Ramesh has been published in the paying journals of the Universities of California, Drexel, Liverpool, Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, and Western Australia, and in paying periodicals in India, Australia, USA, England, Spain, Middle East, and Switzerland. Ramesh also authored five screenplays, two approved by Moviemaker of California and Aria Films, UK, and wrote a short script that won four international awards.
A Letter for Sitamma
by Ramesh Avadhani
I have seen her before, the frail woman in an ordinary cotton voile sari who stands near the room where my postmen sort letters before leaving on their beats. Like me, she is about fifty, but unlike me, she wears her sari in the traditional style, with a portion of the cloth looped between her legs. I tried it long ago, but my son, Gopi, didn’t approve. “Makes you look so stiff, Mama!” he said with a laugh. On this woman though, the style is befitting because of her rustic deportment—a large crimson dot in the middle of her forehead, oily graying hair tied into a bun at the back with a short string of jasmines doing a floral semicircle between bun and scalp, and quaint ear rings in brassy looking gold hanging from the lobes.
“That’s Sitamma. She’s expecting a letter that’ll never come,” says Anand, my young assistant who delights in feeding me scraps of information about the staff, the customers, this locality, everything. Just like Gopi. Eager to please.
“What letter?” I say.
“From her son. She’s been coming here for the last three months…” His voice trails off. Sometimes he is like that. Doesn’t complete his sentences. I suspect he withholds information so I am forced to coax it out of him. Makes him feel important, I guess.
“And?” I say.
“He isn’t obliging. Maybe too lazy to write her a letter.”
I wait for him to continue but he just shrugs and goes away.
I want to investigate but I have to be tactful. This is a predominantly male staff and they might not like me interacting with the public. I am new here, just a week old.
I leave my table and go towards Sita. She sees me and whisks the pallu, the free end of her sari, closer to her body. The movement lends her a shade of defiance.
“I am Jyoti, the new postmaster,” I say in a gentle tone. “May I help you?”
She flicks an accusing eye at the postmen inside the adjoining sorting room. “They are not giving my letters. Letters from my son, Dev. I have complained many times but nothing happened.”
I wonder why her son can’t call her on the phone. Phone calls are free these days all over India; it’s the 4G age for most consumers; 5G for the affluent.
“Raju covers her locality, Madam,” a voice at my elbow informs. It’s Anand again. “He’s on leave. Gone to fetch his wife from her parents’ home. She went there to deliver her first child. Tradition, as you know.”
Ah, traditions. Where will we be without them? A galaxy of gods is framed on one wall of this main hall—Ganesha, Shiva, Parvati, Hanuman, Saraswati, Venkateshwara; there are so many we believe in because each God looks after a different aspect of the universe. Anand changes the garlands on them every morning. Some days a mendicant in saffron robes strolls in, clanging a bell and waving a pot of smoldering incense. Anand cajoles me to part with a coin. Last Friday, the staff conducted a prayer meeting and distributed spiced up boiled chickpea, puffed rice, basil leaves and pieces of apple. This was the prasad or offerings of devotees blessed by the deities.
I turn and peer into the adjacent room. A postman notices and whispers to the others. They glance at me warily; one, a stout bearded man, even glares at me. I turn to Sita and assure her I will look into the matter. She nods grimly and goes away.
“What does Raju have to say?” I ask Anand, back at my table.
“He says she is wasting her time, Madam.”
Strange. Why would he say that? Just then the phone rings.
It’s my husband, Tarun. “Coming home for lunch?”
“Umm, I will manage something from the local cafe. Too much pending work.”
He expresses disappointment. Our house is only a five-minute drive from here. We try to make the most of each other’s company now. It’s easier that way.
I tell him about Sita. He laughs. “What else can you expect in a government office!”
The barb makes me hunt out the complaints file. I go through it. Four complaints from Sita. Not one has been acknowledged.
That evening, Tarun confesses he loves this new neighborhood on the outskirts of Bangalore. Sparse traffic, clean air, people so easy-going that he feels he has been magically deposited in a bygone era. Ideal for his research, he says. He works at the University and is writing about ancient folklore in southern India.
“What happened about the Sita case?” he asks.
“I need to talk to one of the postmen, get his side of the story.”
“Somehow I get the feeling there is more to this.”
I am a little surprised by his response but my thoughts wander to other matters. A few days pass and I notice from the attendance register that Raju has resumed duty. I summon him. He is a thirtyish man, a bit plump, with an unkempt beard. He looks weary, annoyed. Perhaps due to the travelling to his in-law’s place and attending to his exhausted wife. I ask him about the letters.
“Not a single letter I have received, Madam. That woman is wasting her time,” he says in a matter of fact tone and goes away.
Anand, who has watched from a discreet distance, comes and informs me that Sita’s son fell in love with Raju’s sister but as they belonged to different castes, relatives on both sides were against the marriage. The couple eloped. Since then the two families have been at each other’s throats.
“No one knows where the couple is, Madam. Raju never talks about it.”
“Why didn’t you tell me about this before?” I ask.
Anand goes fidgety with his hands. Then I understand that even with a trusted assistant the trust only covers so much information; I am denied complete access. Is it because I am a woman? I think so. I can’t backslap Anand or sit with him and smoke or offer him a drink. With Tarun I can, though. Perhaps that’s why husbands are so important for women, I think in a sardonic way. That evening over a cup of hot coffee, I share the information with him.
“Why does love attract so much opposition?” he murmurs. Ours was a love marriage, too, and relatives made our life difficult because Tarun was a Bengali from Kolkata while I was a Tamil from Kolar. But after Gopi came, everything changed. His exuberance and mischief worked wonders, mellowed tempers. He was a bridge across troubled waters.
Tarun leans forward and touches my arm. “You have no objection if I meet Sita?”
Again my thoughts wander and it takes me a few moments to realize he’s waiting for my answer. “I don’t know where she lives.”
“No worries, I’ll find out,” he says.
No doubt he will. He has the gift of making people talk.
The next morning, I look out for Sita but she doesn’t turn up. Perhaps Tarun is at her house. It is indeed the case because he has news for me that evening.
“Such a kind lady. She insisted I have some breakfast. Hot idlis and coriander chutney. But nowhere as tasty as your idlis and chutneys,” he adds quickly. Seeing my impatience, he goes on, “Sita lives with her husband and college-going daughter. She admitted she should have accepted her son’s marriage. She showed me some of his books. See this!” He flipped open a notebook filled with beautiful handwriting in Kannada, the regional language. “Poems and stories about kings and queens. All about love. The boy was a hopeless romantic, Jyoti.”
“Has she no idea where he is now?”
“No. She approached the police but they pleaded helplessness. She contacted relatives in places like Tumkur, Mysore, and Belgaum. Nobody knew. Yet—”
“The husband and the daughter, they seemed to have taken the boy’s disappearance in their stride.”
I look away and brush my eyes with the back of my hand. Tarun notices but keeps his face expressionless. He’s like that; tries to keep me strong.
“What if Sita gets a letter from him now and then?” he says. “Once a month or so?”
I am puzzled. “Meaning?”
He explains. It’s a simple idea but I am uncertain about the ethics of it.
“Come on, Jyoti, I am not suggesting anything that will harm anyone, am I?”
“Even our scriptures are replete with stories of gods resorting to subterfuges to bring about peaceful solutions.”
I give in. He can be, as I said, persuasive.
On Friday morning, the staff assembles for prayer. Sita is present too. A priest officiates and distributes prasad—this time it is slices of banana in sweetened milk and grated coconut. Sita is praying, her eyes shut. I feel a wrench in my chest. How many times has she prayed like this for a letter from her son?
Then all get back to work. Sita leaves after the sorting of letters is done. I am at my table, hoping the plan will come to fruition soon; Tarun called up a friend who was ready to oblige. Someone is at my table. I look up. Raju. He hands me an envelope, already opened. The postmark is Delhi. One glance and I recognise the beautiful handwriting in Kannada. I look at Raju. There’s a sad smile on his lips. It’s as if he instantly knew that the letter was fake. But how? I had examined Tarun’s effort. It was a perfect replica of Dev’s handwriting.
“Madam, I didn’t give this to Sita because this is not a letter from her son. It just cannot be.”
I am taken aback at his conviction. I gesture at a chair but he remains standing. He explains that the young couple met with a horrible road accident in Mumbai. Rather than bring their bodies back, Raju had them cremated there itself. He did report to Sita’s family and showed them the police and post mortem reports. Whereas the husband and daughter accepted it, Sita did not. “That can never be my son,” she claimed.
“What am I to do, Madam?” Raju says. “How do I tell her each time she comes here that there will never be a letter from her son? Should I show her the pictures of the accident, the horrible disfiguration of the couple? That would destroy her.”
I just nod and after he goes, I rise from my table; I am restless. I need to go out for a walk in the garden outside. I stop beneath a coconut tree and look up at the bunch of yellow-green coconuts. So many! Is there an arrangement for bringing them down? Anand would know. I spot a particularly large coconut in a beautiful shade of light yellow. Obviously very ripe; the flesh inside would be hard and thick. What if this coconut were to break away and hurtle down to my head in deadly precision? Even as I stare at the yellow coconut my head throbs with images I have only heard about, not seen. Gopi, such a strong swimmer, floundering in a violent sea off Goa’s coast, his friends who accompanied him for the trip, shouting, panicking on the beach. Then the coast guards arriving, the futile search and then my screaming at Tarun when they broke the news to me: “No! No… he is there somewhere. They haven’t searched for him enough. I know he is alive.”
When I return home, I call up Tarun and explain. I urge him to visit Sita, to talk to her. He is silent for some moments.
“Let’s do this together,” he says, his voice cracking for just a fraction of a second. Like I said, we try to make the most of each other. It’s easier that way.
Copyright 2023 by Ramesh Avadhani