Balachandraiah didn’t cry. Nor did his eyes swell up. Staring at his son’s corpse he stood as a rock figurine. Nor did he notice Adiseshu bringing the new pramida (earthen lamp) lighted up with a wick, placing it beside his son’s head and covering it with a basket. Looks like a statue with no head that stood amidst the Hampi ruins, there, before his son sleeping eternally covering himself with a white blanket.
Piercing through the shroud over the body, his eyes are examining the stab wound on his six feet tall son’s heart. A blank stare. Nor is there any anguish. Hidden behind, Chaitanya (consciousness) alone is visible.
The wound in the heart of the dead Subramannem is deep; though no blood is flowing, the voiceless sorrow is silently seeping. A fully blown mandarapuvvu (Hibiscus flower)-like is the wound inflicted by Sambaiah! The murderer of the fully grown Jeevi (the being), his only son, is Sambaiah!
Balachandraiah is seeing Sambaiah in the wound on his son’s chest. Without winking his eyes, he is staring at the murderer Sambaiah’s dark figure, examining his pointed moustaches that have grown as symbols of savagery and deceit. It is the consciousness that is not emoting any pain or feeling.
It is not new for Balachandraiah to witness forced-deaths and endure them. Twenty years back, he heard the labour pains of his wife for four days. On the fifth day, he saw Sitamma lying in a pool of blood on the bed. And the midwife had shown him the just born dead child. He cried for days. Becoming sick, he stayed away from food for a month.
At the time of Sitamma’s death Subramannem was of three years old.
After the very second year of his wife’s death, son-in-law drew away his daughter from home. In that trauma, Laxmi killed herself by jumping into a well. He cried and cried day and night. Laxmi however didn’t return.
By then Subramannem learnt talking sweetly. After all, when there is life there would be expectations. If the prospects had form and dreams, then, his son stood as an idol of them. He lived for that son’s sake. For the sake of that son he had forgotten Sitamma. For the sake of that son, he never thought of Laxmi. For son’s sake, he had not entertained any quarrel with that heartless son-in-law.
There in the son’s heart Sitamma appeared with turmeric and vermillion powder smeared all over her body. It is from the deep down of his son’s heart he heard the panic cries of Laxmi while she was getting drowned in the water of the well. And there appeared Sambaiah—the Sambaiah bigger than the stud bull—and his inflamed eyes.
Yet Balachandraiah didn’t cry. Seeing the brutal death of son, the tears in the father’s eyes dried up.
Evening Munasiff came and saying, “There is no case”, went away. Balachandraiah however didn’t know anything about cases. Life is, after all, not aware of having invited every kind of puzzle.
Splitting bamboos, Adiseshu made the bier. Over it he spread a few twigs of basil plant. Bought three yards of sine cloth from Panakam Setti Cloth shop. Placing the corpse against the tadika (a wall-like erection made out of bamboo splits), poured three buckets full water over it. Finally, both of them managed to tie the six feet Subramannem and the wound that is bigger than Hibiscus flower to the bier. They covered it with sine cloth. Subramannem had a deadly longing for the sine cloth.
None turned up to the graveyard. The only man who came is Appalnarsu, the brother-in-law of Adhiseshu. Sambaiah is that cruel. That wicked. That unrestrained. He arranged for an announcement in the village: “Whoever attends to Subramannem’s rites will forego their access to food.” Having nurtured Sambaiah and being a village that had known him well, no one with a hope on his life had come forward to give their shoulder to the bier of Subramannem. And those who had a tender heart for lending their shoulder, are reminded of their own haystacks and the honour of their grownup girls. Even the shade of government’s judiciary establishments had not fallen on that progress-deprived village atmosphere. Even if they could spread their tentacles, they lacked the threatening pangs that can eliminate antisocial elements.
Appalnarsu and Adhiseshu had not forgotten their childhood games of ‘kothi-kommachhi’ (a kind of game children of villages play in gardens). Carried away their childhood friend towards north with unexpressed adieu.
By the time Subramannem’s body was burnt in a cart load of firewood, it was almost midnight. Even when Balachandriah was about to put the log on the chest, his son’s wound appeared as big as the sky. In it, Sambaiah is seen dancing with his faltering legs. In it, he saw Laxmi drowning in the well; Sitamma sleeping in a pool of blood.
The North Star blinked in the sky. In the dim moonlight, the glow of the Antya kastala (the unburnt mortal remains) that could not catch fire faster, paled. A little away, like the debilitated men, the skulls that are being gnawed by foxes are rolling. Balachandraiah is quite an illiterate and certainly not a Vedanthi (philospher). Yet he looked all-round the graveyard. It doesn’t look like the paddy threshing floors of Sankranti time. Yet, like the new paddy, ash appeared in all the four sides to that non-Vedanthi, Balachandraiah. At the crow of the early cock, the owls behind the trees having got up disturbed the peace of graveyard.
As they reached home, Nagaratnam was sitting in front of the threshold. Nagaratnam is Adiseshu’s maradalu (sister-in-law). For him, she is the would-be daughter-in-law.
In that fading darkness, Nagaratnam’s eyes are glistering in tears. Baava (her would be husband) is no longer there for Nagaratnam.
At her calling, getting up from an unknown world, Balachandraiah returned to this world. He put his palm on Nagaratnam’s head, more involuntarily. Caressed her hair. Set right the locks. Palmed the chin. Her tears fallen on his arm. In that silence, he became a silence.
“Seeing off Baava … came back…” Old man’s throat quivered. Raising head, Nagaratnam stared at him. Her heart leapt into throat.
“Maavaa! For my sake Baava…died…” Then, Naguleru (a river of the locality) didn’t stop. Ran amok like Gundlakamma (name of a stream) in floods. Swelled up like the Chandravanka (name of another rriver). Like the grand Godavari, swayed in waves. Seen the depths of river Krishna. Nagaratnam could not stop sobbing.
Nagaratnam is such a beautiful lass. Right from the nose stud to the anklet on foot, she is so nicely carved. This seventeen-year old girl’s well-developed breasts teased baava playing hide and seek from behind the pamita! (veil that woman makes up with the hem of her sari on her breasts by throwing over her shoulder ) Having dreamt last night that her baava tied the knot in the marriage, she, running to him right in the morning but bitten by shy, failing to share the dream with him, merely conversing with him with her dancing eyes, and marvelling at his well-built muscles, vanishes like a Nagakanya (known for swiftness) in no time from there. How fondly she has hidden the grey colour blouse that her baava got stitched for her for the village deity, Yellamma Devatha’s fair. Hiding behind the termite hill in the Chilli garden, calling loudly, “baavaa” made him to look all round for her. Those days are all none of this world’s. They were days of divine world. Such was Nagaratnam’s plane of thinking! She is reminiscing: fixed the marriage for Panchami after the yeruvaka punnami. Hardly ten more days…ten! To give a gift in the marriage, baava brought last Thursday from the town four small gold kasulu (pendants) … those four pendants that he had safely tucked in the folds of his dhovati around his waist. It’s hardly a matter of another ten days … the Sannai swaraalu , rhyme of drums … toranaalu (garlands of mango leaves tied around the marriage venue), baava in yellow-clothes, talambralu (the yellowed rice that the bride and groom playfully pour on each other’s head in marriages)… all are dancing in front of Nagaratnam’s eyes.
Balachandraiah coughed feebly. In the very next minute Nagaratnam’s illusionary world has changed … Vanishing, baava went away from this world. All that Nagaratnam could see now is: there in her hand the kasulu that baava brought.
As Nagaratnam is about to leave him, Balachandraiah has drawn her close to him with his impaired-hands.
“Amma, even by mistake don’t ever reveal it to Adhiseshu ….”
She looked into that old man’s eyes. That broad mindedness hidden amidst the peaceful ocean … Nagaratnam could understand the story of sufferings in his eyes. Slowly she nodded her head.
Her chastity, her honour! It is her chastity that made her baava to throw challenge at Sambadu! It is her honour that turned her tomorrow’s happiness, her dreams of future, her pendants’ desires into ashes!
From that lifeless throat of Nagaratnam, a wail emerged ….
Maama is not there. Mama’s broadness, his foresight had indeed got etched in the mind of thoughtful Nagaratnam. Baava died at the bite of that wicked serpent, Sambaiah. Nagaratnam’s mind ran into the darkness. Maama thought of securing her Akka’s (elder sister) husband’s welfare.
No delay at all. Having born as slaves, getting ruffled in the struggle for existence that has not seen the light of the day, and ending up as a failure, as millions and millions of Indian women are living for the sake of mere living, the weary Nagaratnam too has become one of them.
What if even we forget the fools who delude themselves having seen peace, justice, and fairness in village life that has stagnated.
For quite some time, Subramannem is aware that Sambaiah’s vicious eyes are fixed on Nagaratnam. With no father and mother around, as Nagaratnam was going to fields for grass or returning from fields with grass, Sambaiah, waiting around, used to tease her and she, cracking fingers used to curse him at it. Though she kept all this as a secret from baava, he somehow came to know about it all. She used to wonder how baava came to know? She has forgotten that she, having bought him with her love, retained him as her security guard. In fact, once or twice, baava had an altercation with Sambadu. Baava indeed threatened him.
“Arey… you fellow with no qualms … no shame … you fellow … dishonouring a lady …” Sambadu used to twist his pointed whiskers.
One Sunday she was collecting stubs in the northern field. As dusk is slowly creeping in, clouds gathered. Thought of starting for home before it began drizzling. From behind someone came and closed her eyes. Guessing that nobody will turn up that far and hoping to fill the basket with big stubs she came to that distantly-located field.
Sambaiah! Beasts, there in his eyes!
Saying, “Chii … Don’t you have sisters”, she, wriggling out of his clutches, moved away.
“Look Naagu … … once …” bitten her cheek. She cried aloud. Thrust himself forward like a wild boar.
“Look … Sambaiah anna (elder brother) … you have sisters….” Giggled the wild bison.
Pressing … twisted her hands firmly. Yelled in fear. Thereafter, she lost senses till baava came.
Like Arjuna he came. Within no time he morphed into a lion. Pouncing on him, baava tweaked his neck. The wicked has fallen on the ground … over the stubs. Moaned at baava’s thumping. Getting up, gnashed teeth.
In the very next month, protection of her honour stood in baavaa’s heart as a boundary-less tank. That boundary-less small tank has now become a tank of blood.
It’s only the three who know about the quarrel between Sambadu and baava … me, maava, baava … three only … Nagaratnam realized … only two remained … Immediately she remembered pendants. In the sorrow of those reminisces they drenched.
Though night has advanced very fast as if it is the enemy of sorrow and the mere passing of the time, Balachandraiah could not sleep. But he closed his eyes—“there is not even a single blade of grass in the graveyard. In that all spreading ash, his Subramannem too shared a bit … how vast the wound! The ash comes to hardly a fistful…. Even while breathing his last, he directed him to feed green grass to Sitamma ….”
As though some one had knocked him to get up, suddenly getting up, he went into the yard. Under the weight of 60 years, his body is stooping down. Famine that arrived had, appeasing the old age, went away. Nagaratnam, placing the hay in the feeding zone of Sitamma appeared as the goddess of sorrow that has no relation with the worldly pleasures.
Sitamma is the young-bull that Subramannem left away in this world. Sitamma is the wealth of that house’s sweat. It is the white reflection of the labour that Subramannem did in Kasturi’s house for six years. Sitamma is the memory of his dead wife. She is the pride of the families of agricultural labourers.
Sitamma is Sitamma… sharp Mysore-bull horns, Ongole calf’s muscle tone, their milky whiteness, pride stares….Yet it never quarrelled with his ilk. It hasn’t ever rubbed even a child’s skin. Never swung horn even slightly.
Such is its pedigree! Over it, when Subramannem undertook cooperative farming with Adiseshu it pulled the plough along with she-buffalo. It even pulled the plough in puddled field. Pulled the cart with broken axil. Never annoyed … not even once.
“Sitamma didn’t bite even a single blade of grass Mavaa”.
Balachandraiah looking into unknown worlds, turned his eyes over Nagaratnam’s face. How innocent are her eyes! Nagaratnam stared at the old man up and down. Between yesterday and today he has become twenty years older.
Balachandraiah couldn’t lift Sitamma’s rope-collar.
“Ayyo!, poor fellow … eyes with gummy rheum …” stroked hump … hands moved on to the horns. His son’s wound in the heart struck to the mind of Balachandriah.
**Appanna yelled at the old man.
“Son died … asks for justice…..Hu! died in useless quarrels over whores … haunting the village like devils …”
Balachandraiah shut his ears. None had abused Subramannem like that. His was a spotless life. At the stabbing of Sambaiah … hot blood swelling out of Subramannem’s heart … felt the sound of dripping blood that drenched Bhudevi …
Adiseshu has of course informed him. Appanna is Sambadu’s man. Member of the village Panchayat … Appanna.
Narsimhulu and Kesamulu Naidu heard his distress.
“Look Balachandraiah that fellow is a big thug. And you know what Appanna is!”
Whoever said anything, it is again and again the same. Balachandraiah spit on the village. “This is not village, this is forest”, said Balachandraiah.
While dying Subramannem didn’t ask him to pray at the elders of the village. Dipping his right hand in the blood and taking it towards his moustaches he said, “Orey Sambada … my father will not let you live” thus challenging and cursing him died he. Balachandraiah did not want to insult that hero anymore.
Evening Nagaratnam came with hot gruel in a German silver vessel. Holding the rein that is tied around the horns of Sitamma in his haggard hands, Mama is standing in the yard.
“Yes amma I am going … don’t be alarmed … take the key … tell Adiseshu that I shall return. Come on … wipe out those tears.”
On the thick layer of the gruel, Nagaratnam’s eye drops floated. Hit by torpedoes the drowning ships have added the smell of petrol to the waters of the Atlantic Ocean. Such were her tears.
Sitamma returned to normalcy within a few days. Balachandraiah didn’t allow even a fly to rest on the milky skin of Sitamma. Whenever he found a dust particle on Sitamma’s body, he remembered his son who used to feel bad of it.
In that valley aplenty are the green meadows. Down the line a stream is flowing as though wars never happened in the world. A little forest on the right-hand side. All this has become the Kingdom of Sitamma.
With the leaves of forest, knee-high grass, breeze of the hill, water of the stream—all these have enhanced the strength of Sitamma. She acquired a new glow. Within those three months, Balachandraiah became thirty years older. The bells in the Sitamma’s neck have stirred musical tunes in that valley that ultimately merged with the roaring flow of the stream. But Balachandraiah won’t move his lips. He won’t sing Karampudi war ballads. He cannot reproduce Nayakurali’s (noted woman-leader of a local region, Palnadu) bombastic statements. Nor could he coo the tidings of Lavakusa.
The old man tied the straw-effigy to the trunk of the neem tree in an erect posture. On its heart he tied red flowers bought from the forest.
Like a good boy Sitamma came nearer to him … appeased him.
“There … Sitamma … Sambadu … there … Sambadu that killed Subramannem.”
Sitamma rang her bells. Swiftly moved horns. Old man has seen his son’s wound in horns.
“Uu … Sitammaa … that is …. Sambadu …”
Sitamma again rung bells. Pawed the soil with hoof. In the very next minute the red flowers on the straw-effigy having climbed on the horns of Sitamma kissed them.
Sitamma looked at the old man. Old man looked at with swelled up eyes. “A new sharpness dawned on Sitamma’s horns”, felt Balachandraiah. As he was thinking thus, trees shed their leaves.
Appalanarsu came at once running—
“Baavoi, Sendraiah maama has come”, said to Adiseshu. From inside Nagaratnam heard it. Putting on the Uttareeyam, Adiseshu went to him.
“Maavaa, … what has become of you …. no message … you look so haggard …”
Forcing a smile, Balachandraiah said, “Had been to Bhadrachalam.”
A few minutes…
“Got Nagaratnam married off…”
“Ooh … I see … Is it …?”
“As said by the four elders, we got her married to Sambaiah.”
Balachandraiah could not see the sky.
…four elders … Sudulu Appanna, Goulla Narachimmulu, Aadikechavulu Naidu…, Goddavari Peddabbai …. Balachandraiah raised his eyes. Even Adiseshu didn’t see that light. Bells jingled in the yard. Trumpet of war is felt in Sitamma’s bellow.
Sambaiah has lost the very sense of good thought. He harboured a hope that Balachandraiah will one day will the house in favour of Nagaratnam. One evening, coming home he told his wife, Nagaratnam: “heard, your Balayya maama has come!”
“You come along … we shall go and see him” … Sambaiah’s pleasure ran amok like a rein-free horse. “I am going … you come a tad later”, he sauntered.
That evening appeared as the battlefield after the cease of war. Look at any corner and you find the reflection of reddened-sky. Sambaiah stepped in slowly into the front yard.
“Balaiah Baabaa! Oh Balaiah Baabaa,” called so affectionately.
Sitamma is drinking water. Standing near the tub, Balaiah is appeasing Sitamma.
“When did you come Balaiah baaba”, the old raised his head and stared. He deluded to have seen red flowers on the pointed moustaches of Sambaiah.
“Who is it? Sambanna! Just a minute … here I am…”
Old man slapped on the thigh of Sitamma. He tapped the horn with his fingernail.
Sitamma raised her face. Stamped violently on the ground. Bellowed like the song of a forest. Jingled her bells. Rung the bells like brazen drums in Dakshayajnam. Sitamma didn’t stop. Jumped forward. Played pranks as if possessed by evil spirit.
“Sambaiah came, Sitamma!”
Sambaiah could not move in front of his ferocious speed. It’s only after Sitamma’s sharp horns pierced through his chest that he could move.
“Ayyo…! I am dead…. Baaboo…. Balaiah Baabuu…” Bells are the only answer.
Nagaratanam stepped in the threshold. Tying Sambaiah’s entrails around horns as a turban, Sitamma welcomed her in.
Sambaiah, the mauled bundle of blood, appeared by the side of the tub.
“Maavaa… Naa Pasupu Kunkuma” (turmeric powder and vermilion, which represents a married-woman – a traditional belief), cried at once.
Sitamma moved back by two steps… Balachandraiah came forward by two steps.
“You silly … why worry about your Pasupu Kunkuma? You think Subramannem baava died?”
Removing her hem of the sari from her face looked at that mad man. Sitamma bells jingled again.
As the night advanced, Balachandraiah hawked his Sitamma to the graveyard. All the ash in the graveyard vanished. Adorned in green, it is singing Kalyani (a musical raag) in the bed of death. The old man identified the site at which his son climbed the pile of the cart-load of firewood.
“Plenty of grass, Sitamma!”
At the sound of Sitamma’s bells, blades of grass swayed their tops. Trembling overtook Balachandraiah. Not being able to stand, closing his eyes, plopped himself down.
One day in the summer holidays of the 60s, I happened to stumble upon this story, ‘Smasanam chigurinchindi’ written originally in Telugu by late Munipalle Raju and published in Bharati, a Telugu monthly in 1951.
Going through the story I felt terribly shaken. The plight of the weak at the hands of Sambadu-lik haunted me for some time. But when I read it again recently, I am haunted by many questions: Did India change in the last 60 years? Changed for better or for worse? Are the weaklings continue to be humbled by the likes of Sambadu? Goons like Sambadu multiplied or diminished? Are they limited to villages or also there in towns? Are women still to compromise like Nagaratnam in today’s India too? Is the judicial system of free India catering to the needs of folks like Balachandraiah any better today? Is avenging the death by death is alright or is it a mad man’s last resort (as the author suggested through Nagarattam: “looked at that mad man”)? Literally, I am at a loss to cope up with the mounting questions. So, in reverence for the author, having attempted to translate his story, I now leave it to readers to ponder……