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Seashell with a hole

Malathi Nidadavolu

Muthyam was dawdling along the beach. He was a fifteen-year-old, young man, visiting his brother in the States. Two years back, Muthyam fell ill and lost his voice.

           Giri, a software engineer in a mid-size firm offered to get medical help for his little brother. He had promised to have the surgery on his vocal chords done in the States. That was a year ago. Well

           Muthyam was walking slowly, face down, as if he was looking for something in the sands. He stopped suddenly. There, right at his feet was a shell lying in the sands, belly up; must be sunbathing or studying the skies -- two crescent moons holding a tiny dark marble fondly. Muthyam stopped, squinted his eyes and kept watching. The sands around refracting the sun's rays added a new halo to the shell.

           After a few seconds, he bent slowly and picked it up; held it up and noticed a hole on its back; he could see the glimmering sands through the hole. The sands, the waters, the vast expanse of the open sky reminded him of home back in his village. That was the reason he would go to the beach often. Today, he was here for the same reason. But he had never found a shell this big and this beautiful. But, there was also a blemish. He closed his fingers around the shell tight, looked up, mustered all his might and threw it into the waters. The shell fell into the water with a plump and headed to the bottom quickly. He stood there staring at the spot where the shell had fallen. In his village, he used to throw small flat stones; the stones would hop on the ripples and then drown. This shell did not jump; it just drowned.

           He returned home. His little nephew Bobby had drawn the chart for the Tiger and the Goat game on a tarpaulin sheet and was waiting for him. Muthyam had taught him that game soon after he had arrived here. For Bobby it was fun to create the board game on a tarpaulin sheet, as opposed to going to the store and buying one.

           Muthyam was about to sit down.

           "Muthyam, come here for a second. Get me some curry leaves," Vanaja called from the kitchen.

           Muthyam turned around. Bobby clutched his hand and pulled him down. They both knew only too well that whenever his sister-in-law called out for him, it wasn't "just for a second." But there was nothing Muthyam could do about it. He gently pulled his hand out of Bobby's clutch and went into the kitchen.

           Bobby, pouting, kicked away the tarpaulin sheet and went outside to ride his bike.

           Vanaja was busy in the kitchen, organizing the items on the counter for cooking. They were expecting guests. Sekharam was Giri's English teacher in his college days. His parents were visiting him. He set out in his minivan to show them around. Their first stop was Giri's house, a four-hour trip from his town.

           Muthyam came in with curry leaves and put them on the counter. Then he started washing the dishes in the sink.

           It was past noon. Giri's office was not too far from his home. He would not come home for lunch usually but he made an exception today in honor of the expected guests. He was about to open the door; Sekharam's car pulled into the driveway.

           Giri turned around with a big smile and greeted them zealously. Sekharam got out of the driver's seat, and opened the door for his father Somayya and mother Kotamma. Vanaja was standing at the door with a smile. She had never met them, but heard Giri talk about them.

           After they got out of the car and exchanged civilities, Sekharam walked back to the car and started unloading the suitcases.

           "Oh, no. Don't worry about the luggage. I'll get them," Giri said, without budging an inch. He did not mean exactly "I will" when he said "I will". His brother, Muthyam knew that only too well. He quickly moved forward and took the luggage from Sekharam. Sekharam let go of the suitcases, a little embarrassed, and followed Giri into the living room.

           Muthyam carried all the six suitcases to the guest room upstairs and returned to the kitchen. He came with coffee and served the guests.

           Giri noticed that Somayya was watching the boy curiously and felt a little embarrassed. He said to Muthyam, "Come on, sit down. Where is your coffee?"

           Muthyam did not sit down. He motioned toward the kitchen and went away.

           Kotamma followed him into the kitchen. "Can I help?" she asked Vanaja.

           "No, nothing to do really. I'm almost done. Not much," she replied, sounding casual. She gave Muthyam two eggplants and a knife.

           Kotamma stood there watching them and was trying to make conversation. She said, "It is strange, I mean our life in these days. Sometimes it feels like four generations have gone by within just the past ten years. In my childhood, take any household, it would be teeming with uncles, aunts and cousins, a dozen at the least, not counting the constant influx of guests, that is; a regular traveler's bungalow, if you ask me. We women were always busy with something or other; no one telling another 'do this or do that.' My grandfather had never sat down to eat, unless there was a guest next to him, you know."

           Vanaja was listening to the lady with chuckles. She was used to this kind of rambling. Almost always, the visitors from India have only two things to talk about -- either the vanishing traditions in India or the astonishing happiness in America.

           In the living room, Sekharam, Somayya and Giri also were also engaged in a similar conversation. Muthyam had heard them all; there was no expression on his face. He gave the cut vegetables to Vanaja, and returned to the dishes in the sink.

           Somayya stood up, as if he was looking for something.

           "What? Want something?" Giri asked anxiously.

           Somayya replied, "Just water. You stay, I will get it myself," he said.

           "No, no. You stay. I will get it," he said, and called out for Muthyam.

           Muthyam brought a glass of water and gave it to Somayya, and sat down next to Bobby to help him with his homework.

           Kotamma could not help noticing. She said, "You've found a good boy. Nowadays, we can't find domestic help even in our villages; nobody wants to work hard anymore."

           Vanaja cringed as if a splash of water hit her face; she was fidgety. "Oh, no, madam. He is not a domestic help; that's my brother-in-law, Giri's little brother. He fell sick two years back and lost his voice. We brought him to have the surgery done here," she said quickly, anxious to set the record straight.

           Kotamma was even more curious now. "So, what happened? It did not work?"

           Vanaja was annoyed. Why do I have to explain to this lady, a total stranger! She's not my cousin, on Mom's or Dad's side!

           Yet, she had to be civil; she must explain. "We're working on it. First, it took six months to find a good doctor; and then, been through two rounds of tests. Before we could set a date for surgery, other things had come up -- like my sister's marriage. Father said the groom's family did not ask for dowry -- you would think that's a blessing. But, oh no. They wanted so many other things -- a very long list of items -- gifts for his mother, sisters, and grandma, a scooter for himself and what not. Father suggested I should do something about it. Had I said I was in no position to offer help, I would be the bad daughter, right? By the time we were done with it, here the home repairs came up. We craved for a home on the lake front; we grew up on the riverside, you know.

           "Anyway, last spring, the rains nearly dredged up the foundation; four inches of rain outside, and the basement was flooded. It cost us an arm and a leg to fix it. Both Giri and I are sincerely hoping to have the surgery scheduled coming summer."

           Kotamma was confused, what's she talking about? Just the last line would've been sufficient!

           In the next room, Giri was talking; he sounded more like a politician on the eve of Election Day, "I don't know, Saar, I don't understand this society at all. People here talk a lot, say time is money and all that hogwash. In truth, they put value only on their own money. We can put sweat and toil all we can, yet we cannot please them; they want us to work twice as hard for half the pay. And then, what is worse, they still act like they're doing us a favor."

           "Well, Giri, market value is different from the intrinsic worth," Somayya said complacently. He understood that one simple truth, the gist of his experiences: People are not interested in one's abilities; they're concerned only with that part of one's capabilities they could use. Each employer puts a value only on the amount of capabilities he could use to his own benefit; he will not consider it as evaluating the other person's total worth.

           Vanaja came in to announce lunch.

           Muthyam set the plates and glasses of water. Giri sat at the head of the table and Vanaja across from him. Kotamma and Bobby sat on either side of her. Muthyam sat next to Bobby. Sekharam and Somayya sat on either side of Giri.

           Giri resumed his speech on the principles of economics in the world's richest country. "Our folks in India think here we are making lots of money, hefty dollars -- fifty rupees per dollar, you know. But, as the saying goes, dollars don't grow on trees.' They have no idea how hard we sweat to make those dollars. Come to think of it, my entire property, land and all, was washed up clean, by the time I was done with my education. Mother got by barely. I've got to understand the value of labor only after I'd started out on the job here, to be frank. I put my heart and soul into this, a job in the number-one country in the world. Now I know. I am working thirty hours a day; holding my heart in my fist; constantly worried who might complain about what; scared about the company shutting down, me getting the pink slip. The worries are endless. The fear is always hanging over my head eternally."

           Somayya nodded sympathetically.

           "You can't live in fear forever. Pull yourself together," Sekharam suggested; he felt obliged to say something.

           Giri was still stuck on his own line of thinking. "A friend of mine in my office was saying the same thing. He nearly broke into tears as he talked about his predicament. He said his uncle had given some ten thousand rupees to his mother, probably long before he was born; he had sent the money back to his uncle god knows how many times. But the uncle obviously had been asking him for the money over and again. He commented ruefully that that account would never get settled until one of them was dead." Giri broke into a big laughter.

           Funny how someone else's miseries make the best material for laughter for some people.

           "Watch the time," Vanaja alerted him.

           Giri looked at his watch and jumped to his feet, "Oh no. I have to go. Please, don't rush on my account. Eat well and rest for a while. We can go around in the evening."

           In the evening, Giri came late. Sekharam and his parents went out briefly. The long drive was tiresome for the older couple. So, Sekharam returned home early. They all gathered in the living room. Vanaja put in a Telugu movie.

           They heard the door open and turned around. "Hi, Dad," said Bobby.

           They looked at Giri and were silent; nobody knew what to say. Something was very wrong. It was writ large on his face. Giri looked as if he had not eaten for six months.

           "What's wrong? Are you sick?" Vanaja was the first to speak.

           Giri shook his head limply and went into the bedroom. His wife followed him. After ten minutes, they both returned to the living room. Giri got the pink slip that afternoon.

           Sekharam said he was sorry. Somayya showed his sympathy in his face. Kotamma was not sure what to say.

           Giri gave them the details. The company had been planning a major reorganization to improve the production quality. They decided to bring in a young man, fresh from Yale, in his place. No, Giri was not laid off. They offered him a job in a different department, but it was not suitable for his qualifications. They even gave him a week's time to think about it and get back to them. The management assured him that there was always room for growth.

           "That's good; isn't it? I mean some job instead of no job," Kotamma said.

           Giri turned to Somayya and said, "Saar, we were talking about this yesterday. You tell me. How do people measure the competence of a person?" He spoke very softly; the insolence of yesterday was conspicuously absent in his tone today.

           Sekharam said persuasively, "Giri, each person has a different yardstick. Possibly, you two are looking at two different things; your qualifications could be excellent, yet a mismatch for their requirements. They would put the same value on their dollar as you would on yours. I'm sure you can see the difference between the two perspectives"

           No, Giri did not see the difference; he could not. He was not to be blamed either. That was not the kind of difference that was taught at schools. No textbook discussed such things.

           Giri gritted his teeth, not without his teacher noticing it.

           Sekharam and his parents decided to leave first thing in the morning.

           "Why change of plans? You don't have to leave so soon. We still can feed you," Giri said, smiling vaguely.

           "No, no; don't get us wrong," Sekharam protested quickly, "Mom and Dad are tired already. They are not used to this kind of long drives you know. So, I thought, if we start early enough, we will be in the twin cities by noon. Gives them more time to relax."

           "Have breakfast at least before you leave."

           They sat down at the dining table, and kept fumbling with their knives and forks quietly. Nobody had anything to say. Giri could not take it anymore, even if it meant showing he was desperate.

           He turned to the most revered man in the room and asked feebly, "Saar, what do you suggest?"

           Somayya was not his Saar; he had never been his teacher, yet, he was equal to a teacher. Giri was grasping at straws. It did not occur to him that he was asking the wrong person. Somayya was just about as much befuddled by the local practices.

           He spoke softly, "Look, Giri, I don't know whether you would or should take that second job or not. Let me tell you what I've noticed in the past few days I've been here. All I see nowadays both here and back home is, everybody is looking only for ways to grab the most for himself. Yesterday I said the market value is different from the intrinsic worth of a product. Let's say, in your resume you mentioned that you possessed remarkable knowledge of Carnatic music. You'll try to convince your employer that you could make your presentation music to the ears of your clients. If your prospective employer were also a music buff, he could be persuaded of your argument. Otherwise, he might dismiss it as a totally useless skill for the job on hand. What I'm trying to say is, the employer will put a value on only that part of your capabilities he could utilize. You on the other hand are weighing up your worth, based on your needs and capabilities as you know them. Almost all the smart folks know this simple truth but nobody acknowledges it. Why? That is what I could not figure out."

           Giri could not understand Saar's argument. He did not get the answer he was looking for.

           Muthyam went upstairs, brought all the six suitcases and loaded the minivan.

           Somayya watched him and wondered if there was anything he could do for this boy. Suddenly, he walked up to Muthyam, took his hand and shoved a green bill in his palm. Muthyam tried to refuse the money; he pulled back his hand. Somayya closed the boy's fist, patted on his shoulder gently and went to the van.

           Giri and Vanaja waited until the car pulled out of their driveway and then went in.

           Muthyam stood there motionless scrunching up the paper in his fist. His heart was writhing like a rattlesnake. His mother's words came to his mind: Open the fist and the magic is gone. The magic stays only as long as the fist was closed.

           Bobby tugged at his sleeve and asked again, "What is it?"

           Muthyam's eyes bounced back and forth on his fist and Bobby. What good this piece of paper would do under the circumstances he was caught up?

           "Show it. Show it to me," Bobby was asking.

           Muthyam's five fingers opened up slowly like lotus petals at dawn. In the next moment, a breeze came blowing and swept away the currency from his palm.

           He thought about the shell he had tossed away yesterday. It needed a little effort on his part to toss it out; this green bill was not worth even that broken shell.

About the Author (click here) © 2004 Malathi Nidadavolu, all rights reserved
 appears here by permission

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