"Seemantha" by H. Nagaveni: A Kannada short story in translation

Print edition : January 01, 2021

The story “Seemantha” features in “Short Fiction from South India” edited by Subashree Krishnaswamy and K. Srilata, Oxford University Press, 2008.

H. Nagaveni, the author of this story, is a renowned short story writer in Kannada. Flavours of Tulunaadu come alive in her stories as dialect, rituals and everyday affair. She has been honoured with the Karnataka Sahitya Academy, Chaduranga and Geetha Desai (Karnataka Lekhakiyara Sangha) awards for her novel “Gandhi Banda”. Nagaveni works as a chief librarian at Kannada University and lives in Hampi.

Mamta Sagar, the translator of this story, is a noted Kannada poet, playwright and translator from Bengaluru. Her writings focus on identity politics, feminism, issues around linguistic and cultural diversities. She has facilitated poetry and translation workshops internationally.

The piercing quality of a child’s perspective is juxtaposed with the power of money in this short story by Kannada writer H. Nagaveni, translated into English by Mamta Sagar.

Sita was all ready to leave for Kalavara with her father to attend the seemantha ceremony. As she walked, holding her father’s right hand, excitement overflowed her little steps. How long she had waited to watch the grandeur of a seemantha! Now it was her own aunt’s seemantha and she could watch it for as long as she wanted.

Sita had only heard the word seemantha, she had never experienced its luxurious excitement. Whenever this or that neighbour referred to a seemantha here or there and mentioned a variety of sweets prepared for the pregnant woman, it made not just the mouth water but also the ear. Sita could not contain her curiosity and would ask mother a number of questions. “Just once, amma, please take me to a seemantha”, she had cried and pleaded with her mother so many times. “Did you not see the seemantha ceremony arranged for me when I was carrying you?” Amma would lay her hand on Sita’s head teasingly and fondle her, annoying Sita.

“Amma, what is seemantha?” was her first question. When mother said, “Seemantha is desire”, “What is desire?” was Sita’s second question. Mother replied, “To offer the pregnant woman the kind of food she wishes to eat.” “Why will they become pregnant? How will they become pregnant…?” The chain of questions increased. Mother too answered Sita with great patience and tact. “Amma, when will I become pregnant? Then, will you arrange a seemantha for me as well?” “Stop that! You naughty girl!” A smack on her head! Sita would fall silent just for that moment. But once a child is curious, will her curiosity ever wane? That little mind was dying to know more and more about pregnancy and seemantha. It was nothing but the pull of the thread of desire of her tender heart to just once eat the sweets served to an expectant mother!

Sita was now seated in the Miskith Motor and crossing Udyavara Bridge. For just a moment, the white cranes in the kandla bushes on the riverside diverted her attention from aunt’s seemantha. But after a bit, again the thoughts of the seemantha ceremony described by Revathi, especially the boiled egg episode, rushed into her mind! Sita’s friend Revathi had recently attended her aunt’s seemantha at Bajpe. The very next day she had brought rava laddu and sugar-coated groundnuts to school. She had described at length how her aunt had been dressed like a bride and how she was served innumerable varieties of eatables in a beautiful tray—rava laddu, mohan laddu, aralude, sukrude, holige, sugar-coated groundnuts, chikkuli, maalpuri, halwa, mithayee, jalebi, boiled eggs.... She had described how her aunt had chosen her and her brother amongst the crowd to offer them boiled eggs. Revathi had gone on and on. Meanwhile, Sita had been so upset that she had thrown the rava laddu out of the window. She was angry that Revathi had brought rava laddu and not boiled eggs. Sita certainly loved sweets, but her first preference was for boiled eggs. Not even once had she eaten a whole boiled egg. Sita had an insistent desire to eat boiled eggs. Whenever she had demanded it, mother had frowned at her saying, “Are we great landlords with a thousand mudi of land to eat eggs every day?” and hushed her up. Sita’s mind, which had relished Revathi’s description of her aunt’s seemantha, now turned towards Janaki’s seemantha, soon to take place at Kalavara. “When will I reach Kalavara? When will I go and hug Janaki Mami?” the excited Sita endlessly pondered. “When Mami is served all those exclusive dishes, she will make me stand right next to her. She will give me the boiled eggs and sweets first.”

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In the morning when Sita was getting ready to leave for her aunt’s seemantha, mother had put a string of beads around her neck and told her, “My child, talk to Mami only if she talks to you. Don’t go on talking like a chatterbox. If they give you something to eat, first refuse. Say no. If you grab it, they will think that you have not eaten for four days. They know we are poor.”

Sita’s father was Gopala Ganiga. When his parents died he had taken the responsibility of his two grown-up sisters and brought them from the village to his house. Gopala, who worked in the godown at Kinningoli, was already an asthma patient. Half his salary was spent on his treatment and the other half on managing the house and sundry expenses. In such a poverty-stricken situation, the sister’s marriage had been a real burden for Gopala. When, unexpectedly, Sumathi’s husband Keshava brought a marriage proposal from a very rich family for Janaki to be a second wife, Gopala accepted it without any hesitation. Janaki, who did not want to be a second wife, accepted it half-heartedly with a woebegone face. The prosperity and prestige of her husband’s house cooled her anger a bit and brought her woebegone face back to normal. Janaki was soon swimming in so much milk and honey that she did not spare a single thought for her people. Gopala had visited his sister’s place to invite her home. She had refused to go with him. After that he had also not bothered to visit her. So this was the second time he was visiting Janaki’s house. While Gopala Ganiga sat thinking about his sister’s post-delivery expenses, hundreds of ideas were rushing through little Sita’s mind. The ceremony, the boiled eggs, aunt Janaki’s house, the heaps of sweets, all these competed with one another for her attention.

Gopala entered the courtyard with Sita. Sita, who was astonished to see the two-storied house, thought that her aunt’s house was also as big as Revathi’s. As they crossed the courtyard and approached the verandah, her aunt Janaki’s husband received them. Sita’s eyes searched for her aunt, who was nowhere to be seen. She sat with her father in a corner in the verandah, and pestered him for her aunt. “She will come now, she will be here anytime,” he tried to convince her.

Gradually Sita’s attention shifted from her aunt to the women who sat in the inner hall. Women in zari saris, decked in gold ornaments, sat chatting. Awed, Sita looked at them wide-eyed. All her attention was now on the woman in a red zari sari. Her neck loaded with gold necklaces reminded Sita of the neck of the ox that pulled Esmail Berry’s cart. She wanted to whisper this at once to her father. Already feeling uncomfortable and anxious to see his sister, Gopala’s eyes searched for her all over the house. Sita noticed him looking around and decided to keep quiet.

Sita’s attention was on the inner room. Every now and then, as she thought of her aunt, the thought of the boiled eggs also surfaced. She thought of Revathi as well. When Sita was looking in some other direction, her aunt appeared. Abbah! Gopala felt relieved.

Sita was excited to see her aunt. “I’ll go touch Mami just once and run back, shall I?” she asked her father quietly. “No, she will come here and hug you,” he said. Sita waited and waited. Aunt Janaki did not look like she would come Sita’s way. She was busy smiling and talking to those women in zari saris in the inner hall.

Gopala also felt a bit awkward. Why was Janaki not coming this way? Sita’s anguish and impatience increased. When she asked repeatedly if she could go in, Gopala agreed.

Sita ran towards her aunt and hugged her. “When did you come? Where is appa?” asked Janaki, her face expressionless. Sita pointed towards her father. Janaki threw a wry smile at her brother, said, “I’ll be back now,” moved away from Sita, and went inside.

Sita felt humiliated. Father had told her, “Mami will hug you, hold you close and cuddle you.” She neither hugged her nor shoved her off. She ran to her father, hid her face in his lap, and wept. Gopala sighed helplessly.

Gopala was trying to console his daughter. “Mami went indoors to dress like a bride. She will wear a zari sari, the flat round golden flower on her head, lots of gold jewellery. Then she will come to you, hug you, and be photographed with you…” Gopala went on saying so many things but Sita was not convinced.

Sita was diverted by aunt Sumathi’s daughter, Sharada. Both girls started playing. Gopala consulted Sumathi on whether to take Janaki home for her delivery. “You better keep away from this,” she advised him. Gopala kept quiet.

Meanwhile, Janaki’s sisters-in-law led the gorgeously dressed Janaki to the hall. “Chikkamma,” called out Sharada in a loud voice. Janaki did not hear her. Aunt Sumathi frowned at her daughter.

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It was only Sumathi’s and Gopala’s families that attended the seemantha ceremony from Janaki’s side. This did not make any difference to Janaki nor did she feel bad about it. Janaki’s sisters-in-law led her to a chair and placed a three-legged table before her. On the table was the tray in which they began serving dishes for her. Baskets full of sweets, one after the other, were carried out. As the aroma of the sweets reached them, Sita and Sharada stopped playing and ran towards the womenfolk.

Sita looked at Janaki’s ornaments without blinking. She felt that her aunt was more beautiful than Bhagirathi teacher. When Sita saw the different kinds of jewellery her aunt was wearing, she was reminded of her mother’s bare wrists and neck.

Her aunt’s husband stood beside her and was directing where and how the sweets should be served. When Sita looked at him and then at the sparkling rings on his fingers, she forgot both the sweets and her aunt for a while. Suddenly Sita remembered the boiled eggs.

Boiled eggs had not yet been served to aunt. Sita was waiting for them. Aunt’s tray was full of sweets of various shapes, names, sizes and colours. Even Kamath of the bakery might not have seen them. Sita’s mouth watered on seeing such exotic sweets that decorated aunt’s tray and she wanted to eat at least a little from each variety. As this went on, she was also anxious about those eggs. Sita craned her neck and looked around. There were no boiled eggs in any of the baskets or bowls. Everyone was serving aunt only sweets. Sita’s patience began to run dry. Thinking someone might bring eggs, she peeped around. No sign of any.

Then it was turn of fruit. Sita’s tension rose. “Fetch boiled eggs after fruit,” aunt’s husband instructed his brother-in-law. “Abbah! At last!” thought Sita.

The person who had gone indoors to get them had not yet returned. Sita was so angry that she felt like biting him. “Who’s there, get the eggs!” Aunt’s husband roared and like a shot, peeled boiled eggs appeared.

Aunt’s husband seemed a very nice person to Sita. When she witnessed that his orders resulted in instant appearance of boiled eggs, she though he must be more powerful than her schoolmaster. Finally, aunt was served boiled eggs. Sita’s mouth watered as she watched them. Aunt’s husband who was all smiles was forcing her to eat. People around aunt also forced her to eat. Aunt was not eating. Sita was surprised. Again Aunt’s husband was forcing her to eat and he put a piece of halwa into her mouth. People sitting around laughed. Sita also laughed.

Janaki ate a few pieces of halwa and now stretched her hand towards the boiled eggs. Sita could hear her heart begin to thud! “Give the eggs to two children you like the most,” said aunt’s eldest sister-in-law in a low voice. Aunt Janaki started looking at the children around her. To establish her presence, Sita inched towards her aunt and stood leaning on her.

But she seemed to be invisible.

Janaki’s search continued.

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“Let Mami look at me at least once,” wished Sita silently and intensely. Janaki looked straight down her nose and did not bother to look to either side. She took an egg from the tray, placed it in the hands of the child the red-sari woman was carrying. That child was busy looking elsewhere. As the egg fell into her hand, the child’s disgust emerged in the form of a loud, “Ii…shh…ee!” and she threw the egg back at Janaki. “She hates eggs and you have given it to her,” laughed the child’s mother loudly, her mouth open as wide as the town.

That thrown egg missed Janaki and fell on Sita who was standing next to her. For a moment, Sita was embarrassed. Somewhere within her she also felt happy because Janaki turned to see where the egg had fallen and she was standing right there! Since the egg had fallen on Sita, everyone’s attention was focussed on her. Sita was happy that at least now her aunt had noticed her. She was also very angry with the child who had thrown the egg. “Why should she throw it? If she did not want it she could have returned it,” thought Sita. On the one hand she was very angry, on the other she was eager to know to whom aunt would give the other egg.

Again aunt picked up another boiled egg. For a moment her gaze fell on Sita standing next to her, and then slowly it moved in some other direction. Sita thought, “Is she holding the egg and chanting some mantras like Manku Josia who lives in the opposite house?” Aunt turned again towards Sita. Sita was excited! Aunt would give her the egg! She was thrilled!

Janaki called her sister-in-law’s daughter who was standing far away. Though the girl did not want the egg she forced her to eat it. Aunt fed her personally.

Sita who stood like an embodiment of desire suddenly stepped on the boiled egg lying at her feet and smashed it. She could not take the grandeur of the seemantha anymore. She ran back to her father and hid her face in his lap.

“Child, did you see the seemantha?” he asked caressing her cheek.

Story selected by Mini Krishnan

Reprinted courtesy of Oxford University Press

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