Kamala was disappointed with her hoity-toity daughter-in-law—Subbalaxmi, who failed to get pregnant. Failed to produce an heir. Even after five years of marriage. Right from the beginning Kamala was not all that thrilled at the pesky ways of the young woman. Granted that Subbalaxmi came from a well-to-do family of zamindars, who owned thousands of acres of fertile land in the east Godavari district. They were so rich that they ate out of silver plates and drank their coffee from silver tumblers. When Kamala learned that Subbalaxmi didn’t even know how to cook a cup of rice, she banished her from the kitchen. In any case, Kamala was loathe to give up control over her cherished domain. She told Subbulu, as she started calling her—she found Subbalaxmi rather too long a name, to supervise the servant maid who came in twice a day to wash dishes, sweep and mop the floors and other duties.
The arrangement suited the fastidious Subbulu, who hated the smoky kitchen. The kitchen had two large adjacent pits on the ground, where the fire-wood ignited with kerosene didn’t burn efficiently, causing plumes of smoke. In addition, pungent smell of kerosene permeated the smoky kitchen. Due to all that smoke, Kamala’s eyes were perpetually puffy and watery. The kitchen was at the very end of the house. The large dining room, which seated some thirty people, led into the kitchen. The kitchen had a small window and a door to a narrow lane which ran all around the house to the large backyard. As soon as she woke up, irrespective of the weather, Kamala went to the well in the backyard, drew the water and had a bath. Since the well was out in the open, Kamala took her bath wearing a sari, and at that time of the day hardly anybody was up to bother her. After finishing her ablutions, she went into her puja room adjacent to the kitchen, and lit a lamp in front of the idols of many gods and goddesses, and prayed for her family’s welfare. By that time her daughters were up and helped to serve coffee to the men folk. Then, Kamala and her daughters had their coffee, and caught up on the neighborhood gossip. Subbulu never came downstairs until after nine in the morning—she was not a morning person. When she did arrive, dressed in a crisp cotton sari with her hair neatly braided, she was usually greeted by one her giggling sisters-in-laws, “Ho! What! Subbulu! another late night ha! Poor thing! You must be worn out after all that…”
To Kamala’s consternation, Subbulu spent most of her time reading novels and literary magazines. Subbulu sat on the terrace, drying her long hair in the bright sunshine, bantering with her sisters-in-laws. From to time to time, Kamala threw some barbs at Subbulu, mumbling about people who had too much free time, people who didn’t fulfill their duty, people who were only concerned about their looks.
Kamala was as fertile as the Godavari delta, and got pregnant at the drop a hat, not once or twice, but fourteen times. She shuddered at the thought that Subbulu might be barren. So seeking divine intervention, Kamala dragged Subbulu to some of the famous temples in the South to pray for a child. Kamala consulted astrologers, and performed pujas. It seemed as though her prayers finally bore fruit and Kamala was deliriously happy when Subbulu got pregnant. Now that her dreams had finally come true, there was nothing to curb her enthusiasm. She anticipated the arrival of her first grandchild, her eldest son’s first baby, which she hoped would be a boy, with great anxiety. Although her daughters had children, they didn’t count as they bore a different family name. Of course she enjoyed those kids and played with them whenever they visited her, but a son’s son had a special place in her heart. She prayed all the gods she knew of to give her a male grandson. A boy to carry on the family name. A boy that would grow up into a strong, handsome man, and bring joy and glory to the family—a vamsodharakudu (scion). A boy that she could show off to the entire neighborhood. A boy who would make the family proud by getting a good education and work for the government, just like his grandfather—Mr. Narasimham, who retired as the District Collector. She wanted her grandson to wear elegant clothes—a tie and a jacket, and driven to the office in a chauffeur-driven government car. She didn’t want the boy to end up like his father, who dropped out of college and worked as a common technician in a factory. She didn’t approve of her son, Sivaram, tinkering with all those tools, getting his hands greasy and dirty. To the say the very least, her eldest son disappointed her. Yet, she loved him and wanted nothing but the best for him.
Kamala’s prayers were answered, and Subbulu gave birth to a puny boy. Beyond the fact that the baby was male, there was not much to rejoice about. The baby had all kinds of problems right from the beginning. The food refused to stay in his stomach, and he had nonstop diarrhea. No medicine seemed to stop his leaky bottom—not allopathic, not ayurvedic, not homeopathic, nothing. They tried cow milk, buffalo milk, goat milk, and even soy milk. He couldn’t keep anything down. To Kamala’s irritation, his mother didn’t produce any breast milk. No wonder the boy was so unhealthy. Kamala felt that Subbulu didn’t produce breast milk because of the way she ate, like a bird, picking at her food. Subbulu didn’t drink milk (it gave her gas), she didn’t eat dal—full of good protein (it gave her stomach ache), she didn’t eat vegetables (they gave her the runs). All she ate was a little rice mixed with yogurt or buttermilk, and spicy mango pickle. She survived on sweets—gulab jamun, kazas, mysore pak, halwa (her mother used to send large amounts of these irresistible items from Kakinada, prepared at the famous Kakinada Kaza shop). Since breast-feeding was out of the question, the boy slept in his grandma’s bedroom downstairs and she took care of everything. She cleaned him up, gave him nice hot baths, played with him when he was in one of his rare good moods, took him to the vegetable market, took him to visit friends and relatives. With his big head, a belly, and spindly legs and arms, the boy resembled a Kwashiorkor baby. But when he smiled everyone forgot about all those things and fell in love with him.
On the twenty first day after his birth, the naming ceremony—Barasala, was performed. Mr. Narasimham wanted to name his grandson Hanumantha Rao, after the monkey god, Kamala wanted Indra, after the rain god, and other relatives wanted Eshwara (the destroyer), Brahma (the creator) and so on. Other suggestions: Rama, Vishnu, Laxman, Venkateswarlu etc. The discussions were endless, lubricated with many cups of chicory-flavored coffee and snacks. Sivaram, a fierce nationalist, burning with patriotic fervor—those were the heady post-independence days, wanted to name his son Jawaharlal Nehru—freedom fighter and the first prime minister of the country. But everybody vetoed the idea, saying that you can’t name a South Indian boy with such an obviously North Indian name. After some more debate it was finally decided to name the puny boy with a bombastic name: Venkata Hanumanth Ganesh, and everybody called him Ganesh.
Kamala and her daughters—there were still three of them at home waiting to be married, took turns to feed and entertain Ganesh. He was a very colicky fellow, bellowing at the top of his voice at ungodly hours, like in the middle of the night when people were asleep or in the early morning godly hours when his grandfather conducted his puja, facing the sun on the veranda.
Ganesh was growing, albeit at a leisurely pace, a pace that was somewhat slower than normal, probably due to his inability to absorb nutrients. It took time to determine the food items he could assimilate and which to avoid. It became a research project for his grandma and aunts house, and they could have gotten a Ph.D. or something, trying to figure out how to feed the scrawny fellow.
Subbulu enjoyed her leisure, happily lying on her bed upstairs, shaking her legs away (she probably had restless leg syndrome, but those days nobody had heard of such esoteric terms), reading her favorite novels. She was relieved to be away from all the hullaballoo, and relieved that her dreaded and domineering mother-in-law stopped the barrage of verbal barbs. Once in a while Subbulu came downstairs to play with Ganesh. But the little fellow, so used to his grandma and aunts, cried at the top of his voice when his own mother tried to take him into her arms. After few such desultory efforts, Subbulu gave up and let other women raise him.
Nine months after his birth, annaprasana—the ceremony to feed solid food, was performed with fanfare and festivities. All the near and dear were invited to the ceremony, officiated by a couple of purohits, chanting Sanskrit slokas which most people didn’t understand anyway. Ganesh was dressed in a silk kurta, with a big red bottu (vermillion was used) on his forehead and a black dot (mascara was used) on his cheek (to ward off evil spirits) and his abundant hair slick with coconut oil. He was at that time crawling hesitantly—he was slow in attaining some of the landmarks, picked up anything he saw on the ground, and popped it unhesitatingly into his mouth. Apart from feeding solid food for the first time, Ganesh was given a Test—the harbinger of many a test that he would have to take in order to navigate the rough seas of life, fraught with so much competition for so few opportunities in such an over populated country. Ganesh sat on the floor, near his grandmother. Right in front of the boy, a few feet away, several items were placed—variety of food items, books, a screw driver and a micrometer (from the factory), a stethoscope (borrowed from the family doctor), a battery-operated train-set (imported from England), and many others. It was believed that the boy’s future career might be predicted by the item he picked up. Even though it was generally accepted that this was, at best a superstitious ritual, everyone joined in the guessing game.
Now the challenge was to direct Ganesh towards all these goodies and let him pick an item of his choice. For the first time in his life, he got this golden opportunity and, in the eyes of his near and dear, he screwed it up, disappointing everybody but his geologist uncle. Because, the foolish boy, forsaking all those eminently suitable items, picked up a fly that hovered near the food and put it in his mouth and swallowed and smiled happily, as though he was partaking a gourmet dish from the Kakinada kaza shop. If he picked up the stethoscope, people would be rejoiced, thinking that the boy might become a doctor, if he as much as touched the screw driver or micrometer, people would be forgiven if they concluded Ganesh might grow up to be an engineer, and if he grabbed a book and tried to tear off some of the pages, he might become a man of letters—all very eminently suitable paths to fame and name, befitting a Brahmin boy. But a stray insect! Even the wise and learned purohits were thunderstruck with this unseemly incident. In their long career of performing pujas at many illustrious households, this was the first time they came across such an inauspicious incident. To cover up everybody’s embarrassment, the purohits began chanting some more slokas—not in the script, but it had a calming effect on the restless populace.
After a brief interval, the geologist uncle said, “I think all of us have missed the point completely. This fellow might become an entomologist, and that’s why he picked up the fly.”
Kamala wasn’t convinced at all, “What’s all this entomy nonsense? I never heard of such drivel. I know a doctor, an engineer, a teacher, a clerk, but what’s this?”
The budding geologist gave a knowing smile, thinking that was his chance to dazzle his captive audience with his knowledge. “Amma, entomology is the study of insects. This is a very important field, now that we have to become self-sufficient in our food production.”
Everybody scratched their heads, thinking, if we want to produce more rice or wheat, why do we have to bother to learn about these pests, throw some pesticide to kill them.
Reading their minds, the geologist went on. “There are so many different types of insects, each species needs a different chemical to control it. So if we study their habits and their chemistry, we can then begin to find the right chemical to eradicate them.”
People were somewhat pacified by this seemingly sensible explanation and their appetites restored, adjourned to a sumptuous lunch.
At the age of twenty, having dropped out of high school, Ganesh was spotted swatting flies in the Kakinada kaza shop.
Rudy Ravindra attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop (Summer 2012). His work has been published or will be published in Yellow Mama, Story Shack, Southern Cross Review, Enhance, Bewildering Stories, Gravel, Blazevox, Nazar-Look. He lives with his wife in Wilmington, North Carolina.