“This year the grain harvest has been good. There are five bags more than in previous years. This was possible only with the blessings of Eedamma,” Ellamma said as she gazed at the bags—nine rows of them—stacked so high they almost touched the rafters. Her husband, Tirupataiah, agreed. It made her happy just to look at the bags stored there in the eastern corner of the verandah. She asked him to put aside five bags of the new grain to give away as kothalu. The scent of new rice had seeped into every nook of the house. It had found its way through the gaps in the old, curved tiles of the roof and those between the hinges of the front door.
Ellamma set out to cook. She had shifted the hearth to the front yard, and placed it under the neem tree because bags of grain now blocked the passage between the front room and the kitchen. Just then, a young boy—of not more than ten years— ran up, calling out to her. He addressed her as “Elli.” “Why sir, why are you panting? What’s the hurry? Stop for a while and take it easy,” Ellamma said. “No, no, I am not panting. My mother asked me to come and collect kothalu from you. Give it to me quickly, I have to go,” said the boy.
Ellamma went into the house, brought out some new grain in a winnowing tray and poured it into the young master’s bag.
Now he had to put five fistfuls back into the tray. She held his hand, helped him pick up a fistful, circle the tray with it five times and then drop it in. At first the boy did as he was shown, carefully and in silence. But then he stopped suddenly and pulled his hand away as if someone had slapped him. Or maybe he had just remembered a warning. “What happened, sir?” Ellamma asked, hesitating as if she made a mistake. The boy said, “My mother didn’t say anything about doing this. She told me to stand at some distance from you while taking the grain.”
“That’s okay. You can maintain some distance. Now take this bag of grain and carry it carefully home,” she said, without giving much creed to what he had said. Ellamma’s youngest son was there, playing with a calf. He was fourteen and was called Malli. The young reddy boy was tempted to play with them. He stood by, watching. But he soon remembered that he had to go, picked up his bag and said “I’m going, Elli. My mother will be waiting for me.” On hearing this, Malli got furious. “What’s this?” he thought, coming out of the cattle shed, ‘He is younger than me and very much younger than my mother, yet this little fellow addresses my mother by her name, and that too as Elli!’ He gave the boy a knock on the head, saying, “How dare you call my mother Elli? Aren’t you ashamed of yourself?”
The young reddy was shocked. He couldn’t understand why Malli had hit him. He ran back tearfully, nursing his head. But before he left, he warned, “I’ll tell my mother that you hit me.” He ran back, and arrived completely out of breath. His mother asked, “Why have you run so fast? You could have come slowly.” She took the bag from his hands. He wanted to tell her that Malli had slapped him, but didn’t. His mother asked whether Elli had given him the new grain from a distance or not. “I hope you took the rice without touching the old bitch,” she said. She took the bag from him, placed it carefully outside the threshold and asked the son to wait outside. She then sprinkled some water on the bag of grain and also on her son. Only then did she allow him into the house. She poured the grain into a winnowing tray and asked what “Elli” had been doing. The boy wanted to put his hand over her mouth when she said “Elli,” worried that Malli might hit her too. But then he thought to himself: ‘Whatever it be, Malli is my friend in school. He sits on the front bench because he is short, but he always comes first in maths.’ What’s more, he used to borrow Malli’s maths notebook to copy answers. If he fought with Malli now, he wouldn’t get the notebook again. So he kept quiet.
“It’s time for school. You’ll be late if you don’t leave now,” his mother warned. He picked up his bag and set off. When he got there, he found Malli walking up and down as if waiting for someone. He was relieved to see Malli and ran up to him. “I’ve been waiting for you,” Malli said. “Did you tell your mother what happened?” Malli asked anxiously. “No, I didn’t tell her that you hit me,” the young reddy replied as they hurried into class, hands on each other’s shoulders.
One by one, Ellamma had managed to get all her seven daughters married. They gave the children whatever they could afford: a goat to each of the older daughters; a cow and a calf to the younger ones. Twenty acres of land was left for the six sons. Through all this, her only desire was that her sons should not be burdened with debts and that her daughters should be happy.
She had never held back when it came to expenditure for marriages, rituals, deliveries or any other event. Beginning with the eldest daughter’s children and going down to her youngest daughter’s children, she had given everything she had to take care of them. She had never spared a thought for herself; nor had she kept anything she had earned for herself.
Giving birth to thirteen children, bringing them up and seeing to the cultivation of the land had eaten up all her energy, so much so that she had named her last daughter Saalamma (meaning, Enough). But then she became pregnant again. She tried all means to rid herself of the pregnancy. Someone told her eating coconut and jaggery would do the trick, so she ate a lot of that. She jumped off large stacks of grain. But however much she tried, it was of no use. That son, the one they had not wanted, is Mallanna. Ellamma and Tirupataiah affectionately call him Malli. Everyone says, “Ellamma’s last son is really strong. Despite all their efforts, he survived. He’s sure to live a long and healthy life.” Ellamma brought up Malli as she attended to her different tasks. She used to feed him while she tended the goats; bathe him while they drank at the tank. One day Malli suddenly fell ill. He fainted. Ellamma was desperate. She picked him up, held him close and carried him into the kitchen. She sprinkled water on his face. “Go and call grandfather Ellayya,” she instructed Saalamma. She herself sat by him, pleading, “Malli, Malli, my Mallanna, open your eyes, my son.” With one arm, she held Malli close to her breast and with the other, she picked up some fresh turmeric shoots from the pots inside the house. Sitting before the hearth, she heated a turmeric shoot on the coals. She placed Malli on her lap and pressed the hot turmeric on his forehead. Malli jerked back to his senses and began to wail. She rested his head on her shoulder and tried to calm him. Then she vowed, “Eedamma, my mother, save my child . . . I’ll sacrifice a sheep and give a feast of thanks.” Malli sat up. Soon he was out playing—bouncing around like a ball. Ellamma relaxed. Since then, she has never failed to give thanks to Eedamma, every single year.
Even though the night had ended, dawn had not broken. It was the morning of the day a solar eclipse was expected. It would last for two hours. A large, auspicious, bronze plate with a pestle placed erect in it was filled with water and placed in the open. People were told to look at the eclipse that way— reflected in the water. The elders said: “Whatever happens, don’t start work until it’s morning gruel time.” Men hesitated to take the cattle out to graze. People stood around everywhere in groups, chatting. Suddenly some people showed up, their dhotis folded up to the knees, Andhra-style. They stopped their motorbikes but did not turn off the engines, which continued to make a ‘tuck-tuck’ noise. Everyone looked up. The same question passed through all their minds: “Who are they?” The elders knew—“Who could they be, but Andhra guys…”
“The Andhra fellows have come! They’ve come to buy our lands…”
“Look, they’re wearing white clothes like teachers, maybe they are teachers.” The children gathered around them.
Meanwhile Ellamma had arrived, looking for Malli, “Hey kids, is our Malli with you?” she asked. “Mother, let me just finish this game of marbles first. Then I’ll run and bring the goat that was left behind at uncle’s house,” Malli pleaded. “That is the he-goat we set aside for god. You have to go quickly,” Ellamma said. But Malli continued playing as though he had not heard his mother. Losing hope, Ellamma went to fetch the goat. It was late and the goat was hungry. It strained at the rope, ready to run on to the village road. “Cool down, stay calm, and wait,” she said, scratching the goat affectionately on its head and back.
Ellamma untethered the goat, picked up the end of its rope-leash and began walking back. The goat suddenly started straining at the leash. Ellamma tried her best to hold it back, but it dragged her into the group around the Andhra guys. In the mayhem that ensued, it butted one of the Andhra fellows. No one there could control the goat. They searched for Cendraiah. He was an expert at controlling cattle that were aroused or disturbed. They had to search the whole village before they found him, and brought him over to calm the goat down.
A week later, the Andhra guys returned. They rented a huge dilapidated house that belonged to the landlords and settled down there. It seemed they had come from far-off places like Guntur and Vijayawada to buy land. The money they offered was attractive, and one by one people who owned land began selling it. The reddy, the velama, even the sabbanda got in on the action. People even went to the Andhra fellows in groups, asking them to buy their lands. These transactions continued for four or five months. Soon most of the land in the village had been sold. The Andhra guys who had bought the land began cultivating it.
Madiga Ellamma held on to what little land she owned. She did not even consider selling. One day, the Andhra fellows came to meet Ellamma while she was grazing cattle in the field. They said, “Ellamma-garu, we hear you have land to sell, why don’t you come to us?”
Ellamma was surprised. The reddy and velama of her village had never addressed her as Ellamma, that too with a respectful suffix. And yet these people are calling me Ellamma, she thought. A long time ago, a reddy who normally said “Elli, Elli,” had called her “Ellamma.” Just once. That’s all. It had made Ellamma so happy that nothing could diminish her joy. She thought he was going to offer her some important work. When she shared this with other mala and madiga women as they worked in the fields, they would laugh. Those memories came back to Ellamma’s mind. And here were these Andhra guys calling her ‘Ellamma-garu’ and actually coming to her house to ask for her land. Thoughts crossed her mind: ‘These people have been offering seven or eight lakh rupees per acre…’
“How many acres are you planning to sell, Madam?” one of them asked, breaking into her thoughts. She remained silent. He asked the same question again, a few minutes later. Ellamma did not respond. Assuming that she was deaf, he raised his voice and repeated the question, this time a little louder. This irritated Ellamma, who had been looking north at the grazing cattle. She turned her head slowly towards him and asked: “Who told you that I would sell my land?” Then, looking him straight in the face, she asked again, “Who told you … yes, yes … that I’d sell the land to you?” The Andhra guy stuttered, at a loss for an answer. Without pausing, she asked again angrily: “You ran here, as if I had told you that I would sell my land. Who is the rascal who told you that I would sell the land?”
“We just asked. That is no reason for you to get so angry. It is up to you to decide whether you want to sell or not, but…” one of them began, playing for time. He continued: “Listen, Madam, in this village Erra Bitchi Reddygaru, Elamakanti Jalpapathi Raogaru, Communist Narasimha Reddy and others like them have sold us half their land. They never spoke as you are doing now. We did not expect you to react like this.”
“So what am I supposed to do? If they sold off their land, they did as they wished. Don’t I know your plans? If I sell my lands, my children will become wage laborers in our own fields. Is that a good thing? Tell me, what do you think? You are like Yama and his messengers, chasing after me and asking me to sell the land, sell the land… Get out of my house, get going!” Ellamma shouted. Putting an end to the matter, she walked away and moved the cattle to graze on the other side of the field.
Perhaps the cattle had also understood why these outsiders had come. They stopped chewing the cud and looked up, puzzled. Black Ox looked at the man wearing his dhoti folded up. It moved forward as if getting ready to butt him. “Stop, stop. Can’t you see that I’m talking to them? There’s no need to worry,” Ellamma reassured it. When it heard her, it stepped back, nodding assent. This ox was like an elder son to Ellamma.
Women working in the nearby field heard the sounds and thought, “Just think. These white-shirted folded-up-dhoti people came as a group, that too directly to the fields. Tomorrow they will be in our houses. They must have said something … that is why Ellamma shouted like that. She never says a single word to anyone without reason, and here she is, calling them rascals. The matter must surely be serious.”
Cendramma and Suramma came up to her to find out what the matter was and to offer her support. They brought their calf along, and asked “Ellakka, do you have some betel leaves to spare?”
Seeing Cendramma and Suramma, Ellamma relaxed. “See what happened. I don’t know these people. I’ve never even seen them. But here they are, in the fields, pressuring me to sell my lands. They give lakhs and lakhs for the land, we hear. But today they buy our lands, and tomorrow they will throw us out from our own land. They may even throw us out of this village, and snatch from us the very lives we have known. And who’s to say that they’ll stop at that?”
Suramma said, “Don’t worry. Just tell them what you think.” Ellamma relaxed a little. The Andhra fellows, who had waited all this while, understood that Ellamma had nothing more to say to them, started up their motorbikes and left. The gouda, golla, kapu and mutrasi with fields adjacent to Ellamma’s had sold their land and got lakhs of rupees. But Ellamma was not going to budge.
Ellamma is now seventy years old. Landlords, their wives, and even their children still call her “Elli.” She has cultivated twenty acres of land, given birth to thirteen children, raised them and settled each of them into their adult lives. Whenever a new crop is harvested, Ellamma distributes a part of the grain to the others in the village, just as the chindu give food and grain to the dakkali even before they ask for it. She gave a portion of the new rice, new green gram, and all the other crops to the mandahechu and gangireddhu people. Bangle-sellers, cloth-sellers on bicycles, those selling pots and pans, hawkers with large baskets on their heads—everyone used to wish Ellamma first, believing that she would bring them good fortune and their goods would sell better if they did so.
Whenever there is a big event at Ellamma’s house—like a marriage or a birth—she makes sure that all those who work regularly with her in her fields are served toddy. She is open and affectionate in her speech. People say of her: “Ellamma’s warmth is like that of the earth itself. That is why she could cultivate twenty acres of land and give birth to many children. Her house is a fertile place, bursting with children; both the house and the granary are overflowing.”
Everyone in the village believes that Ellamma’s hands, her feet and her words, all possess the gift of good fortune. Even people from the next village say the same thing. No upper caste woman has this gift. When a girl comes of age or gets married, her relatives call Ellamma and fill her lap with grain and fruit.
But things have changed now. Time has lost its way somewhere. Her heart is broken. She who never thought twice about taking care of thirteen children; she who had bought twenty acres of land while working as a wage laborer on reddy fields; she who never worried about what the upper castes would say when she bought the land; she who, unafraid, cultivated the land and brought up children while her husband was away working as a rickshaw-puller in Chennai; she who kept her land when everyone else was selling it off to the guys from Andhra; this same Ellamma is now tired, defeated, at the end of her tether. She had hoped that the children she had given birth to would protect the land and tend to it. But her sons and daughters are all scattered far and wide. There is no one to care for Ellamma, or for the deity of the fields and the village, Eedamma; their shrines lie untended and in disrepair. Ellamma is worried, up against a wall. She feels troubled and helpless.
Excerpted from Father May Be an Elephant and Mother a Small Basket, But… by Gogu Shyamala. Copyright © Gogu Shyamala. Translation © 2022 by P. Pavana. Published by arrangement with Tilted Axis Press. All rights reserved.