Trace it! A short story translated from Telugu

Print edition : November 06, 2020

Gogu Shyamala, the author of this story, is a senior fellow at the Anveshi Research Centre for Women, Hyderabad. “Father May Be an Elephant and Mother Only a Basket, But... “is her first collection of stories translated from Telugu.

Diia Rajan, the translator of this story, is an entrepreneur.

Dappu , a percussion instrument played with two sticks. Traditionally played on ceremonial occasions, today the dappu is a presence at political meetings too. Photo: Mohammed Arif

An unusual story about the dappu and the legendary skills of the one who plays it—the madiga drummer. Traditionally played on ceremonial occasions, today the dappu is a presence at political meetings as well. A most unusual story by Gogu Shyamala

Weddings and funerals—these, every member of every family must attend. This is the way of our village since God knows when. All the ceremonies of life are followed because well, that is the way of our village. Times are changing, and life has changed completely, but not our village. Except, maybe, a little, but all the same, at least one member of every family in our village must attend every funeral and every wedding.

That’s it.

People are born and people will die. When someone dies, every family from the village sends a drummer. We are a wada of drummers and from each family one drummer plays his drum and throws in a fistful of earth as respect to the heaven-bound.

Narsappa’s daughter was related to everyone. Even when she grew old and her back grew crooked and she could not even see the glasses on her nose, she was still considered the daughter of the whole village. It seemed like no one noticed that she was old until she died suddenly. And in our village such news never went unnoticed or unmentioned.

“Oi! No work today!” Narsappa cried out to the young man working on the other side of the road. “Go, go tell everyone, there is not going to be any work today!”

“Old man, couldn’t you have told us so any earlier? My father has already left for the bazaar,” the young man retorted.

“If your father has left, how does it matter? You can come and play the dappu. Haven’t you heard what I said? There is a dappu hanging on a hook in my house. Go get it.”

“What will I do there with your dappu and old men like you? I can come and throw in a fistful of earth if you want.”

“You think you are a big guy, huh? That we don’t drum half as well as you? Have you ever heard the sounds that rise from a practised hand? Play with us today and you’ll know that even when a tiger grows old, his stripes don’t fade! Did you learn to play the dappu by watching children play, or did you learn from a master who knows his drum? Come today, and you’ll learn from the very best!”

“Are you challenging me, old man? Your dappu will only play as long as your bottles of toddy are full… After that both you and your dappu will be flat on the ground. Go find someone else. It would be more challenging to play kabaddi with trees than play the dappu with all of you. I don’t want to be the only person left playing in the end. Go find someone else!”

“What are you saying? Who says you’ll play alone? Bring your friends and tell them to bring their dappu too! Pentadu, Chandrudu, Sammadu, Nagadu, Guruvadu, Yelladu—call all of them, we will all go, and we will play the dappu till we drop. No one will have to play for anyone. Young and old, we will all play together and no one need be tired.”

Babaiah was happy to go if his friends were coming.

Everyone was called and the left for the other village, their drums slung over their shoulders. They played the drums with gusto—dhoom dham—until the corpse was buried.

They lifted up coins with their sweaty foreheads to the rhythm of the dappu; they picked up needles stuck in the sand with their eyelids, keeping time with the drum. The funeral beat of fifty dappu thundered out the message of her death to ten surrounding villages. The women keened. The men born from her womb, and those born alongside her, wept like women into their head-cloths. Crowds came to the funeral as if to a jatra. “She came upon this earth and saw all, did all, she now takes leave of us all, our Sukkamma. Death must come like this. It is a good death,” they thought to themselves. “She nursed her daughters and her daughters-in-law, but never troubled anyone herself. It is a death as good as gold,” felt the people who moved along in the wake. They plucked handfuls of tangedu flowers as they walked and strewed them on her body as it lay in the burial pit. Each of them picked a fistful of earth and cast it in. Thus was she buried.

Finally, they sat down on one side and drank a bottle of toddy each. The younger ones did not drink, so they took money instead.

“Come, let’s go to Ismail Hotel. We can eat bajji there.” Pentaiah held out his hand to collect a share of everyone’s money. They walked to the place where the bus might stop, and the old and the young sat and waited, drinking their toddy and eating their bajji.

The bus arrived after some time, and one by one, the old men, the young boys and their dappu climbed into it. They squeezed past the passengers, holding onto their dappu for dear life, crushing all and sundry as they hurried towards empty seats. But the bus had not plied even a mile before it sputtered and hushed to a stop. The driver and conductor walked around it, clicking their tongues at each other before one of them stuck his head into the bus and mumbled something about a mechanic. The driver and the conductor looked at each other, and simultaneously said, “It will take time.” Then they nodded their heads at us.

What could we do? We also looked at each other and nodded our heads. Our dappu were still slung on our shoulders, and at least one of us was losing his patience.

“What the hell… first some tea in the morning and then some toddy… I’ve not had anything to eat or drink and it’s making my body tremble. We are too weak to walk to the next village—and the one after that is even further! I think my stomach is going to eat me from inside. What are we going to do, kids?” asked Narsappa.

But the young boys just looked at each other. There was nothing they could do. And what did the kids anyway know about what they could do. Slowly, one by one, they left in search of water—maybe there was a well around … and then someone thought they spotted a ditch near the large banyan tree.

“Let’s go and see,” Avvola Nagaiah said, his words a query and a command.

They walked around and stopped at a ditch with some water. There was only a little, and that too at the very bottom. Actually, the ditch was dry except for the leaf-green moss growing on the damp mud.

Pentaiah, Sendraiah and Babaiah dug the mud with sticks they found. First, the two of them dug while the third one scooped the mud out. Then the third one dug and the first two scooped the mud out. The water was starting to trickle into the ditch, and they had dug a foot-deep hole. The water rose up to their wrists. Then, when all three of them scooped the mud out, more and more water seeped in. They plucked the nicest moduga leaves and gave them to Yellaiah, who folded them into small cups. Sammaiah and Guruvaiah scooped the muddy water with their little cups and threw it away, and when the ditch started to fill with shimmering clear water everyone dipped their cups in and drank.

“Come Narsappa,” Pentaiah and Babaiah called out. “Come, drink this water and tell us if it is not sweeter than your toddy.”

“Beev,” they belched after drinking their fill and sat under the shade of the big banyan tree. In the meanwhile Nagaiah had gone missing. “Where the hell did Nagadu go? Has he gone to take a leak?” Pentadu wondered aloud. “No, probably gone for the big job… He should be back,” said Yellaiah, and Babaiah agreed. “Yeah, looks like that.”

“Did he take his dappu along or did he leave it with someone?” Pentaiah asked, looking around at the men holding onto their dappu. Everyone had only one dappu. “Looks like he’s taken it with him. Can someone call out to him? The bus may be ready to leave now.”

So Sammaiah began shouting, “Oree Nagaaa! Nago! O…”

“Oi! What are you shouting like that for, you fool…. What’s that dappu doing in your hand? Can’t you use it, shithead?” Babaiah nodded in agreement. “Ya, use your dappu.” And so Sammaiah started to call out with his dappu: “Jagtak jagtak jagtak.”

Jagtak jagtak jagtak, I’m coming,” Nagaiah called out almost instantaneously as he walked back to them. But the bus had still not been fixed.

“Looks like this is going to take a long time…shall we play a game?” Pentaiah asked. Everyone thought it was a good idea and the boys perked up immediately. “Who’ll play the dappu?” Pentaiah looked around, waiting for a response.

Yellaiah picked up the dappu hanging on the branch next to Babaiah. He struck it under his arm, pulled out the stick tucked between the strings, and tested the drum, tan tan. It sounded fine. He took the German-silver ring off his finger.

Pentaiah pulled the towel off Nagaiah’s shoulders to tie it around Sammaiah’s eyes. Yellaiah took Babaiah’s ring and walked some twenty feet away towards a tangedu bush, placed the ring under the bush and covered it with a flat pebble. Blindfolded, Sammaiah would have to find the ring with the help of the beat from Babaiah’s dappu.

Babaiah began. Sammaiah listened carefully. Everyone else watched. “Better play it right,” Sammaiah warned the drummer. “Yeah, whatever…” the drummer replied. And Sammaiah began his search. He walked forward and the drum followed: jadabuk-tak, jadabuk-tak, telling him to keep walking, and so Sammaiah kept walking forward. As Sammaiah reached the tangedu bush the beat grew louder: jadabuk-tak, jadabuk-tak, jadabuk-tak. But when he walked past the bush, the beat changed instantly: tantantan… Sammaiah retraced his steps. But he was still walking away from the bush, so Babaiah changed the beat to jagtak-ningtak, jagtak-ningtak, urging Sammaiah to change direction. But Sammaiah continued to walk away from the bush. So tana-nan tana-nan tana-nan, Babaiah beat his drum, forcing Sammaiah to whirl around and walk towards the tangedu, but he was still walking in the wrong direction.

Asking him to slow down, Babaiah beat out jaj-jeggi-tak jaj-jeggi-tak jaj-jeggi-tak. Sammaiah slowed down. The dappu went jejje-daaku jaggu-taaku and he turned to the left. He stopped and listened carefully, wondering which way to move. Then he heard a jadabuk-tak jadabuk-tak and knew that he’d come closer. He took two steps forward, cautiously. He went down on his knees and looked for the ring with his hands. Jadabuk-tak, said the dappu, and Sammaiah scrambled forward for another couple of feet and fell forward on his knees. The boys laughed. Sendraiah ran up to Sammaiah to tighten the blindfold, which was coming loose. “Do it carefully, asshole, my eyes are burning…it’s all dark,” Sammaiah said. The dappu restarted, and to let him know that he was almost there, Babaiah beat a slow jaggu-jaggu-tak ningu-ningu-tak jaggu-jaggu-tak ningu-ningu-tak. Sammaiah took small steps. When the rhythm changed to tana-nan tana-nan tana-nan he walked back a little, wondering where the ring was.

Then he heard a jejje-daaku jaggu-taaku jejje-daaku jaggu-taaku, took four small steps forward, stopped and looked around. The dappu changed its beat to tana-nan tana-nan tana-nan and he turned around again. Jagabuk-tak jadabuk-tak, the dappu told him to walk forward two steps. Then he heard jadabuk-tak jadabuk-tak again, and walked another couple of steps. Then he knew he was almost there. So he started to feel the earth with his feet. The dappu changed the beat completely: jaj-jeggu tak jaj-jeggu.

Sammaiah had lost the plot and he was going to lose his cool with the drummers changing so swiftly and confusing him. But he didn’t want to give up, so he called out “Arre play it properly…what shit are you playing, you…”

“You do your thing right, you asshole,” replied Babaiah. “Go slow and think—stop chasing hens.” Tana-nan tana-nan, beat Babaiah. Sammaiah slowed down and reached the tangedu. Then, dan dan dan dan, the dappu changed again. Sammaiah started to search with his hands and feet. His hand found the tangedu and the dappu cued him with dan dan dan again. He slipped down on the ground and began to feel the earth with his hands. He found the stone and the ring underneath it.

Now he must get back to the dappu, he thought to himself. His head was boiling and his ears were ringing. When he tried opening his eyes, he could only see the darkness of the blindfold. He stood up and listened carefully. The dappu called to him: jadabuk-tak jadabuk-tak. Sammadu walked forward, put the ring in Babaiah’s hand and untied the towel from around his eyes. He’d won this round.

“Awesome…well done!” Everyone congratulated Sammaiah. “Then, what did you think of my brother?” asked Yellaiah. “My brother won and you lost…will you bring down a pot of toddy or climb onto a donkey?” he asked Pentaiah with a shameless smirk on his face. “Oi, shithead! When we started, did we say the loser would give everyone toddy or ride around on a donkey?” Pentaiah responded coolly.

“Don’t pay any attention to him, he is just teasing you,” said Nagaiah. “We didn’t think about it, but when we get back home those who want their toddy will drink it and the rest will get something to eat. Come on, let’s get back to the bus.” They all headed back. “Anyway,” continued Nagaiah, “wasn’t it just the other day that Babugadu bought us all toddy after we winnowed his paddy? Poor chap, how can he buy us another round? He’s got a hencoop full of children and only so much to feed them with. And it’s only because he is so clever with his dappu that the ring was found. Otherwise, Sammadu would still be looking!”

“Come on, the bus is fixed, let’s go,” shouted out the conductor. They all piled in and the bus set off.

Story selected by Mini Krishnan

Reprinted courtesy of Navayana

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