The First-born

Having finished reading the letter, Venkataramayya sat staring at the wall for a long while. It was difficult deciding what to do. He began pacing up and down the room and finally made up his mind.

“Oi! Here’s a letter from our boy,” he called out as he entered the sick room.

“Are they all fine and doing well? Are they coming?” She gathered all her strength and sat up leaning her back against the pillows. “Where is the letter?”

She took it with trembling fingers. She tried hard to focus but the writing disappointed her. She winced and heaved out a sigh.

“I can’t write now. You write and tell him not to come. There appears to be time yet. I’m not in that kind of danger. Send a letter immediately.”

He began to recapitulate and wondered: “Why is she asking to write to him not to come? But … God forbid … if what should not happen happened? It would be horrible living with a bad name and nagging conscience. Any other tribulation would be tolerable but not slander. He would never be able to forgive himself for a failure of that sort.”

He brought himself to produce a smile and forcing a sparkle into his eyes said: “Right then, I’ll write to him.”

He wrote a few sentences and read out what he had written on the post card. After listening to a few words she lapsed into tired sleep. He stopped reading and stood staring at her. She must have thought that it was a letter from the elder one. The writing told her that it was from the younger son.

Perindevamma’s heart bled to see her husband’s face. As a mother, she knew how she had brought up the two sons. Though he had a great deal of love for both, she felt, her husband was rather reluctant to show his love for the elder one before his second wife. He was always afraid of hurting her and for that reason he showed more love to him, the second wife’s son, the younger one. Only she knew of what delicate mettle her husband’s heart has been made.

“Poor man! He thought I would jump for joy hearing of the young fellow’s letter. He imagined that I’d be on top of a hill with joy, as the saying went. The good man as he has always been, how could he wade out of that muddle?” Perindevamma was lost in these thoughts.

It needed a lot of tact, expedience and art to tell a falsehood. Truth is not believed as easily as artful lies. She knew her husband’s mind. He winced at the smallest hurt given to her. It was affection, his large-heartedness. But, how could she tell him that the first-born was the apple of her eye as well!

Thought was fatiguing and her eyelids drooped again.

Perhaps it would be necessary to call the elder one to stay for a month or two—Venkataramayya thought for a tenth time. It would give him strength. He would share responsibility and then the worry too. He’d show concern and affection. He knew what it is to suffer. But … he should not be hasty. After all, the poor woman’s condition has been very alarming and on no account should he give her any pain.

“I have my duty,” he told himself. “I’ve grown hard-hearted after having ‘sent away’ my first wife. I was a stone. But this one, she has always been gentle, a flower at its best always.” Tears did not come into the eyes – they just evaporated – he heaved out a heart-rending sigh.

He picked up his upper cloth from the peg on the wall and told the woman who came to cook that his wife shouldn’t be disturbed and asked her to be vigilant. He drew the door close and walked out to post the card he had written to the younger son.

Perindevamma opened her eyes. Thoughts were eddying in her head without let up. However hard she had tried, she couldn’t shut off the words of her daughter-in-law, the younger son’s wife. “We spent a thousand on travel alone. Who cares for us? Who heeds my husband’s advice? It is his delusion. The old woman, the unnatural thing, loves the other fellow, not the son of her loins. Psch! She does not know the value of her son she had borne. There are some strange people who do not know sweetness of the belly!”

The daughter-in-law was saying this to the maid. Perindevammas’s innards twisted into knots with pain.

She wanted to see in her the daughter god never gave her. She was never afraid of work. She had been always considerate taking the work on herself but she never was shown any love. The young woman always had things sent upstairs as if they were there on a holiday or a pleasure trip. The son and his wife never came down to eat with the parents.

‘The old mother needs someone to be by her side. I’d go down, little mother,’ said the old woman employed to cook for the family.

Perindevamma would never forget the kindness of the old woman. The daughter-in-law understood the cook’s nuance and flared up saying: ‘If I sit by her all the time, who’d look after the needs of my husband and my children? Let her call if she needed anything. I’ll go down to see what she needs.’

The young woman had a way of emphasizing the possessives but the old lady never minded these when she was up and about. But now she was helpless. She would try to go upstairs. Half way up she would get palpitation. The doctor asked her to go slow with everything and stop climbing stairs for some more months to come. She occupied the bedroom downstairs. Neglected years of diabetes told on her heart and there was hypertension too.

‘No, doctor, I wouldn’t go up at all. My staying downstairs is safer. My hearing is perfect and still I can be a watchdog,' she assured the doctor and didn’t explain why she was safer staying downstairs.

‘Both the children and that respected one wouldn’t even brush their teeth if they don’t have idli ready on the table. Even sambar is a must. Poori with curry in the evening is the indispensable snack in our house there,’ Visala told the cook on the very first morning of their arrival and saw to it that she was kept constantly busy. Though her work increased manifold the old woman never uttered a syllable in protest keeping Perindevamma’s solicitous attitude to her in her mind. Perindevamma went on just observing her daughter-in-law.

Visala! What a name and what a behaviour!. The largeness is only in her name, not in her heart. But what’s the use of any complaint to any body? As they say, if you tear your stomach, the contents would roll down to your feet. Her head began to hurt her as it never did before. She closed her eyes hard. “I have been observing for the whole week now. Why doesn’t the boy come down to sit with you, even for a while? Is he all right?” asked Venkataramayya once in the privacy of their room.

Tears eddied in Perindevamma’s eyes.

The children of the first-born always sat with their grandmother, never left her even for a minute. Like Rama and Lakshmana, they were always together keeping her company and talking to her and playing with her. “We would rather stay here, Nanamma,” they would say. Their words would draw her tears and invariably she would embrace them and smell their sweet heads.

On the day when his son was about to leave on the expiry of his leave, Venkataramayya wanted to ask him to stay for another month, but he couldn’t bring himself to say that.

“He has given a thousand rupees while leaving,” Venkaramayya told his wife with a beaming face after he saw his son off.

“I know he would,” said she and wiped off a tear. She knew why tears came into her eyes.

“My son who shared my blood, was here too. I have borne him. He brought in a girl saying that he had married her. He called it a love marriage. When the father wrote that she had been unwell, they came as a honeymooning couple. She had to send every thing for them to their room upstairs. Of course the daughter in law may consider her only a stranger. But her son, her flesh and blood, should he not understand her pain and the strain on his father’s meager finances? Doesn’t he know that they did not have hidden treasures? … Did the young woman ever show any concern or affection? Formality never ripened into affection in her. There would be no point in telling her that. She too has a mother of her own…” The sick lady was telling herself.

Venkataramayya looked worried. One day he went in determined to have a talk with his wife. Not quite knowing where to begin or how, he kept pacing up and down like a cat with singed paws. Her insight told Perindevamma what was weighing down on her husband’s sensitive mind.

“Did you use up the last thousand in the bank?” She asked him softly.

“Let it go. What else can we do? After all we spent our money on our absolute necessities. If we don’t spend it now what’s the use of having it?”

“Whatever you may think of me, I must say this of that little one. He has grown up and is earning money. But doesn’t know its value. It is entirely your fault and possibly it is our Karma. He doesn’t know hardship of any kind and thinks that still he is a kid to bask in paternal warmth. We allowed him to grow up like that as the saying goes, what ever he does is play and whatever he uttered a song. Withdraw the money that you have deposited in my name and let’s leave the rest to God,” she said stifling a sob.

Perindevamma could not tolerate and keep mum any more. Slowly she got up and went upstairs resting for a while after every two or three stairs. The door was ajar. She could see her son in bed with a book in his hand. The other held a glass and on the table nearby there was a bottle beside a jug of water. She never noticed the jug before. The daughter in law was sitting in a chair hemming her daughter’s frock.

Unhesitatingly Perindevamma entered.

“Well mother, you! Why did you come up?” The young man put the glass on the table and wanted to hide the bottle but did not know how to.

“Aren’t you asleep? Respected mother in law?” Visala asked getting up.

“I don’t feel like sleeping. You stone-hearted, is this what you have been doing all these weeks? You never asked the frail old man how he has been getting the money to run the household and you never bothered to think of this sick mother. You never asked whether I am alive or dead. You want your luxuries and your own happiness. When would you realize that you have a responsibility to your parents? Then this vicious habit is never known before in our family, which has a great tradition. How dare you bring this into what used to be your father’s room? Aren’t you ashamed of yourself?”

Perindevamma grew wild and said everything she wanted to say in a go.

“You asked us to come and perhaps you now feel that we are eating all your money,” Visala shot back.

Perindevamma wriggled in excruciating pain. The sky appeared to be falling on her head in rent pieces.

“Hm, let the one experience the fruit of the deeds one does knowingly or unknowingly. It is impossible to escape what is ordained according to one’s own karma,” she said and walked out never to enter that room again.

Early the next morning, Perindevamma told her husband “Please make reservations by the next available train for the little fellow’s family. If they leave I may have some peace of mind.”

Venkataramayya knew what had been happening but did not want to give his wife any further pain by saying anything more. He simply did what he was asked to do.

Now the younger one wrote to say that he would come again.

Venkataramayya returned having posted the card to his son. As soon as he returned she asked him to send a telegram to the first-born in a tear-strained voice.

Three days later the elder one arrived with the family.

“Mother, by God’s grace you are well. I panicked seeing the telegram!”

“Oh! I’ll never be well again, my dear one!” she sighed and looked around. She saw the two grandsons, the daughter-in-law and her beloved son. “Now I am happy and I don’t care whatever happens to me,” she declared.

The next day Visala and her husband arrived with their children.

Venkataramayya and Perindevamma exchanged glances when the auto rickshaw drew up before their house.

“Father, by way of abundant caution, I had sent a telegram to brother before I started. I’m happy they arrived.’

Perindevamma remained silent.

Two days later while the family was at their dinner, Perindevamma had breathing trouble and soon it got worse. “I’ll fetch the doctor,” Venkataramayya said and dashed out. The elder one and his wife stood by the old lady’s bedside.

“Dear, go call your sister,” said Perindevamma gasping for breath. The daughter-in-law brought Visala down.

“My dear one, there is nothing I can give you. The elder one gave me this chain. It weighed five tolas then – but since she has a daughter, I will give this to Visala. You take my bracelets. If the younger one keeps it at all, it can be given to the little girl at her wedding…” Perindevamma was talking to her elder daughter-in-law.

“Dear mother, why do you speak like that, you are going to be fine in a day or two. Believe me,” the elder daughter-in-law reassured her.

“We have been spending a thousand rupees every time,” Visala said and closed her lips tightly.

“Let that be. Re, babu, you know everything but let me tell you one thing. You take after your angelic mother. I have a small wish. Though I haven’t borne you, I know how much you are devoted to us. I ask of you only one thing. You must light the funeral pyre…”

“My dear mother, don’t utter such words in a ‘full house’. You must protect us for many years to come!”

“These are not inauspicious words. With a son like you by my side, it would be a joy living for any number of years. But is it in our hands? Look after your father. He has a heart of gold. He would never utter anything that hurts. He is godlike….” She couldn’t talk further.

“You need not worry about that, mother. We would look after Father. You underestimate my brother. He is educated, knowledgeable and affectionate. Only he is too young to take anything seriously…”

“Your brother! Hm, a son indeed!” Perindevamma said with a sigh clutching at her heart and sliding back in pain.

“Where is brother?” asked the elder one looking at Visala.

“I think he has gone to a movie. Did the lady have a thought that she has another son? People without hearts!” Visala said with bitterness.

“Oi! Let’s lay her down. Hold her there, quickly … She shouldn’t breathe her last on the cot: it’s inauspicious…”

While the elder son and his wife were laying her down on the mat, without her knowing, Visala broke into a loud wail.

This story was first published in Andhra Patrkia Weekly. It won the first prize in the Deepavali Story Contest and won two prizes one by the jury and other from the readers in 1979.


More by :  Dr. Rama Rao Vadapalli V.B.

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