Chairs on either side of a painted two by two inch square rose wood table. A tray containing tomato chilli sauce, vinegar, salt and pepper and a few small porcelain dishes. The smell of U.S. pizzas. The chillness of Coke, Sprite and Thumbs Up in plastic tumblers.
One could notice only a few buses amidst the endless flow of cars scooters and autos on the fly-over. Only the expected vehicle was not in sight.
The red lights flickered. A row of about ten cars behind a pilot vehicle zooming past with a siren. After a tight security for three minutes, vehicles on both sides were allowed to move. Even before we could gulp down three mouthfuls of Coke, a few VVIPs went via this road to the airport or to Jubilee Hills or to some VVIPs’ houses on the College road.
The mêlée of vehicles which swallows up the spacious road. Two foreigners holding hands were crossing the road trampling over the lawn spread out on the road divider. As yet, the natives didn’t dare do such a thing. They crossed the mile long road. Though the roads were widened and flyovers constructed, why wasn’t there space for people to walk?
Sandeep inching his way forward, frequently being held up in the traffic.
Wasn’t able to sleep the last two days. Eagerness, anxiety. worry. .. A heavy, troubled wait for two days!
He parked his Yamaha, tidied up his hair and came in. A haziness that envelops when you come in from the sun. Getting used to the coolness, he came to the corner, sat on a chair and said, “Hi, sorry. Traffic”—a common enough explanation given to the one who arrives earlier.
The conversation did not proceed. But, till a couple of days ago-
There were no commas or full stops to our conversation. Whenever mother came to mind, I wanted to remember at least a part of the conversation. Every time we met, the same thought. I would not remember a word. We would spend two or three hours sitting in front of each other. IT, software, hardware, management courses, Hollywood. Bollywood. sociology, politics— not one but all kinds of things!
‘What do you talk for hours together?’Mother asked me one day. I had a blank look.
Since that day, my attempt had been to remember something we talked at least on one of the days to tell mother. But I could not remember a thing.
When I told this to my mother, she laughed.
My looks were fixed on the person serving at the next table. A very familiar face. After he went inside, I remembered. The boy who used to sell idlis on the cart. He came to clean a table just vacated.
‘Isn’t that Narasimha?’ I asked.
‘Yes. Has Narasimha taken up work here? Sandeep said casually.
‘Are you working here?’ I spoke to him.
‘ Your idli cart?’
‘I have no business.’
‘It used to be good here, isn’t it? But, tell me, why did you all leave this place?’
‘We didn’t go, we were….’
‘Excuse me.’ A call from the next table.
‘I’ll be back soon.’ Saying this, Narasimha left.
Bearer-cleaner—server-One time owner Narasimha. On the idli cart—sizzling hot idlis, dosas and senagapappu, ginger chutney, karappodi, tea and coffee. Next to it a chaat cart—panipoori, bhelpoori, ragda chaat, paavbhaaji and jilebi. These two carts would be busy with the people from the colony, college students and passers-by. Nearby, the college students’ haunt. All of us, groups of boys and girls, would eat and chat, leaning against two wheelers, sitting on boulders, sitting in and on cars. Sometimes, I would get some idlis and dosas packed and take them home for mother. Mother used to like ginger chutney and karappodi a lot. When I had just joined the college, students used to have quite a few pagers and cell phones, perhaps not as many as now. Mostly boys had them. One day, when mother came to drop me, she said, ‘Cell phones, pagers, brand new cars… but they seem to be eating off the cart!’
`Many among them go in the evenings to three star or five star hotels, clubs, resorts, late night parties and discos.’
‘Mmm…’ said mother, her eyes fixed on the wall poster of Govinda singing, ‘Mai bhelpoori.’
By the time we returned to college after the Dasara holidays, the idli and chaat carts weren’t there.
Pizza, burger, pastries, ice cream, Coke, Thums Up, Mirinda and tables meant just for two.
Videogames, internet, greeting cards, colourful flowers and telephone in a tall booth.
Since then, drink-in was our haunt.
After the drink-in’s arrival, I told mother about the disappearance of the idli and chaat carts and the small box-like telephone booth.
‘What happened to all of them?’ said mother.
‘Nothing will happen to them. They must have gone to some other place because the business was better there,’ said father.
I immediately changed the topic. Whichever way the conversation proceeded, father would say something to hurt mother. At dinner on the evening I met Narasimha, I told mother, ‘ I saw Narasimha.’
‘Which Narasimha?’ asked mother.
‘The idli cart one, he has taken up a job at the drink-in as a server, cleaner, bearer whatever. I believe two days before the drink-in opened, the traffic police drove him away. ‘We have been there for three years. We have been giving them some small sums. We don’t know how we were hampering the traffic. They drove us away.’ Saying this, he was very upset. Narasimha is sure that it is the drink-in people who paid them and got them to drive him away. When he moved to another part, he had problems with those already there who felt he was ruining their business. He had not saved much from what he had earned. He had bought a TV, a scooter and a fridge on an instalment basis. To pay up these loans, to run the house and because of the ever decreasing business, he had finally joined the drink -in.’ I recounted all that Narasimha told me.
‘Traffic police! The drink-in people opened the restaurant precisely because they realised that they would have good business. They sent away the boy who ran the box telephone booth. They wouldn’t like to lose even a single customer. Also, they must have thought that the carts next to the restaurant would give it a cheap look. When Eating World’ opened the basket of the old woman who sold vegetables vanished, didn’t it?’ said mother.
‘Vegetables in ‘Eating World’ are fresh. We can buy all things at one place, can’t we? said father.
‘ Greens, green chillies, brinjals or whatever else the old woman sold glistened.’
‘Arundhati, yours is just anger. All hardened theories. You and your communist and feminist brains! You don’t know how much the purchasing power has increased in India and more so among us. They are giving loans to buy TVs, fridges, cars and houses. Some are also interest-free. There’s not much difference between the rich and the poor. You’re unnecessarily excited,’ said father.
‘No difference between the rich and the poor. Purchasing power consumer power, less consumers, more consumers—you’re a real bureaucrat!’ said mother.
For sometime now, such fights every other day. We had not noticed father having his own agenda. As father worked like water which took the ape of the container which contained it—
‘Actually, why do you do these things? Don’t you know what these jobs entail?’ Mother asked one day.
‘Shut up, who dares question me? No one talks to me like this, except you. Who wants you or your wretched feminism? If I flash a few notes to the women who are on your side, they’ll cross over to this side. Just because you can’t earn money, you abuse people who are happy. Even your son finds fault with your views. Keep in mind, never to question me with your half-baked knowledge.’ Father kept abusing her.
‘ I am true to my values. Are you‘?’ asked mother.
What are your values? A nation for women? Education? Money? Children? Husband? Beauty contests? You dare question my values! Haughtiness… Father dashed to the ground, the plate from which he was eating.
This led to their having separate bedrooms.
‘Amma, what’s all this? You don’t have one thing in common, how then did you fall in love and get married’?’ I asked mother that day.
‘Yes, we wanted to marry each other. We convinced people at home, didn’t pay any heed to people who asked us not to and got married. Then, Vija cas not like this. As days went by there were all kinds of changes in him. When he started moving towards power and making money by corrupt means, all my efforts to save him failed. Now, he does not need any human touch. If he were like this then, he wouldn’t have been my choice,’ said mother.
‘ Why do you think such things happen?’
‘ Globalisation does not stop with the banks, it enters the bedroom,’ said mother.
Since that day, we rarely found mother and father talking to each other.
Were my younger brother and I the only reason they hadn’t separated?
Brother believed that the lack of peace in this house was only due to mother’s meaningless values.
‘If amma isn’t mad, how can she think that we can live comfortably in the five thousand she earns? Isn’t it because nanna earns so well that I have a Yamaha, you a computer, good pocket money, clothes and food? Isn’t that so? Why is she so foolish to say she can live a simple life on her income.? She can spend happily, can’t she? Nanna comes back after working very hard, doesn’t he? When he comes home, you are both one of a kind.’ Brother was so irritated that he stopped talking to us properly from that day on.
Amidst all these problems, I seemed to have unnecessarily brought in Narasimha’s problems. I should have told mother when she was alone.
If I wanted to change the topic, what should I turn to? Brother’s studies… my studies… TV serials… cannot think .. . oh… Sandeep.
‘Did Sandeep call when I was away at college? It’s ten days since we met. I’m not able to get him on the phone either,’ I said.
‘No, he may be busy,’ he said.
‘No one’s at home’? asked mother. ’Aunty was there.
‘I left a message.’ The phone rang. Father picked it up.
‘Hi! How’re you? Ah, good, very good. Congrats.’ Saying this, father handed over the cordless to me.
‘Hi! I have found a job. I’m leaving for the States. Busy with the arrangements,’ Sandeep was saying.
‘Come to the drink-in tomorrow’ I said.
‘Tomorrow? Not tomorrow, the day after.’
‘What do you have to do tomorrow?’
‘I’ve a class.’
‘ What class?’
‘Personality development. Tomorrow’s the last class,’ he said.
‘Day-after-tomorrow evening. Bye.’
‘Good, very good. I believe Sandeep’s going to America. Next year, my son too will go…’ Father kept on speaking. I could not hear a thing.
Going to America? We never discussed this at all.
Mother followed me into my room.
‘Did you know that Sandeep was planning to go?’
‘No, I didn’t.’
‘ Why are you like this?’
‘America. . . .if he goes there, I’ll miss him a lot.’
‘He’ll come back.’
‘He’s going for a job.’
‘Won’t he be back in a year’s time?’
‘Is a year a short time?’ Even if he comes, he’ll go back. It’ll be difficult for me not to meet him or talk to him.’
‘Do you want to go to America or not?’ Mother asked.
‘I have no problems about staying there for a while to study and to work. I don’t want to settle down there. But the problem at present is that I still have a year to go to finish my studies. I can’t go along with him, can I?’
‘You may not be able to go immediately. You’ll feel bad. But there’s no problem about communication, is there? There are so many things—es. mail, chat etc. When you meet him day after, sort out everything clearly,’ said mother.
‘I felt very upset as soon as I heard the news. I’ll go only after I finish my studies. Communication is not such a big problem. We can speak every thing within seconds, It’s very funny. Till ten minutes ago, I had no other’ thought but that Sandeep had not called. Now, my only thoughts are on completing my education and going to America. Sandeep and I thought of getting married. But we never decided on when, where or how. We have to talk it over day after,’ I said.
Now, here, like this with Sandeep.. .
‘What is it that you wanted to talk about?’ Sandeep asked.
‘You’re going to America. What about our plans?’ I asked.
Sandeep took some time and said, ‘It will be tough emotionally. But, looking at it practically, there’s no other option. We are studying different subjects. It will be difficult for us to find jobs at the same place. No chance.’If I marry someone who has the same profession as I, then we can both work at the same place. We can go to office together and return together. We can do household chores together. We can discuss things pertaining to our profession a lot. If you finish your work early and come home/I may not have finished my work. Then you’ll be alone at home looking forward to me. You may be delayed and I may come back early. Then I’ll have to look forward to you. If we don’t want to have problems in the long run, we should think practically and plan. The tensions in family life should not reflect on our work.’
Sandeep seemed odd to me. New words, new thoughts! Is it just ten days since we met? So much change in such a short time!
‘I believe family life is very important to be successful at work.’
‘Important…? Who said that?’ I asked.
‘I attended personality development classes, didn’t I?’ ‘how many classes?’
‘Two hours a day, seven days.’ ‘On the whole fourteen hours.
‘Yes. Let’s remain good friends. Getting married and fighting in the long run …without separating. If you find a sociology student and get married to him, you too can work at the same place. You can start an NGO. You can work as consultants. You can share your work.
‘Good. Personality development classes have taught you very well, haven’t they’?’
‘Very much so. We think meaninglessly about a few things. I’ll tell you I don’t want to marry you, amma said you would burst out, that my decision regarding you was wrong, was unfair, inhuman and argued a lot with mc. She shouted at me. She tried to persuade me. I was trying to tell her that you’d understand and that this is the right decision for both of us. Sandeep kept speaking.
Fourteen hours of personality development classes -were they so powerful that they made him think so practically about our five years of friendship and love and come to decisions?
Or were they props for the latent misgivings to come out in the open and speak about them? Were what Sandeep saying the real reasons? Was he saying these because he was unable to voice those that were more powerful and more frightening? Was living necessary or unnecessary? It must have been some sort of a counselling or a development class or a workshop to sort this out. Wasn’t it our choice to decide which one to take?
So. . . Sandeep’s choice—
It was unnecessary to convince or argue to change the decision by reminding one of the time spent together, the colours sprinkled, the odours scattered, the kisses in the ear or the groping erotic intertwining of bodies.
I was looking at my mail on the computer that night.
‘Except to be emotional like your mother, you don’t have the brains to live. I had told you even then. No social sciences. I asked you to appear for EAMCET. You didn’t listen. BSc, Computers. . . you didn’t listen. Couldn’t you tell Sandeep that you would do a diploma course in a year’s time and move into his field? The future is only in IT. At least now, listen to me and join a year’s course. If you’re not in the computer line, marriage will be a problem.’ I felt like laughing listening to father’s words.
‘ Why don’t you call an ad agency and tell them that a husband is guaranteed if you join IT? They’ll use it for advertising computer institutes,’ I said.
‘You find all this funny. Attend the classes.’
‘Every field has its own importance, nanna. Am I not using the computer with ease for my work? I am learning the necessary skills, am I not? But that field is not my profession. For the sake of marriage, I won’t learn the computer. I won’t learn cooking either. If I find something interesting, if I like it or find it useful. I’ll learn it. But I won’t learn it either because no one will marry me or that my husband will leave me.’
‘You’ve turned out to be like your mother. Mmm. . . okay.. . Do I have any mail?’ asked father.
‘No. Amma has.’ I said
Father left the room.
Sandeep. . .came after a year on a ten day vacation. He invited me to his wedding.
In a pandal made of banana stalks, jasmines, coconut leaves and mango leaves, he tied the tali around the girl’s neck.
‘Can’t come home. . . .no time. She has to join at her work place immediately. Our jobs are at the same place. I believe you have got admission in JNU. If I come via Delhi next time, it means I can see you,’ he said.
‘You can come there and study in some university, can’t you?’ ‘Mmm. I’ll take leave now.’
‘Just a minute.’ Saying this, he went towards the parking lot. When he came back, he showed me a small cute black instrument and said, ‘ I brought this for you. You don’t need number buttons. As you say the names and numbers of the people, it will automatically record them. When you want to ring up someone, mention the person’s name. It will dial automatically. It will maintain confidentiality. You don’t have to remember numbers. You don’t have to carry the address book. Take a JTM or Tata connection.’
‘I don’t need a cell.’
‘You’re going to Delhi. It’ll be very useful,’ he said.
‘If you give it to people who use it, they’ll be happy. I won’t use it. I’ll have to put it in a corner. I won’t need to use it in the near future. I said.
‘I bought it for you. Then what? What shall I give you? Perfumes? But I don’t have them here, they’re at home. Shall I send them to your house with the driver?’
‘No, please don’t. I came to your wedding and you gave me jasmines, didn’t you? That’s enough. I ’ll go now.’
‘My American friends asked me whether marriages took place in the same manner as they are portrayed in cinemas. I told them I would show them the cassettes. That’s why I took the trouble of getting banana stalks, coconut leaves, jasmines and mango leaves. We did everything according to convention. I’ll call my friends, show them and give a party. They’ll like these very much.’ As Sandeep was saying all this, I felt like asking him to clarify a doubt I had all these days.
‘Don ‘t you like all this?’ I asked.
‘What’s there to like or dislike’? It’s our tradition, after all. They are very curious about our matters.’
‘Is that so? …The other day you had many objections like not working at the same place for our not getting married. Are they really problems? Do those small things decide our being together or separate from each other? Your personality classes told you we would have problems living together but as you were unable to say why, you invented reasons like not going to office together or cooking or eating together. At least now, can you tell me the real reason?’ I asked.
Sandeep did not speak for few moments.
‘Muneera… ’ He looked only in my direction for a few seconds… shook his head and said, ‘That’s true. I gave you a couple of reasons that I could at that time. The class gave the courage to tell you but I had a lot of misgivings and doubts for a long time about our living together. In the beginning our likes and opinions were the same, or nearly so. You were not ready to accept or follow the changes in this country. Take Narasimha’s matter, for instance. It hurt you. I wasn’t troubled at all. Change is natural. Why should we say no to development? You have objections to development that will destroy the lives of others. I was scared that our life too would be fraught with the same daily problems that your parents have. My mother has no objections to whatever my father does. If he earns more, she feels she can give more to my elder sister and me but is not worried about what happens either here or abroad. There are no problems in our house, like in yours. I felt that we didn’t have much in common in many things.’
I came back home.
When I told mother, she said, ‘He must have thought you couldn’t get along in principle.‘
`‘It’s difficult to have things in common. I can’t weave flowers in my hair just for the sake of American friends or Russian relatives, can I? I’ll do it only if I feel like it or I feel my husband will enjoy it. I can’t do it for cassettes. Come. I haven’t packed as yet.’ Saying this, I went into my room and opened my suitcase.
We were packing the clothes, books and cassettes.
‘I was scared ever since I heard Sandeep’s decision. I was worried how you would emotionally come to terms with all this. I am still surprised as to how you have been able to fight your inner turmoil,’ mother said.
‘It took twenty years for nanna to get used to power and wealth. It took only fourteen hours for Sandeep to change completely. I saw how you suffered as nanna changed slowly over the twenty years. You can’t help suffering, you can’t leave him. Twenty years is not a short time. We somehow get used to living together. For you fifteen hours, half an hour, fifteen minutes are not long periods. For us, they are. We don’t know whether the hurried decisions we take will make or break our generation. I can’t tell you now whether they will bring happiness and satisfaction or sadness and void. But I am surprised about one thing. I don’t know how the anxiety, desire, pain and anticipation I felt when I didn’t see Sandeep for two days disappeared when he made the decision. What do you think a boy who changed in fourteen hours will become in twenty years? Our own individuality may undergo a change living with such people. Like you, one can conveniently adjust oneself and live in that life, either happily or unhappily. Unable to bear the pain, we may destroy ourselves. Whatever it is, we can’t remain ourselves. I feel no reason to lose myself.’ I said.
‘You take decisions rather quickly. You don’t just hang on. Time is not wasted….But…Let’s see.’
‘I forgot to tell you something. When I was going to Sandeep’s wedding, I noticed that the drink- in is no longer there. It was there when I went two days ago. A big shopping complex has come up right behind the drink- in.
When they were constructing it, I didn’t think the drink-in was in their way. In the shopping complex, a restaurant, a billiards room. internet, children’s park, vegetables, chicken . .. and what not? There’s nothing, you can’t get. Not just clothes and jewels, you’ll find anything. On the ruse of road widening when they razed the drive-in, this butt ding came to be seen in full view. They razed the drink- in for the sake of elevation. ‘There’s no longer any trace of the drink-in’
‘Oh! Is that so? The name of that building?’
‘A pun on light…take whatever meaning you want.’
‘A big building?’
‘It costs crores. Are we living our lives? Or are we living according to
the dictates of others? 1 asked.
‘Have you started asking questions like your mother?’ Father, who was entering the room, was annoyed.
As I was about to reply, mother said, ‘Muneera still has a lot to pack.
It’s a long journey. Don’t stop. Continue.’ I looked at her.
Mother was looking at me with brightly lit eyes as she wiped the dust settled on my college group photo.
Translated from Telugu by Alladi Uma and M. Sridhar.
Kuppili Padma is a well known short story writer, novelist and freelancer in Telugu. A regular contributor to newspapers and magazines, her writings focus on women’s issues. This story is from her story collection Salabhanjika which earned critical acclaim for its sensitive portrayal of women in an increasingly globalised world.
ALLADI UMA. Professor and Head of the Department of English, University of Hyederabad. Her research interests are Indian Literature in English, Women’s writing, African – American Literature and Translation Studies. Her publications include Woman and Her Family: Indian and Afro-American, A Literary Perspective and several research papers. Published Woman Unbound: Selected Short Stories by Volga and Ayoni and Other Stories, in collaboration with M. Sridhar.