The sun was burning like a fireball.
Not a single leaf dared to move. It was hot and humid. Sweltering heat and stifling humidity. The sky was clear. Not a single cloud in sight. Not a drop of rain. People lived...eating a tuber here, a wild plant there. But how did the cattle manage?
Dearth of grains.
Dearth of grass.
Sun, the hot rapacious sun.
Heat inside the house and outside.
Crickets screeching from the bushes.
Kites soaring overhead.
The brook, like an old woman's breasts, was shrivelled and dry. The water tank was full of bandicoot-burrows.
Men had no work. The cooking pot had no grain.
Putting aside their hunger, boys played `tiger and goat' with pebbles on the bund. If they wore a shirt, they were naked below the waist; if they happened to wear knickers, they had no shirt above. Shame was a luxury for women whose torn blouses exposed their armpits and breasts. Women were ready to sleep with anybody for a bundle of grass. How could anyone in such a village even think of a full meal?
Three years since the rains had come.
Three years since the crops had grown.
Three years and not a loan repaid.
Three years and not a daughter married.
Sun, sun and more sun. Heat, heat and more heat.
Lighting a bidi; chewing a dry betel leaf... what else was one to do? No work, no festivals even; how was one to spend time? Under the trees, on the tilted bullock carts, on the bund - all over the village they dozed, their knees folded into their stomachs.
The old man who had been neither fully alive nor fully dead for the last ten days, was now dead. He lay on an urea-plastic sheet, he who had managed to survive for ten days on a few drops of his wife's diluted coffee each day.
`You there, Pedda-Appayya is dead.'
Rearranging their paibattas over their shoulders, the men moved in like corpses.
Death. Well, death visits everyone. So it did Pedda. In times such as this, one is better dead than alive. Hard times, when two rupees will barely get you two seers of ragi. When it is difficult to get a seer of jonnalu for two rupees and a half. And dry chillies are selling at sixty rupees a kilo. Ayyo! Not even two seers of salt for a rupee? What rotten times are these!
With prices soaring so high, why bother trying to keep alive? Who was to know what worse times lay ahead? Blessed were thpse who had not waited to see such days. The old man was certainly lucky to die. It was his misfortune that he had to die with his last desire unfulfilled.
Pedda had slogged like a bullock all his life. He had survived on starch-water but had managed to bring up his three sons, get them married, and when all of them went their own ways, he did not owe a single paisa to anybody. He had earned the respect of the whole village. And yet, an old man such as this died with his last desire unfulfilled.
Did he have sons?
Yes, he did.
Were there no relatives?
Yes, yes, they were very much there.
There were sons and relatives, but in times such as these, every one has to fend for himself and who can care for the next man, even if he is your father? Poor Pedda! He died with his last desire unfulfilled.
The old man had been living with his youngest son. A month ago he had fallen ill and his eldest son, Mareppa, had come to see him and he'd asked, `Nayana, how are you?'
`Son, I may not live for many days.'
The son was pained by his father's words. `Don't speak so,' he said.
`I speak the truth. Only I know the agony of my body.'
The old man's eyes were wet.
There are some who fly to America when they run the slightest temperature and here was someone who did not have money to go to the next village to get an injection. One might perhaps think of money or the lack of it if it were a young man. But, the old fellow is bound to die tomorrow if not today; how can one think of injections and tonics for him? Especially now, when everyone is starving. Buying medicines to save an old life?
The old man whispered, `Son, it's ages since I had some toddy. I feel like having a pot or two. Let me have four rupees.'
The eldest son did not reply immediately. Four rupees meant a day's food, or salt and chillies for three days.
The son's silence sank deep into the old man and rose to his throat choking him.
After a while he said, `Son, I will not live for many days. Let me have toddy just this once before I die. I will not live long enough to be able to ask you for money again. If there is no joy in living, can there be meaning in life? So let me drink just once and die happily. That's all.'
With his father repeatedly talking of death, Mareppa had no option but to take out four rupees from his banian pocket and give it to the old man.
And Mareppa got it from his wife for shelling out the four rupees to his father.
The youngest son got an extra five acres written in his name by promising that he would look after the old couple in their last days. The old man should have asked him for the money. Why did he have to ask you? If he had given the land to us we would have certainly looked after him now. But no, those two old people never had any love for us or any faith that we would care for them. Fine! Then, how dare he ask you for four rupees today? Even if he were shameless enough to ask you, you should've had more sense than to give away the money just like that! She was in a frenzy. She screamed at her husband, tore the old man to pieces and spat fire on her younger brother-in-law.
At the end of what seemed to Mareppa an endless bout of cursing and screeching, she took her children into her arms and broke into a wail. `Why don't you go ahead and kill me and my kids? You are Daata Karna, aren't you, giving away everything? Why should you bother about your wife and children? My lord, look at our torn clothes, at our sunken bellies and protruding bones. If we eat for a day we starve for a week, but does that bother you? No! You are a noble lord who showers money on every stranger on the street. Tell me Almighty God, how am I to to give a morsel of food to my children and keep them alive with such a feckless creature for a husband?'
She went on and on till the sun had set. But the old man who was on his deathbed, sat up, revived after the mandatory two pots of toddy.
`It's a solid heart that the old fellow has inside him,' joked the villagers.
`What a fool I was to have given those four rupees, thinking that the old man would die,' lamented Mareppa.
Within a week, the old man was taken ill again.
His second son Naganna, came to see him. Sitting at one end of the cot he inquired about the old man's health.
`I'm finished, son,' sighed the old man.
Father and son talked for a while.
Desire. Desire began hissing inside the old man, but he was shy of expressing it. He knew that his second son was not in a position to fulfil his desire. But perhaps he was prepared to beg, borrow or steal to satisfy his father's last wish?
`Naganna!' the old man called out.
`Yes, Nayana.' Naganna came closer.
`Nothing,' the old man sighed deeply.
Naganna's situation was extremely wretched. Knowing this, the old man could not tell him what he wanted. He had distributed his land, five acres each, to his three sons. Each had to work his field with his family to keep body and soul together. But for the past three years not even the grain last sown had returned home. Even the wetlands around the pond had ceased to offer a livelihood to the labourers. Things were so bad, that many had migrated to Bellary the past year looking for work in the cotton fields. Naganna's wife had run away with someone during this time. She could not be blamed. She had long suffered from a terrible pain in her. stomach and despite her pleas, Naganna had not taken her to a doctor, for he had no money. So when a man came along promising to do so, she ran away with him, not hesitating for a moment to leave her husband and children behind. Since that day, Naganna's eldest daughter had been cooking the daily gruel.
Naganna stood up. `I must go. I have to take the bullocks to water.'
Desire. A burning desire. A last wish. Would he or wouldn't he? What is the harm in asking once.
`I feel like eating mutton-rice.'
`Mutton! When do we ever get to eat mutton these days? The last time we had mutton was when we sacrificed the goat at the Maremma festival. Not a goat has been killed in the past six months. How can we get mutton, Nayana? Why mutton, Nayana? Since we sold off all the chickens, you can ransack the village and not find an egg anywhere.'
Naganna could not bear to look at his father's face. He left.
One should have seen Pedda Appayya when he was young, He was a man who could polish off two full meals and get ready for the third even before his hands were dry. The first day his wife cooked for them after their marriage, she made three big balls of rice and served them with some pickle. She placed the food between them and thought that he would eat two and she could eat the third. He came in after washing his face and hands. His wife placed one big ball of rice in his hands. He ate it up. She served him the second, he ate that up as well. She thought he would now get up to wash his hands. But no, he didn't. He finished the third big ball of rice and she slept on an empty stomach.
The following day she cooked some more rice and made four big balls. She hoped that he would eat three and she could eat one. When he had finished the first three she thought he would say, No to the fourth. But Appayya ate that too and the wife went hungry again. On the third day, she made six balls of rice. She served him all six balls of rice and he was more than a match to the challenge. She had expected that he would jump up and go away at the sight of the sixth ball but there he was, looking shyly at her and eating the sixth as well.
That was it. She ran away to her mother's house. She clung to her mother and she wailed, `Amma, what sort of a man have you got me for a husband, I'm like a widow. The man does not have a stomach, it is a bottomless pit that he has. How can I live with someone who starves me day after day?'
The village elders called a panchayat meeting and Appayya was asked, `It seems that you are starving your wife, is it true?'
A bewildered Appayya answered, `I don't know... she served me food and I ate it. I never told her not to eat.'
`No he never forbade me to eat, but what am I to eat when he licks off the last grain from the pot?'
One of the elders advised Appayya. `Look here young man, you should first find out how many balls of rice there are in the pot. You cannot sit before the pot expecting your wife to ask you to get up. We are children of perpetual starvation, so all the rice in the world will not suffice to meet our hunger. We are not stinking rich Kuberas to eat our fill. If you cannot learn to say No to food now, how are you going to look after your wife? How will you raise children later?'
Such was the extent of Pedda Appayya's appetite. He was full of contempt for the poor chaps who could not stir out to work without a cup of coffee in the morning. As for him, he could work for hours together on an empty stomach, provided he had enough food on his return.
He could not ask his eldest son for mutton. His eldest daughter-in-law had kicked up such a fuss over the four rupees that her husband had given him for his toddy.
His second son had had to refuse him.
The third son had six daughters, all very young. He and his wife slaved all day to feed them. Because the fellow had so many mouths to feed, he had been given an extra five acres and also the house. This had been resented by the other two sons.
If he had the money, the second son would have taken his father to the hospital. But he who could not even buy a capsule when the old man fell ill, how could he now provide mutton curry?
The old man remained silent.
But Pedda Appayya could not get rid of his obsession for the taste of mutton. He thought constantly of the many ways in which it could be cooked and enjoyed. Roasted, with a pinch of salt.... Boiled.... Whoever came to see him in what they thought were his last days, was given a lecture on the relative merits of different kinds of meat. `Kundelu* ... well, no; that gives you gas. But the udumu*, now. That makes a good curry. It also gets rid of pain. The erralaka* is tasty, but it does have an obnoxious smell....'
The whole village laughed behind his back: `The old man is on his death bed and listen to him drool over meat!'
He who was constantly dreaming of mutton curry was dead at last. The sons came with their wives and children. All the relatives arrived. There were many others too who appeared. The women wailed. The children stood around, gaping.
The sons were trying to arrange for the burial. The list of essential items was long: vermilion, turmeric powder, incense sticks, saffron, bamboo poles and rope to make the `last-stretcher.' One can get along in life without many things but it is not so in death; all these things had to be got, and immediately.
`Mareppa, have you sent for udukaddilu?'
`Naganna, why don't you go to the shop and get some sambraani?'
`Obulesu, did you get the kumkuma that I'd asked for?'
`We need pasupu immediately, Anna.'
Everyone was shouting instructions and nothing was getting done. Nobody was prepared to spend a single paisa of his own. Many an item was talked about but nothing was to be seen. Time was running out; each of the three brothers hoped that the other would pay for the funeral.
The elders of the village understood their predicament. They got together all the three sons and told them, `Now look, one of you must take on the entire responsibility and bear all the expenses. Spend as much as is required until all the ceremonies are over and keep an account. Add up everything and then share the burden equally.'
The eldest son agreed to bear the expenses for the time being. The shopkeeper agreed to give credit. And finally things got under way.
The drumbeaters were sent for. They demanded forty rupees.
The sons were prepared for only twenty.
`All right,' said the beaters finally, `pay thirty and we will beat the drums!'
`Thirty solid rupees for merely beating the drums? What a waste. What if the drums are not sounded?' shouted the youngest son.
`Damn you beggars!' one of the beaters cursed them. `Three sons a man has and now that he's dead you say you can't even arrange for the drum-beat! Were you really born to him or to someone else?'
The sons agreed to thirty rupees.
The next bit of work was to dig a pit to bury the dead man. The diggers asked for fifty rupees.
`Fifty rupees for digging a pit and that too in the soft soil near the bushes! It's far too much!' said the sons and offered twenty.
The diggers came down to forty. After considerable haggling they came down to thirty-five and refused to lower their rates any further.
Thirty-five rupees for digging a pit! For the eldest it meant a month's supply of Ganesh brand bidis which he bought in ones and twos and which he smoked only up to half the length, reserving the rest for another time. The second son saw in the thirty-five rupees his wife who had eloped for want of treatment, and the third son saw in it his youngest daughter running around naked for want of clothes.
By dusk the body was buried.
On their way home they stopped to consult the Brahmin in the Aanjaneyaswami temple. The tenth day happened to fall on an Ashtami. It was decided that the final ceremony and dinner would be held on the eleventh day.
Mareppa, the eldest son, went to the shepherd and picked out from the flock an aged and withered sheep. The animal was anaemic and hardly able to walk - it was just like the old man before his death. They would have liked a fat young sheep but that would have meant five or six hundred rupees. Who had that kind of money?
They killed the animal on the tenth day, after midnight. Its blood was collected in a pot. The head was severed and roasted. The odds and ends were tried out raw by some among those who had gathered there. The peculiar greasy odour emanating from the burning wool tickled the tastebuds of those who were not able to take part in the preparations of the feast.
The legs were cut off and tossed into the fire. The animal was skinned; then the belly was slit open and the intestines taken out, the faeces were removed and the entrails cleaned with water. The carcass was hung upside down from the central beam of the house and the fat portions of the thighs were carved out and the pieces of flesh heaped together. Some people picked up bones that still had some flesh sticking to them. They burnt these in the fire and dipping them in salt, enjoyed every bone.
Finally the big pot with the mutton was on the fire. The pungent smell of masala made many mouths water. They all flocked around the curry-pot, for it was more than six months since mutton had been cooked in that village.
Then they made their way to the dry village pond and offered pinda to please the dead. The old woman was ritually made into a widow: the kumkuma was put on her forehead and then wiped off. The sons and the grandsons had their heads shaved. Other close relatives got their beards and moustaches shaved.
With all the kinsfolk gathered together, the atmosphere was full of laughter and jokes. `When my aunt pushes off I shall order two sheep,' said one; while the other declared that he would get three sheep cooked when his uncle died. `You misers, wait and see, I am going to get four sheep killed and cooked. I intend to observe the rites for my grandfather ever so grandly,' boasted another. Joking, they took their ritual baths at the village well and returned home for the feast.
And there was such a rush.
It was ages since anyone had eaten rice and that too with mutton curry. They were so famished that they started gulping down the food, afraid even to chew, as if this might delay the second helping. But the tough mutton that hadn't softened in spite of the coconut and the green chillies, left them gasping. The sheer effort involved in eating made them sweat and sigh. Yet, the moment did come when loin threads felt tight and dhotis had to be loosened around the waist.
Parents were busy feeding the children seated by their side. Whenever a child was about to get up, satiated, his parent gave him a few thumps on the back and made him sit down and eat some more. They yelled at their stupid children, `Bastards, you've all this fine rice and mutton curry and you say Enough. Scoundrels! You won't eat your fill here and will start crying for more once you're home. Why can't you eat now?' The idea was to skip a meal or two after the feast.
Then the Brahmin was called to sprinkle holy water.
He was given rice, lentils, jaggery, black sesame seeds and a brand new stainless steel chembu. The Brahmin reeled off the mantras, punctuating the recitation by asking for various daanas of gold, new clothes, cows and innumerable other items - gifts from those who had no proper cloth to cover their bodies! In place of the actual gifts the priest magnanimously offered auspicious rice grains as substitutes and so the ceremony came to an end. Finally he asked for his dakshina. This time the real thing; subsitutes wouldn't do.
A drunken relative pleaded, `Swami, my uncle desired to eat mutton in his last days but died without eating any. His spirit is sure to be hovering right here tormented by the unfulfilled desire. Please chant the mantras with enough vigour to send his soul into the upper regions.
Mareppa placed a ten-rupee note in the Brahmin's palm.
The Brahmin looked at the money, looked up at the sky and again at the money and said, `The soul of the departed is still in the middle region and the amount offered is not enough to make him ascend.' He added with a laugh, `The man died with an unfulfilled desire, you should add at least another five rupees.'
`Yes that's right, give five more - when the Swami recites his mantras and sprinkles the holy water all the inauspiciousness is bound to disappear,' advised the drunken relative.
A hapless Mareppa reluctantly placed another five rupees on the floor.
The Brahmin dipped mango leaves into the holy water and sprinkled it on all present. The whole lot - adults and children - were eager to get a few drops on their heads. A few paid ten paise and five paise and had an extra sprinkling performed on the heads of their children.
The Brahmin collected all the money, rice and other items, besides his bus fare. He left with a smile.
Satisfied with a full meal, the guests slowly started leaving.
On the third day after this event, the widow started crying.
`You old fool,' her sons rebuked her, `why do you cry for someone who is dead and gone. The Lord called him and he went. How long will a ripe fruit stay on the branch?'
`You!' spat the old woman. `You spent three hundred rupees to buy a sheep and then cooked it with masala. All the bitches and bastards in the village vied with each other to have their fill. They ate till their gorge rose. And you demons never thought of throwing me even a few bones ... . You animals ate all the bones and poured the watery gravy into my plate. May the gods curse you. May your leaf-plates be torn to shreds. May the wombs of your womenfolk be barren forever. May your tribe cease to prosper...'
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Vakati Panduranga Rao is an information professional with multimedia
experience. He is the author of 25 books, four of which are collections of
short stories. His stories have been translated into many languages including
Russian. At home in Tamil, Telugu, Hindi and English, he has translated widely
from and into these languages and has edited books for the National Book Trust
and the Sahitya Akademi. He is presently Deputy Editor of Andhra Prabha
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