I had just returned from attending job counselling interview. I knew that there was a vacancy in that village before. When I mentioned my choice without a second thought, there was a shade of surprise on the face of the officials for my choice of that remote village.
“Is it where you hail from, Doctor?” An elderly looking person amongst them asked curiously.
How could I explain them what the village meant to me?!
Without asking any questions further they gave me the posting order.
It was a place I yearned to visit any number of times but could not make it. Being busy with studies, of course, was not the only reason. I was afraid I did not have the courage to contain my emotion!
Now that I was going to live there, I prepared myself mentally to step into that sea of disconcerting memories.
In many ways, I was at odds with the ultra-modern trends of 2016. Yet, I learnt to be pragmatic and get on with the world by shaking hands and leaving no hint of what was going on within. The only person I adored and liked very dearly was… the late Poet Laureate.
“It is not your fault… one should blame your parents for this upbringing,” people who cared for me used complain.
True! My parents were a crazy lot and of a different breed. But they were not the first either. It all began with my maternal grandfather who was a student of the Poet laureate. To speak the truth, the Poet Laureate was not just a teacher but a demigod to him.
My grandfather passed on his craze for literature to his daughter and nephew. Whatever the Poet Laureate penned was fair, just and a statute for him…. no matter what the writing was about, including such simple things as culinary miscellany.
I was born 25 years after the Poet Laureate had left for his heavenly abode. I was the only child for my parents. My granny still blames my parents that they had spoilt me too. I must admit that there are very few people in our family lineage who had a smack of literature or even a cursory interest in it. How ‘spoilt’ we were became glaringly evident to me whenever I visited my relatives. When I say spoilt, I did not mean we were financial wrecks. My father was doing his job perfectly well and my mother was admirably managing our agricultural affairs.
The Poet Laureate was a prolific writer with over hundred works to his credit. In the wide-ranging spectrum of his oeuvre of every genre and subject, there were many novels along with classical dramas. One of the novels, running for over 900 pages, was tantamount to a holy scripture for us and we read it almost daily. It’s burden I was carrying with flair ever since I came of age.
My father was fond of poetry. He used to recite extempore the poems written by the Poet Laureate and other classical poets of olden times and explain us the meaning. That’s how I picked up interest and achieved reasonable command over the language. There was a 300-poem work of the Poet Laureate which was of particular interest. My father very rarely laid his hands on that but my mother almost read it daily. Reading in our house meant, for all practical purposes, reciting the poems aloud. More than the meaning of the poems my mother recited, I understood her grief first. As days passed, tears used to stream down my eyes without restraint. I desisted crying aloud lest my mother should stop reciting the poems. Once she put the book aside, more often, she lived in a different realm to mind her surrounds for some time.
From the prologue to the book I understood on my own that it was an elegiac work. Poet Laureate wrote it in memory of his late wife. At the college, I searched for similar works in other languages and read, but none of them came anywhere near that book. I felt that it was only he and he alone who could put up with such insufferable pain on one hand and put it aptly into words on the other. My answer to people who question me how I could I rate him a great poet who brought me to tears is, just go out and learn the rudiments of rhetoric. Bhavabhuti, the author of the renowned Sanskrit classic “Uttara Rama Charitam” said, “there is only one Rasa (emotion/ passion/affection) in this world and that is Compassion; all other manifest emotions are just its aberrations.” Bhavabhuti on one side and the Poet laureate on the other side are my models. But for the Poet Laureate’s great regard for Bhavabhuti, I would have placed him a rung below the Poet Laureate.
The spirit of that monumental novel, as I mentioned before, was not as easy as his poetry to grasp immediately. But, with age I gradually understood it. There was not a subject he did not touch in that book. As he went on narrating how the invaders of this land had targeted everything native and valuable to this country, its soul and sap, and how they meddled with each of them and subtly distorting them, a helpless resignation would seize anybody else as the facts unfold before mind’s eye. But he was made of a sterner stuff. He recorded the whole tragedy to the minutest detail with the studied indifference of a historian. At the end of the novel, the protagonist’s wife would be afflicted with a peculiar disease for which there was no cure those days. The hero desperately tries to save her life. There used to be cure available in Ayurveda once but thanks to the biased policies of the rulers, that system of medicine went out of vogue. Their system of medicine did not have a cure for that disease in those days. Ultimately she succumbs to the disease.
My god! What a description! What a pouring out of grief! I used to read and reread those twenty- thirty pages and visualize the tragedy unfolding. I used to feel drained of all my energy. It seemed it was really happening in front of me.
People say that the theme had autobiographical overtones. His wife died like that when he was thirty-five. When she was alive, their conjugal love had touched paradigmal proportions. His wife was a great scholar. She used to edit all his works when she was alive. That’s why they would seem a cut above his later works.
My grandfather, who was alive till recently, used to tell me, “Look, my child! If you closely observe, you can notice his earlier works depict a lot of grace and charm about them. Though his output was more in later years, it is bereft of this earlier grace. When you read the lamentation of a seriously grieving soul, sometimes you get disinclined to read further. Over a period of time, he could see the funny side of it. He became compassionate towards his fellow beings.”
Before I turned fifteen, I read all his works and could form my own opinion of things. If I look back and try to evaluate my grandfather’s remarks, I must confess I would agree with him completely.
The irony, of course, was that his earlier works were not as popular as his later works. I think he himself had mentioned it somewhere that “very few people could stand the taste of fresh milk and freshly collected honey”. Or, maybe, that merciless ‘inability to put up with sublime happiness’ dwells subconsciously in the readers’ mind! Maybe, that other man was also unhappy gives a kind of vicarious pleasure.
Why to talk of somebody else – my father himself had said it once that “He could create such a corpus of literature only because he suffered the pain. Else, like the rest, he would also have reclined on his back coolly chewing a pan.”
When I heard him say that I lost my cool. “Why? What if he had not turned out such great works? For that matter, what if he had not written any book at all? Isn’t it enough if he lived happily?”
But, like an addict, I used to read only the incidents of death in the novel; And used to wriggle like the cane of sugar passing between the blades of a mill.
Poet Laureate’s wife died of Consumption. There are medicines available for TB now and it is completely curable now. But of what use? Of what use are they for her!!!
I was at the forefront in studies and I secured a seat in medicine as father desired. At the new place I got introduced to new faces. I learnt that the Poet Laureate had great fan following across the state. And over time, I also came to know that there were more barbs and misinterpretation of his works than criticisms. To be fair to him, two or three of his opinions are not in sync with contemporary thinking. Even I cannot agree with his thinking on these points. But then, what if you have such small cuprous impurities in such a large gold mine of his works? I used to get easily irritated and vehemently argued when only these blemishes were magnified to cosmic proportions and used as excuse for condemning and dismissing his works. But later, when I found there was no rhyme or reason in the arguments these days, I stopped entering into arguments. Like the clandestine meetings of banned outfits, we, his fans, used to meet at some place and discussed among ourselves.
Just then, I chanced upon a photo.
It was taken four days before Mother (Poet Laureates wife, henceforth I shall refer her with that epithet) had passed away. There was a baby in the Poet laureate’s hands, and a boy was standing by him. Mother was just a heap of bones. Her large bright eyes did not cease their glow. As for him, I had never seen such frozen despair and helplessness I saw in his eyes anywhere… not even in my medical wards.
Giving the photo to some of my artist friends, I entreated them to morph the gloom and paint the two rather in a happy disposition. They did it but the angst did not cease altogether; it only seemed lurking somewhere near.
I did my MD in pulmonary medicine. It is mandatory that we should work for the next 2 years in government.
This village… Visweswarapuram… is Poet Laureate’s village. His father was wealthy once but fell on bad times and lost everything. After the death of Mother, the Poet Laureate served in the village school as Telugu teacher, brought up his children, and at the age of seventy met his creator. Ten days before his death when my grandfather visited him. He said to my grandfather, “after so long, I am able to make it.” He passed away in the very house Mother had passed away. The house was still standing but his children settled in US.
The village had grown bigger now but it was a typical countryside once.
It’s going to be my abode for the next two years.
It’s three districts away from where I studied. I got down with my luggage in the village. The hospital was at one end of the village. It was a very old but large spacious rectangular house with number of rooms, all opening into the vacant space at the centre. As there was no provision for treating in-patients, the verandah in the front and two or three rooms would be enough … for patients to wait and doctors to conduct clinical examination and tests. There were two more doctors, one on a long leave and the other, a lady, who commutes from a town sixty kilometers away. There were no staff quarters. Staff informed me that the present building was only temporary arrangement and that a permanent building was sanctioned at the other end of the village; and, caught between the conflicting interests of opposing parties, even the foundation stone was not laid for the same so far. However, they assured me that they would find accommodation for me very soon.
“Till then?” I asked
“We will get the back-end rooms cleaned. There is a high-raise canopied bed available,” the staff replied.
Was there an alternative? I asked them to clean the kitchen too, if there was any. I was a day scholar all through my studies and cooked for myself.
After the first round cleaning, I supervised the second round of cleaning myself. God knows when was the last time people inhabited these rooms. It was smelling bat’s guano all over. I lighted a whole bunch of scented sticks in each room. I must admit, when I opened the windows, a gust of refreshing breeze swept through the rooms.
I finished the dinner with bread toast and mango pickle.
When I reached for the bed, I lost myself in no time.
I woke up in the middle of the night. Two people were in conversation. They might be husband and wife.
“Hum! Have you completed your stately pursuits? Do you have any idea how late the night was? My stomach is growling … waiting for you this long.” She wanted to be harsh. However much she tried, she wanted to get angry but she couldn’t.
“What can I do? How long can I pass time at home? Besides, I was with you alone when I was at home.” He was entreating her endearingly.
Only the sounds of vessels and plates could be heard for some time.
Where are the sounds coming from? there were no houses in the neighborhood. I felt the bedsheet on the cot anew. Instead of the fine Bombay Dyeing, it seemed course handloom kalamkari bedsheet. I reassured myself that sometimes dreams seem so natural.
Then I heard peals of laughter. I got up to watch. There… where I toasted my bread, in the place of gas stove there was a wood stove and a small iron open-furnace.
They were sitting a little away from the two. Their posture revealed how intimate they were. She was almost in his lap. It was hard to tell who was feeding whom. They were taking meal together.
I was watching. They got up and returned washing their hands. Strangely, it did not come to my mind who they were or if they would do me any harm. Hiding in a corner I was looking at their faces. I felt I had seen them somewhere.
They might be around twenty-five. She was short and lean and her body had crimson tint. However, the glow in her face was beyond description. It was close to Goddess Sarasvati’s. She was in a black zari-bordered handloom sari. A crescent-moon like gold necklace adorned her neck. The attire and adornment looked very old and out of fashion… almost lifted from the movies of Gudavalli Ramabrahmam.
They were effervescent with love and laughter. She was setting the kitchen in order. He was roaming around there, walking behind . It seemed her work was over and they might enter this bedroom any moment. But I was here. What to do?
“You crazy! It was all a dream.” I tried to pacify myself. As a precaution, I kept standing where I was. As expected, they went into the bedroom. He picked up a book and she was trying to pull it out of his hands…
A dash of drizzle through the window woke me up. Day was breaking behind the clouds.
There were not many patients at the hospital.
“Sir, till today, no doctor stayed here for long. Now that you stay here and will be available, people will come regularly hereafter,” assured the attender.
Because I don’t sleep in the afternoons, after my lunch, I walked towards the village.
It was like any other village which the evils of civilization visit before culture stepped in. How could I find there the house of the Poet Laureate?
Who should I ask?
It suddenly struck me that there was a temple of Lord Chennakesava in the village. So I could ask the temple priest about it.
It was past 2 O’ clock by the time I went to the village. The temple was closed.
As luck would have it, the priest’s house was nearby.
I called on him.
He was not that old. He might be five or six years older than me. I was not sure if he could tell me.
“I am sorry,” said he.
“Who is that?” I heard an old lady enquiring almost shouting at him.
“He wants the house of one Srimannarayana Murty, a Poet Laureate,” he replied coolly.
“Are you speaking about the poet of good olden days? He had been dead for fifty years. There is nobody from the family living here. His house was given out to the hospital.” She came out to answer.
I paid my respects to her for the information and returned.
I did not know! I could not even guess!!!
Suddenly my hairs stood up when I recollected last night’s dream.
Then… were they?!
Yes… It seemed I read that episode before.
Now, I could understand the decrepitude the house fell upon.
But, was it a dream really?
Tut! If it had not been a dream why the spirits of that holy couple hover there?
I thought I should be wakeful if I get the same dream once again! And that very thought made me laugh at my own foolishness… how can I be awake in my dream! A conundrum! Something like a teasing refrain of an old cinema song.
I slipped into sleep…
Suddenly there was furore all around and loud wailings were heard.
“Lift the body immediately from the cot and set it on the floor,” someone is hurrying others.
“Mahalakshmi! Mahalakshmi!” someone is anxiously calling her.
“Mahalakshmi is no more! She is leaving for her heavenly abode!”
I got up suddenly. He was wailing his heart out leaning onto a pillar. Even rocks would thaw if they listen to his wailing. Is Death more stony?
I could not see his face. His back and shoulders were rattling under grief.
It’s a moment of convulsive agony. I could not resist. I wanted to console him. I ran up to me and held him in my arms.
It’s hard to describe the sensual feeling the touch caused in me. He turned towards me.
Amidst such overwhelming grief, I could see for a fleeting moment great surprise in his face. I could understand that he was closely observing me and he was surprised at my attire and my attitude towards him.
Somebody pulled me away from him and pushed me out.
In the twilight glow, I could clearly see everything on the street.
Some kid was shouting in his sweet childy chirping, “Vande Matalam” (Vande Mataram… Salute to my motherland.)
Perhaps it was his mother who was bidding him to be silent.
I knew what was that age… But How was I there? Then???
I pinched myself. It smarted. But then, did I not study somewhere that it would be so in dreams as well?
The boy came out from the neighboring house. There was a small flag in his hands. I called him to me. He came to me feeling shy.
He showed me the flag and I was watching it.
There was rattling under my feet. I was afraid if there was an earthquake in my dream.
When I opened my eyes, I found myself on my bed.
That was Sunday. It was a holiday for hospital.
I did not feel like getting up. I lost myself in woolgathering.
“Kaalohyam niravadhihi (Time is limitless)” … I am reminded of Bhavabhuti.
I receded into time. There was no doubt about that.
Because I adored those holy couple… in the house they lived… I was able to see them. That became possible.
If I went back… what event, I would witness? Was it in my hands? What purpose would it serve?
“Whose purpose?” … a logical corollary came out. My body horripilated.
What was all this? Why it was happening?
I drew my fist with impatience. Something pinched me. When I looked for it, I found it: it’s a flag. Where did it come from? it was the same flag I took from the child to have a look. It came with me from those times to the present.
If something could come from those times to the present… how about something from these times to…?
My thoughts were fleeting.
If I could make it possible?
I brought sixty AKT Kits from medical store and I put them in my shirt and pajama pockets before I went to bed. I plastered them together lest they should slip. 3 kinds of tablet in each packet and one packet for each day. They are enough for two months and effective to treat the early stages of the disease. Next time if I could go, I would have to change the medicines.
What was the right time to visit? But if I could go at the right time, I was confident that I could convince him.
No doubt, it was a crazy belief. All this wouldn’t have happened but for that.
In the novel, the protagonist and his wife would visit their friends’ village after the birth of their son. There, while moving around in the mango groves, she could not stand the spring sun and fails to put few steps. She might have afflicted with the disease then.
I strongly determined to visit them on the first day they returned from their friends, and slept.
I was on the verandah. She was not there. Perhaps feeling weak, she might be sleeping inside. He was reading a book reclining in an easy chair. To his left, a lantern was aglow on a tripod.
For the sound of my steps, he looked over the book, closely and sharply.
I paid my respects by prostrating before his feet.
“Blessed be you with long life! What Age you belong to?”
I was perplexed. More perplexing was that his question was more rhetorical than a query. He understood that I was modern.
That’s it. He had already read HG Well’s by that time….
As if he understood my state of mind, he said with a playful smile
“You can’t learn everything from personal experience. You have to give free reign to your thoughts.”
What an enticing smile that was! He never had an inkling of her impending death.
I told him about my age and where I hailed from.
Then… one after another… I briefed how all of us in our family were his devotees… and how I chanced to step into that house … etc.
But I could not muster enough courage to speak the ultimate.
“Then, did I write all these books?”. He felt happy.
I was not sure how long could I stay there. I was getting sweating with nervousness.
“Mother is seriously ill Guruji! Please administer these medicines. It is very important.” I put those 60 packets there.
“Oh! You said you studied English medicine. OK. I will administer those medicines.” He took it lightly. He was just trying to be polite. I was clear to me.
“Please Guruji! You are not able to understand the seriousness of the disease. She is suffering from Consumption.” I uttered the inevitable in a hurry.
The ominous words changed the pleasantness in his feelings. He got up and stuffed the medicines back into my hands.
“Don’t talk rubbish. She is not suffering from any disease. Even if she were, those English medicines won’t help her. Lord Visweswara won’t betray my trust. I am sure about that.”
He did! He did! listen to me!
Before the words spilled out of my gullet, I was not there.
I could not describe how I attended my duties, how I attended to my patients. An unfathomable despair echoing from within.
Yet, I did not want to back down from my efforts.
I was sure that some reputed doctor… some Sastry he believed in … would say to him, “The disease set in clandestinely. Let her not stay long in wet clothes. I can’t guarantee a cure.” At least he would develop faith in my medicine.
Would he? Was it predetermined? Could it be undone?
Could I reach there on time? I would. I was sure.
I bought medicines from town sufficient for nine months. Medicines that would work even when the disease was at an advanced stage. I put them all in a cloth bag and sewed it up at the mouth. I stitched the bag inside my shirt.
That was all I could. If God willed it, it would. There was nothing in my hands.
He was looking wan. He was not able to put his mind on anything for long.
I bowed to him in respect.
“So you have come back. I did not expect you would.”
“Yes, Guruji! It’s God’s will.”
“Who knows what is going to happen?”
“You said that it is possible to prevent premature death. Did not Lord Siva prevent timely death to Markandeya?”
“If she is destined to live, the medicine given by doctor Sastry would work.”
I was infuriated. But I controlled myself.
“A race could be bad. But even that, it is possible for righteous people to be born.” I cried loud.
They were the very words he would write someday. Perhaps they were in a nascent stage in his mind. There was a subtle movement in his face.
“You cannot change the whelm of time. Enough if you could save Mother’s life. The people who invented these medicines were all saints accursed to be born as occidentals. For the wellbeing of mankind they sacrificed their lives working day and night to find this cure. You are in the year 1931. Till 1946 not even the earliest version of these medicines was invented. I am coming after another seventy years have passed. I am one of those who bitterly wailed for years at Mother’s death. I have a right. I earned it. I insist you, not only as a fan, but also as a doctor!”
I became very bold.
He got up and took the medicine bag from me. I already put detailed instructions as to how to administer each drug and when. Yet, unable to resist the temptation, I repeated it all. Until I was convinced that he properly understood what all I said, I stayed there.
I was in my room when I opened my eyes. The Calendar on the wall was showing the year 2016. But the house was spic and span. And was painted all over.
I entered the front rooms.
In the hall… there were photographs of the Poet Laureate and Mother as donors of the building to the hospital. Their dates of death were recorded few years on either side of 1991. They lived almost for ninety to ninety-five years.
The elegiac work that I always carried with me was not at the assigned place. I would never find it except in my memory. Because it was no longer true even I might forget it after sometime…
I need not go through the last chapters of that monumental novel. They would be altogether different.
What about the rest of his works? I wish they were there. I couldn’t afford to miss any. Perhaps, in all his later works the same grace of his earlier works would be flowing as undercurrent.
This was all my imagination… like what he suggested to know by ideation.
When I went home after ten days the first thing I did was to count the books. There were thirty books more! Wow! What a gift for me!!!
I randomly checked his works where I expected the events to take a different turn. They were there just as I imagined.
Even my parents did not have the idea that the stories were different before. And nobody in the world would ever know.
Suddenly I saw a photo in the central hall I had never seen before.
A very old-looking poet laureate was holding a child in his lap.
In my grandfather’s handwriting it was written like this thereunder:
“18.7.1990. Poet Laureate Srimannarayana Murty and the newborn named ‘Sanjeevarayudu’ by him.”
That was my name.
Original: Dr. Mythili Abbaraju
Translation: RS Krishna Moorthy & NS Murty
Dr. Mythili Abbaraju
Dr. Mythili Abbaraju is a prolific writer and translator.
A Gynaecologist by profession and presently living in Bangalore, She hails from Guntur, and is an alumna of NTR University of Health Sciences. She is presently Senior Registrar Obstetrics & Gynaecology at Sparsh Hospitals, Yeshwantapur, Bangalore.
Coming from a family lineage of litterateurs, she is engrossed in both English and Telugu fiction. Viswanatha Satyanarayana, Chalam, Kodavatiganti Kutumbarao, Jane Austen, George Eliot , Oscar Wilde and Henrik Ibsen are some among the favorites. In “Nimagna” … a very insightful collection of essays she published recently, she dwells upon various aspects of beauty and explains them from her perspective.
Read the original here
1900 th Post