Lankesh P – “A Door”
Translated from Kannada by Ankur Betageri
I had never thought that I would get entangled in needless troubles like this. Mango trees which bloom flowers for Sankranti and young fruits for Ugadi were dear lives to me. Even the loss of a single twig of the mango tree would make me sad. This is my farm. Even a young flourishing fruit or a raw mango shouldn’t get stolen.
To sit here, to study, a house should be built and that house should stand up before Sankranti. The people involved in building the house plucking the mangoes; me, flaring up at that, all this shouldn’t happen and make a mess of the business. Therefore, however beautiful the house - whatever the loan I might have to draw for it – must be built and finished as soon as possible. Having thought thus, I got the house-building work started.
I sit below the tree and think. The house can’t provide more peace than this tree does. Why did I want this of all the trees? The Peepul tree which grows in the forest, couldn’t have refused me; couldn’t have asked me not to sit beneath it. How is sitting below my tree better? How long can I, a man more than fifty years, continue to be on this earth…?
‘Sir, come here, do you think it’s okay if we put the stone in this style for the stairs?’ called Mestri Das. I got up and went to him. People were working around. Perumal was arranging the brick pieces and slapping the cement on the terrace; many woman-masons were carrying bricks and lime. Mestri Das’ showing that stone to me was really of no consequence, it was only to record that he had shown me, to put the blame on me if he got it wrong and to earn praise if he got it right.
As I knew this, I observed the people working around. Among them an old woman was working more briskly than others around her. Yamunamma, Rajamma, Muniyamma…. the names went on like this, but Perumal calling the name ‘Chinamma’ was heard more often. That old woman’s name was Chinamma. Thinking that she might be anywhere between fifty to seventy years, I observed her carefully. Shortish, there was a flower in an eye. Perumal, calling her again and again, was unnecessarily goading her saying, “Quick, quick” in Telugu. There was humor, and mischief in his voice. There was a faint smile on the old woman’s face. I asked Das, ‘Why is this old woman working quicker than the others?’ ‘Simply Sir, even if the stronger ones do a bit of less work they will be called again, but if an old woman works less, nobody would call her tomorrow,’ he said. The shortish, old woman carrying bricks to the terrace, was running all the while.
What self esteem is involved in work, I thought. In work there is difficulty, pain and other dangers like the body collapsing and I was aware of that.
‘Swami…’ a woman’s voice awakened me.
‘What?’ I said.
Chinamma: she had more strength than what I thought she did. White hair, wrinkled face, blind eye, and while I was observing all this, Chinamma saying so many things in Telugu begged me for something with her arms stretched. I didn’t understand her language. I didn’t even want to call someone so soon. Knowing that I wasn’t understanding her, she stood up.
“Go, go and work.” I said. Perumal in a loud mocking voice called her and she went.
Curiously I called Muniraju, who knew Telugu, and said ‘Call that old woman here.’
He didn’t understand. ‘Hey, call that old woman, hey,’ he shouted above the bustle of the people there. Muniraju, laughing as if all this was fun, brought Chinamma with him.
‘She says something – listen,’ I said. As Muniraju was becoming an interpreter for the first time in his life, without knowing what to do, he looked at her. She told in Telugu all that she had told me, and brought her hands together in a namaste, appeasingly.
‘What is it?’ I asked.
‘She says she has no husband or children Sir. Says she has built a hut which has no door for it; if you give the waste wood here she says she can get a door built with it.’
I thought about the request arising just in about one or two hours of having seen her. She returned to the work, I enquired about her village with somebody there. Name of the village: Jattigere. Apparently nobody thought her village important. Even about her family they told this and that, indifferently. That she was alone, was true; husband who was an attender in factory, being a drunkard, had left her and many years had elapsed since.
If she had built her hut just a few days back, how did this single-eyed solitary old woman spend the rains which poured recently; where did she stay then? Who looks after her when she’s ill? What will she do when she gets no wages?
There were a few planks brought to pour concrete for centering. There were more chances of them getting ruined, than getting transported.
I called Mestri Das.
‘Mestri, that old woman has built a house. It doesn’t have a door, what shall we do?’ I said.
Das didn’t understand. ‘She is asking for planks. If we give the planks how will she get the door built? It requires a frame, no? What will you do?’ I said.
‘If the size of that door is known we can get it done’ said Das. I hesitated to ask him to go to the old woman’s Jattigere and bring the measurement to make the door. But Das raised an objection: ‘We don’t have the wood needed for the threshold Sir, what do we do?’
‘Why, can’t we use the wood of our own threshold,’ I said, and added. ‘Will you go to Jattigere and bring the measurement of the old woman’s house’s door?’ Probably he felt as though the very sky had collapsed on his head. All his urgent and not-so-urgent engagements began to pester him all at once. Citing them he began to slip out of this business. With that he began to describe the amount that had to be spent if we used our teak wood for one threshold; the delay which arises out of woodwork and the irritations involved in transporting it to the farm. It was evident that Das wasn’t interested in going to Jattigere.
I called Muniraju who had been the interpreter between me and Chinamma and told the matter. He wasn’t as busy a man as Das was but in his own village manner looked at me as if I was a bit mad. Once again I told him that I was getting a threshold and the door was to be made out of teakwood. If I went there myself there was a chance of the people of Jattigere thinking that I have come for some inspection and talking among themselves. And this could easily happen as I do not know Telugu; so I am not going – I said. Then, as though he understood my madness, he said ‘Okay Sir, I’ll go today and bring the measurement, but – if her house doesn’t have walls good enough even to keep the threshold?’
‘Let it be; the height of the roof, which sort of door will suit, check all that. I’ll look after the rest.’ I said.
Chinamma didn’t know that so much care was being taken of her behind her back. She was working all by herself. But Muniraju had told about this incident to all the people working there, and they all had a good laugh at it. Some talked about it as if I intended it as a joke; others as if I had gone a bit crazy and it fell on my ears in various languages including Kannada. As evening drew, some left for their homes and Muniraju went with Chinamma. The odd four or five who didn’t go home came to me with various requests. A fellow’s cowshed had broken down; another, unable to buy cement, hadn’t finished the wall. And, as another woman’s cow had become pregnant, there were endless difficulties at home.
I was trying to understand my madness which was helpful to Chinamma, but not willing to leave my idée fixe, began to think sharply. I began to talk aloud: ‘Do you have a head or anything like it? That Chinamma is a solitary woman; she has built a hut for herself with great difficulty; is there no difference between helping that orphaned blind woman by getting a door and helping you who have strength to work as well as children? If you think in this manner do not come to work from tomorrow. I’ll tell Das,’ I said. ‘We don’t want Sir, it’s alright,’ they said, and vanished from there. Muniraju brought the measurement from Chinamma’s house, and laughingly said. ‘That’s not a house Sir, it’s a hut. Roof is four feet high. There are two pillars to go inside.’
Das was laughing listening to this. His helper, the carpenter, was shaving the wood seriously, completely involved in his woodcutting work as if he had work enough not to meddle in others’ affairs. It was difficult to communicate my thought to them who looked at me as if to say: don’t waste my time. I didn’t know enough details either to describe Chinamma’s hut or the door which it needed. There was only one solution to all this. To shout at these people who had begun to consider my generosity madness, and ordering them around strictly. This was the only help that I could have done to Chinamma. But even this thought didn’t become too clear or appealing to me. I wandered in the farm. The sooner I washed my hands off this affair the better, I felt. And an easy way of washing my hands off was to ask Chinamma not to come to work from the next day, or to give her some money out of what was set aside to buy her a door, or to forget the whole issue and leave it at that. Another thing flashed to me. Why not try and get an old age pension to this woman?
As soon as this flashed, my mind began to lighten. That very evening I called my friends and asked them about the procedure to get an old age pension. That it was a matter belonging both to the Ministry of Rural Affairs and the Ministry of Tax; and that it had a form which had to be taken from the village accountant, and on whose influence should be sent to the tehsildar, with a photo and resume of the old woman, was known. That Chinamma’s case, given to many people, was already rejected, and if I made up my mind and tried to get her the pension, it could possibly be had in about six months or so was conveyed to me by my friends and those who knew Jattigere. As this began to look like a mountain, a
Karmakaanda, thinking that it was better to send that wretched Chinamma with fifty rupees, I called the interpreter Muniraju.
Without causing her any pain and with my humaneness glaringly represented I laid before her my chain of argument. When I asked Muniraju to translate it to her he told her in two sentences. As both my giving her a door or giving her fifty rupees seemed wonderful to her she simply stood without saying anything, with a smile mingled with entreating expression on her wrinkled face. Then she said something. ‘Says it’s okay Sir; says god will bless your children.’ said Muniraju.
Suddenly I flared up. What is the relationship between this and that? If there had been a fool called god why would there be any orphan-ness – saying thus I decided: ‘No man, I’ll give a door itself. What will she do by taking fifty rupees? Who will get the door done for her?’ Muniraju translated it humbly. Chinamma didn’t get much bewildered by this; her dark, wrinkled face was as usual and her one eye seemed to suggest gratitude. Midget woman: if she had been still smaller, or had grown a bit taller and smarter or if her eyes were alright her husband wouldn’t have left her. At least people would have cared a bit more for her, thinking thus I went to the place where Das and carpenter were standing and said: ‘Das come here.’ My voice was harsh.
‘This work should happen within this evening, if not you need not come to work tomorrow. You have to choose one from the threshold which are ready and cut it to four feet so as to fit under the roof and adjusting the planks that are with us, you have to prepare the door. You have to take all this to Chinamma’s house, and fix it today itself. Muniraju will take you all,’ I said.
Though Das stood there like one who has lost his way he looked at me carefully and said: ‘Alright Sir’ as if there was no other way.
The wastage which would result if a threshold is cut out of the wood; that this threshold requires teak wood itself and so on; the vehicle required for transportation – Das was desperate to talk about all this. But he didn’t talk: carpenters began to shape the door using good teak wood, cutting the door frame which was standing ready there as if to punish me. This news spread among the workers. As I understood they began to talk something and the other in Telugu and Tamil, without even bothering about the fact that Chinamma could understand it all. I began to feel petrified of my own madness. Calling Muniraju aside, I asked him to explain me the whole matter. He hesitated. After pressurizing he told that Chinamma was not such a good woman, and that people were talking among themselves that if she had been straight she wouldn’t have attained this fate. I smiled. People are criminals and slanderers at various levels in this country, isn’t Chinamma too at some level – as I asked this to myself her midget size, the inevitability of her working quicker than all with a desire to live – filled my mind.
I am feeling hesitant to tell what happened next. By evening the door and the frame was ready. To transport all that to Jattigere I fixed a generous fare. I told the matter to Chinamma. Even before she could express her gratitude, I informed Das in a loud voice to do everything efficiently and get the door correctly fixed. After the door was transported from the farm, I felt as though I was released of a great burden.
But there was a disaster awaiting me. Next day Chinamma didn’t come to work. She must be happy watching her door, I thought. The calm of having done a good work had enveloped me. She didn’t come even the second day. Though I was silent Muniraju getting suspicious went to Jattigere and coming back said laughingly. ‘In Chinamma’s hut, there is neither Chinamma nor her door! She has escaped with it.’ As soon as the workers learnt this they began to laugh. Though Das seemed to be preoccupied with his work he seemed to laugh within himself at my foolishness. Saying that the door and frame which I had cut and sent, amounted to nearly one thousand five hundred rupees, he began to criticize me indirectly discussing its price but workers were working calmly, amused about the whole thing. That even envy, pain and thievery could bring happiness to people in this cruel atmosphere astonished me. Similarly if my madness could bring me happiness, how is all this wrong – I asked myself.
Two days elapsed. That evening people were getting ready to leave having finished their work. Darkness was spreading. As the coolness of the evening began to increase, butterflies and worms began their music, and birds reached their nests. The farm full of thick trees began to fill everyone with tiredness and loneliness. Then in a corner, beneath a tree, a form appeared. When that form, which looked like a piece of tree, was recognized in a flash as Chinamma, everyone began to talk about her loudly. Dark Chinamma was simply standing. Muniraju didn’t appear. I called him by his name. As soon as he came, I went to Chinamma, and said ‘Ask, what happened,’ to Muniraju. Even before he asked Chinamma began to tell something. She was tired to death, even her voice was faint. She looked as though she didn’t have strength even to cry. Doubting that there was no connection between what she was saying, and what Muniraju was translating I called Das. Chinamma told Das once again what she had already told. She said that somebody stole her door at night and though she chased and shouted at them nobody came to her help. That though she went to the police station and pleaded, they didn’t do anything. I kept quiet. The workers who had gathered around questioning her again and again, suggested that she herself had stolen the door. Chinamma lost her speech. She wouldn’t have imagined that such blame would come upon her. I was convinced. I knew that Chinamma wasn’t wicked and gutsy enough to steal her own door and sell it off for money. Therefore, I said. ‘Are there scoundrels who can even steal a door?’
‘That was a hut Sir, wasn’t standing firmly. When we placed the polished teak door it was standing there like a blow on the eye. Even then I knew it wouldn’t stand there for a long time.’ Das replied.
His talk was in a style which emphasized my foolishness. How bad a help can turn into when done in sheer impertinence, without the knowledge of the environment; how it might bring difficulties to the villagers, police etcetera was suggested by his talk.
‘What Amma, can you do such a thing?’ said Das, splashing an opposite party ideology on her face.
She was innocent, just as much as I was.
It was necessary for me to gather some more of my mad enthusiasm to silence these people. They have already known my lacking in worldly matters, my innocence and foolishness. Instead of hurting this orphaned woman deciding that it was better to do what I felt. I said:
‘Das, listen to me.’
‘Tell Sir,’ he said indifferently.
‘Let us stop the house building work from tomorrow. We are not going to get any heaven by doing it. You and the other workers should go to Jattigere for two days, and getting a door done, fix it to her hut.’ I said.
Muniraju who was dumbfounded by hearing this explained my words to Chinamma. She moved now as if just awakened, her lips quivered in pain.
‘No Swami, I beg you – I don’t want Swami.’ She said crying in Telugu.
I was simply standing in the dark till they all went. Suddenly something flashed, and I shouted in a frenzied voice. ‘Muniraju…’
He came and stood in the dark. I called the other workers and Das. Everyone came. tiredness appeared in their every action.
‘Sometimes truth flashes to me in my madness. I feel that this Chinamma is not the thief. I am not being able to do anything to this orphan. So I will do something to you.’ I said.
‘If you don’t return her door and the frame, I will complain to the police about you.’
He was bewildered, and began to make odd noises. I slapped him a few times on the face. He began to cry. Began to scold Das in Telugu. Panting, I told ‘With the help of that loafer Das you have to return the door and the frame.’
Seeing me talking like a real-life healthy person, all the workers grew happy.