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A Downy Mother is better than a Doughty Father… Gogu Syamala

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(A Short Story)

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As the afternoon turned to evening, all of us children gathered in the open on the outskirts of the village. Reminiscent of the rain that had stopped a while ago, droplets of water on the blades of grass glistened in the lukewarm amber sun. All the elder boys were playing Kabaddi on one side. Girls of my age were playing Hide and Seek this side, chasing one another. Boys younger to us were playing along with us. After tossing the coin several times, Baindla Ramulu was declared ‘out’ in the end. We ran hiding behind bushes, between the crevices of boulders, and behind the grassy outgrowth on the promenades abetting the water-canal.  Lost in our play, we took no notice of anything happening in our surrounds. It was after a very long time we were playing that crazy. We were playing as if we were hungry. Buttressing our frolicsome mood, a rainbow bloomed on the horizon. We counted if there were seven colors in it, from that end to this end and from this end to that. That spleen-bellied Narsi was getting one short how many times ever she had counted. But, I got all the seven. I was capering, hopping and dancing. And from a distance I heard the ‘Pandugala Sayanna‘ song. I looked back. I saw village servant Antanna on the village-tankbund coming our way, blissfully singing the Kinnera song mounting a water buffalo, with a long staff of Horse-shoe vitex in his hands.

That was a song I loved so much. I was all ears listening to it and caught it immediately.  That was ‘Pandugala Sayanna‘ song. I started singing instantly.

Oho hoy Sayanna! O Panduga Sayanna!

Palamore Gounds’

Twelve tonnes of Rice carts

Are going towards Tandoor

Don’t let them go

Spare not your life Sayanna!

(ting … ting… ting… ting)

Some children were jumping and flying on the farm-bunds like dragonflies. The resilient grass flexing under their feet temporarily, was standing erect in no time. The droplets of water dried up in the stampede. Thus we played till it was time our mothers returned home.

We stood on the farm-bunds looking into the distance at a flock coming homeward. And the light melted slowly into dark as the clouds overcast the sky. At the road forked into two near the water-well common for Mala and Madiga, Madiga women turned into Madiga lane and the Mala women turned into theirs.

My mother was not among them.

As I was still looking for her, it started raining with heavy droplets. There was no speed in the gait of women coming, maybe because they were already drenched once before. However, I shivered in cold as my body got wet and I was chilled to the bone. But, I did not feel like budging from there. As the rain intensified with vengeance, darkness fell completely. Taking no notice of it, I was just standing there watching the homebound. The women labourers, who went out on weeding out work in the Rice fields, were still wet having been soaked in the morning rain. They still wore their scarves as veils over their heads as if they held them up there for drying out after wrenching them of water. They were coming home from all directions but in a line one after another walking between the sharp stubs standing in the fields left fallow this time after the Rice harvest .

I was still waiting for my mother.

All of them wore scarves around their heads. So, from this distance, all of them looked alike to me. My mother stitched a new green scarf for me from an old one. Though I was looking for my mother, the story of that green scarf was playing in my mind…

She cut out the worn out parts of her sari, joined the strong ones in the length and breadth according to need and sued them into a square piece and used my father’s white dhoti for the interior.  She bedecked it with the Zari border from her old sari. And the surplus frill tailed out and when the scarf was worn over head it shone so brilliantly! I played with it and pleasured myself as a princess.  My sister and I vied for it, fought for it and at night wrestled to cover us. Unable to put up with our constant fights, mother stitched one for each of us.  Nobody matched her skills in stitching these scarves.  That’s why our neighbouring granny Ningampalli Sayavva used to praise her saying “my darling’s hands roll as swiftly as  a top. She is peerless in stitching the scarves.”…

I stood in the rain like that. All the women of the village returned except my mother.

In the translucent darkness my mother was coming alone like a whirlwind. I stood there with the confidence that it was my mother. And indeed it was my mother. She was so agitated looking at me drenched in rain.  I ran into my mother and embraced her waist as if I were fighting. “Why are you standing here baby, instead of sitting at home with brother, lighting a lamp,” she said. Then, “Incorrigible girl! You clutch at me in the rain. What do you think I bring home from the forest? Fruit or something to eat?” she angered. As I tried to frisk the pockets of the scarf, she did not allow but dragged me home holding me by the shoulder.  By the time we came home, younger brother was seen wailing at the doorstep out of fear. He was quite a timid fellow. He would be afraid for the lightning as well for the thunder. My mother started scolding me more, after she found him that way. The moment she saw him, she loosened the grip over me, ran up to him, hugged him endearingly and held him by her waist. “Are you afraid my son?” she reassured him patting him on his back. “Look at him. Why did you stand like an adult there as though you had lost something?” she resumed her chiding. As she was scolding me, the younger one felt happy and forgot about his fears. When he said “mother! I am hungry”, my anger also melted. For I was also hungry. Putting him down abruptly, she gave us some green gram pods each taking out from a pocket of the scarf. It was for gleaming theses pods that she came last.

Until after our hunger was satiated, we did not notice the smell. It was the smell of earth we experienced in the house whenever it rained. In the store-room, near the common wall, and in the central room there were pools of water already.  Dissolving the soot deposited on the bamboo beams of the roof, rain water streamed down the wall like black blood. Mother placed some aluminium utensils under the direct leakages. At rest of the places she put earthen plates. There were more places left still. As I was thinking what to do, my mother brought shards of broken pot and placed them wherever possible. Oh, you must only watch!  Amongst plop-plops and splish-splashes of rain, mother was moving around emptying the filled ones in turns. I was also helping her in emptying vessels with one hand, helping myself with the green gram pods with the other. “There it is mother… leaking near the earthen tub,” shouted my younger brother. She ran there and placed the iron basket there.  The house had almost reduced to a sieve. How many points could she cover and how many things could she look for? “Every year we were able cover the roof but this year we could not and the wretched hut had reduced to this state…” my mother grumbled as she moved around everywhere in the house. It was raining relentlessly outside. In the din of the thunder and the heavy rain outside and the ‘ tin-tin’s within, nobody was able to hear the other.

My mother was worrying about the elder brother and the granny.

“How deeply he must have been soaked in the rain… whether he entered the village or was still held up in the forest… there is no information. Even the oldie did not turn up yet”.

Just as she was saying, granny Sangavva returned. When she could find nothing in the leavings after the winnowing operations were over in farmyards, she went to the house of one landlady, and when she offered few Roti and broth with dal for cleansing three bags of Jowar of sand and soil, she brought them in a crock concealing under her scarf. She pulled out a small bundle from the scarf and emptied paddy gleanings into a winnowing pan.  My mother carefully stored them in a pot. Elder brother came home dripping. Mother happily announced ‘Ramachandrappa returned home’.

“Hang your gunny rug to the eave my son, and come in washing your feet at the tub,” she said. Granny Sangavva asked, “was the pancake packed sufficient in the afternoon?”. 

“Where is the time granny? You think calves allow me to eat it sitting comfortably? They were always running towards the fields of Patel.  I fed them green grass leading them from the front. When it struck three, lead them to the pond for a drink. As they rested under the trees ruminating, I opened the pack to have something. Like a thief came the rain all of a sudden. Then I packed it again and came home running,” he said. Drying his head with the scarf mother said in anger, “it seems there are mischievous calves among them. They killed my boy of hunger. Poor fellow he roamed all around and was exhausted.” Then addressing him she said, “if we can manage for this year, my child, we would be rid of their burden. By next year your father will return home with earnings from town and will clear the debt. That day is not far. ….” she tried to comfort him drying his body.

Though she was speaking those words there was no conviction behind them. Just for my brother’s sake she was telling him our father would return from town and clear all debts.

In the meantime, granny Sangavva lit the fireplace and all of us collected around the fire warming ourselves. Elder brother gave me and the younger one a hunk each and ate the rest. We joined in the share of his green gram pods

And slowly elder brother asked, “Mother! When will my father return from town?”

“I don’t know my child. He did not turn up till now. There is no information about what he is doing. It is three years since we lost heard him,” my mother was pouring out her anguish.

***

That day it was drizzling from dawn.

Yet, my mother cleaned the foreyard, collected dung into a reed basket. As she crossed the threshold of the house with the basket overhead, she saw my father coming in the opposite direction. My mother shouted loudly, “your father has come”. And all of us sprang from our beds before she completed her announcement. My younger brother started crying bear hugging him. My elder brother and I were happily looking at him from top to toe standing near him. Our granny Sangavva went in and came out weeping, with a bowl of water. Taking the bowl from her, my father sat on the platform abetting the street. My mother sat on one side putting down the basket and my granny sat on the other side. And the moment she settled, granny Sangavva started wailing, “so many days have passed, my son. Where were you? How did you manage? What were you doing? You became so dark, my child! You have reduced to half. Your wife, children and I have been waiting for you like younglings for their mother.”  Then, what came to her mind, she stopped crying and said, “Get up my son. Wash your feet. We can continue after you take a gulp of gruel.”

That day mother used a part of the millets, meant to be used as seed for next crop, and prepared steaming hot cakes. My father said after the meal that it was years since he had such a hearty meal, and belched.

Then he began how awfully he lived in the town. He did all kinds of odd jobs. He worked as a digger of wells… for some days worked in the market yard… sold peas in a basket walking around. With the wages earned he bought a spade and a crowbar helpful in digging work. But there was once police action in the town and police took him away when he was working in the hat and penalized him. Selling the spade and crowbar he got out. He went out to the town with nothing except clothes on and returned home in rags. My granny Sangavva was so agitated looking at my father.”Damn those implements and the town. At least you returned home alive.  We can clear our debts all of us working together,” she was reassuring him with a pat on his shoulder.  My father stood downcast combing his fingers through the hair of my younger brother.

Then came Ningampalli Sayavva from the neighbouring street. She was holding a big dung basket in her hand, two jute bags with chinks mended here and there, and an old worn out scarf. The swarm of houseflies surrounded her and a dash of Neem fruit smell spread all around suddenly.

“A man alive would turn up some day. Only the dead would never be seen. Child! You came home at last. What places did you go? One must appreciate your mother and wife taking care of your three children. An exemplary pair of mother-in-law and daughter-in-law. In the days of famine, life became a caltrop”, she said.

My father replied he went to town in search of livelihood.

Then Sayavva said, “Anyway, you joined us at last. Labour and live.”

She then looked at my mother and granny and said, “Come out for work. You are three now.”

In fact, there are four in my house now that can work. My sister got married and left. And as for me and my younger brother, we are dependents.

My mother poured out some gruel into a bowl, put some salt and placed it in a niche. “You remain hungry if dogs slurp it away. Be careful my child. Don’t leave the doors open and go out for play!” she warned and walked towards the forest. 

Washing the Neem fruit gathered in the forest in a stream, they sold the seeds at merchant Narayana’s shop and bought victuals home for the night as usual. 

“Drought was like the visitation of Yama (death). Labouring class would survive if rains visit on time at least this year.  Otherwise, it looks like the world would come to an end,” my mother murmured within herself as washed the dishes.

***

“We fed our children all these days on just gruel. Now my son had returned home. The house is filled Neem fruit fragrance. The tongue had become tasteless. Today we picked more Neem fruit. Why don’t we buy salt, chillies, a seer broken rice and a half a kilo meat from the butcher, and have a tasty meal?” thought my mother and granny. And they did exactly as they thought. My younger brother and I were too happy. In that pleasure, my younger brother was all smiles for everything. And my mother’s face glowed in pleasure to see us happy. It reflected a confidence that she was able to feed her children to their satisfaction that night. The youngling grew more bewitching and running after my mother holding her sari frills.

“Mother, a small piece” he asked.

She picked a piece of meat, roasted it on the fire and giving us a bite each kept the rest for the elder brother. We ran out and chewed the bites teasing our mates. Gruel on one burner and meat on another were boiling. And the smell which pervaded the house, had spread to outside. My father who had been to the market sat on the platform outside saying “your mother is cooking meat. I could smell it “.

***

“I want to have liquor give me some money,” he asked my mother.

“Where is the money? Nothing is left after buying the salt, chillies and meat. There is no more money with me,” she said.

After a while, he shouted at her saying ”When I ask for few bucks, you answer me tens.”

“What is this unjust demand? Did I hide the money somewhere?  If you still ask for money after seeing everything, what of it?” she said.

“You say unjust? Huh! You learnt so many words. Did I see what you bought? How do I know what all you did?”, he flared up on her. My mother coolly went to the fire-place and adjusted the wood in to the fire.

“What do you mean by keeping silent to whatever I say?” he kicked her in the waist. I and the younger brother cried loud.  Our father looked at us in fury. Frightened by his looks, we settled into a corner keeping silent. He started beating my mother as if she were a bovine. My mother was crying for help wailing, “I am dead, I am dead.” Yet, he did not stop beating.  I grew weak in my knees as I saw him beating my mother.  My younger brother pissed in his shorts out of fear. We could not venture near our father. We thought he would beat us as well if we dared. We are equally afraid for our mother that she might die.  Listening to her cries, all the women folk going to the well gathered in front of our foreyard. Every one of them censured our father saying something or the other. He then stopped the beating and came out.  We gathered about our mother.  She was lying immobile there. We could not lift her up. In the mean time, granny Sangavva came and started reproaching father.

“It is not even three days since you came home. You started beating her again. You have become a Yama to her life. How long will you continue to beat her? You wounded her all over her body and made fit for nothing. How can you expect her to work?”

As she was censuring, relatives from my sister’s place visited us.  They informed that our sister delivered a premature baby. They also said that she went for green gram picking for wages, but delivered a child in the field. All the women folk attended to the delivery and they cut the umbilical cord with a sickle. Pleading with Patel, they arranged for a cart and sent the mother and child home safely. Both mother and child were safe, they informed. They said they had come to take our mother with them.

Our granny Sangavva broke into a cold sweat. “There’s still two more months’ time and we thought of bringing her home for the first delivery. How had it happened?  God has willed it like this.”

She asked them again, “Kindly tell us if the mother and child are safe?” for reassurance. 

She then turned towards father. “Tell me what you would do now?  You beat her reducing to a vegetable. Who would nurse your grand child? It’s the duty of the mother to nurse the grandchild when her daughter delivers for the first time.  What do you want me to do now?” She was grieving holding her head in her hands.

Then the granny Ningampally Sayavva came to the fore and said, “What is the use of having the best of riches? The child needs her mother now. It’s not for nothing that people say that a passionate mother  is preferable to an apathetic father. Bring some leaves of Horse-shoe vitex and treat her wounds with fomentation. She will get alright soon.”

I ran out in search of Horseshoe vitex.

***

Source: Nalla Poddu

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