[We go eloquent when we speak about human values and how inviolable they are for a healthy society. We don’t hesitate a moment to condemn life without values. When it comes to motherly love, it is a paradigm of nobility and sacrifice. And we expect nothing less from any mother. But sadly, we underestimate the compulsions of life and their overwhelming power on passions and the choices we make in our lives.
Ramalakshmi (31st Dec 1930 – 3rd Mar 2023), the guiding spirit of Arudra, a polymath of Telugu literature, brings out this point succinctly in this story. This is a humble tribute to her.]
The youth of the Sociology department look so glamorous. Any new fashion that breaks into the market should find itself among them first. Behind those charming and graceful looks and spending more than half of their college time in the canteen lost in gossip and sweet nothings, there lies a compassionate heart. When the occasion arises and they must pool up some money for a cause, it is these people that come forward first and spare no effort. Then we shall realize one should not compare the appearances of the youth with the quality of their effort.
In that young brigade there were four boys and four girls. Wherever they went, they went together. If by any chance they encounter a professor on their way, and he asked them “Why? Don’t you have classes today?” they would answer, “we are going places on our project work only.” Of course, the poor professor would be compelled to say “Well, well,” nodding his head in assent.
It was eleven in the morning, and it was the time they went to the canteen together for tea. That was also the time a lame beggarly boy arrived, flaunting his stumpy foot. Every day, they used to collect whatever little they could muster and present it to that boy. And all smiles, they poor boy used to hurry up to them out of habit. But when he returned home, he was a personification of grief.
Sarala, of all the people in the group, noticed this first.
“Look, Kumar! Why does he look so sad going back home?” she asked once.
Swinging his thick crop of curly hair once, he said, “I am not so sure!” He cleaned his brand-new model spectacles once again.
They long debated among themselves for the probable reason.
Finally, Adi Lakshmi proposed, “Why should we break our heads? Let us him why?”
Adi Lakshmi was a kind of surprise entry into that group. With her simple white sari and matching blouse, and a long, stiff, whip-like, plaited hair she looked serious. Adi Lakshmi looked more like a yet-to-transform caterpillar amidst a kaleidoscope of butterflies.
They saw the beggarly boy standing under the shade of a tree as they returned from the canteen.
“Let us call him here,” proposed Sarala.
And soon, Moti ran up to him like lightning as her hair flew behind her.
She held the boy’s hand and walked him slowly up to the group.
“Where do you take me?”
The boy was scared, and his mien betrayed his fears. He was afraid that they might take back the money saying they offered him more money by mistake.
“Come on, we have something very important to speak to you,” she said.
All of them sat under the blooming Gul Mohar tree that spread its scents all around.
Adi Lakshmi put him at ease, allaying all his fears.
“Why are you still standing there?” she asked.
Her compassionate tone struck a chord somewhere and he was overwhelmed with grief. He started crying.
“Don’t worry. We are here for you,” they reassured him.
“I must wait for my mother until she returned,” he said, between his hiccups, at last.
“Why? Did we not give you some money? Why don’t you buy something with that?” asked Sarala.
He was back to crying.
“My god! He looks like a cry-baby,” said Moti.
“Let me tackle him,” Adi Lakshmi came forward and tried to pacify him.
“Will your mother get you lunch box?”
He turned his head in the negative.
“Then?” asked Sarala.
“She comes to take away my collections,” he replied.
They looked at one another in dismay.
“May be, she will take him home for lunch,” said Sarala, though she had her own apprehensions.
“But tell me first. What did you take for breakfast?” asked Kumar.
“Nothing. ‘You can’t beg if your belly is full. And nobody will pity you,’ says my mother. That’s why she will not give me anything for breakfast,” he said.
“My god!” said Kumar, getting up from his seat.
He called out the gardener and giving him some money, he said,
“Khadar! Get me a bun and a tea immediately.”
“Where do you live?” asked Adi Lakshmi.
“At the far end of Perambur. We will come by bus early in the morning. She leaves me on this beach road and comes in the afternoon to pick me up,” the boy said.
Khadar brought a bun and tea.
The boy took more than half of the bun in the first bite. He was hungry, no doubt.
“What is your name?”
Words filtered through the mass of bun which filled his mouth. He took the tea. His eyes restored back to life. He no longer looked like the animal chased by the hunter.
“When your mother won’t feed you, why don’t you buy something from your own earnings?” asked Kumar with a touch of anger.
“She would kill me if I did,” said Veera Mani. His voice trembled as he spoke.
“How could she know?”
“She can. Look at my leg,” he directed their attention towards his missing leg.
His right leg was there only up to the knee. That was the reason for his walking lame.
“What happened to it?”
“She threw me under the bus,” he said, without any emotion.
“Who? Your mother?” Adi Lakshmi asked with utter disbelief.
“Yes, lady. She thought this road fetches more money and threw me under the bus,” he said.
“OMG! Is she a mother?” exclaimed Sarala with palpable anger in her voice.
“I was quite healthy with chubby cheeks once, sir! Nobody really cared when I begged. ‘Get lost,’ they used to shout at me. My neighbor gave that idea to my mother and that very day, my mother threw me under the moving bus. I fell under the tyres but fortunately my hand was still locked in her hand. Thus, I was saved. Of course, that day my mother earned like never before. They removed my leg at the hospital. From that day onwards, true to her expectations, I was able to earn enough every day,” he recounted how he lost his leg.
“That is why he was honestly returning everything he earned to his mother,” concluded Sarala.
“Look! From today onwards, don’t roam around for long. We no longer give you any money. We will give you lunch,” said Mohan.
It took no time for the colors to change on his face. “If I don’t give her money, she will kill me,” he said anxiously.
“Don’t worry. We will take care of that,” reassured Mohan.
They left Veera Mani to attend the classes. And suddenly, they all wanted to see what Veera Mani’s mother looked like.
Veera Mani became an adopted child to the Adi Lakshmi’s group.
The group was preoccupied with the singular mission of bettering his life. They bought his two new shirts, arranged a neat haircut. They longed to mold him into a happy child, full of hope for the future.
But the more they tried to get close to him, the more he tried to avoid them. He was now scared of them.
“Why? What happened to you? Why are you avoiding us?” they asked him once.
“Please leave me. My mother is angry with me for all your attention.” He broke down. He pulled his shirt up and showed them his back. It was bruised all over!
“She was beating me thinking that I was spending all the money I earned for myself,” he complained.
“Be brave. We will also arrange you an artificial leg,” promised Adi Lakshmi.
His eyes glowed in delight. But soon, fear seized him.
“I don’t want that. She will not let me live,” Mani expressed his fears.
“That is silly. We are sure that the first person to be happy when you get your leg is your mother. Remember!”
They tried to infuse confidence in him.
As planned, they all collected some money and arranged for an artificial foot for Veera Mani at the General Hospital.
And on the day Mani was fit with the artificial leg, Moti brought her car getting special permission from her brother. The Adi Lakshmi group’s happiness found no bounds when they could achieve that small success.
Their eyes moistened when he was able to walk freely on his own.
Their hearts filled with a sense of satisfaction.
Veera Mani was in cloud nine looking at his new foot. He had no sense of hunger or thirst in that delight.
But what use?
The next day Adi Lakshmi’s group was out onto the road by ten thirty when their classes were cancelled. Their attention turned towards the Gul Mohar tree where Veera Mani used to sit. But today, he was not there.
Mohan asked Khadar about Mani.
Khadar stood with his eyes downcast.
“He ran towards the beach, Sab!” he said, pointing in that direction.
They crossed the road and ran towards the beach anxiously.
Long before they could see the person, they heard the resonating voice of Mani.
“Oh my! My foot! My foot!” He was hopping after his mother crying for his artificial foot.
“You bloody fellow! You need a foot? A foot that prevents you from begging for a few bucks. Come on… take this foot…” she teased him running towards the sea.
Unable to hop anymore in the sand, Veera Mani sank into it wailing for his artificial foot. His mother mustered all her strength to throw it far into the sea.
Veera Mani was wailing at a high pitch for his foot, rolling in the sand with grief. His cries reverberated in all directions.
Watching things unfolding before their eyes, Adi Lakshmi’s group stood like statues.
“Fee! What woman is she,” said Adi Lakshmi, at last.
They said no more.
And walked back.
Professor Abraham met them on their way and said, “What? Morning walk at this hour? Tut! Tut!”
They narrated the whole story and said finally, “We could not believe our eyes.”
The professor laughed laconically.
“What is the alternative? Those calculations of life outweigh our beliefs. We can’t change them,” he said.
“Professor, Isn’t she a mother in the first place? They say her heart melts sooner than butter. They say that she sacrifices her life for her children. Are they all just fiction and nothing else?” asked Moti with a heavy heart.
“Yes, my dear! They are all myths. Just figments of imagination and nothing else. In the struggle for life, be it mother or kin, they do not matter. Each of us is selfish in our own way.”
Behind those thick inscrutable glasses, a thin film of tears blocked his vision.
Veera Mani was not seen on the beach road after this incident. Unable to contain his curiosity, Mohan asked Khadar, “Did you See Veera Mani anywhere these days?”
“Saab! His mother sat him opposite the Central Station,” said Khadar watering the plants with the hose.
And, every time they came out, Adi Lakshmi’s group never stopped searching for Mani under the Gul Mohar!
I thank the editors of Saranga Magazine (English Section) for publishing the story in the issue dated 15th March 2023 as a tribute to her memory