Scars: Vasundhara Ratakonda

This short story was originally published in Telugu (a regional language in India) by the author Vasundhara Ratakonda. It was first published in BHARATHI, a prestigious literary monthly and later anthologized in a collection NEEDALU (Shadows) and later in VASUNDHARA DEVI KATHALU (2004). Several of Ratakonda’s stories have been translated into other Indian languages and anthologized. She is now engaged in translating her stories and her short novel from Telugu to English and “Scars” is her own translation.

Vasundhara Ratakonda has been the recipient of several awards including the A.P.State Sahitya Academy Award for short- stories, Gangadharam Award for short-story collection, and the Pratibha puraskar (Best woman Writer in Telugu, 1992). Some of her selected list of English translations are –
* Women Writing in India Today-II (Feminist Press-NY): MADNESS
* Thulika (Web Quarterly, July2004): STEPPING TO A FARAWAY MUSIC


ANOTHER DAY HAS BROKEN. I am awake but do not feel like stepping out of my bed, as usual. Everyday I wake up early, boil milk for my son and daughter, make coffee for the two of us and get ready by seven a.m., to face my daily grind. Every time, the thought flits by: Does it matter if I am late? What’ll happen if I get sick? They’ll manage, won’t they?

The thought of sickness makes me take a look at my fingers. I find the same difference between the fingers of the left hand and those of the right. No worsening in the past few days…
Or is there?
I am not so certain.
The left fingers are slender and they taper. The right fingers are thick at the joints and are blotchy. Whenever I notice them, the suspicion crosses my mind: maybe these are leprous changes .That stinking disease also starts with thickening of finger joints, I have heard.

I am scared of leprosy. I positively hate it. This town of Chittoor is teeming with those blighted hordes. I shudder when I think of it. This fellow has no fingers. That fellow has no nose. The other one’s arms are blotchy. Chi, chi, the whole leprous population of the country seems to have congregated here to beg. They are sure to infect the whole town. It would be a good riddance if they were all bundled up and burnt off!
I cannot say this out loud or the world is sure to scream ‘pity them…sympathize with them…what about your compassion?’
I have no compassion.
Will they burn me too, because of that?
Ah, these miserable fingers…these right hand fingers…so thick. Sometimes I am convinced that cooking is at the root of this entire problem. Mustard and green chilies splutter in hot oil and lunge straight on to my hands. Somehow my hand is right where the steam spouts out. I strain the boiling rice, and the scalding hot kanji makes a beeline onto my hand like iron filings marching to the magnet. When milk boils over, the rag to hold the hot dish is nowhere to be found. Scared of burning my hand, I hug the hot dish, the overflowing milk, and the stovetop, all three of them, in my anxiety.

Now I do it differently. I stand before the milk boiling-over, and think calmly, “Go, milk, go the way you wish to go and be damned, I don’t care!” If I find cold water handy, I sprinkle. If not, I just do nothing. The milk will boil over and flood the flame and good riddance!

I hate cooking. My mother never taught me how. A sophisticated lady, she was too enlightened and over-educated. Trivial skills like cooking had never bothered her, but she soaked up all the necessary rules needed for a high-class life!
But it was mother’s destiny to marry a luckless man. My dad worked for the government as a deputy collector for a long time and was never promoted. I am sure she yearned to shine as a collector’s wife. Ha, ha, ha, her enlightenment had no power over destiny! My dad didn’t take a lot of bribes but the few that he did take were detected and earned him a black mark. What could my wise mom do except be deeply hurt, as Julius Caesar was when he saw Brutus stab him! I personally think it is a good thing to be stabbed now and then, because your wisdom and Vedanta, they say, grow by these knocks!

When she brought the two of us – Suryam and I -- into this world, she had it all planned out very smartly, she told me. She explained facts about life at the proper age very scientifically as though life was a bundle of facts and dealings of dried up intellect. I am sure she explained to Suryam too at his proper age - why he is a boy and why I am not. That effeminate fellow … the frigid stiff…he would not have thought of these things until SHE explained! He is a good boy. Always at the books like a good boy. No wonder he is the pet child of mom and dad.

Is it a merit to know only what the authorized text-books teach? Is all the rest of it just plain wrong? Were we born out of her head? What hypocrisy! What a barren life! I feel nausea rise up when I hear her lecture.

Her world moves according to plan, just as for our India - progressing by five-year-plans! She turned out smarter than the motherland. She wanted a child five years after her marriage and she had me. Five years later, she wanted a boy and had Suryam. Then she said, ‘enough is enough’, and stopped.
She told me to do likewise. She knew well enough that I would never, ever, take her advice. She was only discharging her duty. I can tell by her tone, by the way she tells. In truth, I married the way I did, just to foil her plans…or rather, my marrying the way I did foiled her plans. ..I myself don’t know why I chose this particular husband. Did I do it right? He and I don’t mesh.

As soon as I turned fifteen, and she was trying to figure out whether I should be wearing frocks like a little child, or skirt and blouse like a ten-year-old, I wrote love letters to the student next door and swore I would not marry anybody else. With the whole neighborhood plugged in, she had no choice but to give in. She did all she possibly could to convince me to change my mind, though. She said she would arrange a doctor or engineer as a bridegroom. Then I would be ‘blessed with hoards of riches and servants’. But if I persist with this boy who keeps failing his bachelors exams, I’d be in for a poor life, she predicted.

Enquiries revealed that the boy’s family was not well-to-do. Mother was very upset on knowing this and was I tickled pink! Her worry was not for me, it was for her status. I knew that well.
She could not understand why I turned out like I did after all her careful planning. Being enlightened, she knew psychology - Freud’s complexes, Adler’s complex and many others - and looked to them to explain my every action as I grew up. She worried that if I were to wake up in the middle of the night and see my parents in ‘the sinful act’ in my half-sleep, my life might be plagued by some Freudian complex. She was flustered when I asked about little Suryam’s measly weenie. Later, of course, she explained it scientifically. No ill-informed, out-dated bumbling here.

Finally she concluded that mine was a case of Adler’s ‘Dethronement complex.’ I heard her tell my father that it might have been wiser if they had Suryam five years late. My dad agreed with her. What else can he do but agree after failing to become A District Collector?
Maybe Suryam will become a district collector. That determined fellow is being groomed.

My dad finagled a clerk’s post in the collector’s office for my consort. These past six years my mate has been working as a clerk. I had my son and daughter in the first two years after marriage. I gave up after that. Children are big trouble. Mother, I want milk…poopie, mom, poopie…peep, mommy, peep...two tyrants are trouble enough. With a husband who is a CLERK in the collector’s office, I can’t afford ayahs, or cooks…
As I laze here thinking, HE would have opened the front door; the servant woman would have brought in milk from the kiosk and washed the dirty dishes.
Doubts crowd my mind: my right hand has scalds? Leprous spots? I am not certain. I am not sure of the Almighty either.
Some days they strike me as leprous. On those days the milk boils over. My hands get scalded. The children annoy me and get beaten up and cry and scream…I cry too, because they hug and cling to me when they cry. And it feels so noble when I do it.
Some days they appear as just scalds. Those days I feel elated. If I have free cash, I make some snack for the children. I even express sympathy for my husband’s difficulties at the office. Not that it matters to him! Whether I scold or sympathize, a smile is his only response. A born clerk, that’s what he is!

Today the spots are looking leprous. Yesterday I got a letter from father. They have now moved to Tirupati to be with Suryam, who joined some M.Sc. program there. They are worried the wimp might not be comfortable in the University hostel! Now that they are very near to Chittoor, they suggest I might spend a week with them, as Deepavali, the festival of lights and crackers, is drawing near.

They extend these obligatory invitations for every festival. I dislike train and bus journeys. I have not visited them in these six years since my marriage. Even for my deliveries, I did not accept their help. The first time, mother came and stayed at my home for ten days. The second time my husband’s friends helped for a week. The rest of the story is work, work, work…I am worn out.

To tell the truth, HE does half the work –like feeding the baby, cleaning their slobber and their shit, changing nappies. Why wouldn’t he? Is he a collector or what?


“Mom, wake up!...I want my milk!” Bobby starts his whining.
Here I am sick with the big blight, and the stupid boy wants his milk!
“You wait until I give you, GO NOW!” I shout.
He sprints off toward the open front door, and straight out into the street.
What good are these silly brats? They are just nuisances and nothing more. Half my sickness starts with them, the raucous little tyrants. The boy wants my full attention. The girl wants my full attention. Cooking needs my full attention. My husband being just a clerk, he doesn’t need attention, and it’s a blessing. Even then, how can I supply three full attentions? That is the ailment bugging me.
Now if they were to disappear completely and not exist – kidnapped or perished – the racket will not be there, the house will be calm and quiet, and I can go on sleeping until nine!
What was that deafening crash? I am shocked! My body is trembling. Was that a thunder bolt? Without clouds and lightning? What a big blast!
Ah, the baby has woken up. Now her howling will start. Why couldn’t she sleep longer?
Ugh, I am still trembling.
“What was that sound?” I ask.
“I’ll go take a look. Somebody seems to have set off a cracker,” says my husband.
“Amma, Amma…some urchins put gunpowder in a tin and it blew up …right in front of our house…four kids are dead, they are saying…” the servant maid, Lakshmi, comes in hurriedly and explains.
“Oh! My heart, it is pounding so hard…Was it really near our front door? It gave me a shock.”
“Radha, where is our Bobby?”
“ Ayyo, Ayyo, he went outside!...Quick, go, look for my precious baby! .…Lakshmi, run out and see…Ah, my son! My darling child! Whatever has happened to my golden boy!”
“Radha, I’m going out to check on it. Don’t panic,” my husband says worriedly.
As he hurries to the door, Bobby runs in, scared and excited.
“Mom …they died…pieces, pieces…” he sputters brokenly, pointing to the door.
I get out of my bed in frenzy, crying out, “You gave me such a fright, you giddy, feckless brat …Now I am going to kill you…”
My husband rushes in and holds me.
“Radha, stop it…Don’t you see the boy is in terror…” he says roughly.
I slump on his shoulder and break down crying.
He strokes my back. “Sit quietly for a while…you are shaken…You’ll be okay,” he says.
“No…no…I’m…I think…my fingers are blotched...I think it’s…it maybe leprosy…”
I mewl.
“We’ll go and check with the doctor…don’t cry now…why panic for no reason?” he says lightly. He is not frightened.
I feel disgusted and think, ‘the man doesn’t know enough even to move away from me in fear! A spiritless, born clerk he is.’


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