What’s a poor labourer to do when his son scores more marks than his landlord’s daughter? Excerpts from a story by Pasunuri Ravindar from the forthcoming The Oxford Anthology of Telugu Dalit Writing.
One afternoon in the village, summer was so harsh that it seemed as if even the stone mortar would split. There was a slight respite from the hot winds, but the trees with their shriveled leaves and downcast heads looked miserable. Muthaiah and his wife, Lachamma live off daily wage work. About four years ago, they got their daughter married. Now, the only other person in that hut is their beloved son, Dhanunjay. This fellow, Dhanunjay is not all that old mind you, perhaps more than 18 years, certainly less than 20. The meager earnings from his parents’ labours was not enough to keep the oil lamp burning for him to carry out his studies at home. So, Dhanunjay had no choice but to stay in government-run hostels throughout his school life…
Narsi Reddy was the dora of that village. In spite of his position, he had a good reputation because he mingled with people from all classes and castes and treated them well.
Narsi Reddy’s father’s wasn’t so kind, I believe. I wonder what kind of firearms brought on this change!
Hearing the name of Narsi Reddy dora, Muthaiah got up, stuck a neem twig to in his mouth and walked behind Madigellayya as he brushed his teeth. On the way he threw away the neem twig, washed his face with water from a hand-pump, ran and stood in front of Narsi Reddy dora, palms together as though he were a witness standing in front of a judge.
‘Dora, I believe you asked for me.’
‘Yes, Mutha, I wanted to speak to you.’
‘Please tell me what I can do for you.’
‘Nothing much, yesterday they announced the results of the children who passed the examinations. My daughter passed with a first class. That’s why I want to throw a party. You have to slaughter a goat, bring toddy and brandy and firewood for cooking the feast. So, you must stay here today and work along with Ellayya. Tonight, our friends who have gone to the town are returning,’ said Narsi Reddy dora.
‘Surely dora, whatever you say will be done,’ Muthaiah replied, nodding obediently. He was happy that he had some work for the day. Narsi Reddy dora had seven to eight people working for him, but Muthaiah was his favourite because he took pride in the work assigned to him, ate what was served and produced enough work for the food he was given. That’s why Narsi Reddy dora had more respect for Muthaiah than any others who worked for him.
Narsi Reddy dora was so happy that his daughter had passed the exam that he had begun to drink well before evening, eating chunks of fried mutton from a plate before him. After he had had a couple of rounds of drink, he called out, ‘Orey, Mutha! Come here.’
‘Dora, only the lemons have to be sliced, except for this, the food is ready,’ replied Muthaiah politely.
By then, the toddy had hit Narsi Reddy dora.
‘Mutha, come, sit here on the floor.’
‘What is it dora?’ replied Muthaiah as he scratched his own head.
‘How can you cut lemons standing?’
Now Muthaiah had no option but to sit close to the dora’s chair and continue cutting the lemons.
Narsi Reddy dora licked the mutton chop and finished his drink. He seemed to have sobered a bit. ‘Mutha, your son is in the same class as my daughter, isn’t he?’
‘Did he pass?’
‘He said he did dora, I don’t know if it is true or false.’
Even though he knew the truth, Muthiah was trying to put his son down to avoid comparison with the dora’s daughter and of course also to continue to receive the affection that this dora showered on him. But, like everyone else, the dora also knew how talented Dhanunjay was.
‘Why do you say that? Don’t we all in the village know how well your son studies?’
‘Yes, but it’s by your grace, dora.’
‘What have I done? Anyway, how many marks did he get in the exam?’ enquired the dora, unable to contain his curiosity.
‘Illiterate fellow that I am, what do I know about matters like this, dora?’ Suddenly Muthiah was innocence personified.
Meanwhile, the karobar, the village secretary, and an official from the mandal headquarters, both belonging to the Reddy caste and distantly related to the dora, came up and greeted him, ‘Namaste, Reddy saab.’
‘Come, come. I have been waiting for you people. Muthaiah, fetch two more glasses.’
Dora now had company to drink and to talk. What use was a drink without someone to share gossip! The three filled their glasses and shook each other’s hands. Muthaiah served them, refilling their plates with curry, filling their glasses with water, and generally overseeing all the food arrangements. After two or three rounds of brandy, the conversation began again.
‘Patel saab, how many marks did chinna dorsani, the young lady get in the exam?’ asked the village secretary.
‘What is there to ask? She is good in her studies. I am sure she has scored well,’ the visitor replied as he handed over his glass for a refill.
Thinking it improper to keep quiet any more, Narsi Reddy Patel replied, ‘I don’t know her exact marks in all the subjects…she said, “Daddy, I got 76%,” proudly twirling his moustache.
‘Congratulations, a tiger’s cub is a tiger, as the saying goes.’
Narsi Reddy was very pleased to hear them praise him like this.
‘Dora, how many plantain leaves should I get for the food? Muthaiah shouted.
‘Get some twenty leaves,’ said he.
‘As you say, dora,’ said Muthaiah.
As he turned to go, the karobar called out to him, ‘Orey, Mutha, how many marks did your son get?’
‘Nothing much, karobaar-saab, we are not big people…when he was a small boy, everyone used to tell me that my son studies well, but I don’t know how many marks he got,’ replied Muthaiah joining his palms humbly.
‘Come on man, yesterday they announced the results in the newspaper. Didn’t your son tell you how many marks he got? See, the dora’s daughter got 76%,’ the karobar egged him on with a voice filled with sarcasm.
‘He did tell me, but no comparison to chinna dorsani. That fellow may fight with me if there is no curry to eat, or no trousers to wear, but he does well in his studies.’
Dora held on to the brandy glass and listened. Muthaiah continued ‘My son said that he had got 920 or 960 out of 1000. He is not going to get 76 marks like our chinna dorasani. After all, he will always be your servant!’
‘960 out of 1000!!!’ their mouths fell open, jaws dropped.
Narsi Reddy’s glass slipped and almost fell from his hand.
The karobar felt as if his mouth was filled with freshly pounded chilli powder, and the visitors’ faces paled.
They looked at each other. The Patel’s high came crashing down after hearing Dhanunjay’s marks. He opened a new bottle of brandy and drank directly from it, without waiting to pour it into a glass. Muthaiah didn’t understand what had happened. He wondered whether he had said something that he shouldn’t have. He stood there scratching his head. Narsi Reddy excused himself, went to a corner and called out, ‘Mutha, come over here.’ Fearing a thrashing from the dora, Muthaiah ran to him at once. ‘Listen, your son got more marks than my daughter. 76% is much less than 960. But don’t tell anyone this. I will die of shame,’ the dora murmured
While the dora’s face was pale, Muthaiah’s face lit up as if a rainbow had suddenly appeared from behind the clouds after a brief shower on a summer afternoon.
Translated by Duggirala Vasanta
Excerpted from The Oxford Anthology of Telugu Dalit Writing; edited by Gita Ramaswamy, K. Purushotham and Gogu Shyamala, Oxford University Press, price not stated.