Breaking the sequel of short appearances and long disappearances my friend and feminist writer Margaret awakens her computer one morning and asks it to send me a mail telling me she would release her new collection of stories at Vijayawada and wonders if we could meet there. This means a welcome journey for me to the place of my birth, my school, my college and my work. Also to meet Razia Sultana, her maid servant about whom she talks so effusively, sometimes complainingly too, in every call she makes. Despite her talent to vanish at no notice Margaret and I have always managed to meet before we became memories to each other. Old wine in new bottles, she tells me later about her anthology.
On the day of book release I go to look her up at the venue, an auditorium for modest gatherings. A plebian setting soaked in city scents and sounds. At the gate, a huge poster showing the title page of the book greets me. I enter the hall, downsizing myself to elude notice, and press into a fourth generation chair in the third row. Before I could resume my unabridged self a few old faces manage to relay their recognition to me. The two sides of the curtain on the stage disappear into the wings, rescuing me from the prospect of inane inquiries from the crowd that spotted me on arrival. On the dais, I see ten chairs anxious to be occupied; some of them beam at large in anticipation of occupation.
Ten chairs mean ten speakers, I know from experience of attending functions like these organized to present awards, to merely honor a celebrity, to observe anniversaries of writers who are no more, to release a book or an album and so on. At the end, the ten chaired entities and the author would line up on the stage as if they are facing the firing squad, holding a free copy of the book at waist level, the title page facing the audience. From the foot of the stage paparazzi work their cameras to shower shine on them for a nano second.
Unless otherwise ordained, things generally happen this way after the curtains are drawn into the wigs: From one wing of the stage a tallish person in culturally appropriate ethnic habiliment emerges wearing a sense of self-importance on his face shining with pearls of sweat. He carries a stack of papers in his hand and heads directly for the mike as if programmed and taps on its head and says hello, hello to nobody in particular. He bends a bit forward to the level of the mouthpiece, clears his throat and gears himself to invite the ten fillers, one by one, to come on to the dais and take their seats.
‘I invite Varalakshama Garu to come on to the dais and grace her seat,’ the man who wields the mike for the while, says. Varalakshamma Garu, past seventy-five, liberates herself from the bug-ridden chair in the auditorium and shambles to the stage escorted by a girl. The man at the mike says, Kumari Vimala will now garland Varalakshamma Garu. Vimala comes running up to where the invitee is sitting and finds she forgot to get the garland. It is now opportunity for another Kumari to sparkle on the stage for a second. By the time the last woman pours herself into the tenth chair on the stage, an hour of spontaneous, though vacuous, pantomime will have taken place.
Since I am familiar with the prodigious rigmarole that would follow on such occasions, I leave the place where I was outwitted by familiar faces, I have plans to return after the sun gets tired and sinks into the west. Ultimately, I return as the sun sinks into the west as a matter of habit. Thank God, the function is over. With the help of an attractive woman volunteer, since I never accept help from plain-looking behenjis, I find Margaret in a green room-like enclosure, bundled in a chair, all drained out and too weak to eject a word. I go out of the auditorium and get her a warm cool drink.
Trying to tell me how tired she is, Margaret merely spreads on her lips a short-lived smile replete with apology. She is wrapped in a crisp white cotton saree, with a thin black border. She looks thinner than when I had seen her a year before. She waits till life flows back into her spare frame and gives me a copy of her just-released anthology. As she swallows the tepid drink drop by drop I run through the pages and stop at a story titled The Ant. What could anybody write about an ant? Pinheads. If they are worker ants they are all female. No love story is possible without a male ant. I chuckle at the sense of my humor.
Seeing the smirk on my face, Margaret asks me, what makes you laugh?
Before I ask her such foolish questions as what prompted you to write, I try to get her into a lighter mood.
‘So, it is about women and womanly problems. No men, like in the world of ants? By the bye, how is Peter and how is your tormentor Razia?’
“That’s a long story. I told her you are going to interview her. She is the heroine of The Ant story.’
‘Oh, it’s great fun, thank you,’ I tell her..
Common to Margaret and me is Vijayawada where we had slaved for the same boss for several years. After night shift, we would stop at the Ravindra Cool Drinks watering hole on Besant Road, overrun historically by relentless 24-hour traffic, half of it consisting of sleepwalkers. Sometimes, we stopped at Mata Café on Eluru Road to be the first customers. Passengers, waiters call them
We get into her chauffer-driven car and sit in the back seat leaving enough space between us as ancient protocol demanded. The crush is so suffocating on the road that the car is proceeding as if it is part of a funeral convoy of a politician.
Time has erased the city’s every landmark that guided out-of-towners. One of the biggest railway stations in the country divides the town into east and west like Berlin soon after the war. The west town is the business district and habitat of wholesale traders and their families. In the east town live lawyers, doctors, engineers, writers, artists and politicians. Here the River Krishna flows through an expansive gorge and branches off into three irrigation canals on .that cleave through the town. On their way, a short distance from the fire station the road network of the east town begins. At the point where there was a Burmah Shell petrol bunk long ago, several roads peel off, their progress arrested by several cross roads that end where the tamarind avenue on the Grand Trunk Road begins.
Now the town looks as if Siva has done his dance of destruction, tattering the original middle class blueprint. For sometime I struggle to know where we are though we were passing through Eluru Road, now known as Mahatma Gandhi Road. This part of the young city never sleeps. Like ants. With great difficulty I find Dasu Vaari Veedhi, (the Street of the Dasus) named after our family on the left side of the inter-state artery. I tell Margaret that there is a street named after my father also. For that we have to take a U-turn and drive a couple of miles.
The driver suddenly acquires animation and asks me excitedly,
‘Sir, do you belong to Vijayawada?’
‘Yes, I was born here, went to college and work here.’
‘Sir, I am so happy to know both of us belong to the same place. What a place, sir!’’ He went into a trance with trust in God.
We pass the Muslim burial ground that marked the end of the town when we were children. It now hides behind a row of giant billboards. From there the road, once flanked by tamarind trees making walking a pleasure, looks bare and brown, brick and mortar. Some trees are still there blighted and looking bored. My college and the Anjaneyaswami temple are on the same road. Last time I came here to see Margaret I met the principal and told him he was not born when I was a student in that college. Now there is a front garden and a lot of vegetation that took away the sting off the temperature. From the college corridor I could see the giant Cross the missionaries had planted on top of the granite hills of the eastern range and the spire of the Virgin Mary temple that wasn’t there when I was a student,
The place continues to be known as Machavaram. Margaret lives in a large house off the main road that is the Grand Trunk Road, the same I referred to as Mahatma Gandhi Road and Eluru Road.
The car stops before a three-storied apartment complex. The woman in the GSP cries in a girly voice, ‘you have arrived.’ The images of the city follow me like a foreboding as we go up in a cage to the third floor. Hearing the footsteps on the corridor, Margaret’s husband Peter reaches the front door, smiles and says, ‘welcome.’ Her husband too was our colleague once.
As we walk in and settle ourselves in a sofa a young girl enters the hall and smiles at me showing her jasmine-white teeth. She is tall and wheatish in complexion.
‘Razia Sultana alias Varaalu, heroine of the story you had read at the book release,’ Margaret introduces the girl to me. Razia finds it hard to stop smiling.
‘Your Amma Garu told me everything about you,’ I tell her.
‘Amma Garu is an angel,’ she says and pads into the kitchen, perhaps to make tea for us.
‘Peter, do you remember any of your colleagues at the office’ I ask him.
‘Not really. I hear a lot about you after she had found you on the net’.
‘How are your children in the US,’ I ask him.
‘They are all ok and keep visiting us by turns. My youngest son will be here in a week’ he says..
Tea comes in the company of some biscuits.
‘How do you spend time, Peter,’ I ask him blowing on my tea.
‘There are books. Some of them written by her. There is the TV with hundred channels. Most of the time I talk to her about her stories.’ he says looking at her fondly. I listen to a lot of music, he tells me.
Tea over, Razia Sultana comes and collects the crockery. I tell her we will begin the interview any time now.
‘How do you prefer to be addressed, Razia or Varaalu?’
‘Varaalu only. Amma has patented the Razia moniker which she alone can use.”
‘You have kids?’
‘Yes. Two, a girl and a boy.’
‘What does your husband do?’
‘Don’t ask me,’ she says with some heat. ‘He is a gigolo.’
‘How do you manage then?’
‘I must live for the sake of my kids. Yet, I die a bit every day.’
‘Have you thought of divorce?’
‘Sir, you don’t know our society. There are too many wolves prowling around to feast on single women.‘
‘You know so much about the ways of the world. Yet you have small quarrels and arguments with your angel?
She blushes and bends her head to express her sense of shame.
‘They’re the spice of life, sir, investing it with color and taste.’
‘Still, Amma is an angel. I was talking about the system in a general way. These are not problems of Razia or my angel alone. I am only surprised why educated women don’t join the poorer people in finding a common solution to common problems. I am sorry, sir. I have said big words.’
‘Nothing wrong. But do you read your amma’s stories?’
Why do you ask me, sir?’
“Because you sound very much like your amma.’.
‘She honors me by reading them out to me before they are submitted for publication.”
‘What strikes you most in her writing?’
‘The vivacity of her prose pregnant with sensitivity.’ Her characters are themselves, not her voice. They speak and behave in different ways to manifest the uniqueness of their culture. This refusal to mess around with the natural traits of her characters is what I admire in Amma’s works.. In The Ant story two victims of the same system are trying to destroy the commonality of victimhood.’
It made Margaret drop her jaw, Mine too. I remembered Gray’s lines:
Full many a gem of purest ray serene
The Dark unfathomed caves of the ocean bear
I look at my watch and find it is time to leave,
‘Thank you, Razia. Happy meeting you.’
‘Thank you, sir. It is my pleasure,’ she says.
‘Okay guys, see you again. Let me tell you your Razia is amazing,’
Here describe the city scene and looking at thcalls and ambles to one of the glass shelves blocking a view of her private living space. She takes out one of her short story collections, looks at the contents page and flips through to The Ant, the story about a truant servant maid and her leftist oration.
She brings the book close to her eyes and, addressing the antagonist in the story, says,
‘Varaalu, there’s someone here who wants to talk to you.’
Like a djin out of the bottle, Varaalu comes out of the book smelling of dead silverfish.
‘Amma. I’m in the middle of dirty laundry and dishes. Ask him to call later.‘
‘But Varaalu, I promised him I’ll get you to talk to him,’ Margaret says pleadingly.
‘Did you check with me before you made a promise?’
‘No, Varaalu. I’m sorry.’
‘Anyway, who’s this guy, keen on talking to a maid?’
‘He’s a journalist, a former colleague.’
‘Tell him, I’m not news,’ says Varaalu and picks up a broom to sweep the floors.
Afraid of losing face with me, Margaret placates Varaalu,
‘You’re a darling. I know you want to talk to him. You know, he is the same guy who said hello to you when he called me from America.’
‘You mean this babu is from America?’
‘Do you doubt it?’
‘From where I’m, he doesn’t look like one.’
Saathyavathi and I laugh at her candour.
‘Leave the sweeping and laundry to me and come, meet my friend,’ says Margaret.
This offer of a reprieve works with Varaalu. She abandons the broom and joins us. Benignly looking at me she says. ‘Gudu mourning, Sir.”
‘Good morning, Varaalu,’ I return her greeting.
‘Don’t call me by my name. You’re not my husband, are you?’
‘I wish I’m,’ I tell her.
‘Stop these silly jokes, sir. Get down to business,’ she says firmly.
‘Do you like this amma garu?’
‘Why shouldn’t I?’
‘Do you like your work?’ I ask her.
‘Ask your daughter if she likes to be a servant maid,’ she puts the ball in my court.
‘I’m not married,’ I tell her.
‘What has marriage to do with a daughter?’
‘I really have no idea, You need a man and woman to beget a child.’
‘You ought to know better. Your country is full of unwed mothers.’ This piece of information from an unexpected quarter makes me feel annihilated.
This piece of knowledge from a servant maid shocks me and Margaret.
‘Varaalu, my country is the same as yours. I am in Amrika to make a living.’
‘I am sorry, sir,’ says Varaalu.
‘Do you know your amma garu wrote a story complaining about your truancy?’
‘I know. She read it out to me. Amma has a heart of gold, sir. It is my good luck that I was the protagonist in her story. She scolded me for staying away from work for three days. But when she saw the cloud on my face, she called me after work and gave me a new Gadwal sari. She is angel. She doesn’t write about such things.”
‘You know how much she had suffered those three days?’
I know sir. As women, Amma Garu and I have the same problems of overwork and selfish husbands who demand their pound of flesh.