Kannada short story

Imprints of Little Feet

Print edition : February 01, 2019

Sirigannada: Contemporary Kannada Writings edited by Vivek Shanbhag

Deepa Ganesh, the translator of this story, is a deputy editor with “The Hindu”, Bengaluru, and an award-winning translator. She was the editor of “Aniketana”, journal of the Karnataka Sahitya Academy.

Sunanda Prakash Kadame, the author of this Kannada story, titled “Putta Padada Guruthu”, has degrees in Kannada literature and has published four collections of stories, three novels and a volume of poetry, besides essays and stories for children.

Vivek Shanbag is the editor of Sirigannada: Contemporary Kannada Writings , in which the story featured here appears. He has published several novels, short stories and plays in Kannada and is the founder of the literary journal Desha Kala, which he edited for seven years.Sirigannada: Contemporary Kannada Writings edited by Vivek Shanbhag (Tranquebar Press, 2010)

It’s almost a month since Anchakka left her home in the village to stay with her son in the town. A smog of discontent has enveloped her entire being since that morning. Despite not having stirred from where she’s been sitting all day, Anchakka feels exhausted from cursing herself for all the loneliness she’s suffering. She gets provoked by little things and nobody even knows the reason for her annoyance. Chimmi, her five-year-old granddaughter, comes running to her with a toy in hand, hoping to be cuddled, only to be ticked off harshly by Anchakka. “You are after all your mother’s daughter,” she mutters under her breath. In the same sore mood, she charges into the kitchen. “Why did you bang the door on me when I was sitting on the jagali last evening?” she snaps at her daughter-in-law, who is busy chopping tomatoes.

Tears well up in Anju’s eyes. “Aah ...me…when? Which door?” she falters and fumbles, as she pulls up the end of her long skirt from under her night dress to wipe her tears. Anchakka’s son Vittala has stepped out after a bath, and with the wet towel still draped around his waist, is adorning God’s idol with flowers. He steps into the kitchen and enquires, “I didn’t close the door…you didn’t close the door…” and as they try to figure it out, it turns into a serious debate. Chimmi is summoned and is cajoled into giving her version. “Aa…ummm...” she takes her own sweet time to remember, tugging at the ends of her two ponytails. “Mummy, didn’t you ask me to close the door? Didn’t you say go close every door or else mosquitoes will swarm the house?” she babbles endearingly. “Okay, you go and play,” father pats her back and sends her away. Vittala, fathoming the reason for his mother’s anger: “Henceforth, when Amma is sitting outside, nobody must shut the door. It’s all right to be mobbed by the mosquitoes. Who’s more important? Amma or mosquitoes?” he screams and even pretends to make angry advances at her. In a manner of having seen through Vittala’s pacifying words which came with a tinge of mockery, “Oh yes, oh yes! I’m now but a mere toy for you people, a mere toy…”, Anchakka grumbles in her continued state of edginess.

As she gets up from cutting the tomatoes, Anju beams at Vittala, but is nevertheless grieved. Atte1 manages to find fault with everything—whether you talk or you don’t. Even if Anju’s earrings jiggle a bit, Anchakka straightaway assumes that she made faces at her.

Anchakka is furious because her daughter-in-law doesn’t let her do any household work. “Am I a guest…constantly being told to not do this and not do that…?” she throws a fit. It’s probable that her blood pressure has shot up. As always, Anju is quiet. Vittala comes up to his wife and, just within earshot, mumbles that he will return early from office. As he is about to start his scooter, Anchakka, who follows him, says: “You don’t speak to me properly these days.” “What? What is there to talk every day…?” Vittala retorts in the same tone of grumpiness. Even he has begun to feel that Amma’s tantrums are getting a bit much.

Vittala did come back soon; seemed like he had applied for leave. “Let’s all go on a small pilgrimage for a day or two…probably to Dharmastala. Amma must be fed up of being holed up here,” suggests Anju, and Vittala snaps crankily: “You need something called leave for that, what say, leave…” And quite unlike her usual self, Anju in tremendous anguish asks: “How does one live in such a house, you tell me?” She locks herself up in the bedroom and weeps. A little later when Anju, massaging her waist and abdomen, follows Vittala out of the house in a sari draped carelessly and with uncombed hair, Anchakka rightly guesses that she is going to see a doctor. Somebody had once brainwashed Anchakka into believing that these were little tricks women did to get their husband’s attention and this, since then, had stuck in her head. Chimmi, who had just then returned from her playschool, also gets ready to leave with her parents. She looks absolutely adorable in her baby pink frock, but unlike in the past, Anchakka neither pampers nor fusses over her. When she climbs on to the scooter, Anju, nudging her in a cautionary manner, says: “Say bye to Ajji2.” Vittala gives a blank stare as she stands looking out of the window and drives away.

It’s like this every day: can’t go anywhere, always bound to the house like an old owl. Anchakka has completely forgotten her past, that past where she played many roles, as wife, as her son’s mother, when she too had in-laws, hordes of relatives and was everybody’s fond Anchi, Anchakka. What looms large now is what she is in the present, causing her great pain.

Anchakka, too, feels like throwing a tantrum: “I am not well either, take me to the doctor as well…” In a desperate bid to kill time, she restlessly shifts from one place to the other, clutches her thighs with both her hands, strokes them, not knowing what to do. She twitchily moves around, by which time her son, daughter-in-law and granddaughter return, much earlier than she imagined they would. From what they say to each other, she gathers that the doctor was not available.

At Anju, who disappears into the kitchen almost immediately, she carps: “People behave as they please. I have no value in this house at all. All this happened because I got carried away by Vittala’s angry words. Wasn’t it he who coaxed me not to stay alone in the village? Now he doesn’t even open his mouth, Machiavellian!”

“Just because I don’t hover around chirping ‘Amma, Amma’ some umpteen times each day, does it mean that I have no love? Amma is Amma, Anju is Anju, Chimmi is Chimmi. They are three different routes of love, but balanced evenly. If there is a heart that can love, doesn’t it mean that it has enough place for all the three? It’s a different thing if I’m incapable of love,” Vittala worries himself. “Must I explain all this to Amma and how?”

Everything is different: the air, the water and even the light. Her way of life and good habits were also different. Anchakka feels the enormous pressure of having to adapt herself to a new environment, a new lifestyle. “Now Anju also has her father living close by. And there’s no stopping her,” she grumbles to herself. Anchakka, however, has no clarity on what her quarrels with Anju are. Anju’s father, who retired from the Indian Army after having worked on some distant State border, recently bought an apartment close to his daughter’s house and now lives there with his son. In the last eight-ten days, he has passed by their house every day during his morning walk. “With me she is monosyllabic, answers to the point, but with her father how she laughs and talks endlessly and that too sprinkling the word Appa a hundred times during the conversation…” fumes Anchakka. Half her anger begins there.

Although Anju’s father belongs to her home town, she is intolerant towards him because he is Anju’s father. She feels scared even to talk to him. “I’d rather keep off these big people. He is from the military, has learnt English, what would he talk to an archaic old village bumpkin like me.”

By this time, her daughter-in-law gets ready to leave again and Anchakka is bristling. Before she leaves, Anju runs up to the terrace to bring clothes that have been put out to dry. As she folds her mother-in-law’s sari, its soothing fragrance and the round white buttons on the blouse, quite a contrast to the steel hooks on her own blouses, remind Anju of her mother. She is swathed in an overwhelming affection for her mother-in-law. Anju decides to make sabudana khichdi for her as she refuses to eat lunch. Chimmi too sits with her grandma and happily gorges on the khichdi.

Anchakka feels bad that she hasn’t been told that Anju has a tummy ache. She sits outside grouchily, as if she is in no mood to talk. Anju calls her several times for tea but she pretends not to hear her. “It’s getting cold,” says Anju, bringing the tea to her. “Using diabetes as an excuse, who was it who threatened me to give up sugar? Doctor or the son and daughter-in-law?” She gulps down the sugarless tea as if it were bitter medicine. Sometimes Anchakka has this burning desire to ask if she is a burden on them. Deep down, she wants to be the centre of every activity and wishes everything to go according to her whim and fancy.

This time round, Vittala forces Chimmi to stay back with his mother, promising to return soon. But Chimmi is adamant and is already perched on the scooter. Without even being told by her mother, she herself says bye to her grandmother this time. Anchakka just gapes coldly at the child. She casts an empty glance at the road and looks rather lost.

In a little while, Anju’s father comes to their house. Dressed in short trousers and a shirt, he jumps to catch hold of a branch of the neem tree in front of the house, pulls it down and plucks a few blossoms. He puts some into his mouth and offers a couple to Anchakka. His unexpected visit, and that too when she is all alone, forces Anchakka to enter into a dialogue with him. “This is very good for diabetes. You have the tree right in front of the house, ask Vittala to pluck a few leaves for you every day,” he says, sitting at elbow distance from her on the platform in front of the house. The clouds had gotten dense even as he came and now there were huge raindrops. “Anju was complaining of stomach ache. Have they gone to the hospital?” he asks. “Yes,” nods Anchakka.

The downpour gets heavier and those droplets from somewhere just drift towards the two and spray all over them. They get up hurriedly, scamper inside like little children and shut the door. Anju’s father wipes his hair and says complainingly: “Oh! What rain…” But actually, he feels happy to have been soaked a bit. They exchange smiles and sit on chairs opposite each other. Anchakka wipes the water off her face with the pallu of her sari.

It is pouring outside. Both of them sit quietly and listen to the fury of the rain. It carries in it the rhythm of the rains back home. Both of them experience this need to talk. But Anchakka feels as if words are beating a retreat. Since that morning, she had been muttering and grumbling at her son and daughter-in-law. But in the presence of this man, she feels she has lost her voice. Anchakka is astonished at her own self. “Doesn’t the sound of this rain remind you of our village?” asks Anju’s father, initiating the conversation. “Looks like you haven’t visited the village in the recent past,” he remarks and Anchakka falls into a quandary. She isn’t sure which village he is talking about. Because she hasn’t even thought of her native village in so many years now.

“Your uncles are no longer alive, I suppose…” he says and everything falls in place for Anchakka. She sits up straight and says: “Yes…they are no longer there…” “All your brothers must have moved to the cities like we have.” “Aa…yes…” “There was a big banyan tree in front of your house…” “Yes, you’re right.” “Some wealthy man built a platform around the tree and inscribed his name on it, isn’t it?” “Yes, yes, he had his name on it.” “During the month of Karthika, I would go there with the bhajan group and circle the tree singing bhajans.” “Hmm…” For years, Anchakka had not even thought of the village. Who should remind her about it?

“I remember seeing you as a little girl.” “Hmmm…” “Weren’t you fair and plump?” This time without the droning “Hmm...”, she smiles to herself. Anju’s father’s words immediately transport her to the past, in a manner negating the last forty years of her life. Rain provides the background melody for this scene from the past. “You often sat at the cash counter of your Pandu uncle’s tea shop on Car Street…,” says Anju’s father, his voice quivering in the cold.

“You’d probably appreciate a hot cup of tea in this cold,” says Anchakka, her voice finally making a breakthrough. “No, no, I don’t drink tea frequently. At this age, even you shouldn’t be drinking tea too many times,” he says, holding both his knees together with his hands, hoping for some warmth.

Anchakka gets up and slowly walks up to Anju’s room. She brings out a shawl from the cupboard, gives it to him and says: “Wrap yourself with this, it is Anju’s.” “It’s convenient for you women, your sari doubles as a shawl,” he says laughing and wraps himself with the shawl. The overcast sky has rendered the house dark, but the thought of switching on the lights occurs to neither of them.

“Why did you drop out of school when you were in the fourth standard?” With a mere “Hmm…”, Anchakka chooses to remain silent. “The funny thing was that your sister Maadevi also left school because you did,” recalls Anju’s father, bursting into a guffaw. Anchakka feels a bit shy. A childhood that was spent on common soil was drawing them closer. “It was the year my brother was born. I left school to be with him,” says Anchakka.

“Your brother was a big bully. I had once visited your house with him,” says Anju’s father, as he rocks himself. Anchakka sits motionless, listens to him all curled up like a little sparrow. She hides herself in the pallu of her sari, with just the face visible. “You probably knew how to climb the cashew tree…when I came, you were sitting atop the tree in a little frock…” “Oh Shiva, Shiva!” she says coyly, and quickly covers her forehead and her eyes with her left hand. She now summons up the image of a stubby cashew tree that had grown by the fence, from which all the children played swing.

Her world had suddenly transformed. Like one blows off the thick layer of dust collected over years on a piece of glass, Anju’s father goes back in time and opens up her shrouded past, savouring every moment of it. Anchakka, without the need for spectacles, could see it all with a new clarity, with an unsullied vision bestowed upon her that very moment.

“In the south corner of your house, wasn’t there a mango tree? The fruits of that tree were so tasty! My friends and I have thrown stones at it on several occasions and have feasted upon those mangoes.

“Even the raw ones were tasty. That’s why your father constantly kept a watch over me.” At this point, Anju’s father goes in circles, as if it was impossible to sever himself away from that moment. Anchakka, too, has fallen in love with the world of her past. Let memories be put on hold and not move beyond. The two have this great desire to remain children forever. The forty years in between seemed almost like a fib. Anchakka felt as if all her childhood memories had been with Anju’s father all these years, for safekeeping.

These lovely moments from the blissful past set off in a new direction. At dusk, they provided a safe haven to both of them and filled them with a wonderful sense of joy. Their ears resonate with the sound of the cool breeze from across the fences; the sound of the roaring sea and the Vedic chants of the Brahmin priests. The procession on Car Street, the steps of the Muneshwara temple, the colourful sherbet shops of the fair sporting eye-catching drinks in red and blue, the green waters of Kotitheertha…, their eyes hold each of these in great detail. The fine gravel by the fence has snugly concealed in its belly the footprints of their little feet. Outside, it’s the same pouring rain.

Someone is honking at the gate. His son has come to pick up his father because of the steady shower. Anju’s father gets up slowly and walks out without uttering a single word. On the pretext of closing the gate, he turns towards Anchakka and waves at her. The rain pours endlessly.

At some point, Vittala, Anju and Chimmi have returned. They have even changed out of their dripping clothes and are busily wiping each other’s soaked heads. Anju’s father has blurred Anchakka’s attention to these everyday details; has rendered her a little girl. Only he has the power to take her back to that colourful world and, of course, to the arresting sound of the incessant rain.

Anju’s activity in the kitchen has resumed. As Anchakka sits there with Chimmi, a mild stupor envelops her being. She suddenly seems to have become oblivious to immediate details of her location and her state of being. All that seemed frigid until then is now bursting with a new lease of life. She takes Chimmi’s notebook and on the last page writes “Anusuyadevi”, with each alphabet looking like a huge, puffed-up potato. Chimmi, filled with surprise and delight, jumps joyously around the whole house with her notebook, holds it out to her parents to show that grandma can also write like her.

At this point, Vittala has taken off his shirt to change into something more comfortable. Anchakka looks at him and is strongly reminded of her father. His chest, his stomach…the only thing missing is the moustache. Anju gets ready to serve dinner. To Anchakka, the ladle and Anju’s arms appear as if they were her mother’s. When she was five, she had lost herself in Car Street in front of the Venkataramana Temple. She had held onto the pallu of some woman who was wearing the eighteen-yard sari, mistaking it for her mother’s. Much later, somebody who had recognised her had dropped her at Pandu uncle’s shop.

Anchakka’s bodily pains refuse to fit into her gamut of experience. “This very body is not mine. The tranquil, clear and lightness of being that Anju’s father bestowed upon me, is what is mine.” Anchakka rests her chin on Chimmi’s tiny lap and implores to be put to sleep. Little Chimmi strokes her grandmother’s silver hair and pats her to sleep, making a lullaby of her nursery rhyme, “Chubby cheeks, dimple chin, rosy lips…”

Anchakka is drowsy. Pandu uncle carries Anchi, studying in second standard, and steps on to the street. Every year, when the Sivaratri procession passes by his shop, he fills Anchi’s little hands with bananas and dried dates. He holds her up in the air to show her the moving procession and goads her to offer the bananas and dried dates. Anchi throws only the banana and stuffs her mouth with the dates. The bananas she throws land on a little boy’s head who’s watching the procession pass by. He turns around and laughs. Hey, it’s Anju’s father!

Story selected by Mini Krishnan

Reprinted courtesy of Tranquebar Press

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