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The story SHADOWS was originally written in Telugu (a regional language of India) by Vasundhara Ratakonda and published in Bharati, a prestigious literary monthly. It is the title story of the anthology “NEEDALU”(Shadows) and also included her complete stories collection “VASUNDHARA DEVI KATHALU”. This English version is the author’s own translation. Some of her Telugu stories are translated into other Indian languages and into English. Her story SCARS appeared in the May ’05 issue
of Cerebration.

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There is only one scene visible all around – a hardened expanse of red soil. Some red mounds and hills lie scattered here and there. A small signboard next to one of the hills says “DOKKA SEETHAMMA’S SHELTER” in rounded white letters.

Along the slopes of that hill, several people hang around, playfully. Their sport is tearing up each other and chewing the body parts. One man, who is moving about actively, is of thin built and is wearing dark blue pants and a blue shirt. For no perceptible reason he has a huge grin on his face. As he laughs, his strong set of gleaming teeth and his red gums envelop half his dark, long face. Still laughing, he breaks off the left hand of the man standing to his left and starts chewing on it. At the same time, his right hand plucks off the entrails of the man on his right. He moves around briskly and preys on everybody around him. His movements are precise. There is no fumbling, no flaw. He gets whatever he reaches for.

A few feet away from this ghastly group, a baby girl is sitting on a stool, looking like a sandalwood statuette. She has a radiant face, and a sparkling glow is emanating from her. Her large dark eyes follow their movements with an innocent look. Suddenly, some from the group notice her. Laughing, they trot over toward her. The dark man is leading them. He is almost there; he could extend his arm and reach her. His arm shoots out…

Nirmala wakes up and sits on the bed in a daze. Her heart is beating rapidly. She is terrified that she will get caught… It takes ten minutes for her to realize that all this is just a dream. The amorphousness of dream-terror has unnerved her. She hadn’t yet completely returned to reality. She has a strong feeling that she is the baby of her dream and is greatly alarmed. In a world where selfish people chew up others, Nirmala feels she is that unprotected little child.

She had heard of the legendary lady, Dokka Seethamma , who had fed the hungry for forty years in times of severe droughts and she wonders why the same appeared in her dream. Based on the features of the dark man in her dream, she has no doubt that he is the very same Bhaskaram who runs errands for her. He is a janitor in her husband’s office, a conscientious worker. He has been doing a good job, no matter what kind of work is given to him. Since he was terminated from several of his previous employments in the past, he is afraid that he might lose this job as well and is careful. That is the reason he is assigned to work at Nirmala’s home. In general there are not many who could finish a chore to her satisfaction. Bhaskaram finishes each job thoroughly, meticulously, and neatly. Nirmala appreciates the quality of his work but she cannot bring herself to like him.

Bhaskaram comes from that out-caste, ethnic group who uncomplainingly suffer hardships dumped on them out of communal prejudice, and live merely to subsist. That’s how it had been for them for generations. Nirmala notices his undershirt that looks like a rag thrown away after cleaning the grime off a greasy machine, and similar offensive-looking underpants he wears when he does yard-work; but he puts on a clean shirt and a not-so-objectionable pair of pants over them when he is on “duty”. He is twenty-five years old, and already a father of three children. Although skinny, he does his job with great zeal. He listens
attentively to people while they talk, but never expresses his opinion except for an occasional ‘yes’. It is in his nature to be silent. He is skilled though in entering into the innermost recesses of the other person’s mind –as easily as water slithering under a mat. He understands well that the power that makes any man act is the need born out of his selfishness. Therefore he can identify their needs and knows what pleases them and what annoys them. Whenever he can, he will go and do odd jobs for ‘important’ people, sometimes because he is asked to and at other times on his own. Every such acquaintance develops into something of value within a short period and rains gifts that are useful for his living. Even Bhaskaram is never sure of what things he will receive, when he will get them, and from whom. Things like cast-off shirts, pants and children’s clothes, left-over foods, last year’s pickles, discarded sarees, and empty wooden crates arrive unasked. But people dislike his ability to intuit their needs and his concern doesn’t always receive the recognition it deserves.

When nobody else is home and Nirmala is taking her bath, he sits in the yard on the other side of the bathroom wall, coughing and clearing his throat and emitting his spit with a rude cackle. Nirmala hears the din as meant to assure her that he is outside and is not going into the house to steal things. When she is in the kitchen or in the dining room or in the bathroom, he pokes into the sewer pipes connected to that particular room from the other side and scrapes them with a grating noise. For Nirmala, his actions seem to tell her, “I am doing this cleaning work unasked; please make a note of it.”

Sometimes, when she is busy with some work and turns around, she will find him standing right behind her with a smile on his face, as if eagerly waiting to help, and to please, and to live. At such times Nirmala gets alarmed and shudders at this unexpected showing. His very silence becomes a huge roar in her heart. She gets annoyed, afraid and despondent. She will think without thinking: this subservience is his gimmick to hang on to his job and to serve his own ends. He will not hesitate to smash my head if he thought fit and he will have no compunctions if the world and me disappeared without a trace - I, me and my life, my life and me - that’s all there is to it. With such thoughts, her misgivings about Bhaskaram grow rapidly. True he lies at times, but everybody lies sometimes. He does not steal or do anything wrong. He never says ‘no’ to her. Yet Nirmala’s mistrust continues.

Another cause for Nirmala’s misgivings is Bhaskaram’s shadow. Nirmala does not like any shadows for that matter. She likes her thoughts to be clear, definite, and certainly-not vague or hazy. Shadows sneak upon and into each other and make the mind unsure. She has always been troubled by their unpredictable behavior. When a person behind her walks towards her left, she sees the shadow moving towards her right; and when he/she moves to her right, the shadow moves left. Nirmala is not in the habit of seeing a person straight; she notices only the shadow. When a servant goes into the house and she starts wondering what he is doing inside, she will turn around to find him outside the house. Or, when she thinks he is busy in the backyard, she will see the same person coming from inside the house. This confuses her and reinforces her doubts.

She cannot say why, but Bhaskaram’s shadow baffles her even more. Is he intentionally trying to confuse her? Does he walk sideways as a crab does? Many such thoughts crowd her mind. Not that she is an unjust person. She positively dislikes suspecting people without proof and questioning them. She believes that all persons are created equal, that every person is entitled to self-esteem, and that the entire world is a hallowed entity.

“Our Nirmala is literally nir-mala – she is justness itself…not a shadow of deceit or untruth in her!” her father had remarked once, when she was a child. She would never forget those words. To her, her father equaled God.
In looks, Nirmala resembles her mother. A mother of two, short and heavy-set, Nirmala looks like a bulb. She has a big head. But her eyes, nose and mouth are delicate, as if they do not belong to that big head. She is always in a rush, running around with an easy gait, despite her bulk. Because of this agility, people mistake her as younger than her thirty years. She wears expensive clothes but puts them on carelessly and shabbily. Her resemblance to her mother stops there.

Ever since her childhood, Nirmala thought nothing of her mother. Her mother is not educated. Nothing in the world matters to her except her family and its welfare. She does not have the sense that other people are also human beings. Nirmala feels that her mother is coarse, that she behaves rudely, especially toward her servants. She yells at them constantly and finds fault with their work. Anytime something goes missing, she blames them without any proof. There are times when the missing object is later found in some corner in the house…even when the thing is really stolen, only one of the four servants questioned is the real thief; the other three are innocent. In Nirmala’s mind it is not right, not fair, and it is even a great sin to disgrace people in that manner for no fault of theirs. Nirmala does not appreciate troubling people for small losses. Why is one stupid little thing valued higher than a human being’s self-respect, she wonders. In such situations she admonishes her mother and her father invariably supports Nirmala. That kind of honesty, ideals of social justice, and awareness of higher values strengthens the father-daughter relationship.

If God came to her and asked “this is your final moment; so, decide what you want to be in your next life?” she would give the same answer, whether right away or after thinking it over for one whole long year. She would say, “God, let me be born as nirmala, with a pure and a high-minded self.”

But Nirmala is confronted with tests after she got married and assumed family responsibilities. It is getting harder to live according to her principles. What should she do when a thing disappears from her own home? Unlike the objects at her parent’s home, all the things she possesses now seem very valuable. There is not a single possession about which she could say it’s gone, so be it. She doe not like suspecting somebody without proof. At the same time, she does not want to let go of things either. Unable to figure out how to proceed, she had developed a habit of not ‘seeing’ the problem. She can ignore things she does not ‘see.’

With this disavowal, a second profile starts taking shape in her mind. This second self notices things that Nirmala would rather not ‘see’. She tells herself that she has nothing to do with that second self. But this causes problems for her. Things show up like shadows in her mind; they are neither real nor unreal.

A stainless steel mug disappeared from the bathroom the day before. There was no clue as to how it happened or who might have taken it. A shadow of a scene from earlier that day nagged at the back of her mind: as she passed by the bathroom, Nirmala had noticed the new servant-maid, Chandra, hanging around there. The maid saw Nirmala, cringed, quickly picked up a bucket, and started cleaning the gutters. Nirmala did not stop to think this is not her usual cleaning time; so why is she here now? That thought reeked of unfair suspicion. So she did not acknowledge it; she walked away without ‘seeing’ it. Now she can not recall for sure that Chandra was there at that time. It is a phantom shadow of a memory. Did she see Chandra there at the time? She is not certain. She realizes that the mug is missing, that no outsider except Chandra and Bhaskaram ever go in there; but she cannot assert anything. Whom can she ask? Things are so hazy.

Nirmala frets over the mug for a long time that night. While she was in her natal home, she had not been worried about such things, not things like steel mugs. But Nirmala got this steel mug because she wanted it! She had given a street-vendor two gold-threaded silk sarees, barely used ones, in exchange for that mug. If she were to buy the same kind of sarees again, it would cost her god knows how much! Not only that-- What if tomorrow a bucket disappeared the same way as the mug had gone today, some dishes the following day, and then jewelry…Nirmala sees this mentality of stealing mushroom to a point that will swallow her up as well. She thinks again of her dream.

Nirmala’s father-in-law comes for a brief visit. Even as she hurries to finish the extra chores, she comes to a decision – she must settle the mug business one way or the other. Soon. She goes to where Chandra and Bhaskaram sit quietly chatting and says severely, “A steel mug is missing from the bathroom. Nobody goes there except you two. Between the two of you, you find out who took it and bring it back.”

“I know nothing about that mug,” Chandra shoots back, at once.
Bhaskaram looks on, silently reflecting.
Chandra says she’s done for the day and leaves in a hurry. Bhaskaram who has been standing there lost in thought, suddenly comes alive and says, “Saar’s shirt is hung outside. Please ask him to check if any money is stolen.”

Fifty rupees is missing! On discovering this new theft, Nirmala looses her equanimity and is very upset.
“I‘ll go and get Chandra”, says Bhaskaram and runs out in a hurry. Chandra is already halfway to her house, but he brings her back.
“I don’t have your money!” protests Chandra with vehemence.
Chandra goes to a corner in a huff, loosens her dress, and shakes
it to prove her point.
‘Could she have hidden the money in her bushy hair?’ The thought crosses Nirmala’s mind, but she cannot demand, “Undo your hair and let’s see.” Nirmala watches helplessly as Chandra leaves, yet entertaining her suspicions.

Within five minutes, Bhaskaram returns with five ten-rupee bills, neatly folded, and hands them to Nirmala. He says he had noticed that Chandra had gone behind a tree briefly while he escorted her back. While she was disrobing and proving her innocence, he went to check behind the tree and found the stash. “Honest people lose their jobs because of dishonest people like you” he had told Chandra. He had spat on her face, Bhaskaram proudly informs Nirmala, puffing himself out in a hero’s manner.

Chandra returns with a group of her relatives within fifteen minutes and says belligerently, “I am not the only person who works in your house. How can you say that I am responsible for your mugs and your money? Who knows who took them? I am not working for you any more.”

Bhaskaram stands in silence, quietly watching them. Nirmala is confused. Is this the same man who had called that woman names and spat on her face earlier, she wonders.
Bhaskaram walks to the back of the house. Chandra follows him, confers with him in low tones, and goes out to wait.
Bhaskaram returns and says, “She wants her wages, madam. She is quitting.” Nirmala calls Chandra in, pays her up and sends her away.

Nirmala is puzzled. What might have transpired between Bhaskaram and Chandra? Why did Bhaskaram ask her to pay off Chandra? If he is really an honest person; what had he to confer with a thief in secrecy? Her suspicions of him, and her feeling that he is somehow behind this occurrence strengthen.
Now the second self in her mind raises a more disturbing doubt: how did he know that the money in her father-in-law’s shirt pocket was missing? Though there is no proof, he must also be a thief. Or, maybe, a partner in crime! Even if he did not commit this crime, he possesses the same mean quality for sure. Otherwise how did he figure out the event? Only a thief can catch another thief. …the second self in her continues to prosecute.

At this point, a very uncomfortable thought rises up in unfortunate Nirmala’s mind: It has been shown that Chandra has committed this theft and that Bhaskaram has not done it. How then, did she, Nirmala, know that it is in Bhaskaram’s nature to steal? How did she identify him?
She is greatly flustered by this new inquiry. She tries to calm herself by thinking, ‘why should I bother so much about a stupid steel mug? Why should I relate to that low life?’
But the inquiry will not cease. A slew of questions surface—
From where do things get disproportionate values?
What is the origin of these shadows that plague the mind?
Is pure-mindedness merely a romantic illusion?
What is the relationship between human-beings and the world?
Where do thoughts come from?

Nirmala has no answers. She is unable to go beyond and is baffled. She is surprised that her behavior has not really been different from her mother's. Her understanding of the word 'NIRMALA', now, has shadows.

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