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Short Story

How are you veg?:  A Telugu short story in translation

Print edition : Jun 23, 2022 T+T-

How are you veg?:  A Telugu short story in translation

This story features in ‘How Are You Veg? Dalit Stories from Telugu’ by Joopaka Subhadra. Translated by Alladi Uma and M. Sridhar (Stree, 2021) 

This story features in ‘How Are You Veg? Dalit Stories from Telugu’ by Joopaka Subhadra. Translated by Alladi Uma and M. Sridhar (Stree, 2021) 

By Joopaka Subhadra. Translated from Telugu by Alladi Uma and M. Sridhar

‘Hello! Aren’t you going for lunch? It’s lunchtime and you’re still sitting and reading the file.’

‘I didn’t bring my lunch, Madam.’

‘Why?... Why not?’

‘Just like that.’

‘What do you mean, “just like that?” You can’t work if you don’t eat. At least go to the canteen and eat,’ said my senior in a coastal accent.

Since she had asked, I told her what was on my mind, without much enthusiasm, ‘I don’t have good friends to eat my lunch with, Madam.’

‘When you’re new, that’s how you’ll feel. Don’t be upset... if you find anyone friendly, go ahead and eat with her.’ Thus advising me, she put her tiffin box in her bag and went for lunch.

Though it was almost a year since I began working in this agricultural office, I had still not found a single friend. Having studied, staying in a social welfare hostel, I worked hard to get through Group II B and then joined this office. A few people who had joined with me had several friends. They had found people from their home town, from their district, from their caste, from their relatives.

But I had no such luck. I could not find even a single person from my home town or district. Amidst the people here I looked like someone who did not fit in. Those who had joined along with me had friends who made them feel at home. Why were they not making me feel at home? I did not understand where lay the difference. I, too, wore good clothes like them. I, too, was neat and tidy. Perhaps my language was a bit different! Even so, what was the difference? Was it because I was dark-skinned! People at home often said that though dark-skinned, my face was sprightly.

So those could not be the reasons. All I wanted was a friendly lunch group. But so far, I had not found anyone. Whenever I found someone who talked nicely, I would propose our having lunch together. Having lunch became a big problem for me.

For all of us who worked, lunchtime was a break. At that hour, people would not be in their seats. For women employees, there were innumerable chores from the time they woke up. In the morning, their tensions threatened to burst out of their hearts and throats. All morning they would race against the clock, cook rice, curry and tiffin, get the children ready, pack their books, tiffin and water, give the husband everything he needed, get ready and jump onto the special bus. A woman employee’s morning meal was one with God; the one that counted was the lunch at office.

At lunch time, there would be no one in the sections or in the seats. Everyone would be busy eating. The employees, especially the women, would enjoy total freedom in the name of lunch. They would have come without eating in the morning. So this was the time they would eat to their fill, converse, meet friends, and do their own chores.

At lunch time, officers would not ask for this or that file, nor would they send for us, because they, too, would be at lunch. At this time, seats and files, too, would snooze and rest.

Now, our women colleagues would talk about things ranging from space to bottle-gourd curry. ‘My son doesn’t touch his books. My daughter is turning out to be one who doesn’t listen to me. My husband isn’t concerned about home, everything must be ready on time’ and such. The recipes on TV, relatives, neighbours, TV serials and their stories. The power had failed during such and such serial yesterday, anxiety about what had unfolded. Where sarees were available on discount, cannot afford to buy gold, but salute to gold designs which can be made with a gram of gold. These were the topics that rolled out among the women employees at lunch time. As for some seniors, they would gossip about boys and girls in America.

There were ten sections in our hall. We were ten women employees. If I said hello, some would respond, “Hello!” Our senior colleagues would show a little interest in the new recruits and find out their details.

Where was that remote village in Warangal? Where was the employment in Hyderabad? In my village, they said Hyderabad was as far away as America. People at home were worried, saying, ‘It’s a place that’s not ours. How will you get along there?’

I was living then in a room next to the house of my friend’s relatives. Immediately after I joined my office, I found things very difficult. I was not used to managing my time and boarding the bus at 9:30 a.m. I would cook rice, add milk and salt, eat milk-rice, and go to work! It was only now that I had begun to manage my time and started cooking a curry. I thought I might feel weak eating only milk-rice so I started making curries.

Over the last few days, four colleagues from our hall were a little friendlier towards me. Those four would have lunch together every day. ‘How are you? Have you got used to the office and work? Everyone thinks you are active. Our officer also says you do your work very intelligently.’ When they spoke in this manner, appearing to show concern and friendship towards me, all I did was begin to reply in a friendly manner and move closer to them. So, I counted them as friends. That was good—to have found a good group of friends.

One day, I said, with some warmth, ‘Aye, Seethalakshmi, I’ll also have lunch with you all.’

‘What lunch… with us… if you have it with us, you can sing goodbye to lunch,’ she said. Another made a face as if she had eaten neem leaves.

Another one said mockingly, ‘Do we eat regularly at a particular time? By the time all of us get together the auspicious time gets eaten up.’

Seethalakshmi said, ‘Don’t depend on us.’

I did not believe the reasons they gave. Though their words were normal, I heard some other hidden signals.

Even so, I longed to eat in a group. Ours was a large family. In the hostel, too, many of us would eat together. It was a group meal. Eating by myself in the office was difficult for me. So even though they had spoken like that, the next day, when they sat in a group, I took my box and sat down with them.

‘Have you come… you can’t eat with us, abba.’ Saying this, Lakshmikantham laughed a crooked laugh. At that laugh, I felt like returning to my seat and eating by myself.

But I was new and ought to be friends with everyone. If we did not brush aside the “fun” pricks, we would not be able to work together. As soon as we woke up, we were forced to see each other’s faces every day.

Having sat down, I thought, why get up and leave. I opened my tiffin box.

Placing the files on the table around us like walls, Lakshmikantham, Seethalakshmi and Meenakshi opened their boxes just a little bit. ‘What’s special?’ I asked, striking up a conversation. Immediately, Meenakshi, making a face and rolling her eyes, said, ‘Aa… what’s special for us, except grass-meal? You’re the ones who have specials.’

I had used the word ‘special’ to mean just that—a special dish. Now I understood that she was mocking me, thinking I had meant a ‘meat dish.’

‘How did you know I ate specials?’ I asked.

‘Aa… how can we not know, faces reveal everything, amma,’ said Seethalakshmi.

My head reeled at the cleverness of people who could tell if someone was vegetarian or non-vegetarian just by looking at them! Looking at my face, they had imagined quite a few things! As for me, naively, I was friendly with them—not asking who or what they were—only because they were colleagues who spoke nicely to me.

What were their castes? Religion? Region? Why was I not conscious of all these? Why were they conscious of which region I came from, what caste, what I ate? They had scanned me quite well. But in my heart of hearts it hurt that they did not see me as a human being, an employee. I kept staring at my tiffin box, without eating, thinking.

They opened their boxes partially, looked eagerly into each other’s boxes, and with watering mouths, asked, ‘What did you bring?’ But they did not ask me even once, even as a matter of courtesy, ‘What’s your curry?’

My heart was beating rapidly that I had unnecessarily joined this crowd, the loneliness of a crow in a muster of storks. They shared each other’s curries. They also put some of their curries on the lid of my tiffin box.

Seeing that I was about to serve them the string beans curry I had brought, Seethalakshmi put out her hand blocking me and said, ‘Abba, it’s Friday today, I don’t eat string beans curry.’

Then I tried to give some to Meenakshi, when she said, ‘Sorry, my mother-in-law’s rule is that I shouldn’t eat anything from outside today.’

Another one came up with an excuse, ‘Don’t mistake me. I can’t eat anything other than tiffin today.’

In this way, they all gave reasons and did not take my curry. But they served some of their curries into my box. What they said was only superficial, but I felt that somewhere deep within their words were poisonous potions. Rather than say they would not eat my curry, they had come up with various excuses. Noticing the sparkling outward talk and the basketfuls of maggots within, my hunger died.

What words could I share with people who would not share my curry? With a heart filled with insults, I felt wretched, as if I were not a human being like them, that I were a lesser being. My colleagues, Seethalakshmi, Meenakshi, Lakshmikantham and the rest seemed to be unaffected by the way they had distanced themselves from me and were talking amongst themselves.

‘By the time I read the Sahasranamam, it was very late. And the offering to God and cooking lunch too was delayed,’ said Meenakshi.

‘My sister-in-law cooks brinjal in a hundred different ways: brinjal with chilli powder, brinjal with mustard, brinjal with ginger. Curd rice will be that much tastier if you add cream and ghee. Mother-in-law’s rituals, father-in-law’s observance of ritual purity, son’s thread ceremony, daughter not sitting in a corner for three days a month.’ I found their conversation irritating and something I could not relate to. These were things distant from me. They were things that I had never even heard of before.

Lakshmikantham put ghee in the avakaya pickle and mixed it, really red. ‘Oh, you have brought an entire bottle of ghee! Between us, it will be over in a day.’ Slurping, Meenakshi tilted the ghee….

‘Are you vegetarians?’ I asked in a normal tone, mixing my curry with rice.

‘Yes, we are pure vegetarians. We don’t even eat eggs. We eat only dal, milk, curds, butter and ghee,’ said Seethalakshmi.

‘Aren’t milk, curds and ghee also non-veg? How do they become vegetarian? Haven’t they come from the blood and flesh of cows and buffaloes? How did they become vegetarian?’ I asked.

‘What are you saying, how can the meat that comes from an animal and milk be the same?’ said another, countering me with an annoying tone.

‘Anything drawn from an animal is indeed meat; milk is another form of blood. Curds, butter and ghee come from milk. Even as you sip and enjoy the milk that comes from animal flesh, and the fat that comes from it in the form of butter and ghee, you say, “We are pure vegetarians.” How, abba?’

‘Both you people and we eat only animals. You are eating the fat of the animal. We are eating the flesh of the animal. While that is so, how can people who eat meat be lower? How can those who eat the fat from the flesh be higher?

‘Why all that? Trees also have life. To cut and eat them, from leaves to roots, that’s vegetarian, is it? The human race survived eating the raw meat of animals, birds, etc. Any food that human beings eat to live is special, respectable. You eat eggs and call it vibhuti fruits. Is it vegetarian to eat fish and to name them water-flowers?’

‘How can you speak like this? It’s our traditional food,’ said Lakshminkantham, annoyed.

‘Didn’t your grandfathers and great-grandfathers eat cow’s meat and bull’s meat in the name of yagas? Isn’t that your traditional food?’ I replied in an equally rough tone.

‘It isn’t right to draw a line between the food we eat and call it vegetarian and non-vegetarian…. These lines are only there to say we are higher. You who drink even cow’s urine saying it’s amritam, how can you call those who eat cow’s meat impure? Think about it just once.’ While I was talking logically, they were looking at each other, nostrils flaring and mouths open.

I had thought when they said all employees were one, that it was the truth. I thought as we worked together, we could eat together…

But these people did not insult me directly in the name of caste, but in a polished manner, using non-vegetarianism as an excuse to refuse my curries, and pointing to my untouchability. To eat the curries of such people would be an insult and disrespect to me too.

So, even as they watched me, I angrily threw the curries they had kept on the lid of my tiffin box into the dustbin and came back to my seat…boiling with sadness at the insults.

Story selected by Mini Krishnan

Reproduced courtesy Stree

Illustrations by Siddharth Sengupta