Short Story

The saga of Sarosadevi

Print edition : November 25, 2016

WHEN Sarosadevi tried to peep into the outside world from her mother’s belly, her mother Bhagyam was watching a film. When she gave her breathless mother’s belly a hard kick, the mother shouted out, “Oon.”

“Bhagyam Akka! Has the pain started?” asked Ponnamma anxiously.

“Think so, di,” said Bhagyam, screwing her face and slowly getting up.

It was the time when actor Sarojadevi was mouthing the song sung by the playback singer P. Susheela: “Thangathile Oru Kuraiyirundalum (Even if there is a flaw in the gold…)”

A stern voice ordered from the back, “Sit down, di.”

“Move your feet. Make way for this akka. She’s got labour pains.” Ponnamma had to announce this loudly in the dark of the cinema hall.

The women in the hall who understood the import of the words started to grumble: “Wretched woman! Look at her coming to watch a film at the time of labour!” “Such a craze for films, is it?” “Perhaps she thought that if she delivers in the cinema hall she’ll get fame.” Hearing the words from the unseen faces, Bhagyam and Ponnamma made their way out with difficulty, grazing the knees of a line of women.

When Ponnamma realised that Bhagyam wouldn’t last till she reached the hospital, she sent for midwife Paapa.

By the time Sivaji Ganesan and Sarojadevi were united with their child in the film, Bhagyam had given birth to a girl.

“Ei, di, the child was born when you saw a Sarosadevi film! So keep that name itself for her!” suggested Ponnamma. Since Bhagyam didn’t have any reason to oppose this, she started calling the child by that name.

Just as Bhagyam was deprived of nutritious food and vitamins, so too was the child. By the time she turned a month old, she had suffered and survived many a fever and diarrhoea.

After Bhagyam resumed her work at the construction site, the child’s condition turned even more pathetic. The child’s only caretaker was Bhagyam’s grandmother, Old Woman Appayi. Shrunk and wizened, with skin like the bark of a neem tree and a gait like a lopsided weighing scale, Appayi herself needed someone to tend to her. Since her deaf ears couldn’t hear Sarosadevi’s soft moans and cries and heard only the high-pitched screams, most of the time Sarosadevi kept bawling.

Other than that, Appayi looked after the child with whatever affection she could muster.

Whenever the hunger-ridden child cried for food, the old woman would feed the tiny mouth two conchfuls of coffee that she bought from the Nadar Coffee shop. Three-fourths of Appayi would be satisfied with this, but one fourth of her would lament, “The belly of this bitch will never get filled.” Hence Sarosadevi got into the habit of drinking coffee in the third month itself.

Since her body always touched the floor through the tattered mat and she was always covered with damp, soiled sheets, Sarosadevi was prone to cold. Even when the child struggled to breathe, whining “gar-gar”, the two women didn’t have the means to take her to the doctor. At such times Appayi would resort to a crude treatment. Rolling the end of her dirty sari, she would take out her snuff packet from her waist, dip the cloth into the snuff and fearlessly put it into the two holes of Sarosadevi’s tiny nose. Sarosadevi survived these life-and-death moments. So Sarosadevi got into the habit of taking snuff from the fourth month itself. Her strong resistance to snuff slowly weakened and at one stage it became just a nod and a mild sneeze.

Unable to bear the moaning and groaning of Sarosadevi, Appayi took a decision: she bought a five-paisa biscuit from the Pandi petty shop, mixed it with coffee and fed the soggy stuff to the child. Though this was in contradiction to what the childcare books advised, it agreed very well with Sarosadevi.

The old woman kissed the child with an unwashed mouth and loads of bad breath. Though WHO might not agree to all of this, Sarosadevi was in no position to disagree; she had to endure and also survive.

Life is nothing but a cluster of cells thirsting to survive and Sarosadevi was a living proof of this. Appayi, on the other hand, firmly believed that life could not be so easily wiped away.

Between them, they pushed time like this and Sarosadevi soon turned two and a bit. Fearing that the evil eye would befall her emaciated, pot-bellied granddaughter, Appayi always said when anyone asked, “She is three going on four.” Clutching the pots and pans, holding on to the backs of her mother and grandmother and grasping the walls, Sarosadevi learned to walk and even run. By this time Appayi had become more decrepit and found it difficult even to walk.

Now only in her dreams could Appayi carry Sarosadevi. So whenever the child pestered her, she pinched, beat and punched her with her bony fingers, showing her helpless irritation.

One day, as Appayi was walking, biscuit from the Pandi shop in one hand and the grandchild in the other hand, a cycle that looked amorphous to her dim eyes, turned true and solid and hit her; in a snap she relinquished her life.

By the time this news reached Bhagyam—who was working at a hospital construction site far away—and she hurried back, Sarosadevi had bawled her lungs out and finally fainted.

After the funeral rites were over and as Bhagyam contemplated going back to work, Sarosadevi lay on her lap.

She thought of her husband, who had eloped with the girl Renuka who lived in the third house and was now working in town. “Send the girl if you want. We’ll bring her up,” he had said to Ponnamma who had seen him in town and berated him.

“Scoundrel! As if the one who ran away with a loose woman will look after a child.” In the next instant itself, Bhagyam had flung aside the idea.

When she enquired around, she came to know that there was a woman who would tend to the child if she was given food and 25 paise per day.

When she went to see her, she found out that this was her profession. Ten to 12 tots crowded around her and she greeted Bhagyam with an assured air.

“May you live well! How well you’ve understood the problems of women like me.” Bhagyam praised her wholeheartedly and set off for work. But Sarosadevi kicked up a racket in protest against this new arrangement.

“You leave, ’ma. On the first day they will usually cry. Then she will get used to the other children. You go,” she said firmly and Bhagyam left.

The fever that Sarosadevi got that night never abated. The next day her body swelled. She neither ate anything nor opened her eyes. Moaning, she lay, and on the third day, even the moaning stopped.

“O my princess, my princess, my little parrot.” Bhagyam leant against the wall and wailed. Not knowing how to rationalise her sorrow and whom to blame, the women who visited her could only say, “Don’t cry. Enough. Have some coffee.”

When she returned for work at the hospital site, the mason said, “I heard that you lost a child.” She stood crying.

He said in a kind of philosophical tone, “Even if the child lived, what comforts would she have seen? No father. A mother who is struggling even for gruel. She realised that this world is difficult. So she left. All this is god’s deed. What is in our hands?” He sneakily looked around.

“Don’t cry, girl… If you want another child, you can always beget one. You’ve still got years.” When he uttered this in a low voice, Bhagyam stood, head bowed.

Yet another experience of rearing a child without a father seemed to approach her from afar like a very, very faint shadow. But somehow she wasn’t afraid.

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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