THE LITTLE FISH
IN THE COPPER POT
translated from the Telugu by Anuradha Kanniganti
Subbamma garu is a Brahmin housewife of ripe age. Though she's going on seventy years, she’s straight as a rod, and her eyesight is undiminished. Her ritualism is so exacting that she's capable of sprinkling sanctified water even on fire, so as to purify it. Or the reverse, cleansing water with fire - so fervent is her madi! (i) I'm not making this up. If you look in the water tank in Subbamma's house, you'll see burnt pieces of charcoal floating. The water’s been carried from the river Krishna and poured by vaddera (ii) folk, so she takes a burning stick and dips it in the tank. The water is thus supposed to be rendered pure!
With the water thus sanctified, she sprinkles and dabs the front of the house, the kitchen floor, and the hearth, with cow dung; traces muggu designs on the ground and in the kitchen. It's finally nine o'clock when she sets out to bathe in the Krishna.
Keeping a distance from people bringing water on the way, she stops at Kavamma garu's place to ask for some curry leaves. As she approaches Raamayya garu's backyard, his black cow snorts angrily at her.
Subbamma has a great veneration for that cow. But it must be some bad karma on her part – hardly has the cow seen her when it starts shaking its horns and strains against its rope, trying to break free.
Subbamma entreats with a pinched face "Aren't you my dear mother? Mother! Goddess Parvati! Mother! Mother!" But no! The cow doesn't heed her; bristling rusa rusa with rage, it stamps its feet.
Giving up hope, Subbamma calls to Ramayya's farm-hand, asks him to hold the lasso, goes behind the cow, ritually sprinkles the cow’s urine on her head, and joins her hands in obeisance.
By the time she arrives at the riverfront, it's ten o'clock. Another hour passes by the time she has washed her clothes and descended into the water. It's a saying in the village that the sun will set by the time Subbamma has finished bathing.
The spectacle has to be seen to be believed!
It is impossible to say how many hundreds of times she'll take a dip in the water. One dip in the name of each deity. Obeisance and circumambulation, turning to each direction. Taking water in her cupped hands and offering it reverentially to the river, again chanting each deity’s name. After those countless immersions, she finally tosses her washed clothes over her shoulder and fills up her binde (iii).
She hardly takes ten steps towards the bank, when she empties the pot into the river. Not that there's any particular reason, just that some uppara (ii) Saravayya has passed before her. Dipping into the Krishna, filling the binde and coming out, she may discard the water again, possibly for stepping on some grain of cooked rice. Yet another dip. Again the pot of water. As she heads back, she might do it once again, suspecting a dropping from a stork on the tamarind tree.
With all this pouring and refilling, the entire riverfront is muddied by the time she leaves. And evading more such perils on the way, it takes beyond an hour for the water-filled binde to reach home.
It’s about midday when Subbamma finally kindles the stove and embarks on cooking. She sprinkles the floor with sanctified water as she walks about, and then purifies each food item.
Her husband Satyanarayana garu, having carried on his lessons as long as he can, sits leaning weakly against a column, his guts racked by hunger. No matter how long he waits, no call from the kitchen. He counts the minutes, looking alternately towards the kitchen and at the sparrows in the eaves.
Around one thirty, when the cooking is done, Subbamma starts her tulasi puja. After watering and circumambulating the plant, she finally issues the decree that her husband, who has remained glued to the column, has long been anticipating: "Get up for your bath".
Satyanarayana springs up with alacrity at this call. He hurriedly plops four mugs of water on his head, puts on a raw silk dhoti, and lands on the peeta (iv). Subbamma serves herself after his meal is finished, eats, and then removes the dirty plates.
It's past three by the time she quits the state of madi in which she's been since her morning bath. (v)
One such day, after finishing her meal, she's lying in the hall, resting her head on a plank with her saree end spread out. She suddenly feels thirsty, but feeling too lazy to get up, she remains stretched out for a while. But her thirst persists, perhaps she has eaten too much ghee that day with red chilli chutney. When she finally gets up, goes into the kitchen, fills the copper chembu (vi) with water, drinks half of it and looks inside, what does she find?
It's like the end of the world. Crying "Siva Siva!" she drops the chembu and collapses on the floor. Satyanarayana wakes with a start at the sound and comes running.
When he looks – there's a little fish at the bottom of the chembu!
Subbamma is leaning against the door overcome with mortification, her eyes covered with her saree end. She'd cooked rice with that water. She'd made the lentils with that water. She'd ground the chutney with that water. She'd made the offering to the Gods with that water. She'd drunk that very water. Her madi’s been hopelessly compromised…
Subbamma sobs unconsolably. Seeing her in such distress, Satyanarayana garu soothes her.
"My foolish dear! Isn't there fish in the Krishna in which you bathe? So, vaddera Savarai is maila! Polluted! If a grain of cooked rice - the very rice that you eat - brushes your foot, you become polluted! Don't you have maila inside you?"
Subbamma raises her head and looks at him.
She's wanted to live like a pearl in an oyster, avoiding touching anyone, maintaining madi. She hasn't known how to live like a fish in water.
This is probably why Ramayya's black cow goes on the attack at the very sight of her! (vii)
i. Practice or state of ritual purity, cleanliness.
ii. Vaddera (also Oddera) and Uppara are trade castes. Vaddera were water-carriers, stone-cutters and earthworkers, and Uppara were engaged in salt-making, basket-making and earthworks. They have tended to shift towards agriculture as the trades became modernised.
iii. Brass pot.
iv. Low wooden eating plank.
v. We see that the major part of Subbamma's day is devoted to rendering her environment into madi within which she carries out her daily duties and observances. She lives in a cocoon circumscribed by Brahmin practices and rituals, involving a perpetual anxiety about falling into maila (state of pollution). In her universe, all material objects and people are in either of these states - they may be maila by their very nature or condition, or become so by contact, proximity, or inauspicious happenings; in the latter case, they may be rendered madi through acts of purification.This madi is very fragile, since maila is all around and threatens to invade.
vi. Small copper pot used for pouring or drinking water.
vii. There is a subtle conundrum here - did the little fish really represent maila? It was habitual for example for fish and tortoises to be released into drinking water wells in backyards, precisely to keep the water clean. In the story, the husband does not really address this issue, rather he asks, isn't there maila everywhere?
Text copyright © The legal heirs of Satyam Sankaramanchi 2020
Translation copyright © Anuradha Kanniganti 2020
Satyam Sankaramanchi was born in the tiny village of Amravati situated on the bank of Krishna, near Guntur city in Andhra Pradesh. He wrote in Telugu, and the world of his stories was inspired by the village life and lore from his childhood years, the 1940s and 50s. Originally serialized and published in AndhraJyoti, his works were later brought out as Amaravathi Kathalu, a collection of around 101 stories by Navodaya publications. This book won the Andhra Sahitya Academy award in 1979. Sankaramanchi died eight years later. Posthumously, 13 of those stories were adapted for television as Amravati Ki Kathayen, directed by Shyam Benegal.
Anuradha Kanniganti, originally from Hyderabad, has gone through multiple transitions, both geographic and disciplinary. She was trained in mathematical sciences in three countries in North America and did a stint in mathematical finance before moving towards language and inter-cultural studies. She currently teaches Telugu at the National Institute of Oriental Languages, Paris and is devoted to the promotion of Telugu studies, and the role of language in development in multilingual nations like India. Her book which will be the first English translation of Amaravati Kathalu is forthcoming.