came with a white sari and gave it to me, weeping. I did not take it. I scolded him and sent him back. Maybe if I had shaved my head then and worn a white sari, god would have rewarded me. I did not believe in reward and punishment back then,’ the old lady continued with her eyes closed.

          ‘She has been talking like this all day,’ Swarna said. Madam’s face clouded over. She sat next to her and called out, ‘Amma!’ the old lady did not respond. ‘Amma! Did you have coffee?’ she asked. The old lady was silent. ‘Let it be. Amma is not happy with me. I made all these arrangements for her care. I will not have coffee if mother does not want it,’ she started getting up from the bed.

          The old lady caught her hand and stopped her. ‘Girl! Go and tell the cook to make coffee. Let her make a little for me, too. Less milk, more decoction and no sugar.’ She pulled the sari close to her and got up to sit.

          ‘Grandmother asked for a handkerchief, Madam! I could not find it. Please keep a couple in this room,’ Swarna told her.

          ‘Oh! I’m sorry. I will bring them immediately. Did she have lunch or has she been like this since morning?’ the daughter moved closer to her mother.

          Before Swarna could reply, the old lady butted in. ‘Of course I ate. You have come in just now. Go and relax. I am all right.’ She put her hand on her daughter’s waist. The daughter went out of the room. Again, it was only her, the old lady, the FM radio and talk on the mobile.

          Suddenly, the old lady opened her eyes and beckoned to Swarna. Swarna’s heart sank, ‘No, not the bathroom!’ she hoped.

          ‘Get the bell from the puja room; ask madam,’ said the old lady. Relieved, Swarna went to look for the bell. ‘Thank god! Why does she want a bell anyway? In addition to reciting poetry, maybe she would want to ring bells too?’ contemplated Swarna.

          ‘Go and watch TV. I will ring the bell if I need anything. Just keep your ears open,’ granny said. ‘This means she will not call me until meal time. If only she does not need to visit the bathroom in the meantime,’ prayed Swarna.

          At home, she would eat whatever was there, watch serial after serial on the television and wait for the late night old Telugu movie. She would go to sleep with visions of pictures from the television. She would not wake up until her mother slapped her on the back. Here, one could not sleep peacefully. The old lady would want water, she would want the ceiling fan switched off when it got cold, later she would want it on when it got stuffy. As her sleep at night was usually disturbed, Swarna felt she should try to sleep during the day, when the old lady also slept. But the day’s rest was always punctuated by phone calls, and Swarna got no rest at all.
It was eight-thirty in the night and time for the serial that Madam watched regularly. The serial had begun when Swarna was in the tenth standard. Swarna had failed her tenth exam twice, but the serial had continued. The bell rang exactly then. Swarna was angry with the old lady but, of course, could not show it. She went in. The old lady’s eyes were tear-filled; she held up two fingers and signalled that she needed to go to the toilet. But before Swarna could help her off the bed, she lost control. Her clothes were soiled, the room began to stink. If only Madam had not been at home,
Swarna would have rebuked the old lady. But to be fair, the old lady never complained to her daughter. Swarna felt like crying. Sniffling, she went to the cupboard, got the gloves and mask, and cleaned the old lady. She helped her put on a fresh gown, draped a sari over her to cover her and went to wash the soiled clothes. After washing them, she soaked them in dettol and went to bathe. By the time she finished all her tasks, not only was the serial over, but so was the news on the television. Madam was getting angry as her mother’s dinner had got delayed. ‘Why can’t she feed her if it is late!’ thought Swarna.

          Swarna could not eat; her stomach protested and she felt like vomiting. Then she wanted to strangle Premalathamma.

          The old lady slept. Swarna switched on the night light and placed her cot a slight distance away. After a while, she heard someone weeping. She turned and saw that the old lady was crying, tears rolling down her face. ‘What is the matter, old mother? Do you have any pain anywhere? Should I call Madam?’ Swarna asked.
‘Staying alive for so long is the big pain. I wondered how much longer I had to live and that set me off crying. Go to sleep. I have no pain anywhere.’

          Swarna could not sleep. She heard the old lady weeping for a long time. Strangely, Swarna’s eyes filled with tears too. ‘Do not cry, old mother. It is not in our hands,’ she said in a mature way.

          ‘I trouble everybody. Even you, and you are only a young girl,’ the old lady said.
‘You are no trouble to me. Actually it is my job. Go to sleep and don’t worry.’ Swarna was astonished at her own words. The old lady was quiet. Swarna could not sleep. Swarna remembered her own grandmother. ‘She should buy her a blanket and a pillow out of her next month’s salary,’ she thought. The sleeping pill seemed to have worked and the old lady slept. Swarna wondered if she was the cause of this sorrow. The old lady had recently had fever and diarrhoea. It had become tough to manage the cleaning as she had to change saris often. Then Madam had decided to change her mother’s attire. She had cut her hair short and bought her nightgowns. Swarna thought it was then that the old lady had cut down on food. She was constantly talking about death. ‘Poor thing! Why should something like not being able to wear a sari affect her in this manner?’ Swarna really pitied the old lady at that moment.
Next morning, Swarna asked smilingly, ‘Old mother! What do you want to wear today – brick red or purple violet or brinjal violet?’

          ‘If you don’t mind, can I talk to you instead?’ the old lady asked.

          ‘Of course! Please talk, old mother. I felt very sad last night when you cried.’
‘Look here, I am eighty-seven now. I was married when I was fifteen. My parents stopped my schooling. I was made to wear saris soon after I married. I did not have to actually cook, but helped those who cooked. Since then, I have always had to do what others told me. I could never do what I wanted. There were no books to read, nobody to talk to and laugh with. I did not know what to do. In my parents’ home, there were many plants. My father loved gardening. He searched for new varieties wherever he went and planted so many kinds of flowers. Along with jasmine, we had chandrakantha in very many shades: pale pink, yellowish orange, golden yellow and orange-pink. Our garden was like a rainbow. The red, pink and white flower creeper, radhamanoharam, and the hibiscus, not to mention seasonal flowers. My sister and I watched every bud till it opened; we checked them every day.

          ‘Once I came to my in-laws’ place, I found nobody there had any love for music, books or flowers. The courtyard at my in-laws’ place was paved. No one cared for flowers, nor did they gather together for casual conversations. It could be that I diverted my passion for flowers and their myriad hues to saris at this time. I always liked saris with borders, never those without. We were never discouraged from buying saris for any occasion. I would always watch women wearing saris – I would assess which colour in the border matched the colour of the body of the sari. I became a mother and my responsibilities increased. The family grew, yet it was not difficult for me to buy saris.

          ‘When we went to watch movies in the theatre, I watched the newsreel closely to observe the saris that Indira Gandhi wore. When television came into our homes, I used to watch a newsreader, her name beginning with M, for the interesting saris she wore. People said she made mistakes while reading the news, but her selection of saris was excellent. When we went to any new place, my first job would be to hunt for and buy saris that were typical of that area. I was called to select saris for all the weddings in my extended family. This way, I saw all the colours I had loved in the flowers during my childhood in the colours of saris. These colours lit up my life. After my husband died, my daughter and daughter-inlaw tried to take my saris. I gave them my jewellery, but not the saris. I have never liked jewellery. When all the colours disappeared, leaving me with only white, I wanted to share my despair with someone. Anyway, you will not understand all this. When my mother-in-law fell ill, I took care of her every need until she died. She used to eat only if I fed her. When my husband fell ill, I cared for him too. He died holding my hand. Now, at this time of my life, you have come as a support for me. Times have changed. No one in my family has lived this long. I don’t know what relation from our previous lives binds the two of us.’

          ‘I do not know such complex things. I only know that you pay me and I have to do my duty. I felt sad when you cried last night. Please do not cry. It is not in your hands to control your voiding. From tomorrow, I will drape a different coloured sari on you every day – deep pink, then yellow, then maroon . . .’ Swarna said.

          ‘Why should I still hanker after colours at this age, when all the colours mingle into only one – white? Somehow yesterday, despair came over me like an avalanche. This is not a cry only for saris and colours. You tell me, did you also not cry last night! When I soiled my clothes and you had to clean them, you must have cursed Premalathamma, who sent you here. So also, I cursed all those who blessed me when I was young, saying, “Live a hundred years.” I cursed all of them and cried. That is all. But I have no choice except to wait until death calls me.’
Swarna stared into the old lady’s face.


(to be continued..)


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