Muppidi Prabhakara Rao (1940- ) was associated with ARASAM (Progressive Writers’ Association), VIRASAM (Revolutionary Writers’ Association) and the “New Wave” Movement in Telugu writing. Amma Chettu (2012) from which the title story has been translated here is the second volume of his short stories. Having spent nearly two decades in Hyderabad, he lives now in his native place, Rajamundry, Andhra Pradesh.
In the beautiful compound of the house, lots of flower plants. Flower plants that are a feast to the eye, that give a sense of wholeness to the house. Beautiful, colourful flower plants.
Growing plants is like nurturing an infant. Just as one would hold an infant in one’s lap, you need to hold each plant. You need to weed, clip the pest-ridden part and trim nicely.
Look there—the billagannerus lined up in rows, the tiny chamanthis, kanakambaras, the muddamandaras, the parijathas, next to them the gulabis, a host of… several…
All these are plants we know very well…
Are these mandaras! Do they look so beautiful in these new colours? Are these billagannerus! Do they flower in red and yellow too? Where have I seen this kind of chamanthis… What fantastic colours!
Everyone would watch in utter amazement!
Those are rare flower plants collected and brought from different places.
Therefore, to constantly look after them, there would be some work or the other all the time. There would be work for a labourer at least once or twice a month. There would be a need to pull out weeds once in a while.
In the process of weeding and making plant beds, the worker stopped his work to say, “Ayya! Do you want me to remove this sprout?”
I moved close and examined. But I wasn’t a student of botany.
“It’s sitaphal plant, ayya!”
“Yes, it is.” I nodded.
Unsure whether to keep the plant or have it removed, I stood staring. So I asked him, “How did this plant come up here?”
“Nobody intentionally plants a sitaphal plant. Once its seed falls on to the ground, it is covered with mud, and when some moisture touches it, the sapling spouts, sends its roots deep and stands up as a plant. You don’t have to make beds for it, don’t have to weed, or water it. Like us, the riffraff, it grows on its own,” he said.
I looked around the house. Towards the south-east where the two walls met, not obstructing anything else, the plant had grown like an invisible fort.
In any case, should the plant be retained or removed?
Here in this tiny flower garden of mine, only flowering plants. What’s the harm if there’s one fruit-bearing tree among them? In any case, it had come up on its own, hadn’t it…. I reflected.
“Orey, Devudu! Leave it like that…”. Devudu was the coolie’s name.
Soon this plant grew steadily and became big. It occupied that corner in all its greenness, fullness, coolness and thick foliage. With its tender leaves, it grew like a bouquet the earth had gifted. It grew tall into a tree now.
Parrots were now perching on its branches. Butterflies were fluttering about making their circumambulations. Sparrows were endlessly jumping from one branch to the other. Squirrels were running about all over the place. Much before the dawn from among the leaves birds would make chirping sounds. Soon after dawn, the tender sunrays would descend, make the plant glow, and deflect off the green leaves in all directions.
On one such morning, the leaves on the tree had been disturbed. Sounds of hard beating of wings could be heard. Two entangled crows fell down with a thud right in front of our eyes. A garden lizard waiting to hunt the insects got frightened and fell close to the wall. It crawled up the wall, lifted its head and looked up heaving a sigh of relief for having survived. Amidst the sounds of the flapping wings a squirrel squeaked and whirled about fighting for its life. It seemed as if it was in urgent need of help. The two crows that fell got separated. They soon rose up. The squirrel that had fallen on its back now quickly turned around. Two other crows came up from nowhere and perched themselves next to those that were already there. Now holding firmly the ground beneath it, the squirrel got ready for the fight. All the crows moved ahead to pierce it with their beaks. Finally it seemed one of the crows was bound to hold it in its beak and fly away.
I ran driving them away saying “ushh…”
Our older son studying in the staircase, swiftly hurled the English textbook he was reading from towards them. It fell at the foot of the tree even as its leaves made a fluttering sound. Like me, others too ran towards the tree. All this happened involuntarily in a matter of seconds. The crows scattered at one go.
I was thrilled at my son’s timely action of hurling the book.
All our eyes on the squirrel… all of the squirrel’s looks on us… the whirling crows above, all around us…
The crows perched on the sitaphal tree, relaxed even as they waited for the right opportunity.
The squirrel made no attempt to run away. If we abandoned it, the crows were bound to attack it once again and carry it in their beaks.
Now we had to move it to a protected place.
That meant we had to take it into the house.
But how? If we held it in our hands, it might with its sharp teeth bite one of the fingers. Or it might with its nails injure some part of our body. Or it might tear a part of it.
So I brought a napkin from inside the house, covered it, pressed on it and took it comfortably into my palm. Even though it had moved and struggled a bit, it didn’t protest much.
We tied a soft cotton rope to its leg and tied the other end to a brick in a corner in my room and left it free. We examined it carefully. Its head looked rather small. Its tail too hadn’t spread out. Therefore we concluded that the squirrel was a very young one.
When it thus made its entry, my two children—I didn’t know when they went out and when they brought a guava for it—put it in front of its mouth and pleaded a lot with it saying, “Come…come…eat.”
But contrary to their expectations it didn’t pounce on the guava, bite and eat it right away. Instead, it became stiff, stood in a corner and kept staring like a newly arrested prisoner. It didn’t touch any food even by the evening. It looked as if it hadn’t liked anything. It wasn’t easy for the fear in its heart to ebb away so quickly, right? It’s fears were all its own. No matter how small a creature, the fear and love of life are real.
In the meanwhile, another fear haunted our people. Will some cat enter the house and take the squirrel away holding it in its mouth? Of late, a spotted cat had often been entering through the grills of the window.
I couldn’t deny their fears.
By the evening a nest had been readied for it. They brought and showed it to me.
It was a carton of the new computer we had bought. From our own house. They perhaps sawed the carton leaving an inch width on all sides and fixed a mesh on it. Using twine thread and LP nails, they had fixed it firmly. “Where did you get all these?” I asked. From wherever they were…I was thrilled at their workmanship.
They had spread a newspaper inside at the bottom end of the box. They had inserted a small sized bonsai plant into it. They had left some water in a plate. Next to it, a guava, a banana…
They now let the squirrel into this beautifully constructed nest. It moved worriedly in all directions. Spent a night. By the morning it had nibbled a bit into the guava. Made a tiny hole in the banana. My people were extremely delighted at this.
A week went by.
Now my people had started taking it into their hands and fondly caressing it. It began to cuddle up nicely in their palms. It got used to everything in a week’s time. By another week it became friendly with everyone.
Now there was no need for any cotton rope around its leg. It moved about from room to room, jumped about and got close to the legs of whoever it found on its way. In fact, it owned the whole house, nay the entire flower garden. But all of that, only when we were there. When we weren’t there, it would in no way go beyond my room.
By the time two months passed by it became our life-spirit. It now moved about just like a pet dog or a pet cat and was moving about the whole house. Taking care of it was entirely on my children. Whenever I went around my flower garden, I would leave it on the sitaphal tree. It would go about the whole tree making noises. Nibble and eat whatever it found. I would go and rest in my easy chair. I wouldn’t know when it would come down near me. I would find it hovering near my easy chair. Or it would have crawled over the leg and reached on to my lap.
It was a little living thing that could huddle into my palms. I would take it into my hands and fondly caress it.
Its small head, its tiny face, its two little urad-grain-sized eyes… How did a six-foot tall, heavy human form fit into them–mine and all my people’s–I wondered.
Its small head… and the tiny brain in it.
Its small heart… and the little soul inside it (or not–)
How were such a small heart and a tiny brain so expansive?
On the other hand, a human being’s eyes were large—amidst those eyes love alone does not reside. Envy, enmity, anger, cruelty, jealousy, impatience, resentment … all these would find a nesting place there.
Did these little living things represent the purity that was non-existent in the humans?
My youngest daughter ran away after announcing the arrival of Sarada atthaiah. I left my little squirrel on the floor and came up to the front room to meet her. By then everyone at home had spoken to her about this and that.
I asked her of her well-being.
She seemed to have come to see me and my family. In fact, it had been a long time since I had seen her. Sometimes I too had felt like seeing her. But I couldn’t do it for some reason or the other.
Now, she herself had turned up.
“Why don’t you have your food and go?” I said.
“Yes, atthaiah, stay back here for the day.”
In the meanwhile, the little squirrel was in our midst! Seeing the squirrel right inside the house, Saradamba was a little surprised.
“A squirrel,” I said. Right then, my little daughter picked it up, held it close, fondly caressed it and said:
“Attha, we are bringing up this little devil,” and moved on.
Saradamba had goose pimples.
“How can you touch it? You and the nasty things you indulge in…,” she expressed her annoyance. As it moved close to her, she was even more disturbed. “You don’t expect such nonsense in Brahmin households, do you… Touching a squirrel? How terrible!” Saying so, she looked daggers at us. Her face had already turned red. Looking at her my daughter was shocked. Was somewhat disappointed. Anger surged ahead. Seeing the turn of events I signalled to her with my eyes. She went in with the squirrel. For a while a tragic atmosphere of a graveyard descended on the scene. Saradamba recovered from this state and said: “The purpose of my coming has been fulfilled. Wanted to see you all. I have… I’ll go now.”
None of us could restrain her. Nor could we ask her to have food and leave. Didn’t know why, but we lacked the courage to tell her.
“Okay akka! We ourselves will come in a day or two,” I said.
After she left my younger daughter said, “Attha is terribly scared of the squirrel. That’s why she was frightened and was all over me.” I was upset thinking that the real tragedy in life is not being able to love living beings.
But all days don’t proceed in the same way. To expect them to do so too is to be greedy! That day due to pressure of work I went up to the gate and returned hurriedly to my room, to my table.
That was when it all happened unexpectedly. After I had finished my work at the table and got up from the chair, my feet deceived me when I stepped back. My boot leg stamped like Vamana’s foot on that unfortunate being that used to spring up like a lightning and jump up to receive me. I lifted my leg worried as to what it was that felt soft and had got crushed under my feet. I searched to find out what was there on the floor. My eyes didn’t deceive me. That was our squirrel. At one go it opened its mouth, gritted its teeth, struggled, tried to force itself up on its fore legs, drag itself to the middle of the room and swooned.
My heart missed a beat.
Its back and its hind legs must have been badly crushed. Even so it tried hard to get up once more.
Unable to watch its suffering, I crashed into my chair.
It was then that my younger daughter came into my room. She saw it in that state. She knew it was in danger. “Ayyo, ayyo!” she cried in fear. “What’s this nanna! How did it happen? Who did it? Ore Bujji! Akka! Annayya!” she screamed.
Stupefied, I couldn’t respond.
I had to do something there and then. I had to rescue it from danger. I had to infuse life into it.
I rushed inside the house and returned with a wet cloth. By then everybody had surrounded it. I made my way in and tied the wet cloth around its crushed back and hind legs. I spread another soft cloth on the floor, put the squirrel on it and covered it with the end of the cloth.
Will its little life be restored?
A pitiable state where I couldn’t comfort myself. It’s because of me that this little being, the darling of everyone’s heart, had succumbed to this violent act.
How would it have been if I hadn’t returned from the gate! Even if I had returned, had I been more careful… I felt miserable reflecting like this.
Everyone had loved it. Now there was something missing in everyone’s face. A streak of sorrow was strikingly present on every face.
Their mother who came in just then examined it and said, “Did you check if its legs have become stiff because of rheumatism?” Denying anything of the kind, my older daughter said, “I had put it down on the floor from my lap just a little before this happened. It was all right till then… It had even sprinted across.”
“Then, had some cat…?” wondered my younger daughter.
Each had their own explanation.
But I alone became dumbfounded feeling like a criminal. My throat was choking. So I came out from that room after some time and sat down in the verandah. I didn’t know how long I sat like this… my younger daughter came in the meanwhile containing her tears behind her eye lashes to say, “It’s no longer alive, nanna?”
I felt a pall of gloom enveloping my eyes.
It had spent some time like a streak of bright light amidst us for a while and filled the place with darkness.
Did it go or had we sent it away?
Whatever be the case, it had gone away. How wonderful it would be if the moon is sighted in the sky everyday? But the new moon wouldn’t accept it.
I buried the truth with my silence.
A year passed by quickly.
I loved to spend time sitting in this little flower garden of mine looking at the western sky resplendent with the red rays.
There, in that corner, the sitaphal tree had spread out like an umbrella against the sky. It was such a pleasure to see the tender golden rays of the sun pierce like needles on to the ground and descend into the earth.
Such a green sitaphal tree started looking dull in the last ten days. Some of its leaves had turned yellow. Some had turned black and shriveled. All the leaves having been shed the tree stood bare.
Why had the tree suddenly turned bare?
Looking at the bare tree reminded me of the little squirrel buried a year ago. By now it would have given away its attractive form to the earth and retained just its skeleton amidst its folds. Now, shorn of its leaves, this sitaphal tree, too looked as if it was ridiculing me rising up on the ground like another skeleton.
Neither the sitaphal tree nor the little squirrel were things I had desired to raise. They came up on their own. They went away too on their own. Not just them. All the things we love come this way. Our kids too are born without our knowledge. We too are born without desiring to be born to a certain mother. Nothing happens according to our desire. All the things we love happen this way. They pass away too this way.
Therefore, human heart must turn into a graveyard… All these memories must be buried there.
That same day I sent word to Devudu. That the sitaphal tree had dried up at my house and that he should come and chop it off immediately.
The fellow who promised to come by the next morning didn’t come till three days later. The third morning he was seen sharpening his axe against a smooth stone in the portico.
“Do you need to sharpen your axe even to chop off this kind of sitaphal tree, Devudu?” I asked.
He said even without the context warranting it, “I believe a tree offers its sweet fragrance even to the axe that chops it away.”
This statement churned my entrails. I wondered if I was having the tree chopped off mercilessly. When the sacred texts say said that a tree that didn’t bear fruits could be chopped off, what was the harm in chopping off a tree that had become bare?
I walked into my flower garden involuntarily. He was following me.
I reached the bare tree. I opened my eyes wide and examined it. A surprise was in store for me. Why had I made a mistake?
He came near the tree and said, “Ayya, the tree isn’t dead. It has just shed its leaves.”
“I too feel the same,” I said stunned.
Tender sprouts at each node.
In a week’s time, tender green leaves. Their tender fragrance.
Spring passed by.
Summer passed by.
With the first rains the burnt earth sent out fragrance of the smell of the earth. Everything went by.
Good rains this year it seemed.
Yes, yes. Time doesn’t stop. Hats off to its disciplined ways.
A morning that hadn’t dawned.
The sky was clear. Was pleasurable. I was walking in my little flower garden. Strange smells were encircling me. Sweet taste joined such a fragrance and was overpowering me. These smells were new. I proceeded wondering where they had come from. It had struck me even more when I moved closer to the sitaphal tree.
I looked at the tree.
Through the leaves, flowers like sampenga in every twig and branch. They appeared as if they were looking one-eyed at me.
“Aay, the sitaphal tree is in bloom.”
The entire household came to know of this. Days went by. As the days went by, the sweet aroma increased.
At such a time, on a mid afternoon, there was an attack on the tree. Four or five old monkeys were sitting on the tree branches, plucking the flowers and eating them. We tried to frighten them. Terrify them with sticks. Each time we scared them, they would jump into the adjacent compound and return to the tree once we weren’t there. They moved around the whole tree, plucked all the flowers and ate them.
At that time, the sitaphal tree looked like a pregnant mother who had been murdered. All our hopes had come to naught.
But we can’t imagine many things.
After some time, I saw tender fruits amidst the branches. What a surprise when I went close. Every branch bore fruits. Hadn’t the monkeys eaten away all the flowers that day? How did these fruits surface then? It was then that I grasped the motherhood of the tree. Just as a mother would hide the child behind her pamita, the tree must have hidden some flowers behind its leaves.
In the meanwhile there was a festival in the village.
My next door neighbours, those in the house opposite, all others we knew well in the neighbourhood came to the tree. They picked up some tender fruits to decorate the palavelli on the chavithi day.
The festival was over.
There were still some fruits left on the tree. Now they had become big. They were ready to ripen.
The rains lashed.
Just then there was another attack on the tree.
They came with their young ones, started eating some of the ripe ones, picked up the rest and threw them down. It wasn’t easy for us to drive them away. For a whole week they would turn up some time, would empty the fruits on the tree, bite the fruits, break them, ruin the whole tree and leave happily.
At that time our eyes would stare hopelessly at the tree.
Now nothing had been left for us on the tree. Therefore, we were angry with the festivals, the human beings and the monkeys. Was I the only one to be disappointed? It would target each one of us in a different form at some point or the other.
But my wife had hopelessness coupled with anger. Her anger was first on the monkeys. Later, it was on the sitaphal tree that was the cause for the monkeys turning up there. If the monkeys had just eaten as much as they wanted, plucked as many as they wanted, spoiled as many as they wished, there wouldn’t have been all this fuss. But when we were a bit negligent it had become a habit for them to enter the kitchen close by and quickly vanish with whatever was handy. It was our turn to helplessly watch them.
Therefore, my wife wasn’t at all in favour of the sitaphal tree’s existence there. She told me directly one evening to have it chopped off. Then I told to her patiently that it may not be proper to chop off a fruit-bearing tree. But she wouldn’t agree at all. She asked me what benefits any of us had had from it. “What’s point of a tree, however green it is, if it doesn’t give a fruit to any one? Has anyone of us eaten a single fruit? Chop the tree off,” she said.
I didn’t know how to explain things to her. Even so, I put this forward to her: “We haven’t brought the seed and planted this tree. We haven’t tended it and watered it. It sprouted and grew, all by itself. Now it has flowered and borne fruit. It’s giving shelter to a number of birds. It’s giving its fruits to parrots. The monkeys too are eating them. I don’t think a tree is there to grow and bear fruit for humans alone. It gives it to all living being. Therefore, consider if it’s right to have it chopped off.”
She moved away from my presence.
After the fruits had disappeared, the monkeys too weren’t seen. Therefore, there was no pressure either to fell the tree. Even then, this problem haunted me for a couple of weeks.
If I looked from my window, the sitaphal tree wasn”t too far away. Is sitaphal a tree or a plant? Bigger than a plant. Smaller than a tree. Just as a squirrel is inferior among animals, so too is a sitaphal among trees. There is a difference between felling a huge tree and chopping off a sitaphal tree. If we felled an oak tree or a teak tree or a banyan tree, an illusion of half the sky having been emptied would engulf us. But a sitaphal tree wouldn’t do that.
That morning I was reading the newspaper as usual sitting in the easy chair. As I flipped through the pages, from beyond the sitaphal tree, from a distance, a koel’s voice was enthralling my ears. Keeping the newspaper aside I began listening to the song that was engulfing me with boundless joy. An arudra insect crawled on the floor and disappeared amidst the billaganneru plants. When I was looking in that direction, a squirrel very close to my feet.
It was sitting on its hind legs, fearlessly and without any worry, eating something holding it with its fore legs. When it came so close, my memories came alive.
Memories of our little squirrel.
I examined it carefully.
It brought me an illusion as if it came alive having resurrected itself from the base of the sitaphal tree where we had buried it, from the folds of the earth, and was standing close to my feet.
That’s it! I bent forward involuntarily in my easy chair. A momentary emotion to take it into my palms spoilt that wonderful sight.
My movement having suddenly alerted it, it jumped ahead like lightning and ran up the sitaphal tree.
I too moved towards the tree.
If you ask me if a squirrel would be able to hold in thrall a human being, I can only say that we have to live through experiences, but can’t explain them.
If we could explain why we are enthralled by an infant in our lap, we could explain why that little squirrel enthralls us.
Due to the continuous rains in the last four days, all the leaves were shining and the entire tree was looking like a mirror that had been washed clean. I looked endearingly as that squirrel sprinted from one branch to another. It gave me boundless joy as I recalled lost memories.
That squirrel made noises jumping about the branches and disappeared into the foliage. I searched for it among the branches. What I was searching for was something; what I found was something else.
An unbelievable truth.
The tree never deceives.
In the lap of that green tree, a sitaphal fruit, shining bright, hidden behind the pamita.
Just the one sitaphal fruit.
The tree satisfies hunger. Gives life to others. Gives nectar. The tree knows only to give, never to take. As Devudu said, it offers its sweet fragrance even to the axe that chops it. It even gives shelter and provides relief from tiresomeness to the human being who makes business from it everyday.
It’s the human being who commits mistakes. Even so, it never points out his meanness.
That branch had bent down so I could reach it. I got up on my toes and held the branch in my hands. I bent it further and tried to pluck that fruit. But it came off on its own and fell into my palms.
The tree displayed its motherness.
The big sweet fruit in my palms.
How could I destroy the green tree with the same hands that had taken its fruits?
In front of my house, in this little flower garden, amidst our care.
The mother tree.
(Translation of “Amma Chettu” from Amma Chettu by Muppidi Prabhakara Rao. N.P. : N.P., 2012, 29-42 by Alladi Uma and M. Sridhar.)