Halfway in the journey, Sridevi began grumbling again: “I hate the stupidity of these long meaningless journeys. If so hard even now how would it be after Visakhapatnam? These wretched trains are never on time. A journey is the very hell.”
She started her murmur right from the moment Ramanayya set out to fetch an auto to take them to the railway station. Ramanayya has been used to it: learnt and disciplined himself to keep mum and have his own way. He appeared to be always lost in thought, which gave him some kind of respite.
“Are we approaching Visakhapatnam?” she asked nudging him.
“Shall we have to take a bus from there?
“We have to go to Vizianagaram first and from there a mofussil bus. A bus is a must!” Ramanayya replied coolly.
“You say your grand old man wrote to you- quite unusual you added. The elder one would look after her sister and brother. Buy a ticket for me too,” Sridevi said thinking that it would be the correct thing to do.
Ramanayya looked at her with surprise in his eyes. He said: “It wouldn’t be a very nice journey. Later, if you go on murmuring and muttering things to yourself it wouldn’t be nice: my uncle would take it very badly. He is the oldest in the family and he is not used to your ‘modern’ ways.”
“If it comes to that, I’d stay back with my sister in Visakha and you can go alone after dropping me there. My sister made solicitous requests umpteen times but we never could go to see her family. But apply for additional three days' leave for we have to be with my sister for that long. Otherwise it wouldn’t be decent.” Sridevi said curtly. Even at that moment Ramanayya felt that she wouldn’t come to his ancestral place but did not get angry.
“It is quite natural that you should wish to visit your sister as I do to see my grandfather.”
As the train was pulling to a stop at the big junction Sridevi asked softly: “Can I suggest …”
“Yes!” he replied absent-mindedly.
“It’s getting on to ten and in the dark night we may not even get a bus. Let’s go to my sister’s place. Their house is very near, I was told. “
They took an auto rickshaw and in a few minutes reached the house.
When the sister-in-law welcomed them enthusiastically, Ramanayya was a little surprised: he didn’t know that his wife informed her sister of her arrival as soon as the tickets were booked.
“How long was it that we had seen you! Welcome respected brother-in-law, your brother left for our village only yesterday to attend to some operations on the fields. He’d be back very soon, in a day or two at the most!”
“So he has been attending to his land even while gong to his office. You are fortunate. It’s ages since I saw our lands.”
“I don’t know how fortunate we really are. We are not able to get back even our investment on the land. He doesn’t pay attention to my caution: most of the salary goes for investments and never once did we get it back in the produce. Each has his pet folly! Akka, how is it that you left behind the children? Our children are fast asleep…. Bavagaru, hot water is ready…”
“Your house is fine, very decent, such a short distance from the railway station too!”
“Akka, you look very thin, are you all right?’
“He leaves for his office at nine after taking his brunch here and a pack of food for lunch. Children leave a little early. From five in the morning I have to attend to all the chores. At eleven I go to my school. I work in a convent and they gave me times convenient for me. Before the children return from school, I’m back home. Of course it’s not much of a salary but three hundred would take care of the milk bill. Your brother-in-law doesn’t know anything about land or agriculture…”
Listening to her elder sister’s words, Ramadevi prepared steaming upma and offered a plateful to Ramanayya.
The next morning Ramanayya got ready to take a bus but he was prevailed upon to take his brunch first. He didn’t ask his wife to accompany him.
“I packed a small suitcase for you!” she said happily.
To reach Palem one has to take another bus from Vizianagaram. It was a mile on foot and usually there is no other mode of conveyance for a visitor. Ramanayya got off the bus at the road head, looked around and began to walk with the suitcase in his hand.
Before he walked a hundred yards someone coming from the opposite direction stopped and asked: “Is it not brother Ranganatham’s son! How long was it since you visited your place? Is everyone fine? Coming from straight from Hyderabad?” The man offered to take the suitcase and Ramanayya said with a broad smile that he enjoyed walking like that on that path which he explained reminded of the days of walking to his school.
They came across a tea kiosk and the man said: “You have to walk long. Let’s have a cup of tea here!”
Ramanayya did not have the heart to decline the offer. They sat down on a bench while the man was making tea.
“Did Narayudubabu drop you a letter? For some time he has not been keeping well?” The stranger asked Ramanayya while Ramanayya began sipping his tea with the hanky round the scorching German silver tumbler.
“Aren’t you Veeresam! Now I remember. There’s no letter from him. Whatever happened to grandfather?”
Veeresam has been one of their tenants ever since he was at the village school. It would sound odd to address or refer to him with any honorific, Ramanayya thought.
“I am, young master! Is everyone fine over there in the city?”
As he put down the tumbler, Veeresam took the suitcase and the two walked towards the village.
“What went wrong with grandfather?”
“Nothing much, babu, life itself goes wrong sometimes. A learned man: saw cities and could have settled in a big job. But he loved the land and remained here. After his old woman died he had never been the same man again. None of his own children came up high and …”
Ramanayya took the way of the tank embankment, which was his wont as a boy.
“It’s gone dry!” he said in surprise.
“Not just the tank, babu, our very lives have gone dry.”
Ramanayya did not know what to say. He pulled himself together after a while and asked; “your son was studying in the high school when I saw him last. Where is he now?”
He studied nine classes and left school for good, learnt motor driving and got work as a truck driver. Comes once a year to see us. He has a son and two daughters. Babu, your children… Are they studying?”
“I have three. The eldest is a girl. She is studying B.A. … The second is a son studying the tenth class. The youngest is a daughter now in her seventh standard. … Veeresam, when father was alive he was toying with the idea of laying a road adjacent to the embankment and bringing the bus service here. What happened later?”
“Everyone has plans and none comes forward with money… Don’t think otherwise but the village is like that. If your grandfather’s younger brother Narayadu can’t do that none else can and, then, he seems to have lost interest in everything. He has his own reasons too.”
Ramanayya felt odd. His father was a magistrate and he went round places on transfers. As for himself he had always been with his grand father studying in a school about a kos from the village. While working at Cudappah, his father died suddenly. His college education was at Visakhapatnam. Later on he had to move to Hyderabad where he got a government job. He lost touch with the village though he used to come once in three or four years for a day or two. The properties of the joint family have always been under the supervision of his grandfather’s brother. None ever knew about the income or expenditure and no one ever wanted to find out. The old man managed everything and everyone around in his family and the village looked upon him as a parent and loved him. Narayadu had everyone’s interests close to his heart and used to send money without ever being asked.
“How did the palm tree line come here? I don’t remember any here when I was a school boy!”
“When was it that you came here last?” Veeresam shot back.
Ramanayya was taken aback and replied after a while, “About ten years perhaps.”
“Narayadu babu got this planted some years ago.”
It was surprising that his grandfather was waiting in the front yard of the large old-fashioned house. “Was the journey comfortable?” he asked affectionately coming forward to see the grandson closely.
While he said this he took the lota of water brought him by a servant for washing the feet. The grandfather asked Ramanayya to follow him into the wide inner room. The old man sat in his canvas easy chair and looking at his motor cycle began after the grandson settled in a chair.
“There is purpose in sending you the letter. Your father was fifteen years junior to me. I caressed him while he was an infant and as he grew up I was looking after him. He studied well and went into service. I was not lucky to be at his bedside when he breathed his last. Then, as for my sons, none turned out to be responsible enough. I am not worried about their accomplishments but they disappointed me in their attitudes too. Both the fellows hit the bottle and died drinking.. I performed the marriages of their daughters and saw to it that they lived in reasonable comfort. They don’t need to come here. Have your milk and then we’ll talk.”
“It is quite some years you have been here. Come along. This is our new warehouse. It can accommodate a thousand bags of paddy. Of course I stopped growing so much. This is for our horse carriage. I still use my favourite motor bike. It has been my unfailing friend all these years.” Ramanayya remembered the bike, which was always kept spick and span.
“Grandfather, when you were in Madras …”
“I studied Engineering there. But my eldest brother asked me to return after taking the degree. I knew only one thing then: to obey my elder brother. Looking after the lands is not an easy thing. I believed as my brother did that there’d be no point in becoming an employee when we could give employment to a hundred …”
“Chinnayya, Chinnayya!” an old came running gasping for breath.
“What is it, Kanakayya, what happened?”
“The boy fell off a tree… Looks like broke his leg. His mother…”
“I am coming…”
Ramanayya followed the old men. There were two rows of huts and they were walking between them.
The boy’s mother was wailing. Narayadu bent down to take a look the boy’s leg. The boy was looking bewildered at his mother who was wailing loudly and found that he had broken his bone. “Don’t move the leg: I’d get the bike .”
While he turned back an old woman rushed into the hut saying in a hoarse voice: “The midwife said it was impossible and the woman’s life is in danger.”
“Ramana, be here with the boy. He is in shock and perhaps he doesn’t feel the pain. Don’t allow him to be touched or moved.” He said and walked towards his house.
In less than an hour he brought in a doctor on the pillion. After half an hour an infant’s cry was heard from the hut and in another hour the boy’s leg was put in a cast.
“Tatagaru, you are more skillful than a trained nurse. Your help is invaluable. For some years I’ve been toying with the idea of asking you …”
“A doctor is God in our faith. Doctorgaru! I’ve been living with these people for decades and they love me. I think it’s my duty be helpful. I always love to work with my hands”
While the doctor was washing his hands a villager brought a lota of milk and another a bunch of bananas.
“Tatagaru, now let me take leave of you. There are many waiting for my service,” said the doctor. But the old man took out from a little pouch two hundred rupee notes and said, “Please accept a little refreshment and this money.”
There was something in the voice, which impressed the young doctor.
“Now let me drop you at your place,” said the old man and they left.
-After the night meal, grandfather and the grandson sat in the front yard in bright moonlight.
“Tatayya, but for your help …”
“Without the village, I don’t exist. In fact you too wouldn’t be here. It’s the villagers who toil and produce the grain. If I go, there would be none to fend for them. I thought I owe this to my land, my brethren and this soil… Tomorrow before it gets too hot to stir out, I’d take you round our lands. When I am gone, there’d be none to do that for none knows the lands fully.”
“Don’t say inauspicious things, Tatayya.”
“I am not what I’ve been. I do not have much time. It’s quite some years that I haven’t used my bike. Today I took it out not without a little trepidation. … Everyone around loves us and holds us in great esteem. We’ve to live up to their expectations… Then there are these lands. None around can buy them and we can never sell them. None would ever come here to keep them under cultivation. People who left the village never returned. There is no work here. I sent many to study in the city and none ever came back to live here. The city holds great fascination for the educated and great promise for the unlettered. If I leave here, the village would fall into ruin. I cannot let down these folks. I can’t give away the land nor can I live without tilling it. This is my problem.”
“Tatayya, my job feeds me and my family only. Our lands can feed all in the village. Believe me …”
“I’ve always believed everyone around. You have to carry on the torch of the family, of our ancestors. It is not just a matter of expense or income. Money cannot solve all problems. Even if we have money, if there is no grain, how can we ever buy a single grain of paddy? If villages were to be deserted, the very backbone of the nation
would be broken.”
“More than my children, it is the village that needs me. God willing I’d send my daughter to study medicine.”
“Come, let’s go to bed now. There are so many things that I should pass on to you in the next few days.”
-A week went by and Ramanayya knew the details of the properties and got acquainted with many villagers. He had a look at their topes, orchards and fields.
“Here’s my diary… a thing which you should go through with sufficient care… Here is my testament, duly registered. Next time bring Sridevi also. It’s not her fault: she isn’t trained in the proper way. This is a disaster which has overtaken the younger generation.”
Tatayya went up to the bus point to bid his grandson good bye.
“So at last you remembered me after all these days,” Sridevi started her taunting.
“We’ve to start tomorrow. I used up all my leave.”
“Nothing doing. You have to spend three days here in the company of my sister and bavagaru.”
“Remember our children,” was all that he said and they left the next day promising to bring the children when they came next.
Ramanayya thought hard as to how he should start telling his wife.
One night in the privacy of the bedroom he began “Fifty acres of land … twenty acres of mango topes, ten acres of coconut topes, tatayya is going to …”
“How about his own children?”
“It’s his business. The village would go to the dogs if no one stays there. They’d give me pension happily if I seek voluntary retirement. We can live there like royalty.”
“What! In that out of the way village! You can’t convince me. Children would be deprived of opportunities and education too. To buy even a pin you have to take a bus. The town is an hour away. So he has brainwashed you. We don’t want anything he promises.” She snapped.
Ramanayya kept mum.
The next morning he called his daughter aside and explained to her the grandfather’s anxiety.
“If we come into money, the top priority is a car!”
-The younger fellow was listening and came out gleefully declaring “A scooter would do for me!”
“ I”ll give you everything you can ask for, but send your mother with me.”
“Mother stays with us. You sell all that …” the little daughter said suddenly.
Ramanayya got up and slapped the girl. Neither the daughter, nor her mother could understand why he was so upset.
Ramanayya who left Hyderabad never looked back.
His tatayya called him: no it was the call of his village.
(First published in Swati weekly, 30th Aug.1985)