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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
* * *
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
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
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
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
“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
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
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
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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