The Night Side … Sivala Jagannadha Rao, Telugu, Indian
[Born in 1945, Sivala Jagannadha Rao entered literary field in 1965 with his short story ‘Sita’. Though he did not have any formal education, he has more than 250 short stories and a dozen novels to his credit. Some of his short stories and three of his novels won state-level awards. Though his narration looks matter-of-fact way, his stories disturb the reader and make them enjoy the rasa behind. He was widely published, and the present story is taken from the hallmark journal of the day… Bharati.]
Apparao yawned and looked at his watch. It was ten minutes past six. He hurriedly got up and folded the bedsheet. His brother Simhachalam was already awake and completed his ablutions at the street tap. He entered the saloon, opened a drawer, pulled out two scented sticks from the box, lighted them up, and putting out the flame circled them around the photo of Lord Balaji. He then firmly inserted them in one corner of the photo frame.
In the meantime, Apparao had a wash, picked up a broom from the corner and started sweeping the shop floor. He took a small bowl from the rack. Filled it with water, added a pinch of turmeric into it and sprinkled the solution on all the belongings in the shop. Apparao noticed Simhachalam looking towards bus stand. He looked in the same direction. Meanwhile a customer appeared at the shop. Apparao called him in and offered a seat.
Apparao pulled out a comb from his pocket and neatly combed his wet hair and dabbed some talcum powder to his face. He then invited the customer into the chair for service. The customer who was looking keenly at the cinema pictures in a weekly, rose with regal grace and occupied the revolving chair as if it were a throne. Apparao covered him upto his neck with a fresh cloth and started hairdressing. Two more customers arrived, and conversation picked up tempo with the joining of a gossipmonger there.
Simhachalam was the elder. He studied up to eighth standard. Vexed with studies already, he dropped out. He inherited the shop from his deceased father and improved it to the present level. Bar lights, radio, two more revolving chars, and some new equipment mark the level of improvements he brought out.
The two framed pictures of gods, the two incense sticks inserted therein were proof enough of the modern way of worship. The two dailies and weeklies lying on the peg-stool kept the customers engaged till their turn. Unending gossip on all issues under the sun held the key to his success.
Throwing a glance towards bus stand once again, Simhachalam was airing out his views about the picture of his favourite hero released the previous day.
“… been to the second show. Wah! What a picture! The settings were great, dialogues powerful and action? Simply superb!”
“Say whatever guru, no matter how good the other elements in the picture, storyline… storyline is essential for the success of the picture. It is absent in this picture, not to mention of the songs,” said the Khaki-shirt Saidulu. He came there just for gossiping.
“How many weeks do you think it will run?”
“Weeks! Ha!… Ha!… Ha! Let’s see if it runs for one full week,” said Saidulu jeeringly.
One of the customers having shave intervened about the hero of the picture. Simhachalam did not reply him. He simply smiled and kept quiet. It was not necessary his favorite hero was also the favorite of his customer. For that matter, any of those present around. Then, forget about his likes and dislikes, he would lose customers. So he said neither ‘Yes’ nor ‘No’. the silent smile of Simhachalam meant it all.
Apparao said something into the ears of Simhachalam. Both of them looked towards bus stand for few minutes with concern.
The gossip took every possible turn. .. prices, war, elections, votes and whatnot. There were sounds of empty vessels and the water filling them at the street tap. Stopping of a tired looking city bus, stampede of people getting in and getting out, ‘dhab, dhab’ tapping on the body of the bus, and the ‘Raaeet (Right… asking the driver to proceed)’ and the trail of dust behind the bus had left behind… were all reflecting through the wall-mirror.
Simhachalam cleared the shaved lather on the razor on his left forearm and looked out again. The old woman at the bus stand was still asleep in her tattered rags, drawing her feet close to chest. The old woman filled his thoughts. Except for the protruding bones and sagging skin there was nothing left in her frame. Flesh and blood, just as youth and vigour had long deserted her. Life still lingered in her frame awaiting its turn. She was looking like a cadaver already.
The old woman erected a thatched umbrella to an electric pole at the bus stand. She made her living under the shade. That was her domain. She did not have to pay any rent or tax to that residence. At least, no one had ever asked her so far.
A gunny cloth, a tattered bedsheet, two old sarees folded together, one Dalda tin, one enamel plate, one strong handstick were all she had possessed. She begged for alms in the neighborhood or sitting on her gunny cloth she begged passengers for small change.
Not only Simhachalam and Apparao, server at the wayside hotel, Paparao, also had compassion for her. If she was ill or unable to move out for begging, they observed her timings of lunch and dinner, by giving her something to eat or drink taking few bucks from her earnings. When Paparao was not there, one of the two brothers took care of her.
“She always gets up before dawn unless it’s very cold. But never was she this late in getting up,” wondered Simhachalam within. “old hag that she is, she might be ill. Even young can’t be sure of their health these days,” he reasoned heaving a sigh.
For affection to develop between people there need be no sanguine relation between them. Staying together at a place or facing each other day in and day out would do.
There was a steady flow of customers at the saloon. Gossip was continuing. Busses were halting, unloading and loading passengers and were leaving. The day was getting hotter and hotter. The street tap was about to close. Still the old woman was lying in her bed.
Her son visited her the previous day. He offered her some money which she refused. He begged her to accept but she was very obstinate. He brought something from the hotel for her to eat but she declined even that.
This was an oft repeated story. She would prefer to live on begging than ask her son for support. Even when he volunteered to support her, she would not accept anything. Her son entreated her any number of times to come and stay with him. And every time she rebuked and turned him away saying not to raise the issue again. Paparao, Simhachalam, Watercarrier Gavarayya, and tailor Raghavulu had all advised her to go with her son but she flatly refused them all.
Appalasuri, her son, was working in some office as peon. He was her only child. Doing menial chores in households or carrying water for them, she brought him up with care till he came of age. She wanted to give him good education, but he could not go beyond eighth standard. With age already showing up, she was sapped by then. She expected him to be a clerk and his settling for a peon’s job shocked her. Besides, he married a low caste girl acting against her will. She had a serious altercation with him and started living separately since while leaving him she said, “I shall live by begging on the streets if I cannot work, but will never take your money.” She stood by her word to this day.
She would recount this story to everybody and curse her son and daughter in law. More so, the day after Appalasuri visited her. People wondered at her uncompromising attitude and her determination to stay alone.
One day Appalasuri came to her in high spirits and informed her that he was blessed with a daughter. He requested her to see the child and bless her. She replied, “Why should you tell me? Is it a wonder for married couple to beget children? What is so great about it?” he was aghast at her reply and was terribly annoyed. Saying, “Tut! It was my idiocy to inform you,” he left.
For the next one week she used to tell everyone :”That fellow got a girl through a low caste destitute. Why should I go and see her? No. I won’t!”
Laughing at her, the way-side-hotel proprietor said, “Don’t go if you don’t like. But why should you be thinking and talking all the time about them? Say you care a hoot about them”
Apparao said one day, “Granny! Yesterday I went that way and saw your grandchild. Her nose, her eyes exactly resemble yours. Why! She looks just like your miniature version.” And laughed teasingly. She made no reply. But, from then on she stopped speaking against her son, except occasionally murmuring something within.
This happened some six months back. Seasons changed. Summer yielded to rains and rains in turn to Autumn. The old woman continue to live under the shade of that thatched umbrella and live on begging. But now, she would not tell her story even if you had asked for it.
People started giving interpretation to her silence in their own way.
Human nature is very peculiar. We feel it so unnatural and incredible if a man changes for good all of a sudden. We feel some emptiness if we miss somebody for few days whom we were meeting regularly. We will be surprised if a blabber turns taciturn overnight. It arouses our curiosity and we search for reasons. People need not be related by blood to care for such changes.
After a very long time Appalasuri came the previous day to see his mother. As usual, he asked her to come home, and received the same usual reply. He returned telling everyone about her obstinacy. Though she did not speak to him affectionately, she was looking into his face searchingly for something all the time he was with her. The urge to say something and the anguish at the inability were discernible from her movements. After he had left, she went out somewhere as if she were measuring her steps and returned with a packet tucked under her arms. Simhachalam saw this and wondered what it could be. Of course, he ruled out that being a food packet. For, he knew she never brought food that way. However, he forgot all about it with brisk work at hand.
Simhachalam pocketed the rupee the last customer had paid. He walked up to the old woman who was sleeping still. The tattered bedsheet covered her face. He removed it. Her mouth was open, and her eyes were half closed. It was difficult to say how life liberated from the body… through eyes or mouth? He was startled for a second. Stepping back, he called out for his brother. Apparao brought Paparao with him and Raghavulu followed them. In no time all people gathered around.
Her death was not unnatural. Nor was it unexpected. But when the actual hour came, it surprised everyone. Everybody talked of his association with her and her resoluteness to stay alone.
Simhachalam suddenly remembered while discussing the obsequies to be performed by her son Appalasuri, about the packet she tucked under her arms the previous day. He opened the packet. There were one wooden and two rubber toys, a plastic horn and some small change!
Simhachalam was surprised to see these things. Then a smile passed over his lips as the meaning slowly unfolded to him. More or less, everyone present around was filled with the same feeling. Unfortunately, there were no words readily with them to explain what it was!