Sita was all ready to leave for Kalavara with her father to attend the seemantha ceremony. As she held her father’s right hand and walked, excitement overflowed her little steps. How long had she waited to witness the grandeur of seemantha! Now her own aunt’s seemantha has come by and she could see it for as long as she wanted.
Sita had only heard the word seemantha, she had never experienced its luxurious excitement. “Just once, amma, please take me to a seemantha,” she had cried and pleaded with her mother so many times. “Did you not see the seemantha arranged for me when I was carrying you?” Mother would lay her hand on Sita’s head and fondle her teasingly. Annoyed with this, Sita would get angry. Whenever this or that neighbour referred to a seemantha here or there, and mentioned a variety of sweets served for the pregnant woman, it made not just the mouth water, but also the ear. Sita could not resist her curiosity and would ask mother a number of questions.
“Amma, what is seemantha?” was her first question. When mother said, “Seemantha means desire,” “What is desire?” was the second question. Mother replied, “To feed the pregnant woman with the eatables she wishes to eat.” “Why will they become pregnant? How will they become pregnant…?” Like this, the chain of questions went on increasing. Mother would also answer her with a lot of patience and tact. For Sita, mother’s answers were like eczema. Just as when you scratch, the itch increases, whenever mother replied, around the same answer more questions sprout. Mother’s patience was tested when Sita asked, “Amma, when will I become pregnant? Then, will you arrange seemantha for me as well?” “Stop that! You naughty girl!”– a smack on her head! Sita would sit quiet just for that moment. But once a child is curious, do you think the curiosity would wane? That little mind was dying to know more and more about pregnancy and seemantha. It was nothing but the pull of the thread of desire of her tender heart to eat at least once the sweets served for the pregnant woman!
Sita was now sitting in the Miskith Motor and was crossing Udyavara bridge. For just a moment, the white cranes in the kandla bushes on the riverside diverted Sita’s attention from her aunt’s seemantha. But after a little while, again the thoughts of the seemantha ceremony described by Revathi, especially the boiled egg episode, rushed into her mind! Sita’s friend Revathi had recently attended her aunt’s seemantha at Bajpe. The very next day she had brought rava laddu and sugar coated groundnuts to school. She had described at length how her aunt was dressed up like a bride and how she was served umpteen varieties of eatables in the gerase. The aunt was made to sit, and in the gerase placed in front of her, they served rava laddu, mohan laddu, aralunde, sukrunde, holige, sugar coated groundnuts, chakkuli, maalpuri, halwa, mithayee, jalebi, boiled eggs …and many more things. She had told how her aunt chose her and her brother from amongst the crowd to offer them boiled eggs. Revathi had gone on. Meanwhile, Sita had been so upset that she had thrown the rava laddu out of the window.
She was angry because Revathi had brought rava laddu and not boiled eggs. Sita definitely loved sweets, but her first preference was for boiled egg. Not even once had she eaten a whole boiled egg. She only knew the taste of it as mother had given her a few pieces once or twice. Sita had a repeated desire to eat boiled eggs. Whenever she had demanded it, mother had frowned at her saying, “Are we great landlords with a thousand mudi of land to eat eggs everyday?” and hushed her up. She even knew that it was Chakana Seena who boiled the eggs that were displayed at Rampa’s toddy shop. Every time she saw them, she wanted to ask mother to buy one for her. But the scolding her mother gave stopped her from asking again.
Sita’s mind which had relished Revathi’s description of her aunt’s seemantha, now turned towards aunt Janaki’s seemantha soon to take place at Kalavara. “When will I reach Kalavara? When will I go and hug Janaki mami?”
— the excited Sita endlessly pondered… “When mami is served all those exclusive dishes, she would make me stand right next to her. She would make me the first to eat the boiled eggs and those sweets.” Sita could not decide what to eat and what not to…. As her calculations went on, she suddenly remembered her mother’s warning.
In the morning when Sita was getting ready to leave for her aunt’s seemantha, mother had put a bead string around her neck and told her, “My child, talk to mami only if she talks to you. Do not go on talking like a chatterbox. If they give you something to eat, first refuse. Say no. If you grab it, they‘ll think you have not eaten for four days. They know we are poor.” She had told many such things to Sita. Sita had nodded her head saying, “Umm.” Now, while she was wondering whether to follow her mother’s instructions or simply let them go out of the window, her father’s thought took a different turn altogether.
Sita’s father was Gopala Ganiga. After the death of his parents, he had taken the responsibility of his two grown up younger sisters and had brought them from the village to his house. He had sold his wife’s jewellery and had taken loans from all and sundry to get Sumathi, the elder one, married to Keshava, son of Dabbu Ganiga from Jokatte. The second one was Janaki. By the time she was to be married off, he was completely broke. Gopala who worked in a godown at Kinningoli was already an asthma patient. Half his salary went for his treatment and the other half for managing the house and all other expenses. In such a poverty stricken situation, the sister’s marriage was a real burden for Gopala. When unexpectedly Sumathi’s husband Keshava brought a marriage proposal from a very rich family as a second wife for Janaki, Gopala accepted it without any hesitation. Janaki, who did not want to be a second wife, accepted it half-heartedly with a woebegone face. The prosperity, wealth and richness of her husband’s house cooled her anger down and brought her woebegone face back to normal. After that, Janaki was swimming so much in milk and honey that she did not bother to think about her people even once. Now it was the suggi month. By the next month, that is bhesha, it would be one year since Janaki got married. During the last aati month, Gopala had gone to his sister’s place to invite her home. She had refused to go with him. After that he had also not bothered to visit her. So, this was the second time he was visiting Janaki’s house. While Gopala Ganiga sat thinking about his sister’s post delivery expenses, hundreds of ideas were rushing through little Sita’s mind. The ceremony, the boiled eggs, aunt Janaki’s house, heaps and heaps of sweets — all these competed with one another for her attention.
Gopala entered the courtyard with Sita. Sita was astonished to see the two storied house and thought that her aunt’s house was also as big as Revathi’s. As they crossed the courtyard and came into the verandah, her aunt’s husband received them. Sita’s eyes searched for her aunt. Aunt was not to be seen anywhere around. She sat with her father in a corner in the verandah, and started pestering him for her aunt. “She will come now…she will be here any time,” he tried to convince her.
Gradually Sita’s attention shifted from her aunt to the women who sat in the inner hall. Women in zari saris, decked up with gold, sat chatting. Sita looked at them with fear and with wide open eyes. All her attention was now on the woman in a red zari sari. Her neck loaded with gold necklaces reminded Sita of the neck of the ox that pulled Esmail Barry’s cart. She wanted to whisper this at once to her father. Already feeling uncomfortable and anxious to see his sister, father’s eyes searched for her all over the house. Sita noticed his eyes, and decided to keep quiet.
Once again she remembered her aunt. A strange fear stopped her from entering the inner hall. The huge carved doors, neatly decorated furniture, and smooth clean slippery floor! She was scared even to move her feet beyond where she sat. On top of this…her mother’s warning! She sat there silently.
Sita’s attention was on the inner room. Every now and then, as she thought of her aunt, the thought of boiled eggs also surfaced. She thought of Revathi as well. When Sita was looking in some other direction, her aunt appeared. Abba! Gopala felt relieved.
Sita was so excited to see her aunt. “I’ll go, touch mami once and come back, shall I?’ she asked her father quietly. “No, she will come here and hug you,” he said. Sita waited for a long time. Aunt was not coming this side. She was busy smiling and talking to those women in zari saris sitting in the inner hall.
Gopala also felt a bit awkward. Why was aunt not coming towards her? Sita’s anguish and impatience increased even more. When she asked repeatedly if she could go in, Gopala agreed.
Sita ran towards her aunt and hugged her. “When did you come? Where is appa?” asked Janaki with a blank expression. Sita pointed her finger towards her father. Janaki threw a wry smile at her brother, said, “I’ll be back now,” moved away from Sita and went inside.
Sita felt humiliated. Father had told her, “Mami will hug you, hold you close and cuddle you.” She neither hugged her nor shoved her off. She just removed Sita’s hands from around her and moved away. Sita could not bear this. She came running to her father, hid her face in his lap and started crying. Gopala let out a helpless sigh.
Gopala was trying to console his daughter. “Mami went inside to dress up like a bride. She will wear a zari sari, the flat round golden flower on her head, lots of jewellery in gold. Then she will come to you, hug you and get photographed….” Gopala went on saying many things but Sita was not convinced.
Meanwhile, Gopala’s other sister Sumathi arrived with her husband and daughter. As soon as she saw her brother, she came towards them and hugged Sita.
Sita’s attention got diverted towards aunt Sumathi’s daughter Sharada. Both of them started playing. Gopala consulted Sumathi on whether to take Janaki home for the delivery. “You better keep away from this. Why do you want to get into trouble? People like you cannot afford to take the responsibility of the rich and wealthy. Do not ask Janaki and get insulted,” she advised him. Gopala kept quiet.
Meanwhile, Janaki’s sisters-in-law led the dressed-up Janaki into the hall. “Chikkamma,” called out Sharada in a loud voice. Janaki did not hear her. Sumathi frowned at her daughter and signalled to her to shut up.
It was only Sumathi and Gopala’s families that attended the seemantha ceremony from Janaki’s side. This did not make any difference to Janaki nor did she feel bad about it. Janaki’s sisters-in-law made her sit on a chair, and placed a three-legged table in front of her. On the table was the gerase in which they began serving dishes for her. Baskets full of sweets, one after the other started coming from inside. As the aroma of sweets reached their nose, Sita and Sharada stopped playing and ran towards the women-folk who surrounded Janaki. Sumathi ran and caught hold of her daughter, but Sita slipped out and escaped. She went and stood right next to Janaki.
Sita looked at that her aunt’s decoration without blinking an eyelid. She felt that her aunt was more beautiful than Bhagirathi teacher. When Sita saw the different kinds of ornaments her aunt was wearing, she was reminded of her mother’s bare hands and neck.
Aunt’s husband stood beside her and was directing where and how the sweets should be served. When Sita looked at him and then at the sparkling rings on his fingers, she forgot those sweets and her aunt as well for a while. Suddenly Sita remembered the boiled eggs. She remembered how the boiled eggs were served to Revathi’s aunt at her seemantha and how she had given them to Revathi.
Boiled eggs were not served to aunt as yet. Sita was waiting for that. Aunt’s gerase was full of sweets of various shapes, names, sizes and colours. Till then she had never seen such things nor had she heard about them. Why Sita! Even Kamath of the bakery might not have seen them. Sita’s mouth watered on seeing such exotic sweets that decorated aunt’s gerase and she wanted to eat at least a little from each variety. As this went on, she was also anxious about those eggs. No one was serving aunt the eggs! Sita stretched her neck and looked around. Boiled eggs were not to be seen in any of the baskets or vessels there. Everyone was serving aunt sweets alone. Sita was losing her patience. Thinking someone or the other might bring eggs she peeped around. No sign of them. None of them even mentioned eggs. Aunt could not see those standing in front of her as the heap of sweets blinded her. This heap of sweets was passed over Sita’s head.
Then it was the turn of the fruits. Sita’s tension increased. Boiled eggs had not come yet! “Get boiled eggs after fruits,” aunt’s husband gave instructions to his brother-in-law. “Abba! At last!” thought Sita.
Sita’s excitement set in once again. The serving of fruits was also over. Boiled eggs were the only ones left now. Sita inched towards her aunt. The person who had gone inside to get it had not yet returned. Sita was so angry that she felt like biting him. “Who’s there, get the eggs!” Aunt’s husband roared and hastily the shell peeled boiled eggs appeared.
Aunt’s husband seemed a very nice person to Sita. When she witnessed that his orders resulted in the instant appearance of boiled eggs, she thought, he must be more powerful than her schoolmaster.
Finally, aunt was served boiled eggs. Sita’s mouth watered as she watched them. Aunt’s husband who was all smiles was forcing her to eat. People around aunt also forced her to eat. Aunt was not eating. She was feeling shy! “Arre!! What happened to this mami? She would grab it at once and eat when she was in our house,” Sita was surprised. Again aunt’s husband was forcing her to eat and he put a piece of halwa into her mouth. People sitting around laughed. Sita also laughed.
Janaki ate a few pieces of halwa and now stretched her hand towards the boiled eggs. Sita could hear her heart beat! “Give the eggs to two children you like the most,” said aunt’s eldest sister-in-law in a low voice. Aunt started looking at the children around her. To establish her existence, Sita inched towards her aunt and stood leaning on her.
Janaki’s search continued. “Let mami look at me at least once,” wished Sita. Janaki looked straight under her nose and did not bother to look on either side. She took an egg from the gerase, placed it in the hands of the child the red zari sari woman was carrying. That child was busy looking elsewhere. As the egg fell into her hand, the child’s disgust came out in the form of a loud “ii..shh..ee!” and she threw the egg back at Janaki. “She hates eggs and you have given it to her,” said the child’s mother laughing loud with her mouth open as wide as the town. Janaki also joined her in her laughter but sounded confused and silly.
The egg, which the child threw, was about to fall on Janaki but missed her and fell on Sita who was standing next to her. Sita was embarrassed for a moment. Somewhere within her she also felt happy because Janaki turned to see where the egg had fallen and she was standing right there! Since the egg had fallen on Sita, everyone’s attention was focused on her. Sita was happy that at least then her aunt took notice of her. She was also very angry with the child who threw the egg. “Why should she throw it? If she did not want she could have returned it,” thought Sita. On the one hand she was very angry, on the other she was eager to know to whom aunt would give the other egg.
Aunt again took another boiled egg in her hand. For a moment her gaze fell on Sita standing next to her, and then slowly it moved in some other direction. “Is she holding the egg and calculating some mantras like the opposite door Manku Joisa,” thought Sita. Aunt turned again towards Sita. Sita was excited! Aunt would give her the egg! She was thrilled!!
Janaki called her sister-in-law’s daughter who was standing far away. Though the girl did not want the egg she forced her to eat it and fed her with her own hands.
Sita who stood like an embodiment of desire suddenly stepped on the boiled egg lying at her feet and smashed it. She could not take the grandeur of the seemantha any more. She ran back to her father and hid her face in his lap. “Child, did you see seemantha?” he asked caressing her cheek.
Translated from Kannada by Mamta G. Sagar.
NAGAVENI, H. Has published a collection of short stories, Naakane Neeru (1997) and a novel, Gandhi Banda (1999). She won the State Sahitya Akademi Award and the Geeta Desai Award for her novel. She writes with her intimate awareness of the South Canara region, especially of the Bunt community. She uses a colloquial idiom with a tinge of Tulu. There is a perfect blend of wit and humour and a highly sensitive characteriza-tion. Nagaveni is working as Chief Librarian at Kannada University, Hampi.
MAMTA. G. SAGAR. Is a Kannada writer who has published three volumes of poetry and several plays. Some of her poems have been translated into English and published. She has recently directed an Urdu play, Purdah at the “AKKA” National Theatre Festival for Women. Among the awards she has received is the Gudibande Poornima Award for the poet of the year in 1999. At present, she is doing her Ph.D.in comparative literature at the University of Hyderabad.