Translated by U Atreya Sarma from Telugu original1
There lay a big rock in the middle of the road he hadn’t noticed. That’s all. The front wheel hit the rock at its speed of sixty miles, and he was flung high up in the air, and hurled down into a big slough.
Writhing in the mire and gasping for breath, he stuck up his arms and screamed aloud “Help! Help! Help!” His voice went into a shriek.
A little away in the shade of the trees, a gaggle of girls were seen playing hide-and-seek. But none bothered as much to look at him. Or were they putting on an act?
“Hey, look here, girls! Please… please, help me out!” He wanted to holler louder and still louder, but not a word could break out of him. He looked around to stretch out his arms for some grip to hold on to, but not a twig he could sight. He struggled to kick his way up, but couldn’t feel any base. Though he was a swimmer, the slush didn’t allow him to float. The thick mud was sucking him in, deeper and deeper.
|U Atreya Sarma|
There is what is called the foxhole syndrome. A foxhole is a shallow pit dug, for the nonce and quickly, by a soldier in a fierce battle for immediate buffer against enemy fire. While having to lie down in it, any soldier irrespective of his religion, atheism, or rationalism – would utter “Oh my God, save me!” He doesn’t split hairs on which particular god to pray to or whether god exists or not.
The muddy water was pushing its way into Sudheer through his nose and mouth. Suddenly, the life he had spent so far reeled before his eyes.
Sudheer’s life was a happy-go-lucky one. A cushy job. A decent house in a beautiful colony. Annual income on the inherited ancestral property. An employed wife. Two sons who were meritorious students.
Perkily mounting his motorbike, he put on his Ray-Ban sunglasses. The men in the colony cast rather jealous glances at him. The new bride who had just joined her hubby’s household across the street, kept looking at him with wonder-filled wide eyes. Noticing it, her mother-in-law said, “Come in dear, let’s have a second cup of coffee,” and gently towed her inside.
So compulsive was Sudheer’s charm! He would look as handsome as the Sri Krishna character in the all-time hit movie Maya Bazar2, if the character’s costumes were changed into trousers and shirt. Though forty, he looked like one in his thirties. Very fair in complexion. He had been the hero of his college. With regular walk and yoga, he kept fit and trim. Curled hair. Eyes neither too large nor too small. Thick eyelashes. Shapely eyebrows. A straight nose. Slim lips. Such handsomeness, a rarity indeed.
Before wearing the helmet, he roved his eye toward his house.
Adjusting her bag on the shoulder, Jaya stepped out and rested behind him. She was no match for him in looks. She was the daughter of his maternal uncle who brought him up right from childhood. Sudheer’s father died when he was very young. It was his uncle who protected his share of property from the greed of his co-heirs and put his life on an even keel. That’s why Sudheer couldn’t help marrying Jaya. And there was a bonus: she was propertied, had a job in LIC. They had two sons, studying in separate engineering colleges, and staying in hostels.
“I won’t come back in the evening. I will go to our village and stay there for Saturday and Sunday. I have to collect the dues from our tenant farmer,” said Sudheer, dropping her off at her office.
“Children are coming for the weekend. Why don’t you put it off to the next week? I would also like to join you. It’s quite some time since I saw parents,” said Jaya, knitting her eyebrows.
“Of course. But if we delay it, the tenant may spend away the money and offer to pay us only from the next season’s yield.” He lavished a charming glance, and zoomed off.
Staying still for a moment at the spot, Jaya walked into her office. ‘Are the heavens going to fall just in a week’s time? Why this unseemly hurry on his part? His smile has not been captivating me for quite a few years.’ A shade of suspicion and apprehension gnawed away at her.
“Heck! Let loose of me, uncle! My hand is hurting. If you persist, I will get away.” Bala was annoyed.
“Why so hot, dear? Shouldn’t I even give a compliment to you? Haven’t we all stipulated that none of us should leave before the game is over?” Sudheer surveyed the rest of the players.
“Yes, uncle is right. You shouldn’t leave,” echoed Swarna and Shanti, in unison.
Bala struggled to withdraw her hand from Sudheer’s grip. Much reluctant to let go of her hand, he pressed her tender hand once again, before releasing his grasp.
“Aimlessly you struck the red coin, and when it streaked into the pocket just out of fluke, Uncle showered you with praise. Now if only you can hit and pocket the follower too…, well, imagine what more he would have in store for you.” Shanti teased Bala.
Softening her reddened hand, Bala looked for a vantage angle to hit the follower. She aimed the striker at a point along the right side wall and flicked it. The striker rebounded and smashed the coin in the centre sending it knocking at the three walls before it crashed into the pocket.
“Bravo, Baloo! You’ve pulled it off! We’ve won!” He flourished a tenner and called her over to pick it up.
“No, Uncle, keep it with yourself,” snapped Bala, and sprinted away.
“So Swarna, here it is. Take it and give it to her. After all, a bet is a bet.”
As she was gathering the carom-men back into their box, he thrust the note in her hand, planting a tender kiss on it. Unconcerned, she lifted the board, stood it against the wall, and returned the box of coins to its niche. She tossed the tenner back at Sudheer, and remarked, “It was just a mock bet; you can keep your money.”
“Where’s Sudheer, Rajyam? Call him for lunch. It’s already late,” said Chitti Pantulu to his wife, as he returned from the farm, and before stepping into the backyard to wash his hands and feet.
“I don’t know where he is. Ever since he came here, he has been playing around with the kids, with no break. Like an adolescent, he has been hanging and fooling around with them in the groves and backyards. Added to this, are the kids’ holidays. They are amok without let or hindrance.”
‘None around to help me with arranging the plates and glasses.’ Rajyam whined and set the plates and glasses on the table.
“Bala! Come in, all of you. Call Sudheer uncle as well,” shouted Chitti Pantulu. Whenever he yelled, it would be heard well beyond three streets.
Trooped in Bala, Swarna and Shanti from an adjoining room.
“Where is uncle? Call him,” bade Rajyam, turning toward the girls, while filling the glasses with water.
The girls looked askance at one another, each making signs that the other should go over to call Sudheer.
“Where are son and daughter-in-law?” asked Chitti Pantulu, sitting on his chair and surveying around.
“After you had left for the farm, a word was in that daughter-in-law’s mother wasn’t well. She was hospitalised. So both of them drove back in the car to the town,” answered Rajyam, and hollered, “Oh kids, hurry up!”
“Where is Sudheer, dear?” inquired Chitti Pantulu, looking at Bala seated across.
“He is upstairs. Shanti went to fetch him.”
Swarna sat beside Bala.
“Uncle!” called Shanti, in a thin voice, peering around the room with widened eyes.
Sudheer, who was at the table writing something, turned up his head. “Ah, Shanti! You’ve come back? Come on, come on.”
“What are you writing, uncle? Is it office work?” asked Shanti, approaching him. She saw a pair of dark goggles on the table. “What’s this? Can I have it?” She put it on.
“Why not, dear? Just stand up straight. Let me see how tall you are.”
He had her stand up on the table, and now she was only a little short relative to him.
“Wow! I am as tall as you. That’s why the goggles have fitted me well.” Shanti simpered innocently, pulling up the glasses that were slipping down.
“Yes, it’s why I told you to stand up on the table.” He held her by the waist and hoisted her. Keeping his clutch on her waist, he grabbed her leg with his other hand, and spun her round and round.
“Stop it, Uncle! My head is reeling.” She restrained him, with a smiling face.
He stopped whirling her, hugged her tight, bent her face down to his, and foisted a strong kiss on her lips, before setting her down.
Looking on dazed, she wiped her lips. “Grandfather calls you over for lunch,” she mumbled. Drawing up her skirt a bit and wiping her lips hard, she ran away downstairs. She was a child of seven years.
Chitti Pantulu was a substantial landlord in the village, owning forty acres of wet land and a coconut grove. He had two children. Jaya was his daughter, and Krishna Murty was his son – a lawyer in a neighbouring town, twenty kilometres away. Pantulu had had an elder sister and Sudheer was her son. For a long time all of them lived together. Murty used to go to the court in his car and return by evening to the village.
After Sudheer married Jaya, both of them moved over to the town in view of their employment. Murty and his wife followed suit for the sake of children’s education, after constructing a house in the town, some four or five years ago.
Bala, Swarna and Shanti were Murty’s daughters. They were twelve, ten and seven years old respectively. Their vacation began on that day. For every vacation they would come down to the grandfather’s place.
Since all the three kids were brought up there, they were very much attached to their grandmother and grandfather.
Washing his hands, Sudheer came over and occupied the chair beside his father-in-law. The girls sitting across them were eating, with their heads down.
“How’s by you, Sudheer? Hope you would stay on for a few more days,” inquired Chitti Pantulu, tasting dal-and-rice with soup.
Bala and Swarna choked on their food.
“Drink some water, kids,” suggested Rajyam. “Maybe, your mom and dad are thinking of you.” She fetched them water.
Shanti who was seated beside her sisters was wiping her lips after taking in every mouthful of food.
A tad confounded, Rajyam reacted: “What happened dear? Is it a little spicier? Have some sugar.” She served a couple of spoonfuls. Both the elder sisters looked sidelong at Shanti. Her eyes were full of tears.
“Where are the kids, aunty?” Sudheer asked Rajyam, who was dining.
“Haven’t noticed. As soon as the lunch was over, they tidied up the table and vanished. Don’t know in which backyard they are playing around. Caring not the sun or the rain, they simply fly away like a dragonfly.”
“I have gone out and searched every backyard. Found them nowhere. Where do they go normally? I have brought a few comic books. Like to show them to them,” said Sudheer.
“No idea where they have gone. Maybe, they are in someone’s house. They have lots of friends, anyway, in this village,” answered Rajyam, who somehow found his ways a bit annoying. He came here ostensibly on the work concerning his farms and their lease. But there was no inkling of his attention toward it. Day in and day out, he hung around with children and indulged in fun and frolic and childish pranks just like a juvenile.
“Tell me, Sudheer. Has the tenant met you? Have you attended to the job you came on here?”
“Not yet, aunty. He requests me to wait for a couple more days. Whether to stay on or leave, I am debating. If I get leave, I’ll stay on.”
“Ok. Do get finished with the job before you go. Instead of leaving Jaya there in the town every now and then, this would be better.” Getting up, she went out to wash her hands in the backyard and to get ready for her other chores.
Sudheer restlessly tarried here and there, and made for his room on the upstairs, in desperation.
Observing all of this by peeping through a hole in the kitchen wall, Swarna jumped up and darted on into the bedroom of her grandfather. No one would use that room during the daytime, except when he wouldn’t go out to the fields. Rajyam, after having her lunch and neatening the kitchen, would always relax on the divan in the living room. She wouldn’t get a wink without now and then vaguely watching the scenes moving on the TV and hearing that noise.
By that time, Bala had already sneaked into her grandfather’s room. She partly dragged the large kalamkari3 blanket from the teak four-poster bed, letting it drape down to the floor level and cover the view of the space under the bed from the door-side.
With the other two sides of the bed having an elegant arch-like design covering three-fourths of their length, the arrangement made by Bala resulted in the shape of a chamber under the bed. Swarna fetched Shanti, who was still in a daze, into the room and drew the door to. The three sisters slid under the vast canopy bed.
And pop, Shanti burst into tears, pointing the inside of her under-lip, pricked and reddened by the front tooth. Sitting on either side, her sisters kept stroking her hands, even as her eyes turned red.
“Akkaa4! Why uncle kisses so hard? Isn’t it bad? He hugged me tight, and it hurt me all over here… Even my leg had hurt. Holding the leg, he whirled me around.” Shanti wailed, pointing at her back.
With reddened eyes, Bala looked at Swarna.
“Yes, Akkaa! He pulls at my cheeks too. And he squeezes me here… And kisses me here… It’s so sickening.” Swarna showed her bosom and throat.
“You’re right. He does it in the manner of the heroes and the heroines in the movies. He pesters me even much more. Whatever he reaches to – hand or ear or lips – he goes on thrusting kisses. What shall we do? But he keeps quiet in front of grandparents. And he never visits us though he and we live in the same town. Only here, he behaves like that. How come he gets to know whenever we visit the village? Hush! Don’t speak aloud.” Bala whispered, and the other two nodded.
“Shall we do one thing? We will let it out to grandmother or to grandfather. Or shall we return to town saying that we are homesick to see mother?” suggested Swarna. “Mom and dad had left us here saying that they would pick us up only after a week.”
“In fact, we should tell all to mom. My teacher told us to do so whenever we experience such things. Let’s go soon to our place and pour out our heart to mom,” said Bala.
Bala and Swarna were deliberating the matter like at an international summit. With widened eyes, Shanti looked on at them and lent an ear.
Meanwhile, bolts of thunder and lightning struck with a crashing sound. And the leaves of the window began to flap rapidly and violently. “Oh my god!” Shanti cried and clung to her sister, and Bala kept stroking her. Just then there was a sound of opening the door.
Rajyam rushed in and bolted the window. Satisfied that only a small spray of raindrops had blown in, she pulled the door to and left.
In his room upstairs, Sudheer shuffled about, all hot and bothered. He had come with certain wishes and hopes. But what was happening? Nothing was materialising. The moment they sensed his presence, children were running away from him. If he returned home, he could spend time at least with Jaya. And to make matters worse, there was this overcast sky, rain and chill.
No way could he stir out. Of course, some of the roads in this village were good enough, but the rest were muddy with pools and puddles here and there.
Shucks! Even the power went off! It was an ancient building, so the windows were small. A pall of gloom descended into the room, pouring oil on the flames. Clutching the window bars, he surveyed the rain for a while.
In the light of the intermittent flashes of lightning, the fall of raindrops glistened like strands of silver. Abruptly, the wind changed its direction and a gust of prickling drizzle sprayed in onto his face, and he swagged, as from a shock.
He shut the window and went downstairs. The door to uncle’s room was drawn to. For a moment he thought of pushing it open, but some shade of propriety lurking somewhere in him, reined him in. Prowling about all over the house, he opened the street-side door and looked out as far as the eye could reach. A little later, he retired into his room and hit the bed, wrapping himself from head to toe under the blanket. By the time he got up, rain appeared to have subsided. There was no noise around. Fan was turning on. No clue when the power had been back. The clock chimed five. Tempted by the aroma of coffee wafting around, he jauntily climbed out of the bed and down the stairs.
His eye roved onto the three children attending to some chores. In a fit of exuberance he pranced over to Bala and was about to close her eyes… when Rajyam stepped in from the backyard.
“Take a seat, Sudheer. After having your coffee, go out and see if your tenant is around,” she said.
“It’s on my mind, aunty,” he answered, and turned to the kids. “How about you, Bala and kids? Let’s all amble out together. The rain has been off, and the trees have taken a shower. Strolling by them at this hour would be a cheerful experience.”
“Sorry, uncle. We have lots of domestic work. You please proceed,” answered Bala, turning the other side, and scrubbing the potatoes, as if washing them was her only mission.
He was over nose deep and his eyes were about to steep into the slop. Precisely at this instance, he had noticed Bala who fetched Manga and was pointing toward him. Tossing her head, Manga dragged Bala by hand and flitted away.
Yes, he deserved this punishment for the treachery he was guilty of. The number of girls and women he had seduced in his life was too difficult to count. Could it be a score? The number excluded those whom he had pawed, lipped and enjoyed. When it came to this, no age was a bar. Everyone was good enough in his leering view – from little girls to grown-up women. Taking advantage of his god-gifted handsomeness, he had lured them in a hundred ways. He had never spoken to any female without touching them… except Rajyam, his aunty. He was getting out of breath. The other day when the female folk in the house had been out to attend a women’s traditional get-together (perantam5), Manga happened to come in to clean his room. Despite her pleas and protestations, he got to force himself on her.
“Sir, I am a married woman… please spare me…”
Still, he advanced… but had to let her go, when there was a knock on the door.
Now even after seeing that he was drowning, if she had left in a huff tossing her head, how was she to blame?
‘Oh God! If you save me now, I won’t ever… What! Shall I have to reap the punishment here and now? Or does the so-called Hell lie elsewhere?
“Where’s the hurry, mom, to go to the village now? And, after all, the grandparents are doing fine over there. When we visit them now, we don’t have time to stay even for a couple of days. Because we have got to return tomorrow itself and I need to reach hostel in time,” said a sullen Sandeep. He was Jaya’s elder son and driving the car. It had been bought on her office loan and they used it on occasions like this when all the family had to go out.
“I don’t know why, but it is some unease that is pulling me over there. And I have a hunch to take you two along.” Jaya explained, with a tremor in her voice.
“Don’t worry, mom. Nothing untoward would happen, everything would be alright,” joined Anudeep, the younger one, reaching out his comforting arm onto her shoulder.
“Dad had left for the village last Friday. Had you been home that week, all of us would have gone together then itself. But for the occasional short calls, he wouldn’t quite update us with the happenings at the place. Says, it has been raining during the daytime for the last four or five days. Anyway, what’s the big job he is up to, I don’t understand,” she taunted.
“The other day when I called him, he said he had applied for leave for this entire week. Said, he would return once the job was finished. Don’t you worry, mom. Anyway, nothing would affect him. He must be enjoying it all,” said Sandeep. Jaya swerved to stare at him, with his focus on driving. Was there any sarcasm in his words, she wondered.
“Hey! Stop here! Isn’t it our motorbike over there?” Jaya cried, squeakily.
With Sandeep hitting the brakes, Jaya jerked forward.
“Yes, it’s ours. Maybe, daddy has pulled over here for some break,” guessed Anudeep, climbing out of the car and approaching the bike. Jaya looked around too. But none to be spotted anywhere in the eyeshot. No trace of any human presence.
Sandeep also slid out of the car. He strode across to the clump of trees and peered around. There was nothing he could find except the twitter of the birds. Yonder were seen Bala and Manga leading the way for Chitti Pantulu. By that time, it had been over half an hour since Sudheer got buried deep into the mire.
1. The Telugu original story with the title ‘Shiksha Ikkade’ (Punishment here and now) was published in the largest circulated Telugu monthly, Swati, Mar 2017.
2. Maya Bazar: An all-time multi-starrer hit Telugu/Tamil movie based on a fictional episode from Mahabharata, produced in 1957; the story revolving around Abhimanyu’s love affair and his encounter with Ghatotkacha.
3. Kalamkari: A type of hand- or block-printed Indian cloth, popular in Andhra.
4. Akkaa: Akka is elder sister in Telugu. Akkaa is its vocative case.
5. Perantam: Pronounced as Pay + Run + Tum. Traditional sociocultural neighbourhood gathering of Hindu women & girls (excepting widows).
Original Writer’s Bio: Dr Mantha Bhanumathi, PhD (Chemistry), based in Hyderabad, is a prominent Telugu writer. Her output includes: 21 novels, 75 short stories, and 500 metrical poems published in various magazines, winning prizes across the genres in competitions. Her published books are 3 novels – Ramayanam Mamayya [Ramayana Uncle], (prize winner in Andhra Bhoomi competitions); Glacier (prize winner in Rachana Patrika competitions); Aggi-pettelo Aaru Gajaalu [Six Yards within a Matchbox], (a popular novel portraying the handloom weavers’ lives, originally serialised in the Andhra Bhoomi weekly); AND 3 collections of short stories – Ananta Vaahini (Perennial Stream); Jeevana Vaahini (Stream of Life); Manthaara Maala (Garland of Mandaaras from Mantha). Her other activities include music and yoga. She retired as a Reader from a government degree college. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Translator’s Bio: U Atreya Sarma, living between Hyderabad and Bengaluru, is a Poet, Freelance Editor-Writer-Translator; and Chief Editor of the Muse India literary e-journal. http://museindia.com/viewteam.asp?id=945