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Short story

Must visit Eluru

Print edition : Aug 16, 2019 T+T-
The selected story is from “Classic Telugu Short Stories” edited by Ranga Rao (Penguin Books, 1995)

The selected story is from “Classic Telugu Short Stories” edited by Ranga Rao (Penguin Books, 1995)

“Chaaso”, the author of this story, is the pseudonym of Chaganti Somayajulu (1915-94), eminent Telugu short story writer, essayist, dramatist, poet, and a  founding member of the Progressive Writers Association. The marginalised classes and their problems were subjects of Chaaso’s work.

“Chaaso”, the author of this story, is the pseudonym of Chaganti Somayajulu (1915-94), eminent Telugu short story writer, essayist, dramatist, poet, and a founding member of the Progressive Writers Association. The marginalised classes and their problems were subjects of Chaaso’s work.

 Ranga Rao (1936–2018), the translator of this story, was a larger-than-life teacher and critic of literature, writer and translator. A prolific writer, he has also edited Classic Telugu Short Stories (Penguin Books, 1995) and That Man on the Road: Contemporary Telugu Short Fiction (Penguin Books, 2006).

Ranga Rao (1936–2018), the translator of this story, was a larger-than-life teacher and critic of literature, writer and translator. A prolific writer, he has also edited Classic Telugu Short Stories (Penguin Books, 1995) and That Man on the Road: Contemporary Telugu Short Fiction (Penguin Books, 2006).

In the small inter-class compartment of the train, my luggage tucked under my head, I lay snugly on my holdall spread on the upper berth. Around eleven—or was it twelve?—someone tugged at me insistently and woke me. Yawning, I opened my eyes; there stood below a widow, quite fair. A stranger, past forty, with greying hair.

I composed myself and sat up. There was no one else in the compartment. I looked out; it appeared to be Nidadavole station.

“Who are you, please?” I asked.

Her face nearly split in two with laughter.

“Get down first,” she said in a tone of singular familiarity. The light of the compartment lamp lit up her mouth right up to the pomegranate bud of an uvula. Her rosy cheeks, swelling like apples, pushed up, almost closing her eyes. Her soft full lips, like scarlet spring beetles, had grown slack, but beyond were pearl-like teeth, well preserved.

“Who are you, please?” I repeated the question.

“Get down first, I say,” she said, with the same easy tone of close acquaintance.

I jumped down. The rear end of my dhoti came loose and almost came undone. She laughed and held up the pleated end of the dhoti, saving my honour. Taken aback, I snatched it from her, dressed myself properly and took another look at her. She was in an ochre-coloured Mysore silk dhoti that widows wore instead of a sari, with an appropriately broad black border, sprinkled here and there with a thread of zari. Rather rotund, about five foot tall. Merging with the ochre of her dhoti-sari, her plump arms gleamed brilliantly with a golden complexion.

“It has been a long time, looks like you have forgotten!” she said.

I was baffled. I could not think of such a ladylike widow, and one claiming such intimacy, among my relatives. I stood staring at her.

“Your son has gone to eat his meal—why do you look shocked?” she said.

Who was this woman? Who was “my son”? My son was just three months old. My wife had gone to her mother’s place to deliver that child and was still there. Who was this, this divine-looking devil? I grew rather alarmed.

“You have not seen me after I suffered this fate. True, how can you recognise me? The last time you saw me was as much as nine years ago. I look so different now,” she said and started weeping.

“There must be a mistake. You have mistaken me for someone else,” I said.

“Am I mistaken? Didn’t you go to school in Vizianagram?”

“Yes, I did.”

“Your name is Purushottam, isn’t it?”

“Yes!”

“Now do you recognise me?”

I racked my brains. I couldn’t recall her. Meanwhile she was saying: “Yes. Men have hearts of stone, no room for love and affection there. They won’t remember certain things. But do women carry these things in their hearts? Good heavens, someone might enter the compartment, won’t you sit with me and chat for a while before anyone comes, please!”

“What is your surname?”

“So things have come to such a pass! Now I need to recite my caste and gotra ? By God’s grace we have met after all these years and I am so happy. There has not been one day when I didn’t think of you. You have provided me with a little sustenance, and that is more than enough! So, you cannot place me?” she said, and irrationally started crying again. What a predicament! Too shocked for words, I stood before her like a lifeless log.

“I recognised you the moment I saw your face. Confirmed it when I read your name on the box: ‘T. Purushottam, B.A.’ and I rejoiced that you had passed B.A. Have you so completely forgotten me? All right then, do you remember the auditor next door?”

With that my heart burst.

“Manikyamma garu ! How changed you are!” I slapped my mouth and forehead, furiously bemoaning it all.

I was eighteen at that time and doing my Intermediate at college. The auditor garu used to live in the upstairs house next door to us. An old man of sixty. Manikyamma garu had married this widower and she was about thirty or thirty-five years of age. Having borne no children, she looked shapely, slim and as delicate as a porcelain doll. Our two families grew very intimate.

This widowhood, this rather obese body, the half-greyed hair were all later developments.

One day I was returning from the college around two o’clock. Manikyamma garu hailed me and I went to their house.

“Make yourself comfortable,” she said, setting up the folding chair. It was rather sultry, so I picked up the palm-leaf fan.

“Let me fan you,” she said, snatching the fan from me.

“Of course not,” I said.

“Nothing wrong!” She began to fan me.

“I must have my coffee and rush back to the college,” I said, getting up.

“Can’t you have that coffee here!” she said. She went in and returned with a couple of rasgullas in a plate and water in a silver tumbler.

“Got them from a hotel?” I asked.

“I made them myself!” she said.

I had never imagined that our womenfolk were capable of making such delicacies. She kept fanning me and observed, “It is time for you to start shaving.” Soft fine hair had just appeared on my chin. I had felt too shy to go to the barber.

“You have grown up. We must find a bride of marriageable age for you,” she said.

I was abashed. I concentrated on eating, quiet as a mongoose. The second rasgulla cloyed. She went in and promptly brought a hot mango chutney besides coffee. I finished and stood up.

“I am so bored. Stay for a few more minutes, please,” she said.

“But the college?”

“Skip it for the afternoon!”

“Oh no, I have my optional class now.”

“Be a good boy!” she said, leading me by the arm into their room.

“Have some betel leaves first,” she said.

Over the years we had grown so familiar with each other. Jokes and pranks were normal between us. But now, all alone with her, her teasing behaviour confused me. I put the betel leaves in my mouth and got up to leave. “Skip college for today,” she said, tweaking my cheeks, and slipping her hands onto my shoulders, she pulled me to herself and seated me on the bed.

Suddenly I grew hot all over. I could see her drift all along, but now it hit me like a thunderbolt. I had of course come to feel the urge natural to my age, but I had never looked at Manikyamma garu from that angle. I was then eighteen; and she, more likely thirty-six. I was filled with apprehension, but did not leave the room. I sat feeling like a bride.

“Tomorrow, first thing, shave. Your face should feel smooth like a flower, not rough like a bitter gourd,” she said fondling my beard. She continued, “The first beard feels soft,” and then she lifted my face and opening her eyes wide as saucers, she looked deep into me, saying: “Don’t tell anyone what I am doing—don’t think ill of me—we are close enough, that is why I am taking liberties—don’t think otherwise.” “I shall buy a bicycle for you—get a gold ring for you,” she said, saturating every inch of my face with kisses.

You cannot catch the home-thief or the bandicoot in the granary, they say. The auditor garu stayed on in the town for five more months. That period I cherish as one long amatory epic in the prabandham tradition. Those one hundred and fifty days were one hundred and fifty golden leaves in that epic, each moment of it filled with heavenly nectar. In its tempo and flow, it far outshines the renowned art of the best of our prabandham poets, Allasani. Though my life has been misery itself, like a drumstick tree infested with blanket worms, those five months were like ambrosial honeycombs on the branches of that wretched, wasted tree.

Our separation can only be described as a tragedy. For the vacation I went to our village and when the college reopened, I returned to find that they had been transferred out and had left. Not a word about them or their whereabouts since then. If I can describe my own pangs of lovesickness for her, it will be an epic of romantic separation; some day, I must compose it, carefully.

When I passed my B.A. exam and made it in the Service Commission tests, I secured a government job and married a girl of my choice. In the nuptial room when I glanced at my bride, her face lowered with acute shyness, I remembered my own plight and problem with Manikyamma garu ; I took my bride into my arms, kept thinking of Manikyamma garu and suffered quietly.

Now, when after all these years she appeared before me—to think of it!—I could not even recognise her.

“How changed you are!” I said.

“It has been nine years. Everything has changed now. God’s will. And we have met again like this. Where are you going?”

“Bezwada.”

“Why?”

“I work there.”

“Good. You are close to us. Are you married?”

“I have two children. A daughter of one and a half years and a boy of three months.”

“Say that your wife had two children by you. You actually have three children in all.”

“Three children?”

“Yes, you have given me a handsome boy.”

It gave me gooseflesh.

“Nine years old now. Exactly like you. You will see when he returns. Somehow you have been my saviour. Your divine gift has helped me inherit my husband’s earnings and patrimony. Without it, my brothers-in-law wouldn’t have thought twice before shaving my head, brushing me aside and doing me out of the cash and property.”

“Where are you settled now?”

“Eluru is my native place. I constructed a two-floor building there. Your son is fortunate. We have ten thousand kangoras (silver rupees). We get fifteen thousand coconuts and ninety puttis of paddy. Come home, you can see for yourself.”

Having eaten the puris and drunk coffee, the boy returned.

“Mother, won’t you at least eat some fruit?” he said, climbing into her lap.

Undoubtedly my son, exactly my likeness. Born to me when I was eighteen and to a woman eighteen years older than me, born to me without my knowledge, not knowing me, not in a position to know me ever as his father, this son of mine had been growing up in Eluru for the last nine years!

“Saw?” she said.

Of course I had. With all my life and being, I gazed my fill at him, I looked at my son and the paternal affection quite whelmed me.

“Come here, dear boy,” I beckoned to him.

Without at all feeling bashful, readily and familiarly he came over to me. I took him in my arms and experienced the classic joy of filial embrace. Manikyamma garu covered her mouth with her hem and wept bitterly.

“What class are you in?” I asked him.

“Second form,” the boy said.

“Can you converse with him in English?” she said. “For the last three years, I have engaged a Christian tutor to coach him.”

I am below ten, is this right or wrong?” the boy asked. I was in real trouble. The statement appeared to be correct; but I was also worried that there was some error in it somewhere. What is the use of passing a great B.A. exam? Are our professors able to teach us well in college?

“You tell me, dear boy,” I said.

“Absolutely wrong. You should say, I am under ten. This much my tutor did not know,” he said, giggling happily.

“Tomorrow I have to attend the office. I shall come on Sunday.”

“I shall come to the station!” the boy said.

“Of course, come!”

The boy yawned, growing sleepy. I lowered the holdall from the upper birth, spread it on the lower berth, placed the boy on it and sat by him, with my hand resting on him, reassuringly. Until we reached Kaikaram, we chatted about this and that and I enjoyed it. By the next station, Pulla, the boy, had started snoring. Then the train reached Dendulur, the last station before Eluru.

“We are almost there. You must come on Sunday,” she said, her eyes sparkling, her whole face glowing.

Before we knew it, in just seven short minutes, we reached Eluru. I escorted them to the gate and handed them over to the cartman.

“All right then,” she said.

“Are you coming on Sunday?” said the son.

“Must visit Eluru!”

Story selected by Mini Krishnan

Reprinted courtesy Penguin Books