More about my “Bandilanka’s Forgotten Lives”

“Malgudi Days,” a collection of short stories by the famous Indian writer R. K. Narayan, was my inspiration forf “Bandilanka’s Forgotten Lives.” Narayan portrayed the many faces of life in the fictional town of Malgudi. My Bandilanka serves a similar purpose. However, whereas Narayan’s stories are peopled by men and dogs, mine run the gamut of caste, class, gender, and age. Here is a taste from the short story “Night soil removers Kaavanna and Kondamma”:

Night soil removers Kaavanna and Kondamma

“If I were to be born again,

I would like to be born in the

family of a scavenger

so that I may relieve them

of the inhuman unhealthy and

hateful practice of carrying

head loads of night soil.

Mahatma Gandhi

The last rays of the sun disappeared below the western shore of the Godavari River. Kaavanna squatted at the threshold of his hut, smoking the first bidi of the night. There would be many more during the next twelve hours. Without his bidis, the stench would be overpowering. He inhaled the last bit of smoke deeply into his damaged lungs, and got up slowly, trying not to look at the blood he had just coughed up. He wondered, as he did every night, how much longer he would be able to survive. He glanced at his wife of four decades. She had inserted the lit end of the bidi into her mouth so that the smoke would go more directly into her lungs. That was the way of the Paky people. Kaavanna’s bleeding gums had stopped him from smoking this way. Kondamma finished her smoke and spat.

“Come, husband!” she whispered, tapping him gently on the shoulder. “No time to waste!”

She had given him three daughters and two sons. All of them were scavengers, just like their parents. Karma! There was no escaping one’s karma. They were Paky, the lowest of the Relli caste. The Relli thought they were so superior! They gathered fruit and sold them. And that gave them the right to steal all the Government benefits. Not that this Government does much for the likes of us. He spat as he thought of the government. It was always the same, always the same unending misery and hunger.

 If only he could get his children out of this cesspool. But how? He rubbed the small of his back. His own health was rapidly failing. He had neither the strength nor the will to live. The ‘nalla mandu’[1] that he was taking in increasing quantities was becoming more expensive. And the pain was unbearable.

“Here!”

His wife handed him the tools of their trade: a brush, a bucket, a metal scraper, and a wooden scoop.

“Kondamma, you should stay home today. We’ll manage. You know you are …”

“Yes, yes!”

Kondamma aggressively tucked the end of her sari around her waist.

“Listen carefully, husband! If I allowed my monthly shame to interfere with our work, you would all be starving by now.”

She called out to their children who were hastily swallowing flattened rice puffed up in a little watery milk. Kondamma handed each of them a bagful of raw peanuts that a farmer from the neighboring village had given them for cleaning his latrines.

“Don’t eat them all at once!” she cautioned. “And don’t forget those jute scarves for your faces. Did you soak them in sesame oil?”

“Yes, Amma!” came the chorus-like response from five teenage voices. Her oldest – a son – would turn nineteen in a couple of months. She sighed.

“Husband, we don’t have any kerosene left. It will be hard.”

Kerosene had become too expensive. And without it, the stench from the latrines would be like entering narakam.[2]

The group picked up the soiled gunny bags that contained their tools. Kaavanna whispered:

“Time to go! We have to get there before the early morning trains block the tracks.”

Today’s work was along the railway tracks in the Bandilanka station. The amount of human excreta along the tracks was one of the less onerous of the tasks facing them every night. They wouldn’t have to climb down into the big holes of the pig toilets. Kondamma shuddered. Her worst nightmare was imagining she was choking to death in the putrefying muck. Her sins in a previous life must have been horrific indeed for her to be reborn into this most dehumanizing of tasks.

Seven figures slunk along the side roads and back alleys to get to the railway station, avoiding the main roads. It would be safer that way. If people spotted them, they either threw garbage at them, stoned them, or came at them with lathis.[3] “Unclean pigs!” The cry never varied. “Daridram![4] Daridram! Unclean pigs! Unclean pigs!”

The tracks were glistening after an early morning shower. Kaavanna bent down to feel the ground.

“We have a few hours to work. When the station master comes out early morning at the sun’s first rays, he will not want to lay eyes on us – it would be a bad omen for him. He’s a Brahmin.”

The seven spaced themselves along the track. Using wooden hand scoops, each followed a segment of the track and collected waste from between the rails. An exhausting two hours later Kondamma cried out:

“We will pause here. Eat some of those peanuts! And Rangamma, go quickly to the pump …”

Older daughter Rangamma took out a brass pitcher from her bag.

“The one outside the station house? But Amma …”

“Yes, I know. We’re not allowed there. But at this time … just be careful! And try to get as much water as you can!”

Rangamma slowly walked to the water pump. Kaavanna took out a bidi, but before he could light it he collapsed on the iron rails.

“Husband!” Kondamma bent over her husband. “Talk to me! Say something!”

“Deva, deva!” she moaned, looking at her husband’s mouth. It was covered with bloody froth. She knew there was no hope for them here.

“Help me carry him home!” she ordered her trembling children. “His heart is still beating.”

Eighteen-year-old Venkatabaabu lifted his father’s frail body, and walked towards the station house.

“Amma, we need our money first! For medicines. The station master Reddy garu, we have to ask him.”

He knocked on the door. A middle-aged man clad in the  uniform of a station master emerged. He stopped at the sight of Venkatabaabu and covered his nose with a starched white handkerchief.

“Yes, what is it? Don’t tell me you have completed your job.”

“Reddy garu, our father – he is very ill, perhaps dying even. We need some money to pay for the medicines, for the Vaidya.”

“What impertinence!” Reddy screamed. “You get paid only for finished work! Go back this minute! You people, you expect us to feed and clothe you for nothing?”

“No, Reddy garu, but …”

“So! Well, you won’t get paid and that is my final word.”

The pompous station master twirled his walrus moustache, and banged the door shut in Venkatabaabu’s face. Inside the house, he grinned and counted the money he had kept from the scavengers – a hundred Rupees, but he’d be able to buy a bottle of country liquor with the money.

“It’s no use, Venkatabaabu. We have to hurry!” Kondamma whispered. “Our Vaidya[5] will help. When we visited him a month ago, he gave us free medication. No one else will touch us.”

She looked anxiously at her husband. His breathing was becoming shallower by the minute. Was that a whisper? He was trying to say something.

“Wait!” she said to her son. “Put him down! He’s trying to tell us something.”

   Kaavanna looked at his family through tear-filled eyes.

“My wife, my children, this is the end of the road. I know the moment has come for me to leave this life.”

His voice trembled as he spoke his last wish:

“You will scatter my ashes in the waters of Mother Godavari. My blessings on you all.”

His eyes closed. The breathing stopped. Quietly, his family carried him home.

A week later, the local Telugu language newspaper reported:

“TRAGEDY AT RAILWAY TRACKS!

ELEVEN-YEAR-OLD BOY SLIPS ON FECAL MATTER, KNOCKED UNCONSCIOUS,  RUN OVER BY TRAIN!

BREAKING NEWS, 4. April, 2018: The eleven-year-old son of our local station master Ramayya Reddy was tragically run over by the morning express from Hyderabad when he slipped on fecal matter that hadn’t been removed from the tracks. Ramayya Reddy has been arrested for gross negligence in mismanaging the cleanliness of the tracks. He has been accused of underpaying or pocketing the money owed to manual scavengers. There have been protests about fatalities resulting from scavenging. But this time a widespread strike by manual scavengers is directed at Mr. Reddy for gross abuse and exploitation. The Corporation is investigating the case.

Kondamma wiped her eyes as she read the news item.

“Come, Amma! It is time to go.”

At the shores of the Godavari, five figures jointly poured the ashes from a brass pot into the waters of the river, as their mother chanted a prayer to the gods for the souls of her husband and the boy martyred on those railway tracks.


[1] Opium

[2] Hell (in Telugu)

[3] Lathi: a heavy iron-bound bamboo stick

[4] Daridram means poverty. The word is used in a derogatory manner, as a curse.

[5] Non-codified traditional doctor.


Lalli’s story

At a recent librarian’s convention in Williamsburg, my “Lalli’s Window” generated a lot of interest (and buying power!). The appearance of a eleven-year-old South-Asian girl who loses a leg in an accident brought tears to the eyes of another eleven-year-old girl who asked me when I was signing the book for her: “Did she HAVE to lose a leg?” It broke my heart, but I felt at that moment that it changed that empathic girl’s perception of the world around her, as it did my Lalli’s!

As a writer of mystery novels, I’d love to see who reads my blog!

Bandilanka’s Forgotten Lives

My latest is a collection of short stories with the title “Bandilanka’s Forgotten Lives.” A remote village in South India – home to my grandparents – brought back almost forgotten memories of people in the house who carried out all the unimaginably demeaning tasks that caste and class condemned them to do! My stories bring these lives into focus, listen to their voices, cherish their dreams! The loving washerman, the proud sweeper woman, the lonely widow, the child bride … these are some of the lives that lend purity to an otherwise corrupt Brahmin oligarchy!

One more tale of widowhood!

A widow reborn

Small-pox was ravaging Bandilanka. The grounds were covered with bodies waiting to be cremated.

“Send the untreatable cases home!” the local doctor directed the two nurses on call. “There is no room for them here.” 

Venkateshwara Rao whispered:

“Just one glimpse – one glimpse of our daughter!”

Gayatri shook her head.

“The doctor says it is too dangerous – the infection.”

Venkateshwara Rao tried to nod. The sores were rapidly closing his eyes. He could make out the faint form of his wife.

“From the door, perhaps?” he whispered again, every word hurting his throat.

Gayatri ran into the next room and returned with a tiny bundle in her arms. 

“May God bless and keep you, my daughter,” he murmured. His eyes closed. The room became very still. Gayatri bent her head as her tears bathed the tiny body of daughter Sarada. 

“Come, daughter!” Her father’s voice softly brought her back to the unforgiving path of the living. Your mother-in-law wants to see you.”

She drew back. What would the in-laws think? That it was her fault? That it was because of her sins from a previous birth? She felt the baby in her arms – sound asleep. Would they, would she want to take her child away?

She stepped into the drawing room, followed by her father. The father-in-law was sitting in the most comfortable armchair. His wife stood behind him like a sentinel.

“Brother-in-law,” she heard him address her father, “Once the cremation is over, we will return to Guntur – with our daughter-in-law.”

The mother-in-law stepped out from behind the armchair.

“You need not bring anything for yourself. Just get the child’s clothes and anything else you need for her.”

“Yes, atha,” Gayatri murmured, keeping her eyes lowered to the floor.  Why doesn’t she look at my child, at her granddaughter? Does she think this innocent child is responsible for her father’s death? Baby Sarada opened her eyes as if sensing her mother’s distress. She pushed her mouth against her mother’s breast, and made loud sucking sounds.

“If you will excuse me, atha, I have to …”

“Yes, yes,” the mother-in-law said impatiently. “Go!”

She sat on the cot, released the buttons on her wet blouse, and felt her child’s mouth unerringly finding the nipple. The tears from her eyes mingled with the milk that fed Sarada. A little later she lovingly placed the sleeping child in the cradle. As she straightened up, she felt her father’s hand on her shoulder.

“Gayatri! Listen to me, daughter!”

“Nanna! What if … what if … “

“That is what I have come to tell you. I will not allow them to take you away, Gayatri. We, your mother and I, have decided …”

She said, disbelief tingeing her voice:

“Can you do that? Can you really do that?”

“Tradition might dictate otherwise, daughter. But a tradition that tells us that a daughter is less important than a son needs to be questioned.”

Gayatri stared at her father. He never ceased to astonish her.

“What if the in-laws create trouble? I don’t want to …”

Her father sat down and sighed.

“And here I thought you wanted to study, to educate yourself, to make something of yourself. Of course, if you wish to go to Guntur and live the life of a widow, we cannot prevent …”

“No, no, Nanna!” she interrupted. “Of course not! My husband – your son – and I talked about it often. He wanted me to go back to college.”

“Well then, we will only be following his wishes.”

More on “Bandilanka’s Forgotten lives”

Women in the village of Bandilanka, a fictional village in South India, lose their voices along with their identities when they outlive their husbands. Listen to one of those suppressed voices!:

A husband of sixty-five years

“It is time, husband.”

He looked into her eyes, pleading for a few more minutes of life. His frail hand pressed hers. She bent over him as he gasped:

“Not … not yet!”

His body shuddered, the final breath left his body. The silence in the room was deafening.

Her brother-in-law chanted the mantra “Aum Namo Narayana” in her husband’s ear. Another relative applied holy ash on his forehead. She watched as one of her sons poured a few drops of Ganga water into his father’s mouth. All four sons placed the body on the ground at the home’s entryway, with the head facing south. Her eldest daughter-in-law lit a lamp and placed it near the head, along with burning incense. 

She stared as a cloth was tied under her husband’s chin and over the top of his head. She stared as they tied his thumbs together, then the big toes. She remembered soft hands lovingly tracing the contour of her face on their nuptial night. 

Her husband of sixty-five years. The cremation grounds – it was time for her eldest son to light the funeral pyre. He stood solemnly in the midday sun, the hot rays mercilessly bouncing off his shaven head. Her three other sons stood behind him, the youngest nervously scratching the unaccustomed stubble on his chin. Only her eldest daughter-in-law, the one who would take over the household from her, had accompanied them to the cremation grounds. The two women had sat in the privacy of the single hut on the grounds, waiting for the priest to complete the holy words.

She knew that the priest would make every attempt to stretch the proceedings as far as he possibly could – shorter prayers would earn him less money and food. Fatigue finally overcame her. Her eyes closed. The last few months had been one long nightmare. He had wanted her by his side every minute of the day and night. “Sita! Where are you? Sita! Where are you? Sita! I need you.” She couldn’t escape the cry. It haunted her everywhere, it pursued her into the fields, it dragged her away from the well, it burnt her hands in the kitchen. “Sita! Massage my head!” “Sita! Massage my legs – they are cramping!” The nights were the worst. “Sita! Lie down beside me!” The rancid breath, the bed sores all over his back and buttocks, the greasy hair – when would this torture end? What sins had she committed in previous lives to deserve this?

“Atha!” She felt her daughter-in-law shake her. “The barber.”

She wound her long grey hair into a tight bun, felt its weight on the nape of her neck for the last time, and got up. An older female relative, also a widow, came up to her.

“Come, sister. Let us go.”

She had already given away all her worldly possessions – saris and jewelry – to the married and unmarried women in the household, even before her husband had expelled a final breath from his tortured body. The barber took out razor and comb. She had no tears left as her long salt-and-pepper hair fell to the earthen floor.

*****

Lalli goes out on a limb

Lalli goes out on a limb!

There once was a gal real cheery

Her life was never ever dreary!

For she learned to smile

In her own gutsy style

At fate and its pranks, oh so weary!

A tale of two brides

Here it is, the first few pages of another story from my collection “Bandilanka’s Forgotten Lives”:

A marriage is announced

Bandilanka’s Main Street was lined with festoons of flowers. Loudspeakers relentlessly blared the latest hits from Kollywood. It was once again the wedding season. And the most lavish of weddings would be celebrated this year. At the far end a colossal wedding mandap had been erected. It was made entirely of teak wood and decorated with kalashas, garlands of mango leaves, coconuts, and banana leaves. But this was no ordinary wedding. Bandilanka’s wealthiest landowner P. V. Krishnarao was celebrating the marriage of his only daughter, fourteen-year-old Nirmala. The pillars were covered with the finest silk from Varanasi, crystal chandeliers hung from the ceiling. Statuettes of gods and goddesses made of pure silver were on stage, ready to greet and bless the wedding guests.

Krishnarao had chosen Arun, the twenty-year-old son of  Sarvepalli Viswanadham, a  business magnate from the metropolitan city of Hyderabad. Both families would benefit from the alliance. Krishnarao had always wanted to be part of the urban elite. And Viswanadham would appreciate the money that his future daughter-in-law would bring. Main Street was buzzing with rumors about the amount of gold and diamonds the bride had received. Amrita’s gossipy tongue, permanently colored red with the juice of betel leaves, became longer by the day.

“Have you heard?” Amrita began today’s gossip session where a dozen other women were gathered for their weekly kitty-party. It was her turn to host the party. She licked her betel-red lips in anticipation of all the gossip she’d be able to spread. 

“Nirmala’s future mother-in-law has given her a kasulaperu[AND a diamond vanki.” “And,” she continued, “they are to have bogam-vaallu also.”

“That is scandalous!” her neighbor Kaanthi exclaimed, excitement making her voice go an octave higher to a screech. “I suppose the madam will also be there.”

“Of course! Kumari madam cannot possibly be absent,” Amrita countered all-knowingly. “She still calls herself and those girls of hers devadasis! Can you believe it? What shamelessness! ‘Maid-servants of god’! Ha!”

She stopped talking as the front door was opened. The subject of all this gossip entered. Amrita got up to welcome her. “Shanta!” she sweetly cooed. “We were just talking about you!”

Nirmala’s mother cast a regal smile on the group, adjusted her Kanchipuram designer sari to show off the gold embroidery, sat down on the comfortable sofa that Amrita had vacated, and sighed: “So very exhausting to shop for my daughter! These girls nowadays – they want the most expensive clothes. For the reception, Nirmala will wear nothing less than a … what do they call it? … a sharara[made of gold brocade! Just imagine! And she insists on buying that ugly North Indian jewelry.”

The other women eagerly nodded in agreement. Some of them had already bought saris and jewelry for the wedding. It wouldn’t do to antagonize Shanta. But a lone voice offered hesitantly: “Shantakka, surely … surely she’ll observe tradition for the muhurtham!”

There were gasps all around the circle. Shanta looked disdainfully at Parvati the newcomer. Amrita jumped in: “Parvati, Parvati! Our Shanta LEADS us in observing our sacred traditions. We always look to her for advice, don’t we?” she added, looking at the other women. In unison they thought: “Parvati has just forfeited her opportunity to attend the wedding.”

*****

Prepare to be a bride

Nirmala sat in front of a full-length rose-colored etched mirror that her grandfather had brought back from France. She fussed and pulled her hair, trying to ignore her mother. Shanta’s angry words still hung in the air: “What will people say? You have to wear a madhuparkam[– it is our tradition.”

“Tradition?” she had yelled. “Wearing white? I want to look like Aishwarya Rai,[6]I want to wear colors, Amma, not that boring white!”

Her father had intervened. “Let her be, Shanta! It is her wedding day. She should be happy.”

Nirmala grinned. Her father was her ally. She always got her way.

She looked at the mirror now. “I look horrid. Do something!” she screamed to the hairdresser her mother had acquired from Hyderabad.

The hairdresser kept quiet. She had dealt with the spoilt daughters of rich clients before. The trick was to keep busy, letting them rant and rave. They usually calmed down when she had finished doing their hair. The money was very good. A few more events like this, and she’d be able to marry her own daughter into a rich family. Shutting out intermittent screams of ‘Ouch!’ and ‘Stop yanking!” she pulled Nirmala’s hair back, backcombed it and created a puff. Spraying it to keep it in shape, she made a ponytail and rolled a bun into it. Finally, she attached a long braid to the bun, a braid that was decorated with diamonds, emeralds, and rubies. Nirmala’s frown gradually changed into a smile. The final step were the jasmine flowers, several garlands. She wove the flowers into the braid, being careful not to hide the jewels. Nirmala smiled at her reflection. The hairdresser heaved a sigh of relief. “The makeup won’t be that painful,” she hoped. The girl had good facial bones. Some mascara, pale lipstick, and eye-shadow with a touch of gold. She waited for a reaction. But self-absorbed Nirmala was too busy admiring her reflection to pay attention to the miracle the hairdresser had just wrought.

*****

Prepare to be a devadasi

Fourteen-year-old Durga sat quietly in front of a cracked mirror while her mother Kumari took out her Prasādhana Petikā. She applied a special cosmetic tailam[to her daughter’s face, and colored her lips with vermilion paste. Then she opened a small bottle of coconut oil, poured some oil into the palm of her hand, and massaged it vigorously into Durga’s luxuriant black hair. After combing the hair to her satisfaction, she took a long chain of jasmine flowers and braided hair and flowers together. Finally, she applied sandalwood paste to her daughter’s feet. Against the yellow background of the sandalwood, she lined the sides of the feet and the toe nails with vermilion paste She stepped back to examine her daughter.



As a writer of mystery novels, I’d love to see who reads my blog!