An Antidote for Angst

Telugu original: Sivaraju Subbalakshmi

It was only five months since Dr. Madhava Rao set up practice at that place, but he was already very popular, being kind to the poor and paying particular attention to them. His colleague at the hospital Dr. Kamala, who thought it was all a show in the beginning, had gradually developed a kind of respect towards him.
That day, she went to Dr. Madhava Rao’s room to inform him about taking off that afternoon. Madhava Rao, who had just come out to leave, saw her and waited.
“Doctor! I am taking off in the afternoon. I want to visit my relatives. There aren’t any serious cases, anyway,” she said.
Madhava Rao consented with a smile.
They were coming down the walkway when they saw a boy opening the gate and walking an old man in, holding him by his hand. They boy wanted to say something to the doctor but could not. There was a frightened look on his face as he pulled up his ragged shirt over his shoulder.
The old man was bleeding profusely from his leg. A lump of flesh was peeled off at the knee and the skin was hanging loose. He was looking so weak as if he was left with no more blood in his body.
“What happened?” Madhava Rao asked anxiously.
It took two minutes for the child to recover and reply, “a dog bit him, sir!”
“You have come at the wrong time. We are going home. Besides, he needs to take many painful injections. Take him home for the present and ask your granny to grind leaves of bitter-gourd to paste and apply immediately,” Kamala told the boy.
Madhava Rao smiled away at her suggestion saying, “If we start recommending such primitive medical practice, we better let out these premises to some other organization.”
He took the old man in, bandaged the leg and asked him to visit the next day for follow up.
“Doctor! You treat these people without any regard to the hospital timings. That’s why they bother us turning up at any odd hour. I wish you could show the same concern towards your colleagues,” said Kamala. There was bitterness but no harshness in her words.
“Tell me, is it fair on our part to be impatient with them? Do you think that the dog thinks “let me see if the doctors attend at this time if I bite this poor old man,” before it bites him? You should have been a schoolteacher instead of being a doctor,” he said with his accustomed smile.
“Forget about me. Had you been a Philosophy lecturer, perhaps, you would be showing too much concern for everything, and thereby, hurting others with your kindness. I think I must come to your home and advise your wife to make you a little insensitive,” she said with a laughter.
“You are mistaken. After meeting her, it may turn out, that instead of recommending to her to change me, you may change!” he joined in her laughter.
Kamala saw a touch of friendliness in his laughter.
“I am late. Let me take leave. I have to go and cook,” said Kamala bidding to leave.
“Then why don’t you have lunch with us today?” invited Madhava Rao.
Kamala could not refuse.
Madhava Rao introduced Kamala to his wife Sakuntala.
“She is our guest for lunch,” he said.
“Then let me ask the maid to set the table,” said Sakuntala.
“Hey, looks like you don’t remember me, do you?”
Kamala looked at Sakuntala questioningly.
Sakuntala felt embarrassed as she was unable to remember her.
“It’s me, Chitti. We were neighbours in our childhood. Do you remember now?”
“Goodness! Is it you? You have changed a lot!”
Sakuntala looked at Kamala in disbelief! They had good time together unwinding their childhood.
During their conversation, Kamala turned to Madhava Rao and said, “Sakuntala was a beauty when she was young. I saw so many people but never met someone so beautiful as her,” appreciatively.
“True. I was conned by that very beauty,” Madhava Rao said joining the fun with his wonted laughter.
“Well, I don’t mean she is not looking beautiful now,” added Kamala. She was observing closely the upkeep of the house and embroidery work done by Sakuntala on the upholstery and other places.
Sakuntala brought her new-born and showed her to Kamala.
“She looks more like you, Sakuntala. The frock stitched by you fits well on her,” complimented Kamala.
Kamala wanted to leave.
“Children had been to school and will be home anytime. Why don’t you stay a while?” asked Sakuntala.
Kamala said, “I shall meet them next time,” and took leave.
When Kamala came next time, Madhava Rao was at home. He pulled a chair for her. He asked Sakuntala to serve them coffee.
The conversation turned to marriages.
“In these days, I think marriages of couples pursuing same profession will be more successful. What do you say?” he asked Kamala.
Sakuntala overheard as she brought the coffee. The words pricked her heart, but her face remained expressionless. She was in a dilemma whether to sit with them there or not. Hanging around for a while, she went in.
The conversation however did not proceed the way Madhava Rao wanted.
Kamala left.
Another evening, when it was dark, Madhava Rao and Kamala came home walking drenched in rain. Sakuntala who attended the door was surprised to see them that way.
During dinner Madhava Rao explained her that they went out into the woods and lost their way due to rain. After a long winding way they could somehow make out the way and reached home. Kamala was worried if she would be mistaken. But Sakuntala served the dinner with her accustomed cool. The rain intensified with thunder and lightning. Kamala offered to leave.
“In this weather? How can you? You can go home in the morning,” said Madhava Rao.
Kamala stayed back for the night.
She prepared to leave early in the morning,
“Why don’t you take some coffee before you go?” offered Madhava Rao.
He called out “Baby” and asked to bring coffee.
Meanwhile his younger daughter Susi came running to him, slipped, and fell on the stool.
Kamala’s spectacles and pen fell down, and the lenses broke.
Madhava Rao vented his anger on the child.
As he was carefully picking up the shards of lenses to collect them into a paper, hospital compounder turned up.
“We are finding it hard to feel the pulse of the patient who was admitted last night, Sir!” he informed.
Madhava Rao grew impatient but got ready soon and asked Kamala to follow him to the hospital.
“Let me take leave of Sakuntala,” she said.
“It is not time for formalities, follow me,” he said.
They walked out.
Overhearing the cries of Susi, Sakuntala ran into the room. Through the window, she watched them going out together. Under the neem tree, their servant Mallayya was making some comment, pointing towards them, to his wife Lakshmi. Noticing Sakuntala through the window, Lakshmi refrained from saying what she wanted to and pretended sweeping. The house was abutting the hospital.
The walkway was long and aligned with neem and tamarind trees. And, as if they were in sympathy with the groans of the inpatients of the hospital, the overhanging roots of banyan tree were tossing painfully to the wind.
Sakuntala was unruffled.
Suddenly they heard a hullabaloo at the hospital. Lakshmi ran into the hospital.
Mallayya was now dusting the chairs there.
Muffling up his fingers in the cloth when he saw Sakuntala, he initiated, “Madam, people are saying so many things about Sir and that madam….”
She cut him short saying, “You better attend to your duty.”
She wanted to accost Madhava Rao but finding the presence of another doctor, she refrained.
Next time when Kamala visited their home, Sakuntala readied her children and was herself ready, putting on a silk sari. Kamala did not hide her admiration for Sakuntala.
“This sari looks so beautiful on you!”
“I think it looks good on anybody!” replied Sakuntala.
“People say that a woman seldom admires another woman. I find an exception here,” Madhava Rao said without referring to anybody.
“That was when both of them were beautiful. Luckily, I do not fit into that category,” said Kamala.
“More than the physical beauty, I think there must be some charm, some glow in the person. I suppose you have that in you,” said Madhava Rao. His remarks reinforced Sakuntala’s apprehensions.
“We are going to a movie. Would you like to accompany us?” proposed Madhava Rao.
Meanwhile, the infant child slipped from the swing and started crying. Sakuntala excused herself and went in.
Madhava Rao started off for the club. Kamala left in the car.
After a while compounder came running from hospital.
“Madam! Your brother has called the hospital. He informed that your mother is not well and asked you to start immediately. He advised you to get ready by the time doctor sir is home.”
When she heard her mother was not well, Sakuntala grew anxious. Madhava Rao insisted that they should go only by car. Baby was accommodated in the front, and Sakuntala, maid Lakshmi and children adjusted in the rear seat. It was past midnight by the time they reached their place.
Silence pervaded the house. All the children were asleep. Sakuntala could not contain her grief anymore and burst out. Her brother attended the door and informed in a hushed tone, “Doctors say she is out of danger. She has just slipped into sleep now.” Sakuntala dried her tears and walked in.
“She collapsed in a heap this morning complaining of pain in the chest. The doctor said there was no hope. I called another and he too expressed the same opinion. That is why I had to call you. Pulse returned to normal after 10 pm. Now the doctors say there is nothing to worry,” Sakuntala’s brother appraised the position to Madhava Rao.
Reassured that the patient would be normal soon, Madhava Rao reached home with family the following evening. Handing him two envelopes, Mallayya said, “Sir! Kamala madam asked me to inform you and madam that she had left to her place by the four o’clock Puri express.”
Madhava Rao was surprised in the first place.
Then, he vented his disgust saying, “How could she leave the hospital before I could reach this place? Who will take care of the patients? Strange are the ways of women…”
Sakuntala did not want to read the letter addressed to her in the first place. But relented and started reading. She opened the letter addressed to Madhava Rao first. That was a very brief note informing him that she was resigning her job and that she would write a detailed letter whenever she could find time. She also thanked him profusely for the respect he had shown towards her.
Sakuntala opened the second letter.
“Let me address you as ‘Chinna’ as I used to when we were young.
“I feel little odd to call you by your name Sakuntala.
“Though I am older to you, let me confess, I failed to be as affectionate as you were. I used to frequent your house intending to discuss many things with you but every time I returned without talking to you anything substantial. I used to feel guilty after returning home thinking that I might have hurt your feelings inadvertently.
“You know, in our youth, how many prospective grooms or their relations used to see and reject me because I was not good-looking. Later, I did not marry because I was not interested. Many of our friends got married before they completed graduation. But, very soon, they used to express a kind of disenchantment with life. Don’t you think it is but natural for people like me to take a leaf out of their lives and stay alone? May be because of my frequent visits to your house, there has been some change in me. I always admired the way you attended to your children, and the way you are managing your house. I always liked the way you attended to the needs of the doctor with patience and cheerfulness. Perhaps, you are the reason behind Madhava Rao being a good gentleman. I did not find that level of cultured behaviour, so natural in you, in most of the educated.
“Four years back, somebody made a proposal to me. I did not show interest then. He did not marry. He is my sister’s brother-in-law. Now she took the initiative to finalize my marriage with him. I wish you both attend my marriage. In case it is not possible, can you please bless me that I could lead my life as happily as you do? My fiancé is not well-educated, but he is a man of wealth. I heard that he wanted to marry me, and just me, though there was nothing special about me. I will try to be as patient as you. That day, when we came to your house drenched in rain, you could keep your cool. If I were in your place, I am afraid, even though it is a very hypothetical situation, I would have been upset. I wanted to write and share so many things with you. But I do not know how to go about it. My sincere regards to you both. You being younger to me, I convey my blessings to you once again.
Madhava Rao read the letter after her. He looked into her eyes with his usual smile. She remained downcast for a while. But when she lifted her face up and looked into his eyes, there was sizzling bead of tear in her eyes.

Note on Sivaraju Subba Lakshmi (17th Sept 1925 – 6th Feb 2021)

There is a popular idiom in Telugu that ‘No plant grows under the banyan.’
But, married to her illustrious husband, a banyan-tree like figure in Telugu literature, Sivaraju Venkata Subba Rao (Buchi Babu) when she was only 12 years old, Dronamraju Subba Lakshmi, had refined her literary and artistic instincts taking inspiration from him and his companionship. That she was Butchi Babu’s first reader cum critic and everything went to press only after passing her scrutiny attests to her abilities as a good critic and her sound education at home. Renowned short story writer P. Satyavathi says about Subbalakshmi: ‘… her short stories record the lives of young girls of middleclass brahmin families, who were either illiterate or had a smack of education just enough to read epics, during the period on either side of the Indian independence. Subbalakshmi had to her credit 2 novels ‘Neelamgatu Ayyagaru’ and ‘Adrushtarekha’ and 5 anthologies of short stories.
The present short story ‘Manovyaadhiki Mamdumdi’ was published in the 1-9-1989 issue of Vanita (fortnightly).

Murthy Nauduri

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