Once upon a time, there was a princess. A demon carried her away and imprisoned her in a single-pillared mansion. A prince came along, killed the demon and freed her. Sukanya repeatedly recollects this story that her paternal grandmother had told her in her childhood. Her husband Aditya has married her, brought her to flat number 604 on the sixth floor of an apartment complex in Begumpet in Hyderabad.
Aditya is a computer engineer. He works in the Hi-tech city in a software company on a ship building project. They are paying him well enough so he won’t leave the job mid-way and go away to America. If Aditya sits in front of the computer, he is lost in the beautiful curves of the ship. He can’t distinguish between day and night in that air-conditioned office, under neon lights.
As usual, Aditya leaves home early in the morning. Breakfast, lunch and dinner– all at the office. “Cooking just for myself. What should I make?” Sukanya sighs. She goes into the kitchen thinking she’ll make herself a cup of tea. She slowly pours water into a pan and puts it on the stove. It’ll be over too quickly if she puts it in the microwave. Sukanya doesn’t like it. She goes and stands in the balcony. Till the other day everything used to be tasty when food was cooked on the firewood stove in her mother’s place in the village. Pappu, mudda pappu would simmer slowly. How tasty! How wonderful were the corncobs, chikkudu seeds, anumulu and all of them cooked together as gudalu! Sukanya heaves a sigh. From the balcony, Hussain Sagar, in front of her, appears still, as if blue clouds had descended. Already a swarm of cars on the necklace road! They are sliding by quietly. Already love couples on the green lawns along the road! Don’t they have office work like Aditya? Sukanya sighs!
Am I the princess that the demon carried away and imprisoned in the single- pillared mansion? Who then is the demon that carried me there? Who is the prince who will rescue me from the torture of this demon? When will he come? Sukanya laughs.
Didn’t grandmother say that a married woman should not think of a man other than her husband! Sukanya laughs. Sukanya goes in after tying the long hair she had let loose into a knot. The water is boiling. She puts some tealeaves into it. About to add sugar, she stops. “Aditya said I am putting on weight. He doesn’t like my being fat. So it’s better to take less sugar.” She puts only a spoon of sugar. She pours milk. She pours her tea into a mug and comes into the hall. The dining table, chairs, sofas, everything is in neat order. Aditya had bought all this furniture with the money her parents gave him as dowry. It was he who selected all of them. It was he who arranged all of them.
“You don’t seem to have such good taste,” said Aditya. She looks at the sari she is wearing and its colour and laughs. Perhaps that’s why he has himself chosen everything from window curtains on!
Sukanya is sipping her tea slowly. A big screen TV in front. Her only companion. More than fifty channels on TV. The desired programme on pressing the remote! Aladdin’s lamp! Patalabhairavi figurine! That remote! “Oh! If it were really those, I would have wished that they carried me away from here!” Sukanya laughs.
“I can’t bear this loneliness, this silence any more!” How wonderful it would be to have someone next to her! To talk, to fight…At school how much her friend Nirmala would jabber! She used to feel irritated if she jabbered. How wonderful it would be if that Nirmala were here! Sukanya sighs.
She doesn’t know who lives in the apartment next door in this mansion. Aditya said, “It’s uncivil to find out. Don’t visit anyone unless you’re invited.” It is ten months since they moved in. She has not seen anyone so far. Aditya is rarely at home. How long is he here — eight to ten hours! Out of that seven, eight or nine hours sleep. An hour in the bathroom for shave, bath…to dress! If Sukanya tries to make conversation, he says mmm…aaa. Breakfast mostly in the office. If he eats breakfast at home, it is omelette, toast and coffee. Hurry! Hurry! Even in such a hurry he says that the toast is burnt. He says that the omelette should only be half cooked. It shouldn’t be cooked so much, he says. “What coffee powder did you buy? It’s no good! Don’t buy coffee powder this time. I’ll bring it,” he says. Hurry! Hurry! He leaves behind half a cup of coffee and goes out with his office bag. As Sukanya runs to catch up with him, he is down within a second in the lift. That’s it! If she counts the words she speaks with Aditya, how many will they be? One…two…three…you can count on your fingertips like that.
Sukanya drinks her tea and switches the TV on. The news. Someone has been murdered. Blood! Hordes and hordes of people. Police. Sukanya changes the channel. Someone is presenting the forecast for the week. Weekly forecast on the TV too! Astrology! Changes to another channel. Half-naked people singing at the top of their voice that splits your head! Don’t they have clothes to wear? She recalls the question the farmhand’s son asked her in the village. Sukanya switches off the TV. Silence once again! Silence all over the house! She can hear herself breathe. It’s hissing like the sound of the air released from the air-filled bellows of the blacksmith. Sukanya gets scared hearing that sound. She goes to the balcony adjoining the hall and looks out. In front of her, apartments that rise high and touch the sky. Only such apartments all around. Like the fangs of the demons. Like the hands of Kabandha! How many like her are stuck in them, alone in the silence.… How much of unbearable silence is embedded in the planets, in the stars and in the black holes of the sky, in the infinite universe. Sukanya shudders. She takes a deep breath and looks down. The roads below appear as if they are in the netherworld. Toy-like cars, buses and lorries on the roads. They are moving fast like ants. People appear like black dots moving here and there. Sukanya feels dizzy.
Tring…tring…the doorbell. The flow of happiness that sears through the silence. Open the door — oh no! Aditya’s strict orders that she should not open the door without peeping through the tiny glass fixed on the door. Looks through. The maid, Rajamma. Rajamma comes once a day. She does her work swiftly like a machine and goes away. Initially, Sukanya tried to talk to her. “Oh God! I’ve two more houses to go to.” Saying this, she was engrossed in her work. Sukanya sighs — Rajamma has turned into a machine!
When she was newly married, she called Aditya on the phone and began sweetly, “When are you coming?” But Aditya yelled at her, “Don’t disturb me like this. Understand!” Do people who work with machines become machines themselves? Father liked and selected Aditya, and gave him a huge dowry because he felt he had a bright future! Aditya returns sometime in the middle of the night. Saying, “I’ve eaten and come,” he changes into his nightclothes and falls on the bed. Sukanya who had looked forward to him all the while does not feel like eating then. She lies next to him. Moves closer to him. “I’m sleepy. I’m tired. Ummm.…” says Aditya. Sleep soon after his return. Unable to sleep, Sukanya twists and turns in bed as desire gnaws at her body and mind. Her friend Nirmala told her that young, newly married couples indulge in sex every day. “Why just once…,” she also said with a mischievous smile. Maybe, Aditya gets tired after sitting in front of the computer all day touching the corners and curves of the ship! Sukanya contemplates for a long time in darkness and silence, and finally slips into slumber sometime early in the morning, as if she is going into a black hole.
It is dawn.
The maid, Rajamma left a long time ago….Silence everywhere.
Tring…tring…the bell again. How wonderful that sound! She looks through the small glass. Her parents! Sukanya is thrilled. Opens the door happily. Her parents sit on the sofa. Tears roll down rapidly from Sukanya’s eyes.
“Sukku….” Her mother is worried.
“Tears of happiness,” says Sukanya.
“Isn’t alludu at home?” Father’s question. Sukanya shakes her head to indicate no.
“Amma! Why didn’t you come and stay here?” Sukanya’s question reveals her unhappiness.
“We came yesterday. We always stay in a hotel, don’t we? If we now come to our daughter’s house, what will people think?” says her mother.
Father takes the Business Review on the table and flips through the pages.
“Why have you lost weight? Anything special?” Mother asks with a smile. Sukanya shakes her head to say no.
How can she lose weight when she has in fact put on weight! But not so much that she cannot get into her blouses.
“Are you using the pill? Careful. I believe pills have side effects,” says mother.
“States…wants to go there…Aditya…if children are born there, it seems they’ll get natural citizenship….” Sukanya doesn’t finish.
“What alludu says seems fair,” father says lifting his head from the Business Review.
“Nanna! I don’t feel like going to the States…My friend…Lalita…is there, remember, she says…it’s not good there. Especially those without a job can’t live there, it seems. Loneliness…boredom…it seems,” she says.
“Stupid girl! Saying no to fortune! Aditya has a bright future there. Lots of money! … Every comfort you desire! .…” says father.
“We don’t know when alludu will come. So, we’ll make a move. Say we’ll meet him when we come next. Careful, my dear…” says mother. Both get up.
“Lunch, now?” says mother with affection.
Her parents leave. Silence all over. Loneliness. Sukanya goes to the bedroom window and looks out. Below, far away, cars, scooters, autos, buses are rushing by. All around quiet! Silence! Poisonous fumes mist-like! Sukanya recalls the neem trees, peepul trees, banyan trees with hanging roots on the outskirts of the village. When it rains, puddles everywhere. The images of her lifting the pleats of the skirt and wading through the water move in front of her eyes. Mother yelling, “Don’t go into the slush!” Though she heard her mother’s screams, ignoring them and running on the roads! Also, if you went on to the terrace of the house, any number of parrots on the guava tree. Green parrots with red beaks merging with the green leaves. Forgetting to pluck the guavas lost, looking at them. One day, a baby parrot coming on to the terrace. Not able to fly. Catching it and putting in a cage. “Because he put a parrot in a cage, Ramadas was imprisoned. Don’t, dear. Free it,” grandmother pleading. Her saying umm…ummm. Is she being punished for the sin of putting the parrot in a cage like that! Loneliness! Silence! How long this punishment! It seems Rama and Lakshmana came and released Ramadas. Who will release her? Sukanya looks out. No greenery anywhere. Apartments all around. Overcast sky above them like a smoked frying pan.
It seems there are higher apartments than these in San Francisco in the U.S. As soon as she thinks of it, she feels as if someone is throttling her. Feels suffocated. Lalita’s husband has a computer job near there in the Silicon Valley. It seems he sits in front of the computer day and night, even on holidays. Poor Lalita! Like me, in that far off country, in a new place!
Sukanya cries. Her eyes redden. Tears roll out like waterfalls. Tring…tring of the doorbell tearing through the thick silence.
Sukanya wipes her eyes and opens the door with a smile. Aditya! She knew it was Aditya as she looked through the tiny glass. How come he’s here now, it’s so unusual!
“Why so long? Why is your face swollen like this? Sleep! You’ve nothing else to do but sleep,” he says sarcastically.
Is Aditya angry that she has not studied in a convent, that she cannot speak English? Disappointed? Why then did he marry her? Money! Support till he leaves for America! “At this time…your coming…I didn’t expect,” Sukanya falters.
“Umm…” Aditya darts in. Goes into the bedroom.
“My parents had come…said they’ll come again,” Sukanya says running behind him.
“Okay! … I’ve invited my boss and three foreign delegates for dinner tonight. You don’t have to cook. I’ll order Chinese from the hotel.”
“I’ll…cook. From…the hotel…why?”
“They don’t like the kinds of things you cook.” Sukanya feels hurt to be told she can’t even cook well.
Aditya goes quickly into the bedroom and comes out with a file in his hand.
He came for this file. Otherwise, he would have called about tonight’s dinner. That’s his personal file. Contains degree certificates etc. Why he is taking that Sukanya is unable to understand.
“I’ll be back by eight. Keep everything tidy.” Saying this, Aditya looks up at Sukanya over the papers in the file and leaves the room hurriedly, adding, “Go to the beauty parlour and get spruced up. With that oily face of yours.…”
As soon as Aditya leaves, Sukanya dusts the entire apartment. As she dusts, she looks at herself in the mirror. Placing her hand below her waist, “I’ve just put on a little weight here,” she feels, “How can you not put on weight if you just sit at home!” Her lips spread out into a smile. A beauty parlour below the apartment. Goes down in the lift. No one to be seen except the lift operator. Completely deserted! Silence! No one is talking loudly in the beauty parlour. She goes and sits down. She tells them what she wants. The fingers of the girl who looks Chinese move deftly. Threading, facial, light make-up, kohl for the eyes, mascara curling up the eye lashes, lipstick and a beautiful hair clip on a step-hair style. She looks at herself in the full-sized mirror. “I’m beautiful,” she smiles. She pays the money to the Chinese looking girl and walks out. On the way back she buys fresh flowers at the florist’s. Lift. Apartment. Again no one in sight on the way back. Who lives in these apartments? How come no one is seen at all? Sukanya enters her apartment. She places the flowers she brought along in the flower vase. She stands admiring their beauty.
Tring…tring…the doorbell. When she peeps through the glass on the door, people from the hotel with tall white caps. Why do they wear such tall white caps? She puts all the food they bring in the kitchen. Chicken Manchurian, chicken 65, ginger prawns, fish fry, noodles, rice — all Chinese. “I would have prepared only our own dishes. Aditya has ordered these from the hotel because he thinks ours won’t be good!” She keeps the dishes, plates and cutlery required for the Chinese food ready. She looks at the time in the golden wristwatch with dazzling diamonds. It is quarter to eight!
The sound of the doorbell is the only excitement in her life. Complete silence otherwise. No conversation with people. No chirping of birds. No noise of the branches of trees as they swing in the wind. Silence! Complete silence! These apartments are dense forests where crows cannot enter. A thicket where ants cannot crawl in. She opens the door again. Even as she looked through the glass on the door, she knew it was Aditya. Aditya looks tired.
“Don’t stand there with your mouth open. Won’t you let me come in?” Why is he so angry? Don’t the love and the naughty behaviour that are discussed in novels, that are shown in films exist in real life?
“Will you move aside or not?” Aditya’s tone is harsh. Sukanya is startled. “Haven’t the guests arrived?” She thinks but doesn’t ask.
“Is everything ready?” Asking this, Aditya opens the door. Someone with a large cardboard carton behind him. He has the carton placed in the kitchen.
“Have you taken out the cut glasses for the drinks?” The same anger again. Sukanya nods.
“Look, don’t shake your head like a buffalo in the presence of guests. It’s impolite to shake your head like that. Okay?”
About to nod her head to say yes, Sukanya controls herself and says, “Yes.” Aditya goes into the bathroom, has a bath, changes his clothes and comes out.
Tring…tring…the doorbell. Aditya opens the door. Guests in front of him. They enter. Aditya says softly, not to the hearing of others, as if to himself, “Don’t stand there with your gaping mouth like a country bumpkin.” Aditya introduces her to them. They are about to shake hands with her. Bewildered, Sukanya folds her hands together and says, “Namaste.”
“Country bumpkin. Will you be defiled if you shake hands?” Aditya says, not to the hearing of others, grinding his teeth. The guests respond, “Namaste,” and sit down on the sofa. Aditya says, “Excuse me,” and goes into the kitchen. Sukanya follows him. He takes out the whiskey bottles from the carton. He arranges those bottles, cut glasses and ice cubes on trays. Both come out with the trays. Aditya asks the guests and pours the drinks into their glasses according to their choice.
“Your wife?” ask the guests. Aditya quickly hands over a glass of Coca-Cola to her.
All of them raise their glasses and bring them together. Cling…the sound. Sukanya too joins her glass with theirs.
“Cheers! Cheers for Aditya,” everyone says. Sukanya goes in and brings the chicken, fish and prawns. Endless conversation as they eat them! Sukanya feels suffocated there. She feels heavy in her chest. She rushes into the kitchen. As she stands in the balcony — the Buddha in the glow of the lights. Motionless. Takes a deep breath. Aditya follows her. Without speaking to her, he fills a plate with a lot of food and goes back. Sukanya walks slowly back to the hall. All the chicken, fish, prawns, noodles, rice etc., on the plates are disappearing fast. The guests say, “Very good food!”
“Mrs. Aditya is a very good cook,” says one of the guests.
“You’ve not yet tasted Hyderabadi biryani. Next time!” says Aditya. His speech is a bit slurred. Sukanya feels a bit scared to look at them sozzled.
She remembers seeing in her childhood husbands drunk on toddy and arrack beating up their wives. “Cha! They’re drunkards. These people are not like that,” she thinks.
“Hyderabadi biryani, now only in the States! Okay!” One of the guests laughs.
“That’s right!” says another. All get up. Ready to leave. It’s after midnight.
“Congratulations, Aditya!” says one of the guests.
“That project is yours. The earlier you come to the States the better,” says the same person. Maybe he’s the M.D. of the company.
“Thank you, sir! I like challenging work. Thank you, sir!” says Aditya.
“Will he remember his wife amidst his challenging work?” Thinking so, Sukanya heaves a sigh.
“See you, Mrs. Aditya. We’ll meet you again in the U.S. Okay? Goodnight,” says the M.D. All leave.
Silence all over the house. Aditya is lost in thought. Sukanya can’t bear this silence.
“What? Have you got a chance to go to the States?” she asks. Bending down, she is about to clear the plates.
“You can clear all that tomorrow. Come here!” Saying this, Aditya drags Sukanya into the bedroom. Sukanya knows why Aditya, who is sozzled, is dragging her into the bedroom! Today, in his joy and in his intoxicated state, he will gore and gorge every bit of her body in silence. If you say anything, he will push you away with anger and vengeance, saying, “Why, don’t you want it?” Some sort of tension in him. Why can’t he share his tension with her? Doesn’t speak. Does he imagine her to be a woman who doesn’t know anything and who can’t understand him? By the time Sukanya goes into the bathroom and returns, Aditya is in deep slumber. Silence once again! Silence! The noise of two bodies moving together, the sound of muscles coming together, the rustle of bed sheets rolling away are no longer there. Silence! Loneliness! Night! Darkness! More terrible when she goes to America!
Which prince will rescue her from the single-pillared mansion? In Sukanya, head-splitting thoughts! More thoughts! Silence that bursts her blood vessels! The blackness from the demon’s body spreads all over the room! Is spreading! Sukanya is completely dazed. In that dense darkness, she remains motionless. Cannot sleep.
Translated from Telugu by alladi Uma and M. Sridhar.
MUDIGANTI SUJATA REDDY. Is a leading woman writer in Telugu. She writes with a definite consciousness as a woman, and a Telangan woman at that. Her writings mostly deal with the impact of city life on women from rural background. A critic, novelist and short story writer, Sujata Reddy has to her credit several works including Malupu Tirigina Ratha Chakralu, a novel based on the Telangana Armed Struggle and two collections of short stories, Visurrayi: Streela Kathalu and Mingutunna Patnam. She recently retired from R.B.V.R.R. College for Women, Hyderabad where she taught Telugu.
SRIDHAR, M. Teaches English at the University of Hyderabad. He has been translating from Telugu into English and vice versa for many years and has published among others The Woman Unbound: Selected Short Stories (of Volga) and Ayoni and Other Stories in collaboration with Alladi Uma. He has helped edit two special issues of Telugu of Indian Literature and as a guest edited a special Telugu number for The Book Review.
ALLADI UMA. Teaches English at the University of Hyderabad. Her research interests are Indian Literatures in English, Women’s Writing, African-American Literature and Translation. Her work includes Woman and Her Family: Indian and Afro American, A Literary Perspective and several papers in journals of repute. She has been doing collaborative translation with M. Sridhar for many years and has published Woman Unbound: Selected Short Stories by Volga and Ayoni and Other Stories, translations from Telugu to English of short stories from 1910 to the present, with woman as the main focus. They have helped edit two numbers of Indian Literature on Telugu Writing for Sahitya Akademi and edited an issue of The Book Review on Contemporary Telugu Writing.