By Nishi Pulugurtha
It was a Sunday or maybe a holiday, I think, as all of us were at home that morning. I think I was in grade two. I still remember that day so very vividly. It involved my maternal grandmother, ammamma, as we called her. The four of us, my parents, my sister and me, were all in the living room talking. The grill gate in our home had a big lock and to knock we used to bang the gate with the lock. As soon as I heard the sound of the lock banging on the gate, I ran out to the verandah to check out our visitor. I saw ammamma, standing at our gate!
My joy and surprise knew no bounds. I rushed in to tell amma (mother) and appagaru (father) that ammamma was at our gate. They were stunned to hear the news, rushed out to open the gate and welcome her. Relatives from distant Kakinada coming over to our place in Calcutta did not happen often and as children we were always excited and overjoyed whenever they came over.
After a cup of piping hot coffee, ammamma freshened up before sitting down with all of us to talk. As amma had been unwell, my father had written to her folks in Kakinada. On receiving the letter, ammamma had decided to come to Calcutta to be with her eldest. Upon purchasing the train ticket, my eldest mama (maternal uncle) had been asked to send a telegram to my father letting him know of ammamma’s travel plans. She took the Madras Mail (as it was then called) from Samalkot Junction which is about 15 kms from Kakinada town.
The train reached Howrah station early morning. Ammamma alighted from the train and looked around. Hari garu, that was how she addressed my father, would surely be there to receive her. But he was nowhere to be seen. She then took out an inland letter that my mother had written to her some time ago, that letter had the sender’s address on it. She walked out of Howrah station after waiting for quite some time. Just outside the station she met a traffic sergeant. She showed him the address. He looked at it and started speaking to her.
Duriseti Kantamma, my ammamma, was born in a village near Kakinada called Nayakampalli. She visited us often and regaled us with stories of her childhood, growing up and stories of my mother’s childhood. Part of a large landed family, she said in her days, girls were sent to school to learn that much so that they could keep the laundry accounts — “chakala vari paddu” she had told me, the accounts of clothes given to a washerman. She had studied up to grade three, her elder sister’s schooling had been discontinued even earlier. She told me that for those times she had been married off late — she was a full sixteen when she got married. Her elder sister, my pedda ammamma (elder ammamma) was married off when she was eight and the little child fell asleep, as the marriage was being solemnised, on the young groom’s lap.
Ammamma knew only one language, Telugu. That morning when the traffic sergeant began talking to her, she had no clue of what the gentleman was saying. That gentleman realizing her predicament called out to a rickshaw puller nearby. He told the rickshaw puller whatever he understood of her predicament, showed him the address and gestured to my ammamma to board the rickshaw. She told us that the language of the rickshaw puller was different from that of the traffic policeman — we assumed it must have been Hindi.
That was the first time ammamma had ridden on a rickshaw pulled by a man. It was a long journey from Howrah station to Dunlop Bridge in north Calcutta, a journey via Belur, Bally Bridge and Dakshineshwar. I do not remember her telling us about the duration of that rickshaw ride but can very well understand how long it must have taken and how difficult it must have been for the rickshaw-puller to reach Dunlop Bridge. She said that they had stopped for him to take rest and to enquire about the directions to our home.
When they came to the locality we lived in she alighted from the rickshaw and paid him. She said she felt sorry for him, he had trudged such a long distance. The gentleman had insisted on taking her further but ammamma would not allow it. She gestured to him telling him that she would manage from there. On noticing a group of people chatting at a tea shop, she showed them the address on the inland letter and she told them my sister and my names. The gentlemen showed her our home, we were the only South Indians, or “Madrasis” as we were referred to, in the para or colony, so locating our house was not difficult once you reached our para.
That was how D. Kantamma, who could speak no other language, but Telugu, reached our home years ago. When she told us about her journey, my parents were surprised and astounded. They just could not imagine how a rickshaw puller could have travelled such a long journey. That gentleman had not charged her exorbitantly for this ride which must have completely tired and exhausted him. They were happy that she was home safe and sound. I remember my father getting angry that ammamma had to face such an ordeal, an ordeal that could have been avoided had we been informed of her journey. I remember ammamma telling him that her son did send us a telegram informing us of her travel plans. That telegram, however, never arrived.
Language, I guess, is never a problem. Communication happens in many ways. Whenever I see a rickshaw pulled by a man, I am always reminded of my ammamma’s trip. Amma and appagaru spoke about this very often. I guess, that little adventure that ammamma had that day also speaks volumes of my city and of the wonderful people who call it their home.
Dr. Nishi Pulugurtha is Associate Professor in the department of English, Brahmananda Keshab Chandra College and has taught postgraduate courses at West Bengal State University, Rabindra Bharati University and the University of Calcutta. She is the Secretary of the Intercultural Poetry and Performance Library, Kolkata (IPPL). Her research areas are British Romantic literature, Postcolonial literature, Indian writing in English, literature of the diaspora, film and Shakespeare adaptation in film. Dr. Pulugurtha has presented papers at national and international conferences in India and abroad and has published in refereed international and national journals. She is a creative writer and writes on travel, film, short stories, poetry and on Alzheimer’s Disease. Her work has been published in The Statesman, Kolkata, in the anthology Tranquil Muse and online — Café Dissensus, Coldnoon, Queen Mob’s Tea House and Setu. She guest edited the June 2018 Issue of Café Dissensus on Travel. She has a monograph on Derozio (2010) and a collection of essays on travel, Out in the Open (2019).
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