Forty one year old dark Neeli sat in a corner in the suburban train, squeezing in for some room.
Her own grief was surging uncontrollably like a sea. She was trying to control herself; raging turmoil within her no one knew. But she knew a storm was rocking her for the past three days.
“What is the time?” Someone was enquiring.
Neither the one asking nor the one responding was visible. Dense fog spread across Warangal railway station. Person standing closely too was not clearly visible. She had not witnessed such dense fog there from her childhood. She could not relate it to her own feelings.
“Five minutes past five o’clock,” said one gentle man.
“I am leaving. You just take care of yourself and children. I will visit my father in the hospital and get back tomorrow. This fog was never so thick. Just unable to see anything. Even your face, though so close by,” the lady was telling him.
“Perhaps they are Muslims.” Neeli concluded from the accent of the lady.
He might be her husband.
The coach was packed with common people.
Neeli opened her fist to check. Railway ticket was intact. Sixty rupees for the journey of both of them. She peered into the seat ahead. Ram Singh. He slipped into deep sleep, pushing himself nearer to the window. He never slept properly. Lifelong work, work. His life was devoured by incessant work.
Who was Ram Singh? Who was Neeli? What brought them together?
What sort of journey it was…
People were rushing into the coach. All the seats were occupied long back. Just thirty rupees a person to reach Hyderabad.So inexpensive. That’s the reason for the growing demand. Further, the train reached the city by eight thirty in the morning. Quite cool and convenient time. No loss of time .One can attend work without any hassle. The train was so convenient for all people.
That might have been the main reason.
“Just move a little akka…let us adjust,” someone was requesting those who occupied seats already. She moved a little. A young girl sat there. Four persons managed to squeeze into space meant for two.
Lifelong compromise. Right from the moment born in a remote village of Ramakka Palli, beyond Eturu Nagaram,losing her parents early in life…compromise...for food…clothes to cover herself…for work…for a word of consolation…for a touch that comforts…for a person who shares feelings…for a palmful of tears…compromise all along.
Just to adjust in life had to leave the place of birth…the forest so dear to her…to BhupalaPalli…migration…search for work of a labourer.
None offered it…where to sleep…where to eat…where to find a shelter?
In this country where can a woman live alone?
Had to adjust. Resting in the bus stations, finding a little space in the shelters near the coal mines….like a sick dog folding herself on some platform near big shops…
Just scampering on hearing the police man shout at her…eating the leftovers in a hotel or a bar by some customers…finally satisfied with the work offered by some labour contractor in KTPS who cast an amorous eye on her swelling bosom…carrying loads of coal on her head daylong and moistening blisters on hands with tears…compromise every moment.
Neeli felt like bursting into sobs.
But people were there all around her.
No freedom even to cry openly…
Just then Neeli looked out, listening to the scraping sound.
Lifting the forelegs and scratching the coach she was sitting in, with snout up and struggling to communicate in her own animal language…like a child holding fringe of the saree of the mother demanding attention…Mothi, her dog.
The dog was her life…her companion…partner…her soul mate.
When did she reach there?
Neeli looked at Mothi compassionately.
Dogs are not permitted in trains…what to do?
Mothi might have grasped her feelings…more demanding…more intense mute communication…
“Going away Neeli, leaving me alone…I am your friend…your shadow…your soul.”
A sort of churning in the stomach…Overwhelming.
Twenty two yearlong associations...
She found Mothi in Pakala bus station.A pup with ‘polka’ design coat, so fascinating…she lifted her quickly from the litter of pups just delivered by a dog near steps of the bus station. Looking around to ensure no one watched her, she hid the pup under her torn blanket and boarded the bus, just about leave the place. After a little distance was covered hearing the yelping pup the conductor forced her to disembark from the bus on the kerb near Thitti Gudeppadu…
She still remembered the annoyed looks from her husband Ramulu and son Raju…
“Not a morsel for us to eat…a millstone around the neck…what for? Leave it here.” Curses galore.
But she did not abandon the pup, insisting on keeping it with her.
“If it is not bus, let us travel by a truck. “She persisted.
Such a friendship with Mothi…Twenty two yearlong ….
“Chai!” someone was selling tea. Voice was audible but the person was not visible. Dense mist.
Ram Singh was in deep sleep. Throughout the night he was busy in fixing polished tiles on the floor of college auditorium. Like all rich people who extract work and shirk payment of wages, the maistry too troubled him till four o’clock in the morning. Ram Singh reached home and packed luggage and boarded an auto-rickshaw. Lifelong possessions, their household articles, are bundled in the two sacks. Keeping down the luggage, he purchased tickets and boarded the push-pull train. He started to doze. Quietly slipped into the world of sleep like a stone sliding along slopes of a hill. Ram Singh’s eyes conveyed his longing for sleep, praying to God to grant him that boon, as though it was denied to him from ages.
Rajasthan, where he was born and Warangal where he settled down are too far from each other. How to define a man?
Ram Singh used to say, “Neeli…as long as we retain trust in our two hands and work honestly, there won’t be any problem in our life and no worry for a square meal. Our work ethics protect us.”
Initially he did not understand Telugu.She taught him the language. His special attribute is to grasp anything quickly and carry on comfortably. He aimed at perfection in whatever work he undertook. He learnt in Rajasthan the art of laying marble tiles and polishing them excellently. Telling her that mastering one kind of work was not enough and one had to learn another sort of work too to eke out a living, he patiently learned the art of pressing clothes in the washer man Sailoo’s laundry, near the petrol station. Just in two months’ time .
When he hosted liquor party as a token of his gratitude for teaching the art, Sailoo told him,”Arey, Ram Singh! I too cannot press the clothes as perfectly as you do, do you know? If you resolve, then you get it.That’s all. That’s simply great!”
Then Ram Singh looked at Neeli, as though to tell her. “Look I learnt one more kind of work for a living.”
Integrity. Hard work. Excellence in whatever work was undertaken, doing without any blemish…These will stand by him any day.
Inexplicably Neeli spread her two hands and looked at them.
She felt that those hands would take care of life, earning at least a meal a day.
Other than those hands, what else they had in life for themselves?
Suddenly she was overwhelmed with grief.
“Seven minutes past Six o’clock…the push-pull passenger train from Warangal to Hyderabad is ready to start from platform number three.”
An announcement was heard.
It was an association of twelve years with Warangal.
In fact, she was born in Arekatika caste. She used to go to the fields for work on daily wages. After her parents committed suicide consuming pesticides for reasons unknown to her…she was scared and left the village.
Ramulu came into her life in her twelvth year. He was engaged in cutting the earth for channels. He belonged to Vaddera caste. She was collecting dry stems of plants in the fields, where Bengal gram crop was raised.
Having been exposed to the sun during the daylong work, she was gleaming with youthful appeal like a sculpture in ebony…was like a flower decked tree branch.
Ramulu had a masculine, muscular body.
He proposed to her that they better get married.
At that time her major problem was her inability to bear depraved looks and lecherous attacks of men and advances made by them. When she looked at her image in the mirror, it was fascinating with sheen and smoothness of dark granite stone. Youthful body was tormented by wayward thoughts. An inexplicable feverish frenzy turned her into a cauldron. With an inexhaustible fire inside. A craving for the fulfilment of unknown desires.
Marriage. Around ten people from the vaddera community …men and women…sumptuous food with meat… drinks to the brim.
That night…first night in the makeshift thatched hut erected in the open yard of telephone department.
Great revelation of blazing desires within…a sense of loss and gain of great experience.
Entirely unknown experiences till then.
For how many days? One…two…three…that’s all.
It became a familiar terrain, with the drizzled rain turning a volcano like land into a slushy patch.
Ramulu started reaching home in a drunken state. All earnings dissolved in drinks. Day long labour of the two did not ensure any savings. How much water can be held in a cracked pot? It remains empty ultimately.
Now an apprehension rises whether life remains empty like the pot.
She was pregnant.
Raju was born.
Husband and wife worked in cutting the earth through summer and monsoon.As she tucked fringe of her sari around waist and drove the crowbar into the earth…it was just reduced to lumps of clay. Her palms were sore…rough like granite slabs.
Ramulu won’t give up drinking.
It is not just a habit with him.Addiction.Weakness for the drink makes him restive. If hundred rupees are earned through a day’s work, inability to ward off the temptation to drink for one hundred fifty rupees, with the fifty rupees borrowed from someone or the other. Terrible tendency to drink without a thought for the next day’s survival.
She tried to convince him, prayed touching his feet… pleaded piteously…admonished angrily. No impact. He simply refused to transform himself.
The train started chugging.
Announcement. “The push-pull train is about to start.”
On the platform and all around dense fog. Nothing was visible. As far as one could see fog stretched splendidly. Like puffed white clouds.
Did the dense fog envelope her from within?
Fog that spread without a let up all these years in her.
Neeli suddenly remembered Mothi, her dog. Getting up abruptly she ran to the door of the coach to look for Mothi.On the platform that was looking blurred with mist , Mothi was running along with the train gasping. Should she disembark? Lunging forward could she get hold of the dog?
Tears streamed copiously. What to do?
The train gained momentum.
Rhythmic music on the railway track captivated.
“It is five o’clock and fifteen minutes.” Someone was telling another person.
Mothi was no longer visible. All pervasive white fog.
The train was on its way picking up speed…railway over bridge…railway gate…a stream named Bandi…fly over…
At a distance Warangal city was in deep slumber, enveloped in the blanket of fog.
Where Mothi might be heading? Perhaps, a helpless one like her.
Might be heading to some unknown destination.
A person even after forty two years in her life kept drifting to unknown places. What did it signify?
Neeli felt a void within herself.
Lost one more time. This time, it was Mothi.
Lifelong losing some thing or the other…losing parents…leaving the native village… deprived of childhood in early life … getting away from husband…distancing the son so fondly brought up by her…even her daughter…a sort of absence.
Ultimately casting aside life itself.
Finally what was left with her?
Just a huge vacuum.
Like is an empty bottle; her mind was in a thoughtless state.
There may be some object. Hollow within.
The body is visible. But divested of life.
Neeli moved feebly in a state of despondency to her seat and sat.
Remembering Mothi who welcomed her the moment she stepped in, moving around her with love…
Kazipet station about to be reached in five more minutes.
Once again the hustle and bustle on the rise.
“Chai…Idly…Paper” vendors were shouting to draw attention.
More and more crowd moved in, almost a stampede…all on their feet…no room was there to sit.
Ram Singh was in deep sleep, with his head bent to a side.
Just a couple of minutes only…the train started moving.
Picked up momentum in no time.
Neeli closed her eyes.
A sort of drowsiness, a sense of numbness coupled with heaviness in her head.
A universe unveils in every person, the moment eyes are closed.
Rhythmic clanking sound on the railway tracks
A rhythm, a pattern.
Her life alone is devoid of any pattern.
A destitute is like a piece of paper in gliding breeze.
She remembered Ramulu. Unbearable torture. He used to come home in drunken state every day. For no reason picked up a row and beat her black and blue. One can never understand. He was envious of her beauty. If anyone looked at her, he could not bear the sight. By mistake if she looked at any stranger, distress descended on her. Her back carried marks of blows received by her. Even if she spoke with someone, that’s all.
All hell broke loose!
Raju by then was six years old. Then a daughter entered into their life.
Ila. His mother’s name it was.
He always pestered her that Ila was not his child.
How can it be proved which seed resulted in the birth of a child?
She used to think for long hours, why that man suspected her.
Alcoholism drained Ramulu. His strength waned.
His face lacked liveliness. Then he came across Vadderi Raji. Asking his wife to sell vegetables, he fixed Raji to assist him. How long? Just for twenty days…
Ignoring all decency, he started fetching her home with him directly.
Everything in the open only. A little provocation was likely to result in their making love in her very presence.
Unfettered violent approach. How despicable!
Helplessness. Sheer inability to do anything.
Yet, she had to be tolerant. For the sake of her children, in her own interest she had to bear.
He had gone. With Raji. Started living with her.
Children at home…
Going to the vegetable market early in the day, carrying loads worse than any man, toiling day long ,she used to reach home after selling vegetables .
So many nights she cried resting her head between her bent knees.
Raju stepped into tenth class. Then Intermediate .The girl Ila was in the sixth class.
Free education, in government schools.
News reached her one day.Ramulu committed suicide in a drunken state on the railway tracks near Sivanagar.
She did not know.
That lady Raji was never seen subsequently. She just disappeared. There might be some reason. Anyway, Neeli was not bothered about it. She did not even shed a drop of tear bemoaning Ramulu’s death.
Like a beast, he behaved making love to another lady in his wife’s presence.
What respect could he earn in her heart?
Children were not an exception.
Raju, under reimbursement of fees scheme could get admission in some private Engineering college. Owing to poverty, progressing desire to enjoy life in the company of boys from well to do families became stronger. A strange craving for what is not within his reach. Every day she was receiving messages from the college that her son was not attending classes.
If she dared to question him, indifferently he used to shout.
“Get lost. Engineering studies will be like that only.”
Blatant revolt. Every day two or three boys used to arrive on a motor cycle and they used to drive off rashly, three on a bike.
Further, he used to say , “you have placed us in this despicable Doddikumarayya slums, giving birth to us unnecessarily. So shameful to live here.I will go away from here.”
“My son, I thought at least you will study well and take care of your sister and me.
Why do you speak like this?” she used to wail vainly.
“Shut up. Educating us with so much strain! Government only bears the entire burden. You pretend as though you have made great sacrifice for our sake.”
He humiliated his mother remorselessly.
Such behaviour from Raju was least expected by her.
First year…second…third.Raju became uncontrollable. Every day zooming on motor cycles…three on a vehicle…returning home in fully inebriated state .At times not to be seen for four or five days at a stretch. On checking at the college, the response was “He is a rogue!”
Police descended on their hutments …in Doddikumarayya nagar.
“Your son is resorting to chain snatching, drugs peddling…just for leading luxurious life…there are many complaints. We may have to arrest him one day.”
Grief…endless anguish…why is it so?
Exactly within a fortnight Raju was arrested.Matwada police station. Motherly affection…anxiety…she went there .
The sub-inspector of police told her. “He is involved in eight cases, amma! These three rascals kidnapped a school going girl for money.”
She collapsed like an uprooted tree.
All her aspirations were annihilated at that moment itself.
Who is responsible, for this misfortune?
She herself or the environment around?
Unfettered social laxity or her poverty?
What is the cause?
That night …she remembered well…her daughter Ila , studying tenth class eloped with a trader’s son, who was studying Intermediate course. A handful of men assaulted her in her hut.
How can a girl studying tenth class elope with a boy?
Companions…meaningless education system…craze for watching T.V.shows even in huts. How disgraceful!
The police could trace Ila and brought her home. Her lover slashed his wrist in the police station and died.Ila was remanded.
What is happening?
Why the children behave like this?
She was devastated.
Should she take care of such indifferent, useless children?
She was poor by birth…but not without ethical norms. She too had some values. The day she decided to forsake them , it was futile to live any more.
She resolved then itself…either regarding her children or about her life…a firm decision had to be taken.
Within a span of ten days a parent of the three fellows arrested managed to get bail for all the arrested boys by depositing the required money as security. She later found out that he was a contractor.
From the next day again the routine started.
Volcanoes erupted in her mind.
That night Raju reached home fully drunk…almost in unconscious state…grief swelled in her silently.
Next day three boys zoomed in on a motor cycle…Raju vanished with them.
No news for three days.
She stopped searching for him. After a couple of days he came home in a terrible condition… drunk to the brim.
As always vanishing trick again.
Next day information from the police station reached her…tragic death of three students whose motor cycle crashed in to a ditch dug for road over bridge works. Neeli could guess right. Raju was certainly one of them.
No more tears to shed. Her eyes were dry.
At the funeral, not a single soul was there to show sympathy. Abject destitution.
Neeli’s heart dried up like a sea sans a drop of water.
She was startled by a screeching sound.
The train halted at Charlapalli station.
When the inner core turns inert without any throb, a person becomes a mere statue with life, bereft of any responses.
Ram Singh woke up much earlier. He wanted to wake her up. But refrained from doing so, with the thought that she was in deep sleep.
He did not realise that she was looking into herself, snapping all bonds on the eve of starting her life anew.
He asked her affectionately, “Did you sleep well, Neeli?”
“Of course. This place is Charlapalli, where we need to get off. Come on.”
She started moving all bundles of her household articles hurriedly. Ram Singh lent a helping hand.
In a trice they got off from the train.
Neeli looked around casually. Clusters of Kanuga trees dotted the platform. At a distance a newly constructed building stood. A few industries were there.
Neeli was shocked to see her dog. Mothi was approaching her. Wagging tail the dog was licking her hands.
“What a dog is this, amma! At every station jumps from the coach. Boards the moment the train starts moving. How can any smart ticket checking official catch her? Amazing loyalty!. Though you left her and moved on, she did not leave you. Followed you to this place as well.”A lady informed her, while going her way.
Neeli looked at Mothi with a sense of guilt, pain and love. Overcome with emotion she hugged her , drawing closer.
Neeli’s hand was caressing Mothi. Inconceivable delight radiated from the dog’s eyes. Sheer ecstasy it was.
In about ten minutes they reached Santhi Sikhara Apartments, where a few house warming functions were organised that day.
Both Neeli and Ram Singh met Indra Reddy, the watchman there, as advised and recommended by Yakoob, Neeli’s childhood friend.
Ram Singh extended his hands.In utter glee she also extended her hands and unfolded her palms.
With a broad smile he assured her, “These hands are enough to lead life as human beings.”
Vast, expansive sky above…an eternal witness.
The earth lay beneath, watching human beings from ages.
After ten days …
There was a cultural programme where some narration of a story from mythology was going on rhythmically, melodiously. The narrator was elaborating Indian way of life and the phase of advanced age in life.
Two persons of integrity, who could respond any moment promptly when their services were needed by the occupants of the apartments, sat in the last row of the audience quietly.
Pressing clothes of all the people in the building, keeps Ram Singh busy twenty four hours a day, winning the hearts of all. Approximately twelve families find it difficult to manage without the services of Neeli as a maid.
With eyes closed in ecstasy Mothi, her dog, lies in the lap of Neeli.
Neeli looked at her hands with satisfaction.
Tears welled in her eyes!
Translation of Telugu short storywritten by Raamaa Chandramouli titled “Neeli” form the anthology: Pidikedu Pakshi--Visaalaakaasam