Title: A Handful of Sesame
Author: Shrinivas Vaidya
Translator: Maithreyi Karnoor
Publisher: Gibbon Moon Books
Although Navalgund had been roused from its slumber by the Mainavati elopement episode, in a few days after the eloping couple returned, going by the saying, ‘she becomes of this earth when she starts lighting the hearth’ the scandal lost steam and the town went back to sleep again.
The people returned to their busy routines of asking each other in the mornings if they were up, and turning their faces to the skies in the afternoon and saying “What do you know? There’s not a hint of rain yet.” They went back to sitting on the knoll near the Lalgade temple until darkness stepped in and until the concluding strains of the raag Bhairavi of the Magdum’s band rehearsal became thin air, they discussed such pressing matters as the ghost in the tamarind tree beside the Sankawwa pond, or the yard-long wheat-hued cobra that had slithered into the rock cluster before the Taluk office, or the Halladmatha’s Sire’s persistent cough, or Mamlatdar’s minor wife Mandakini, or the plague mice falling dead in Hubballi, or Bal Gangadhar Tilak. After ruminating over these never-ending topics, they would hasten home to eat their evening meals and shut their doors upon the darkness outside and turn in before the wicks in the kerosene lamps in their respective homes went off with a phtt. The womenfolk kept themselves busy with hearth, childbirth, and a little mirth of water’s worth on their way to the pond. Once in a while, they created their own entertainment with gossip and slander and quarrels – scold this one, taunt that one or mock another one.
Navalgund has grown considerably in the thirty or forty years since the mutiny. Fleeing the Company’s oppression, many families from Nargund are now settled in Navalgund. With the increase in population, more merchants have set up shops. Earlier, Adoni’s was the only trading family in all of Navalgund. Now, with the addition of Mhantshetty, Mhankali, and Yirapakshimath, there are four merchant families. The Queen’s government had laid down with great care gravel roads because of which trade and businesses are growing. Open-topped and covered bullock carts and even horse-drawn carts are now plying from town to town on these roads. The municipality that has been there for a while has now started a school, a library and — can you believe it — even an English hospital! But no one goes to that hospital because it is rumoured that they put the flesh of chickens, sheep, and donkeys in their medicines. Hence, Vasudevaachar’s patients are constantly growing in number. Bullock carts crowd at the Panths’ door every morning. Moaning, groaning and coughing patients covered in woollen blankets wait in their veranda. Vasudevaachar walks among them bare-chested, stroking his sacred thread with both hands and advising the patients on their medication, treatment and diet, offering soothing words of courage or stern reprimands as the occasion demanded.
“Ningawwa, if give up garlic chutney for two days the sky won’t fall on your head”
“Krishtya, I’ll give you a Shankhvati. Powder it, mix it with lemon juice and lick it. Your stomach will be alright. You won’t die if you cut down on your food for a couple of days”
“Bharmya, I’m giving you this bottle of Balantsyrup. Give it to your wife and don’t drink it yourself, you whoreson…”
“Basangauda, you have the sugar disease. Fire two of your farmhands and do their work yourself. You must also eat less…”
“Subbi, I told you that feeding your daughter-in-law the red figs of the Banyan tree will beget her children. But I don’t remember promising they would be male children!”
“Do not eat or drink undrinkable and uneatable things, you sons of unwed mothers!”
“Goudra, your lady is showing signs of consumption. See if her spittle is red-tinted. It’s a terribly infectious disease. Stay away for a few days – it’s good for you and also for her.”
“It’s not just medicines that will cure you, Shambhu. You must also have faith in god. Here, repeat after me, ‘medicine is the waters of the Ganges, the doctor is a manifestation of god’. Now, once more…”
Such medical jargon could be heard in the halls of the Panth house every day.
From early morning to the ripening afternoon, Vasudevaachar sits in the outer hall attending to his patients. He then heads to the backyard, draws seven or eight pots of water from the well and pours it over himself completing his bath before heading to the altar and sitting down for a two-hour long, uninterrupted prayers. Sometimes the municipality’s three o’clock bell would have rung before his prayers are complete. Then, after a meal and a short siesta, with only a thin shawl covering his bare chest, he heads to the Lalgade Hanamappa temple for prayers in the late afternoon. Sometimes, if there is a sermon or sacred storyrecitation on, he sits down to listen to it. If not, he sits a while on the stone bench that’s open to the skies outside and lets himself afloat in Magdum’s melodies before slowly heading back home.
On one such rippleless evening, Tulsakka and Vasudevaachar sat chatting on the porch outside the house. The children who had gone out to play hadn’t returned yet and Ambakka was at Antambhatta’s corner house, when suddenly Rukuma rushed from the backyard to the main-door looking excited and coughed a couple of times to draw Tulsakka’s attention. She then called out to her sotto voce, “Tulsakka… tssst… come here… come quickly…” Sensing her excitement and strange expression, Tulsakka left Vasudevaachar behind and walked over looking quizzically at Rukuma who began gushing and flailing her arms animatedly.
“She’s here!” she said.
“Who ay Rukuma? Who is here?” Tulsakka asked in her normal calm voice.
“She… she!” Rukuma insisted.
“She who?” asked Tulsakka as calm as before.
Rukuma came close to Tulsakka and said with wide eyes, “She! The one from Annigeri”
Taken aback by her words, “What’s this new drama now” Tulsakka exclaimed and followed her to the backyard.
Covering the child in her lap with the loose end of her sari, she sat by the stack of cotton twigs in the backyard, her poignant face both nervous and hopeful. As soon as Tulsakka and Rukuma came close, she stood up and held the child out and her eyes filled with tears.
“Please don’t be angry, my lady… it’s three days since he’s burning with a fever. Even the master of my home hasn’t visited in a while. Do what it takes but please save my child. I heard the master of your home is a great doctor with healing hands. So I came running here. Please don’t tell my master that I was here… he will be very angry. This is my only son… please save him for me…” she implored them.
Tulsakka hesitated for a moment and then said, “Come, sit here…” and showed her to the holy basil pedestal. The Annigeri woman sat down where she was asked to. Then spotting someone else, she suddenly covered her face with her sari, handed the baby to Rukuma and stood back in fright. Even Rukuma and Tulsakka were a little scared as they turned around and saw that it was Vasudevaachar. He fixed a dark gaze upon them for a moment before looking at Rukuma and saying “Bring the child in, I’ll take a look.” He walked back to his desk in the outer hall and Rukuma followed with the baby.
The Annigeri baby’s fever was owing to a knot in the stomach. Vasudevaachar gave a handful of small sachets to Rukuma and said, “Tell her to mix this in thin, watered-down milk to make a paste and feed it to the baby four times a day. Children often get fevers. Tell her not to worry. The baby will be well in a couple of hours. Open one of the sachets and give it to the baby yourself so she can learn how it’s done. Also, tell the mother to drink boiled water and to feed the baby a little less for the next four days.” He sent Rukuma away and went back to sit on the porch outside.
As Vasudevaachar’s instructions were being carried out, Rukuma and Tulsakka had formed an easy friendship with the Annigeri woman as only women could with one another. ‘Where are you from? How many years since you came to Annigeri? What did you say your name was? Mhaashaabi? What does it mean? Where did you meet Venkanna? Is this your only child?’ they were asking her. ‘How many grandchildren? I hear you haven’t seen your own lands in Annigeri… why don’t you visit once? If the baby gets well soon, I will go to the annual fairat the mausoleumof the Yamanoor saint…’ she was saying to them when suddenly Ambakka walked in through the backyard door straightening the parting in her sari. Upon finding out who the stranger was, Ambakka sprung back as if stung by a scorpion. “Ayya may her pyre be lit!” she started shrieking, “That thing may have no sense, but what about you? You have let it in like this! Hey, you! Get up… you have polluted the holy basil with your touch… pick your child up…” Rukuma and Tulsakka were saddened to see the Annigeri woman’s plight. Tulsakka spoke with her usual calm and dignified voice.
“Ambakka, please be quiet. Is this how you treat a guest?” At this Ambakka suddenly came into her wild avatar and started yelling in a shrill, sarcastic tone.
“Ayya… who’s stopping you, my lady? It’s your home… do what you like in it. Who am I to tell you anything? Venkanna mistress is your sister-in-law after all, isn’t she? She’s brought her son home moreover… it’s the procession of the family’s heir. Get the cradle out. Welcome him in, bestow gifts into her lap, give her a new sari– you haven’t given her one on her wedding, have you? Who am I to stop you…?”
“I don’t understand what she’s saying” exclaimed Mhaashaabi alarmed by the scene Ambakka was making. She said a hasty “I’ll take your leave, madam” to Tulsakka and left quickly.
The next day, after the atmosphere had cleared a bit, Rukuma went up to Tulsakka and said in a low voice, “Did you notice the baby’s nose, Tulsakka? Wasn’t it exactly like Venkanna’s?” and smiled knowingly.
A few days since then, Venkanna cornered Ambakka in the backyard. “Ambi, this is the last time. If you stick your nose in my affairs again, I’ll erase all traces of you. Be warned” he said menacingly.
ABOUT THE BOOK
A sweeping historical novel. Shortlisted for the Lucien Stryk Asian Translation Prize, 2019. The original work Halla Bantu Halla won the Central Sahitya Akademi Award.
It is the year 1857. A great uprising — what would come to be known as the first war of Indian independence — has broken out. Two brothers, emissaries of a northern king, on a mission to garner the support of the southern rulers, wander lost and hungry in a forest not far from their destination. They are captured and one of them is hung by the British. Caught in the rough and tumble of the mutiny, the other brother settles down in a place that was never meant to be more than a temporary refuge. He spends his life far away from home among people who do not speak his language. The novel spans the story of three generations of his family living under the burden of inherited nostalgia, a story that unfolds with all its flying fancies and stumbling follies on the threshold between tradition and modernity. Set against the backdrop of the freedom movement, the novel explores the lives of the people of the Dharwad region of Karnataka; their acts of faith and the realpolitik of ritual. Masterfully and sensitively translated from the Kannada, A Handful of Sesame is funny, tragic, ironic, satirical, lyrical and deeply allegorical of a young, modern nation.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Shrinivas Vaidya was born in the Dharwad district of Karnataka. He conceived of the plot of Halla Bantu Halla — inspired in part by the history of his own family — a long time ago, but it wasn’t until he retired from his four-decade long career in banking that he managed to sit down and write it. The novel won the Sahitya Akademi award – the highest honour by India’s National Academy of Letters. He has written several collections of short fiction since then.
ABOUT THE TRANSLATOR
Maithreyi Karnoor is the recipient of the Charles Wallace India Trust Fellowship for creative writing and translation at Literature Across Frontiers, University of Wales Trinity Saint David. She has won the Kuvempu Bhasha Bharati prize for translation and has been shortlisted for the Lucien Stryk Asian Translation Prize and is a two-time finalist of the Montreal International Poetry Prize. Sylvia: Distant Avuncular Ends is her debut novel.
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