Worldly Wisdom


The village of Mettucheri was bustling with activity that day.  Enquiries revealed that an M.L.A was expected. A decorated pandal had been put up in front of the temple. From tiny tots to elders, everyone was roaming here and there with cheerful faces. On top of that, a loud speaker was blaring film songs.

The boy Raju too came running home after school.  Standing right at the doorstep of his house, he tossed his bag into the house and ran off towards the temple.  The people were seated in front of the dais and talking.  Spotting his mother, Raju thrust his way through the crowd and seated himself with a thud on her lap.

‘Hey, won’t your bum sit on the floor or what?  You hasty young devil!  Did you shut the door before you came?  If the dog comes in and licks the food, the two of us will have to starve tonight,’ Raju’s mother Rengamma scolded.

‘Mmm. I shut it, amma,’ Raju answered quickly.

‘Okay. Get off my lap.  My thighs are aching.  Look at this boy! He is studying in class three and is still asking me to carry him.  Are you still a baby or what?’ Rengamma said lifting Raju off her lap and placing him on the ground.

Raju asked, ‘Amma, will they give us a loan cow as well?’

‘They will. It is no small sum that I have given these fellows, selling what I never would have otherwise. I wonder if they will give us the loan this month at least without swallowing all that money… Alright, if we buy the cow, will you take it out to graze?’

‘Yes, I will, amma. I will. But I will have to go to school.’ Raju hesitated.

‘You will have to take it out for grazing after you return from school.’

‘Alright. Balaraman of my class also has a cow at home. He told me about it the day before.’

Even as they were talking, the M.L.A arrived by car.  The people clapped and cheered when the M.L.A took his place on the dais.  Many people came up to the dais, spoke in praise of the M.L.A’s generosity, described him as a man with a heart of gold and garlanded him. Once all this was over, the M.L.A spoke a few words, called each person and handed him the loan.

When Rengamma’s name was announced, she went up accompanied by Raju. On the way down, Raju asked loudly, ‘But they haven’t given anyone cows yet.  They haven’t given us the cow, amma.  When are they going to give it to us, amma?’ ‘Elley, will they give us the cow here?  They will only give us the loan. After that, it is up to us to get hold of a good cow.  One has to explain everything to you!  Otherwise, you will not sleep soundly,’ Rengamma replied as she walked him home.

The next week onwards the streets of Mettucheri were filled with loan cows and calves.  People busied themselves  with cows, calves and milk cans.  Rengamma had also got hold of a pregnant cow and tied it up. It appeared as though the cow would give birth anytime.

Every evening after coming home from school Raju would ask, ‘Why, amma, only our cow is yet to give birth.  Do you know that everyone else’s cows are yielding milk? When will our cow give birth, amma?’ Raju boy would keep nagging.  Rengamma would put him off by saying that the cow would give birth soon.  She too was looking forward to the event.

Raju’s father had passed away when Raju was still in class one.

To him, his mother meant everything.  Rengamma was very young.  She would not have been more than twenty five.  Everyone had advised her to marry again.  Even though remarriage was very common in their community, Rengamma had refused.  She was very keen on bringing Raju up properly.

Even this loan cow was for his sake.  She was dreaming of saving up a bit here and there, thus ensuring a good future for Raju.  That Sunday an official had come to Mettucheri in order to identify and pierce the ears of the loan cows.  On seeing the calf, he would pierce the cow’s ears and stick earrings through them. Rengamma took her cow along for inspection.  Raju went with her. The official asked her where the calf was.  Rengamma pointed to a calf tied to a portia tree nearby and claimed that it was hers.  Raju butted in quickly, ‘That is not the calf which our cow gave birth to.  That is Sami’s cow’s.  Our cow has still not given birth.’

When the official heard this, he did not pierce the ears of Rengamma’s cow.  Instructing her to call him after it delivered, he got into his car and drove away.  Rengamma was furious with Raju.  When she got home, she gave him a good scolding.

‘What is this, you ignorant fellow. If you had kept that mouth of yours shut, he would have pierced our cow’s ears and gone.  Now, one will have to go all the way and call him just for this.  And will he come for free?  I will have to press some five or ten rupees into their hands.’

The others who were present also admonished  Raju to their heart’s content. Raju did not understand anything.  ‘Why are all of you scolding me?  Did I tell a lie or what?  It was the truth I said.  Our cow has still not given birth. Why, amma?  It hasn’t, no?’

‘What is this? Go, go! Why and wherefore?  You are a fellow who doesn’t know how to get on.  Have they given you a medal for telling the truth?  You don’t know a thing.  I wonder how you are going to live,’ Rengamma spoke with irritation. ‘Our teacher has told us to speak the truth always, amma.  It seems we should never lie.  It seems the mouth that tells a lie will never see food.’

‘Yes. So if you speak the truth, we get all the food we want, is it?  We all have to struggle and work in order to get a mouthful of gruel.’

‘Just to feed ourselves is difficult enough!  All we need is this fellow telling us not to lie, to speak the truth!  They will eat their fill of three times a day and sit around advising us not to lie, not to steal.’

‘They have to be in our place to  realise things.’ Ramayi pronounced.

‘It seems we should not tell lies in any situation.  That is what Gandhi thatha  said,’ Raju repeated.

Listening to Raju, Rengamma thought, what this fellow is saying also seems fair enough.  But such fairness will not help us survive. It seems wrong to be educating him. But it seems equally wrong not to do so. What to do?

Rengamma’s cow delivered within the next four to five days. Raju was thrilled. Even at school, he would sometimes dream about the calf.

He would talk to the teacher and other children about their cow and calf.

Unlike before when he used to linger here and there after school, he came straight home and accompanied his mother to milk the cow.

One day at school, the boys were talking about the cows that belonged to their respective households.  Raju too described their cow and calf.

‘Our cow  yields the maximum milk in the entire village.  I am going to take our calf grazing every evening from now on.’

Hearing this, Balaraman said, ‘So your cow gives lots of milk, is it? Our cow yields 8 litres of milk in a single day, do you know?’

‘Our cow yields 10 litres per day,’ Raju retorted.  Balaraman became angry.  In a rage, he shouted, ‘Ei, go, go. Your cow is a loan cow. And that yields 10 litres! Who are you telling these stories to?  Our cow is our own.  You know that, don’t you?’

‘So, a loan cow won’t yield milk, is it?  Go. Go. Ask anybody you like.  It is our cow that yields highest,’ Raju said.

Balaraman responded contemptuously, ‘Whatever it may be, it is only a loan cow, not your own. He keeps a loan cow and goes around boasting.’

Raju did not say anything.  When he got home, he reported everything to his mother.  Rengamma exclaimed, ‘Elley. Balaraman is that boy from that Kollathangarai street, isn’t he?   Don’t go picking fights with him.  For the amount of wealth his father has, they can afford to buy even a hundred cows.  Is he from Mettucheri like us?  A loan cow attracts the contempt of even a chap as tiny as that.  What to do? Why do you have to go around saying that our cow yields 10 litres? Why didn’t you quote a lower figure?’

‘But it was you who said 10 litres the other day.  So why are you asking me to quote less?  After all, I was speaking the truth.’

‘If you speak the truth, their bodies will burn.  It is because we are so naive that all these devils think they can cheat us easily.’

Raju did not reply.  He did not follow his mother’s meaning.  ‘So it is wrong to speak the truth, is it?  They say we shouldn’t lie.  Later they insist that we should lie.  If we don’t lie, we cannot survive, amma says. If we lie, we cannot survive, teacher says.  If we speak the truth, they will cheat us.  What is all this? I don’t understand anything. I am confused,’ Raju thought.

One evening Raju got home very late from school.  Rengamma asked, ‘Why are you so late today?  I was expecting you at milking time and finally went alone.’

Raju sat in glum silence.

‘Elley. It is you I am asking.  What happened, ley? You are sitting there like someone mourning his eldest son.’

‘Amma, do snakes eat frogs?,’ Raju asked slowly.

‘Why are you talking of something else when I am asking you why you are so late?  Why are you asking me that now?’

‘Tell me first whether they do.’

‘Yes, they do. Did you see a snake or something?’

‘Not today, amma. When we were walking back from school, we saw a snake.’

‘Where did you people see it?’

‘You know the point at which the road to the graveyard curves east? Over there, we saw two snakes.’

‘Two snakes? You sinner’s son. How big were they?’

‘Biig, amma. Both the snakes were fighting over a frog.’

‘But how will snakes fight?’

‘Really, they fought. Both snakes had the frog by their mouths and were tearing it apart. Poor frog.  One of its legs had got stuck in one snake’s mouth and the other in the other snake’s mouth.  Torn this way and that by the snakes, the frog was squealing.’

‘So two snakes had got hold of  one frog, is it? Che What a terrible thing!’

‘I was hoping that someone would rescue the frog, amma.’

‘How can one rescue a creature caught in a snake’s mouth?  Poor thing. such was the frog’s fate.’

‘I was thinking of throwing a stone at the snakes and crushing them . But I was scared of the snakes.  That is why I did not do anything.’

‘Why were you scared?  All you had to do was to stay out of reach and kill the snakes with one stroke.’

‘Ayyo, we should not kill snakes. If they turn out to be cobras, that is the end of everything.  They will remember it and sting us to death. They are gods, it seems. My  teacher said so.’

‘Go. go. What god? How many cobras our people have killed and thrown aside!  When I was seven months pregnant with you, I have killed a cobra.  They said then that a pregnant woman should never kill a snake, that my baby would stick its tongue out like a snake.  All that is senseless talk. Are you going around sticking your tongue out or what?’

‘But then why did the teacher say that?’

‘What do they know?  They teach you straight out of books.  Day to day life is very different. learn to read and write a little. Do that properly, okay?’

‘How much my teachers have studied!  Can what they say be wrong? You have not studied a single thing.  Can what you say  be right? I will ask the teacher. shall I?’

‘Don’t argue back and forth.  Listen to what your elders say. This tiny fellow has not sprouted three leaves yet.  Already, he is trying to lecture to me.’

‘Now, are you an elder? Or are the teachers elders?  To whom should I listen?  Sometimes you confuse me, amma.’ To this, Rengamma had no answer.  That night Raju dreamt of snakes.  For a long time to come, he was unable to forget the incident.  Everyday on his way to school and back when he passed that spot, he could think only of the snakes and the frog.

He would worry daily about whether or not the cobra was a god or not.  After paying back the loan towards the cow, Rengamma was hoping to fix the thatched roof which was leaking in places.

Raju had asked for a new school bag.  Rengamma had promised to buy him one the following week.

Raju was roaming around boasting to all the children in his class about the new bag he was going to get.  He was planning to acquire a new pen after he got the bag. That Saturday, the school was closed.  As usual, Rengamma took the cow and let it loose to graze on the harvested rice fields in the east.

There were always about ten to twenty cows and buffaloes grazing in those fields.  Raju had his nutritious mid-day meal at school, played for a while and came home.

Rengamma instructed, ‘Elley, I have taken the cow east to graze.  Go and see where she is.  Don’t wander too far.’
Raju checked on them and said, ‘She is grazing near those thorn bushes, amma.’

‘Why didn’t you herd her towards the grass?’

‘Amma, shall I take the calf out to graze?’

‘No. You will allow it to drink up the milk.  Then what milk will I get?  When the sun goes down, I will bathe the cow.  You can get the calf along then.  For now, just give it some grass to eat.’

‘In that case I will bathe the calf.  Amma, I feel like doing it.’

‘How will you bathe it?  She will leap up and start dancing around.  Will you be able to get hold of her?’

‘What, amma. In that case, I will untie her now, hold her around the neck and take her to graze.  You can come later.’

‘Ei, it is not enough to tell this chap once.  When I tell him that the calf will drink up the milk, he throws his weight around. Do you or don’t you want a new bag?’ Rengamma threatened.

‘Okay. okay. I want my bag, amma.  I will come with you later herding the calf along.’

At sundown, Rengamma and Raju took the calf along to the fields.

Once the cow and her calf had been bathed, they were ready to leave. Rengamma instructed, ‘Elley, hold on to that calf, stand here and watch out for people coming this way.  I will go and pluck some gourds from that creeper there.  I don’t have any money to buy vegetables.’

‘Ayyo, amma don’t do that.  That belongs to another person. One should not steal.  Don’t go, amma.  They told me at school that you should not steal.  You should not desire things that belong to another person.’  Raju said.

‘Ei, keep quiet. You and your school.  You just watch out for people.  I will go and pluck those.’ Rengamma went swiftly, plucked two gourds and tucked them away in the folds of her saree.

Once home, Rengamma milked the cow while Raju sat glumly on the threshold.  Rengamma then peeled the skin off the gourds and started cutting them.

Chinnapaatti, who had just dropped in, asked, ‘Where did you get those gourds from?  They look nice and tender. If you mix them with green gram lentil, you can make some tasty kuzhambu.’

‘I plucked them from the landlord’s estate fence.  We get to eat these things only if we pluck them from here and there.  Are we in any state to go and buy these vegetables from the shops? It is difficult enough to get hold of this ration shop rice,’ Rengamma complained.

Listening to this, Raju asked, ‘Paati, paati,  isn’t it wrong to steal?  One should not take what belongs to another person, right?’

‘That is what these educated devils are going around saying.  But do they themselves never steal?’ retorted Paati with a question.

‘But no.  They don’t steal.  Our teacher also said so,’ Raju declared quite firmly.

‘If they say so, does it become true?  Go. go. Go to any school or  office.  Nothing gets done without bribes. These fellows sign your papers only if you grease their palms well. If you want to get your children admitted into school, you have to bribe the school authorities.’

‘Ei. why go that far?  Think how much money your mother must have given and to how many people so as to get this loan cow!  All this is nothing but robbery.  Not one of these fellows will talk about this in public.  And you are giving a long lecture all because some gourds were plucked. All that goes down the throat ends up as shit anyway.  By plucking these gourds, we have not thrown mud on anyone else’s livelihood.  What do you know of the land and property those estate fellow has?  You are still a baby.  That is why you believe all that is written in books.’

When paati finished, Raju did not say anything.  But he spoke to himself like one who had arrived at a decision. ‘Apparently, it is not wrong to take what belongs to another person if one does not have it oneself.  But why is it that only we have nothing; that Balaraman alone has everything?  How is that?  I will have to ask the teacher at school tomorrow.’

Rengamma prepared the kuzhambu, cooked the rice and served them hot to Raju.  Though Raju was hungry, he did not feel like eating that gourd kuzhambu.  He requested his mother, ‘Amma, give me some watery gruel as usual.  I will just drink that up.’

‘Why?  Still thinking about those gourds?  You rascal.  Such adamancy at such a young age.  The other day you spoke openly to that official and incurred the wrath of our village people. You are completely lacking in propriety!’

‘When did I speak like that?’

‘What do you mean when?  The government was distributing money to those who lost their homes in last year’s cyclone.  What did you say to them when they were going from street to street taking down names?’

‘But I said nothing!’

‘You said nothing?  When they were making enquiries about that akka Veluthayi’s house, were you not the one to declare, as though you were from Raja Harishchandra’s lineage, that their house was not destroyed by thunder or rain; that they had demolished it themselves?’

‘Yes, I did.  Everyone in the village was saying so.  That very day Chinnapaati and you were talking about it.  I heard you.’

‘We were talking only amongst ourselves.  But you went and leaked it all to that official.  I had to listen to a lot of complaints.  Every fellow was cursing us as he passed.’

‘Why did they curse us?  Did I tell a lie or what?  Their own son had told me about it.  It seems they used a spade to break down the walls.’

‘How many times one has to tell you!’  Has she given birth to a child or a donkey without any worldly wisdom?

‘Everyone scolded me that day as they pleased. At least from now on, learn to be a bit tactful and survive. Okay?’ Rengamma said, partly threatening and partly pleading.  Raju ate his dinner in silence.  It seemed to him as though he understood everything.  At the same time, it  seemed to him that he had understood nothing at all.

‘When I go to school they teach me one thing.  When I come home, they teach me differently.  Amma says that we can speak the truth amongst ourselves.  She says one should not speak the truth to those outside the community, to the officials; it seems it is alright to lie sometimes. But sometimes one should not lie. It seems if we have nothing, it is okay to steal from those who have a lot. apparently this is not robbery. what amma says seems right. But the teachers teach something else,’ Raju’s head was buzzing full of confusion.

That Monday, he went to school. In the evening, the teacher asked them to water the plants in the school garden.

When the children were watering the plants, the teacher came to inspect and ordered, ‘Everyone should do a good job.  Think of these as your plants back home and water them well.’

When they heard the teacher, the children became more enthusiastic than ever. Carting the buckets with much difficulty and walking as fast as their legs would carry them, they watered the plants. Going around the garden, the teacher plucked a few vegetables. Noticing this, Raju said aloud, ‘When we water the plants, the teacher asks us to think of the plants as our own and water them. As for the vegetables that grow, she plucks them and takes them home. Didn’t they say that the vegetables grown in the garden should be used only for the kuzhambu served as part of our meals here? So, the teacher is cheating us, right?’

The boys who heard this went straight and reported Raju’s words to the teacher. The teacher was furious.  She sent for Raju and questioned him.  Raju said, ‘Yes, teacher.  It is lies you are telling. Aren’t you taking home the vegetables meant for our meal?  It is we, teacher, who water the plants. Then shouldn’t we be the ones to pluck them and take them home?’

‘A tiny fellow like you – you have not sprouted three leaves yet. Already, you are talking back to your teacher. Looks like you will be a big shot!’ the teacher exclaimed and rapped Raju on the head with her knuckles a hundred times.

Rubbing his aching head, Raju thought, ‘The teacher lied. But that isn’t  a lie! The teacher stole. But that is not robbery! They themselves lie! They themselves steal!  And then they tell us not to lie, not to steal!’

From that day onwards, the boy Raju became very worldly wise.

Translated from Tamil by K.Srilata.

Translator’s Note

Bama is best known for her autobiographical novella Karukku.  While Karukku is full of pain and experiential truth, this story ‘Wordly Wisdom’ (Venayam) is light-hearted and full of humour even though the truths it conveys are very profound. The story is a fine example of dalit writing particularly because of its subtlety and true to life characters like Raju and Rengamma.  The story is about growing up, about attaining ‘worldly wisdom’ in place of an innocent idealism.  In that sense, it has a certain universal validity and appeal. The original in Tamil employs a particular dialect that differs quite radically from standard Tamil.  In many ways, while this makes the task of translation harder, it also makes for a more interesting piece of writing.

Teaches at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences at I.I.T. Madras. Has published Seablue Child, a volume of poetry. Her anthology of translations, The Other Half of the Coconut:Women Writing Self-Respect History, is soon to be published.

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Bama is best known for her autobiographical novella Karukku. While Karukku is full of pain and experiential truth, this story ‘Wordly Wisdom’ (Venayam) is light-hearted and full of humour even though the truths it conveys are very profound. The story is a fine example of dalit writing particularly because of its subtlety and true to life characters like Raju and Rengamma. The story is about growing up, about attaining ‘worldly wisdom’ in place of an innocent idealism. In that sense, it has a certain universal validity and appeal. The original in Tamil employs a particular dialect that differs quite radically from standard Tamil. In many ways, while this makes the task of translation harder, it also makes for a more interesting piece of writing.

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