Short story

Godavari Gundu

Print edition : October 14, 2016

The scales of the wastepaper man were the handiwork of a goldsmith who made ornaments for the gods. It would show six palams even if you placed an elephant on it. So what chance did a six-month bundle of newspapers have? Applying castor oil to my eyes and not looking this-way-that-way even for a second, I watched over the needle intently.

“Is amma there?” asked a voice at just that moment; I lifted my head. The woman stood there grinning from ear to ear. Her name was Ganga or Godavari or something—couldn’t remember properly. Some river’s name, of that I was sure. She had something stuffed on her hip, hidden under the ends of her sari.

“She’s inside. Go in,” I said. The pleats of her sari rustling, she crossed the hall and went in, that woman.

I peered at the needle of the scales. It was a divine needle, after all! Sixty newspapers or even half a newspaper? Would it falter? Uuhmmm… When would the time dawn for me to get my own scales? Ishwara!

I uttered the last sentence loudly. Which worm would put up with such swindling?

“What, saami! You are saying such things about these scales. It will show the difference between a blank card and a written one, saami. If you have doubts, go fetch a pair of scales from the shop… why should I earn a bad name from you?”

Where was the time to go to the shops? And at nine-thirty in the morning, would a shopkeeper attend to his business or lend his scales? Not even half an hour left for me to start for office—I had yet to bathe and eat! Enough if I saw a few rupees, I felt. Otherwise why would I have left a Sunday and chosen a ‘home says go-go office says come-come’ of a Thursday to sell old newspapers!

Darkness seemed menacing in two or three ways. It was two months since the last date for payment of electricity bills. If left unpaid today, darkness would envelop us. Who could wrestle with that hurricane lamp, which would jump up and down ‘tak tak’ and would be snuffed out in a minute?

The daughter was sitting inside with a long face. Wouldn’t go to school, she said. Some priest had to be given eight annas. This was another nuisance, the convent nuisance—as if the school fees weren’t enough, money was collected in the name of every saint. If she didn’t get the eight annas, she would not be in peace today.

Six months’ daily newspapers, weekly magazines, all of them amounted to six and a half rupees.

“How much did he give?” asked Gowri, as soon as the paper fellow left.

“Six and a half rupees.”

“For six months paper- aa?”

“Why are you fretting now? Should have done it when he was here.”

“I was talking inside.”

“Then don’t come here and nag.”

“I won’t say anything. I need two rupees.”

“Two rupees? What for?”

“I need it.”

“The electricity bill is three and a quarter rupees, an eight anna for your daughter, for you two rupees. What will I do with the remaining three-fourth rupee—tiffin, betel leaf, areca nut shavings, bus fare!”

“I have packed tiffin for you —peppered beaten rice.”

“Coffee?”

“I’ve kept some in the thermos flask.”

“‘Betel leaf?”

“That also I’ve folded and kept.”

“Ok, I have enough bus fare for Thursday, Friday, Saturday, those three days. What about Monday?”

“What about it now? We’ll see about that later.”

“How will we see?”

“Ask that singer Subramaniayyar.”

All the seven chords of my voice died down. It had been Gowri’s habit for the past two years to use Subramaniayyar’s name to seal my lips. In the year nineteen hundred and fifty-six, the singer Subramaniayyar took ten rupees from me, saying that he would return it the next day. He engraved the word ‘tomorrow’ on the wall of the mind. Because it is said that you would never recover your loan if you didn’t ask for it, I began asking from the year nineteen hundred and fifty-nine. He ran and hid, smooth-talked, begged, but money alone he never parted with.

In the end, he came one day. “It seems you know the manager in the Talaivaasal office. My son has finished his studies. For the past year he has sent out a hundred applications. No job… Will you please see him and…” “Ok,” I replied. Now I hid from him. As soon as he’d see my head, he’d start, “Did you see that manager in Talaivaasal…” Seeing his tuft and his green cycle, even a mile away, I would enter into any nearby street as fast as my feet would allow. The words “did you see that manager in Talaivaasal” rose in my mind and chased me.

“Why do you need two rupees?”

“Gangabai wants it… Come here,” Gowri said, raising her voice.

Gangabai came. A double barrel. Hair half grey. A Maharashtrian-style sari tucked between the legs. Black beads on the neck. Well-combed plait twisted into a wheel at the back of the head. About fifty years of age. She took out a bronze vessel from the ends of her sari and kept it in front of her.

“She wants us to keep this Godavari gundu and give her two rupees,” said Gowri.

Godavari gundu was a huge vessel. You could cook two big measures of rice in it. Scrubbed with tamarind, it shone.

“Weren’t you the one who kept a bronze vessel a couple of months ago and borrowed a rupee?”

“Yes. That was the Nachiar Kovil vessel. A one-measure pot!”

“You haven’t even redeemed that yet!”

“I will redeem this one and that in a month. I am terribly short of money now.”

I had seen that Nachiar Kovil pot just half an hour ago. It was kept upturned in the mango-wood loft above the kitchen shelf. I had been looking at it for the past two months. When a couple of guests arrived for the Ganesha festival, Gowri even cooked rice in it, if I remembered right.

“It’s been two months. And you couldn’t even redeem for one rupee that small pot. And now this?”

“Don’t think like that. In fifteen days if I don’t come take these two, then you ask me.”

“No, ’ ma… Just take it and leave. Our own necks are choked with lack of cash. I am not in a position to give you.”

“You mustn’t say that.”

“What do you mean, mustn’t say! You yourself saw, no? That I gave papers to that paper fellow and got some money,” I replied, my footsteps guiding me to the backyard to bathe. In a minute Gowri followed me.

“If you don’t have two rupees, why don’t you give at least one…” she dragged on the words.

“No rupee or kupee.”

“She’s begging, can’t you see?”

“And whom will I beg from…” I rolled my eyes. ”If I want even a ‘single tea’ at four in the evening, I have to jingle someone else’s pocket. One-rupee loan she will give, it seems. Don’t ask me anything now. It’s late. I have to bathe.”

Even after I came back from the bath I saw Gangabai standing in the hall.

Frowning, I went into the kitchen.

“What?”

”Why are you snarling? She doesn’t have, that’s why she’s asking.”

”Even here we don’t have.”

Mkum… We don’t have! As if she’s asking you simply? She’s pledging something and then only asking for money. If she goes to the shop he will give her thirty rupees for that Godavari gundu. If she pledges such a big thing for just a rupee, it must be a head-rolling crunch, no?”

“Yes, yes.”

“You don’t have any compassion at all, is it? You will give that Singer Subramaniayyar tens and twenties and don’t mind running after him. But this innocent thing, this poor creature is asking for just a rupee, keeping a three-measure bronze vessel as pledge… For that you are making such a fuss.”

I came to a decision in a flash. “See here, if she wants, ask her to take a rupee. And it should be returned in ten days.” I handed over the rupee.

She who went to the hall came back in a trice. The Godavari gundu shone brightly in her hand.

“You know, if she had kept it at the Sait’s shop, he would have given her ten rupees.” Gowri kept it on the floor, lifted it up and swirled it around, as if fondling a child.

M…m. Ten rupees, it seems. He will also charge fifteen rupees interest.”

“Poor thing. Don’t know what difficulty she is in. Kept this and took a rupee. If she has to pledge something, she must be in a terrible state, poor thing. If her husband had been smart enough, will she be suffering like this?”

“Dattoji Rao is not a man without any means. He also earns something, no?”

“What kind of earning he does? Like a seasonal bird. He has to run here and there, and push ahead and earn. They need one full gunny bag of red gram alone for three months.”

“For his brains and education, that is all he can earn.”

Gowri kept looking at the Godavari gundu again and again when she served me food. Navarathri was round the corner. At least on one of the nine days if she didn’t put it on the fire she wouldn’t have any peace.

On my way to the office I kept looking at the entrance of the Konganeswaran temple. As was his wont, Dattu was sitting there. The perennial smile on the face. You ought to draw a portrait of Dattu. Such a fine face and body. A chest neatly split into two. A child’s stomach. Broad shoulders. Medium height. An old Peshwa regal look. A drooping moustache. He was about fifty-five. But you would think he was about forty. Not a single grey hair. One look at Ganga and you would guess she was fifty. Only because he was her husband you would presume he would be above fifty. Otherwise you wouldn’t put him beyond forty.

Dattu wouldn’t budge from the pial of the Konganeswaran temple. They always came there to fetch him. The priests who belonged to his community. He neither had the learning nor the capacity to mug up the chants necessary for a priest’s profession. He went as a helper. He would hold out his hand for a dakshinai of one or two annas. If you asked him to eat, he would. He usually sat in the temple pial, one leg over the other, grooming his moustache with his middle finger.

If there was a bhajan in any matham, he would go there, clutching a mridangam in his right hand. With just a single beat ‘dhim-dhim-dharu dhim-dhim-dharu’ he would keep the beat to all the tunes. Besides that, he could bang ‘thakajunu thom’ three times for the finale. Otherwise he didn’t know anything more about beats. But there was something pleasing about his music—like his smile.

The man never got angry. Even if you scolded him. Always a smile. Never walked fast. Never in a flutter. Never raised his voice.

His house was ten houses away from the temple. His own house too. How could he afford to pay rent? It was a house that he had inherited. But to recognise that it was indeed a house you needed a research-oriented mind. A big platform four feet above the street. Must have been part of the base of a big house. At the back end of the platform you could see a black and grey wall. The only sign that revealed that there must have existed a house earlier was this: the wall of the single-roomed tenement. That was where Gangabai did everything, including cooking and sleeping; the rest of the time she sat on the steps which led into the street at the end of the platform. When I crossed the house, she was opening the door, clutching some packet… The rupee I had given hadn’t been wasted, after all. I don’t know why I had haggled so cheaply for just a rupee! Does meanness need a time and place to descend on a human being?

Gangabai’s sari had at least fifteen patches as far as the eye could see. Dattoji’s dhoti would have a few more, not less. It was a good thing that Dattu had taken on a job that involved eating—at least he had that much luck. And that job actually came with money. But even that seemed to have slackened now. Who fed the priests like in the days of yore? The days of giving veshti and towel on ritual occasions too were gone. Why else would Dattu have a sieve of a veshti? At least if the priest knew mantras and stuff there was a chance of getting by. Of what use was an unskilled person?

I couldn’t fathom why people believed that the creator would provide for the stomach. But here, the pot meant for feeding the stomach itself had been pawned.

Why had I created such a fuss to give a single rupee? Why hadn’t I given a rupee without taking that Godavari gundu? As usual, these questions popped up in hindsight.

All the places where I usually saw Gangabai came to mind. Wherever there was a marriage, an annadhaanam or a ritual such as samaaradhanai, you could find her. Big or small, in any wedding she would wait for the hosts, VIPs and friends to eat, a Poona tumbler in hand, seated on the pial, for the last round of eating when they would serve the dregs of the food. In the temple samaraadhanai during Navarathri, however, you would see her in the first round of eating itself. If there was nothing, you would find her wandering around with a tin dabba, trying to sell puffed rice or beaten rice which she herself had flattened. Today it looked as if she didn’t have even that.

Dattu’s forefathers were believed to have been priests in the palace. These vessels, Nachiar Kovil pot and Godavari, all of them must have been amassed by the family at that time. Dattu’s education wouldn’t even earn him an iron pot. Also, looking at him, no one would want to give him such a cheap thing. Why, he looked so regal, moustache and all! Oh lord, you made him poor, yes, but couldn’t you have at least made him decrepit and dark, like something a dog had torn apart! Did you have to make him tall and handsome, moustache and all? To give alms one ought to feel a hint of pity and compassion. You created him to appear rich, but you omitted to bestow him with luck and brains… che! Was god such a below-average creator?

“What, ayya! So deep in thought today! You’re looking at the wall! At the floor! You scribble something! You get up and stand!” commented his colleague Pakkirisami loudly.

“Nothing. You mind your own business!”

“Tell me, no. Let me also know what it is.”

“What are you going to do, knowing it? You’re going to give me ten rupees or what, saying ‘here ’ pa, don’t struggle so much’?”

“Oho—it’s like that, is it? Why? It’s only the tenth of the month! What ’ pa, you started moaning already! I can’t give five or ten. Just wait for two days! I’ll start moaning along with you!”

“Why? You give your newspapers every month, is it?”

“Oho, even that you finished doing, is it? You’re a smart fellow!”

The peppered beaten rice wasn’t good at all in the afternoon.

As usual, the office closed shop at six. The afternoon tiffin had burnt off in a trice, like grass in a forest flame, and my stomach was still on fire.

I walked, thinking of the clock-tower hotel. I was just about to enter the hotel when there was Dattoji standing in front of the betel-leaf shop, looking up at the clock’s hand! There he was, moustache and all, dressed in a patched-up dhoti, when the world, full of cars, buses and pedestrians, whizzed past him southwards and northwards. He stood looking at the clock leisurely. What was the occasion to look at the clock? Or did he merely stand there marvelling at the extraordinary thing called a clock tower?

“What, Rayarvaal?” I called out. A slight surge of compassion poured out of my mind.

Dattu turned around. Saw me. Widened his smile. “Last-house saar-aa? Namaskaram, saar. Can’t get your audience these days.” He walked towards me.

“What, you’ve come so far? And looking at the clock too! What’s the matter?”

“Just like that only I came. She asked me to come.”

“Who?”

“My wife only. She’s gone to the bioscope—the three o’clock show. She’ll come at six-fifteen, it seems. She asked if I could pick her up. That’s why I’m here.”

“She’s gone to the cinema- va?”

“Yes—in this theatre only.”

“Why didn’t you go?”

“Had money only for one ticket. That too she would have got it only by chance.”

“But shouldn’t you go along with her…?”

“No saar. Listen, I’ll tell you. Early in the morning a woman brought jasmine from Reddypalayam. Rare to get jasmine in the month of Purattaasi, no? Immediately, my wife bought a heap. She gathered the flowers in the ends of the sari and went in. Didn’t have any money. Will anyone return the flowers bought in the morning? She asked the neighbour. Didn’t get anything. Then she took a pot, kept it in someone’s house and came back with a rupee. The jasmine cost only ten annas. She had six annas remaining. “What to do with it?” she asked. “Some new film is coming today. Why don’t you see it,” I said. So she said “yes” and she came. And now I must pick her up.”

“Shameless creatures!” I wanted to shout out.

“Shut your mouth, you insensitive creature,” said a voice, grinding its teeth. I didn’t turn around to see who it was. It was my voice only from deep within.

“What a stupid brain,” said the mind, tapping the cheeks in remorse.

“Join me for coffee?” I asked. Dattu came without hesitation.

When I returned home the jasmine string on Gowri’s hair cast a romantic spell. It seems Gangabai had given it saying, “I’ve brought for you, maami.”

No other jasmine in the world has the aroma of Reddypalayam jasmine. Appa! What fragrance!

This story is taken from The Tamil Short Story: Through the Times, Through the Tides (Ed. Dilip Kumar; translated by Subashree Krishnaswamy) , an anthology, in translation, of 88 short stories written between 1913 and 2000.

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