Veeravadhani alighted from the bus at the crossroads and walked forward carrying his suitcase. Agraharam Street was wearing a downcast look. How come the street has become so narrow? The place appeared to be still drowsy though it was almost mid-morning.
Dressed in shorts and shirt, with a two-anna coin in his hand, if he started running to the junction, it used to make him breathless. For a coin in Venkatesam’s coffee club he used to get a plate of poories with steaming hot potato-onion curry. But he liked them to be packed and used to take the pack home to eat there.
Mother used to be cross: “This rascal wants to eat hotel stuff…There’s no accounting for these ‘modern’ tastes even in little children.”
“In a year or two he’d realize his folly: just leave him alone and let him have his own way!” my mother’s elder sister used to mollify her.
He looked that way but in the place of the club there was a bangle shop. The huge banyan tree behind stood there green and upright, has been as fresh and shade giving as ever. He stopped looking at it for a while.
Unlike every other place the little town had not grown. People everywhere loved speed; appeared to be restless as in the big cities. But this street appeared to be out of step.
On the first house in the street the tiled roof was overgrown with little plants. The road went higher and the houses seemed to have gone down. The house which saw him grow looked dilapidated. He went to the threshold with his head bent low.
The door was ajar and inside smoke was eddying.
“Pedananna!” he called.
“Who’s that?” the old lady asked from behind the door since she was dressed for the kitchen chores in an old sari.
“Peddamma, I’m Veeravadhani!”
“Please come in, my dear! Emandi, our Avadhani has come!” There was genuine joy in her voice as she called her husband who was in the backyard.
Avadhani couldn’t help recalling her coming to his support when his mother looked like bashing him for his pranks. “Come in, esteemed one! Our bujji has come.” she called again adding to her nephew: “He’s always in the backyard looking after the trees and the plants. They are the ones nearest to his heart!”
Deekshitulu came in wiping his hand on the gamcha he was draped in.
“Is it you, bujji! How long was it when we have seen you last! How is everyone there in Delhi?”
“All well, pedananna.”
The old lady went into the kitchen to make some coffee and Avadhani went into the backyard apparently to wash his feet as per the custom. The smoke was bothering. There used to be a high compound wall. What could have happened to it? He was lost in thought looking at a concrete building just behind where the wall used to be.
“Are the children fine? How’s my daughter-in-law?” Asked his aunt as soon as he went in again handing him a cup of coffee.
“For quite some time I’ve been trying to come. The children have school and when they have holidays my office work makes it impossible to get leave.”
“What are children studying?”
“The eldest one finished his course in Engineering. My daughter is in her B.A. Class. How about my brothers here?”
“Each according to what is written on the forehead. It’s my misfortune: my son, a much-awaited blessing for us, hasn’t come up well. There’s no point in grieving for our own fate. Anyway after seeing you my worry is gone. You keep the prestige of the family: you shall be the saviour of our tradition. I couldn’t do much for the family. I had to sell a big part of the extensive backyard. They felled down those trees and built a building there. While they were doing that it felt that they have been mercilessly maiming me…Your sister is in her in-laws’. You came to her wedding. I know only one thing: sharing my joy with our people. You have your own responsibility and commitments. I couldn’t quite bring myself to ask for any help from you. Even without telling your mother as a matter of formality, I had to sell the backyard for my own expenses.” Deekshitulu heaved a sigh.
-“Hot water is ready, you can have your bath!” Annapurnamma said.
“I’d go to the well.”
-After his bath Avadhani took the ‘clean’ dhoti handed him by his aunt and sat down to his daily Gayatri. After that, drawing the wooden seat nearer to the wall and leaning his back against the wall asked “Peddamma! Where is brother?”
“Right in this town. He lives in a rented house. The father and son don’t see eye to eye: it is my fate. He never comes here and even kodalu doesn’t know his comings and goings. When I was with child I thought I was blessed but as he grew up he went on breaking my heart little by little. It is some curse or else the young woman could not have been barren. It must be some sin of mine in the earlier births. I am never worried about poverty: it’s not much to suffer – but this …” She wiped her eyes on the sari end.
“Please, peddamma, don’t lose heart. God’s kindness may be a bit late as they say. It’s the planets: the greatest have not been spared tribulations and we are just ordinary. I’d go and see him. When we were young Pedananna was a lion: we avoided him though he was always kind. But days have changed. That dignity, that composure, that majesty! Where have all gone now! Mysterious are His ways! But for you and him where would we have been! Not a day passes for us without thinking gratefully of you both. I’m sure God would come to our help. Mother says it’s all your goodness and blessings. Mother has not been keeping well nowadays: pain in the joints and the doctors say there’s not much they could do.”
“She is a full ten years younger than me but God has not been kind to her. That state at that age!” Annapurnamma wiped her eyes again.
“Peddamma, where is pedananna?”
“He tells me he’s going to the fields. It is all reduced to a little square now: it is no longer the wide mat. We are just getting on somehow. You love brinjal seasoned with menthi: that’s today’s curry.”
Avadhani sat watching his aunt going about briskly with her cooking.
-When it was about midday Deekshitulu returned.
“It’s ages since there is any joy in your aunt’s face. I am glad it looks like old times have come again.” They sat down to eat and the old man recounted how he and his brother always ate together to the heart’s content while his wife served them with all her attention. After the meal they sat down to a chat on the verandawhile the old lady was at her meal.
“You are my younger brother’s son and the little kid who came into our family bringing joy and a sense of fulfillment. It is imperative that I discharge my duty to my younger brother, who died leaving you to our care. Though young, you have a large heart. You are young and I should not praise you but ours has been a joint family for many generations. I have not been giving you anything for many, many years. But you must get your share of property whether you ask it or not, whether you need it or not.”
“Pedananna!” A lump rose in Avadhani’s throat.
“I can’t forget how affectionate you have been to me all along.. Those great trees, which saw that are no longer there but I’m here. Those trees used to sway their heads in joy while seeing how you used to feed me as a child from the silver plate. Whenever I see a thick green mango tree, I recollect only my peddamma. When tears eddied in my eyes seeing the trees gone, perhaps you thought I was sorry for that property. Perhaps you thought I came to ask for my share….Peddamma, you tell me! How far is money valuable for man? How far can it take us along? If we were to think of just amassing money whom can we excel or exceed? There can be no end for that. What could be its use? There are more important things than money: for example, human feelings, love, affection, concern.”
-Annapurnamma came out to wipe his tears and run her hand on his head in a gesture of affection as to a child.
“It’s not my intention, dear bujji! I can’t come down to the state where I do injustice to you or be told by you as to what should be done. I’m grieving that the one who ought to have carried the torch let me down. I’m not worried that he is not earning money: not worried that he us unlettered. After all, what did I do for the family, if I look back? Riches and poverty apart, could I hold up the name of the family! My son fought with me for his share and just sold it. He couldn’t show me his face and left home. What else did he have to do?”
“Pedananna: don’t grieve like that and suffer for no fault of yours. I know how it all happened…I...”
“That fellow is stupid. I couldn’t win him or his conscience. I want to give you what I can at least now and to that effect I have a paper drafted.”
“What did you do, pedananna! I wanted to see the hands that fed me with ‘nail morsels’, to see you, to get your blessings. I couldn’t do anything for you. Please don’t bring up the topic of property. Please don’t misunderstand me.”
“My dear little fellow! Don’t think I don’t know times have changed. Money breaks even the relationship between a mother and a son. I had to sell the backyard. All those trees, which gave us shade and felt happy seeing us play underneath those have been felled down. I cut down the very branch, which protected me. This little bit of a house would do for the two of us. Where can we go now? I ask you …”
“Pedananna, you are hurt and you don’t want to understand me.”
“Why do you hurt him like that? He tells you that he didn’t come for his property.”
“If he doesn’t ask for it, does it mean that I should not give him his right? He is not like our son in meanness but I have to show him my love.”
Avadhani went into the backyard leaving the argument between the old couple.
When he returned after a while the argument was still going on….”We are able to get along. I realized that instead of rearing a fellow like my son, it would be infinitely better to raise a tree. I feel I’m doing service by selling plants to people. Do you know that my name is no longer Deekshitulu: they call me ‘mokkala pantulu” the brahmin who sells plants.
Veeravadhani could not restrain his tears.
“You go down and have your nap!” Annapurnamma sent away her husband.
“Peddamma! A lot of change has come over in pedananna. It is surprising that he should sit so long and talk to me. I was always afraid of being anywhere near him. He feels sad that he hasn’t given me anything. Who educated me if he hasn’t? Is it not giving me money? Do you think I have forgotten those days when he was sending me a comfortable sum for my expense at college? He gave me his blessing and sent all the money I needed for I was the first to have set foot in a college. If I forget your kindness I wouldn’t have salvation. Mother asked me to tell you just one thing: it is not desirable that you be here all by yourselves. Please come along with me and we’d all be together happily as before.”
“My dear bujji, I’m glad you asked us. Who is there to show this kind of affection? You don’t know your pedananna well! You tell him yourself. If he says yes, I’d be the happiest person to be with you, my sister and the grand children.”
Avadhani couldn’t understand why she said so.
In the evening Deekhitulu took him to the fields. There is no cultivation. A number of trees were grown there and there was a little nursery for plants. Avadhani could understand his aunt’s agony.
“In the outskirts of the capital, a small garden is raised for twenty-five thousand an acre. After six years the tope becomes ours. We can sell it for the double the price. This appears to be a good idea. I wish you’d …”
“It’s easy to cut a tree and not that easy to raise one. I sold away myself three acres of mango tope. They didn’t keep it either. They burnt it and sold the charcoal. We are like this now simply because we destroyed our trees. People think I’m a fool for saying this.”
They returned home. Avadhani was lost in thought. He couldn’t muster enough courage to explain his ideas to his uncle.
The next morning he went to see his boyhood friend Krishnannaidu. They spent a lot of time talking about old times. Before taking leave of him Avadhani explained to him what his uncle had in mind about giving a share of the property to him. There was no point in taking it for none of his children would ever return there, property or no property. He requested him to prepare a document transferring his share to his uncle.
The document was drafted then and there.
“How are the land prices here? Pedananna told me he had sold the western piece of land.”
“What’s the use in possessing land? Our people are in no position to cultivate. Old times are gone. Those like you cannot stay here to get it cultivated. It needs a lot of investment and the return is doubtful. That’s the truth.” Naidu heaved out a sigh.
From there Avadhani went straight to his cousin Subbavadhani’s house.
“He’s asleep,” told the wife.
“I am Veeravadhani. I am coming from Delhi.”
-She went in and her husband came out.
“Fine, by God’s grace. Nanna would have told you many things. But he doesn’t know how times have changed. For the last several years he has been growing plants and doing nothing else. There is no cultivation and you have seen how we are! It’s fine growing trees: but how do we get our daily meal? I couldn’t go up the ladder of studies. I don’t regret it. I am able to make a living, driving a truck for a salary. I have a little share in the business too. I am giving a little money to mother whenever I could. Father hates me and, believe me, I haven’t done anything wrong. I stopped going to see him for there is no point in making him unnecessarily upset. Mother comes here now and then, Mother is feeling miserable that we don’t have children. But how can anyone help? But anyway we have no right to bring children into this world if we cannot fend for them adequately. I am not sad on that count. Did Mother tell you anything?”
“Nothing.” Avadhani didn’t know what to say.
“Mother knows all. But father is stubborn. If you were to believe him, you’d think that I let him down, committed a treachery and so on. It’s past all hope for going into agriculture. All property has gone up into thin air like camphor. There’s none to buy the plants he is rearing and they don’t give enough for us to get on and survive. What’s the use of those big trees? He is almost mad.”
“Let him be. He’s your father and a father figure for me. There may be something in what he says. He believes that it’d do us good. All right. In a few years I’d retire. Though I can’t say what my children do, I wish to be back in this place to lead a peaceful life. I want to buy some land and get the house renovated. I can never do enough to repay the debt I owe pedananna. He is a good man.”
“I’m glad to hear it. But, would you be able to cultivate the land?”
“But don’t be carried away by father’s words. He is, I hear, toying with the idea of becoming a hand in a nursery for ten rupees day.”
Veeravadhani broke into cold sweat.
The moment he returned home he asked for his uncle and went into the backyard. The old man was working at the soil under a plant.
“Pedananna! Whose lands are those that lie adjacent to our tope you have grown?”
“That Sivaramakrishnayya’s brother Krishnannaidu. Why do you ask?”
“What if we buy them!”
“It’d be excellent!” The old man sounded overjoyed.
In the next half an hour Avadhani was with his friend.
“Did you have any second thoughts about the transfer of property?” the friend asked.
“No! Is that land adjacent ours yours?
“It’s just banjar. Yes, it’s mine. I want to sell it before they decide it is above the statutory ceiling.”
“I want to buy it.”
“But it is useless.”
“How much do you expect for it?”
“Seven thousand an acre may be much. But, for you, I can give for six. But think again: you are throwing away your money and I must warn you.
“I’ll have it registered in my uncle’s name in a sale deed. Get the papers ready.”
Krishnananaidu kept staring in the direction long after Avadhani walked away briskly.
Four days later, while leaving Avadhani told his uncle: “Pedananna, here are papers: I bought the land. Get it levelled and plant a casuarina grove. It’s in your name. Here’s the money for expenses. Peddamma, bless me!”
“All right I’d make a beginning to raise a grove starting it with a ritual of ankurarpana. May God bless you! Ayushmanbhava!”
Avadhani’s eyes filled with tears.
(This story written first in Telugu was translated into English ‘For Old Sakes’, published in 2009)