అనువాదలహరి

Kalapi … Mannem Sindhu Madhuri, Telugu, Indian

One day I crossed the river Tungabhadra taking a dinghy at Kodandarama temple. Capering over the stones along the Meena Mandapam (Fish Porch), I reached and settled down at Molla Mandiram (Temple of Poetess Molla). That was a place less frequented by people; more so at that early hour of the day. I could silently watch the serene sunrise.

 Emptying some basil-tea from the flask into the cup, I was slowly sipping it along with the beauty of ambient nature. Then I heard the boatman’s shouts calling at me. Coming forward few steps, I asked him the reason.

 “Sister! Your brother, and a stranger with him, is searching for you. He wanted me to inform you if I chance upon you. I know you will be here at Molla Mandiram,” he said, walking up the bank towards me.

 “Then, let’s go,” I said, and took his dinghy.

 After crossing over the river to the other bank, I found a stranger by my younger brother. I never saw him. He did not look like an Indian. He was more like a Sinhalese. They followed me up the promontory to Kalaagriha, my cottage (of poetry, short story and painting). When they got comfortably seated, I threw a secret questioning look at my brother knitting my brow.  

 “He arrived from Sri Lanka. Says Kalapi has sent him. He gives no more details except that he wants only speak to you. That’s it,” he said, and went out leaving us.

 When I heard Kalapi had sent him I was so happy. Showing him the lodging hut meant for guests, I asked, “Please get refreshed first. We can talk leisurely after our breakfast,” and placed order for breakfast with my kitchen help. “Before that, you read this letter,” he said, handing over me a letter and a packet along with it before walking towards bathroom.

  I took the letter into my hands. It’s not in a neat hand; Hard to make out the letters which looked as if they were spilt over the red paper from a shivering hand.

 “Colombo

 To

My dear childhood pal laddoo,

 The ultimate message from Kalapi… Are you wondering why I suddenly say this is my last letter, after being silent for ten years? I am tired… and tired of fighting. I could not find for what I was searching for in the person. Not only in the people I trusted in… but even in the mirror I love so much to look into. Doctors say it is skin cancer. Maybe my days are numbered. I don’t know why, but my heart yearns for you. I just want to reminisce… reminisce your unbridled mischief, the river Tungabhadra, about your granny, the stories about Nagamma, about Bangla refugees, about dinghies that one can hire for only ten rupees for the whole night, your music of trumpets made of Cantala leaves, your garden, about that poor fellow, Gayan, knitting your figure for two years with only jute twine and a bodkin; your  making skirts with hay, selling them to innocent white tourists and making them dance wearing them; your taking ten dollars to teach them Yoga but only teaching them rolling on the back and front as four Asanas for one month, etc., etc., in your presence. My last wish is that you should come to Colombo with the carrier of this letter. I want to see your bursting laughter exposing the teeth along with the gums.

 Don’t forget to bring a good mirror with you when you come.

                                                                                                  Your Cobra friend,

                                                                                                    Kalapi.”

 When I completed the letter, my eyelids shivered under the strain of tears. Suddenly I remembered my mother and my grandmother who are no more. I had to do something. Before it burst, I had to check the swelling grief. I had to vent it out. Informing that I would be back in an hour to the attendant, I hurried down the promontory… reached the road and started walking briskly… which soon became a run. I went on running till the tears merged with my sweat, and I was completely drenched. I ran for more than an hour, till salt flaked over clothes and my tongue tasted salt and gummy; and when I was not able to run any longer, I jumped into the Tungabhadra and shared my grief with her for an hour. She swept off my tears, eased and unburdened my spirit. I returned home in dripping clothes and lay flat across on the cot log tired.

 ***

 The very recollection of Kalapi would excite my mind and my eyes. Her color, complexion and her eyes are all black. In a word… she is blackness personified. She is quite healthy. She is of the color one sees when an over-ripened Jamun fruit falls and smashes onto the ground … No. No. I think it is not. How about the blackish shade of a Peacock? No, not even that. Well, is it a mix of black silt clay with the glint of nimbus clouds? Perhaps no. Could that be the pastel black you get when you add fresh butter and crude camphor to the collyrium that granny freshly collected by upturning the plate, and mixing them all with a length of palm leaf? No. Perhaps no painter can ever get the shade of her skin on his palette. God! What a color it is? It’s beyond me to describe that.

 Kalapi is not my relative; not even a friend of my age. Yet she is very close to me.

 She was my elder brother’s friend. He is my cousin from my adapted mother’s side. They studied together in school and college. I was afraid of her initially… a fear not because she had beaten me or cursed; no, she never did such things. I was afraid of her beauty. Honestly! I was afraid to watch such beauty in black… blackish eyes, brown pupils with a ring-like streak around them, nostrils branching off in a line from the tip of the nose, thick eyebrows merging into one another, long hair flowing beyond the knee, and the graceful movement of her fingers on the black, smooth braids without ever loosening their grip. She laughed so sweetly when she was first introduced to me. The glow of her skin can only be compared to the sheen of castor oil on the body of thieves, who first drink the blood of a donkey before they embark on their enterprise, then run for long till it was absorbed fully into the body before applying oil. There was robustness of pestle in her limbs, grandeur in her body, and a singeing fire in her looks.

 With just a look she could gauge people in a trice. Her looks always seem to convey “see, I can read your intentions!”  Kalapi loves mirror so much, and her day begins with looking at her reflection in the mirror. “If I can be pleased with my own appearance, others shall be pleased looking at me” was her refrain.  She is my best friend.

 Kalapi’s pulchritude not only pleases mortals, it pleases even nature.

 ***** 

 One cold morning when my granny woke me up early, I was warming up before a fire of dung cakes in a chafing dish over which milk was steadily boiling. She was grumbling at me for sitting there without brushing my teeth. I was snipping the burnt cakes with a stick and leaning to the left and right to avoid the thin smoke emanating from the chafing dish.

 Somebody called, “hey, laddoo!”

 That was how brother would call me.

 “When did you come?” I asked, turning back.

 “Just now.” There was Kalapi beside him with a bag and a trunk. I was delighted no end to see her.

 “Oh, you have come! How long will you stay? Wow! We can romp over hillocks and hummocks,” I said.

 Meanwhile Nagamma, our housemaid, heralded her arrival for the attention of all, misspelling her name as ‘Kallapi’, which meant a solution of dung.

 “Ay! It is neither Kallapi nor Muggu (a design of calk in front of house). Kalapi means peacock. You understand?” I said.

 “Be whatever it is. If you wash your faces, I shall ready milk.  All crooked names. One can’t spell them. Is there any meaning or beauty to those names? A Subba Lachimi, a Poleri, a Nancari, or a Nagamma will be easy to call,” she left peeving.

 “Today I don’t take milk,” I announced.

 I like taking coffee occasionally. But, nobody in my house would give me coffee. Whenever Kalapi visits, she would share coffee with me.

 “Kalapi! Finish your ablutions. We shall climb up the hill after taking steamed food with pepper powder,” I proposed. But after taking bath she almost glued herself to the mirror. She could spend hours on loving her image in the mirror. It was as if she was searching for something, and that something was hiding in that image.

 Elder brother, Kalapi and I went up to the hill. Kalapi’s father was a high ranking officer in the government. Thus, she was born rich.  But, she always preferred our commoner’s way of life whenever she visited Hampi. Either she used to visit this place when my brother was home or my brother used to come home when she visited this place. I always felt happy whenever they were here. They both loved me. 

 Kalapi loves rock-climbing.  With a rope around her waist, and a small bag hanging to it, powdering her hands to hold the grip, as she deftly climbed up the hills like a lizard, people gaped at her in awe. She also taught me how to climb. Before my brother and I could climb up four small promontories, she would climb up half of a rocky hill, and looking back, she used to encourage us climb up that hill. Maybe I was ten years old when she was twenty two. Yet, we moved like bosom friends.   

Her every movement bewildered me. She was my teacher for so many things at the onset of my youth. I learnt how to dress to the occasion; what kind of messages our body language convey to the onlookers; how to sit properly, how to walk, how to be simple, how to respect others without compromising ours… and so many others from her.

Kalapi’s was a life of Snakes and Ladders. Beside every ladder there were a snakes and pythons. She climbed up the ladder of life caught between the fangs of one snake or the other. But she never appropriated them to the spirit.  She always snubbed them as belong to body alone.  She said the game was for the bod.

Once she asked me:

“Do you know why we so elaborately decorate, feed, dress up, and ornament this body?”

And she answered herself without waiting for my reply, “for the sake of burial ground, for the cemetery, to consign it to the earth.”

By the time I had known her, she was already married to her to a University Sports Teacher, five years older to her. That person was known to my brother.  She visited our house once with her husband. They looked just made for each other. They stayed with us for some days. Then they set up family in some town in Andhra Pradesh. The neighbors and the university students were mad of her beauty. She had many pet names after the popular heroines of the silver screen.  Once when a famous cricketer visited their town, they invited him to their home for dinner. That’s all. He was infatuated by her conduct and charm. After sometime she was married to that cricketer.  She came to our house with him. He was also looking very smart. She was as beautiful as a just-molt cobra. But she never stopped looking at herself in the mirror. Her husband left after two days. She stayed behind for a month. My brother came home and we three spent time climbing the rocks, moving about the caves and playing in the moonlight. Whenever my brother was by her, Kalapi looked scintillatingly beautiful.  Either they were engaged in conversation or spent silently looking into each other.  Of course, I also found them fighting occasionally.

Later she moved to Hyderabad.  She used to say her husband had many acquaintances. Wherever she was, however she was, whenever she could, she used to come to Tungabhadra. She never quit her pastime of rock-climbing whenever she came. “They, those rocks are my real pals. Whenever I climb those rocks one by one in the dales without slipping or succumbing in my moments of crises, I feel greatly recharged. That is my strength. That is why I am so crazy about it,” she used to say.  I liked those teasing words which came close to understanding them but were never fully understood.

 When she visited next time I saw in her eyes the glow of radium and the speed of a rat snake.   She wore trinkets with small prisms hung by colored threads. Fifteen days passed. She was climbing rocks both in the mornings and evenings. She was drenching in sweat and totally exhausted, but strangely she delighted in that. I grew suspicious.

 Resting my head in my brother’s lap and my feet across her lap I called her out, “Kalapi!”

  “Yes?” She responded.

 “Why, Are you embarking on any new enterprise, you are climbing up these rocks one after another?

 Undulating her brow and stretching her lower lip aside she smiled. “Though younger to me by twelve years, do you know why you have become so close to me among my wide circle of friends? If I read people, you read me. You are like my mom,” and she hugged me. Then I felt… I can never again feel that caressing touch from anybody. Next to my mother, I felt that body chemistry with only Kalapi.

 “But what is the matter?”

 “Nothing much. There is a noble man from the lineage of Maharaja of Baroda. He is a friend of my husband. He is very wealthy.”

 “So?”

 “He paid tributes to my beauty with rich royal jewelry.”

 “Are there corals in them?”

 “Yes, of course. But why?”

 “I don’t know why, but I like corals.”

 “He proposed to marry me and take me with him to Baroda.”

 “What about the present one?”

 “He is divorcing me.”

I threw a bewildered look at her unable to make out anything.

Later, Kalapi and my brother spent a lot of time together silently on the bank of Tungabhadra, playing with the sand with their feet and pushing it back. Kalapi was playing with the ends of her long flowing hair. She looked to me like a peacock dancing opening all its plumes before rain. She walked as if that grace in her steps was meant for nature. They were just silent.

Getting crazy with that unbearable silence, I asked,

“When are you going to visit us again?”

“I can’t refrain from you and Tungabhadra for long.”

“How about my brother?”

She did not speak a word. But closed her eyes as if she went into a trance. Under those closed eyelids, her pupils described circles. Tapping my with her knuckles affectionately, she unleashed an enchanting laugh.

“Kalapi! You always speak of climbing the hills.  But what will you do when you are exhausted?”

“Can the overwhelming Tungabhadra ever get tired?” she questioned me back.

 “Suppose you get tired?”  

 “I remember my granny or great grannies for a while. I recall the covetous moments I spent with them, reminisce those sweet, happy experiences. Then I get cheered up. Not only me. It is true with anybody.”

 Later she left … for Baroda.

 She corresponded with me regularly. And occasionally she talked to me over phone. After a long break Kalapi visited our place once more.

She was looking more charming than ever. Like a Cobra She was bubbling with effervescence of youth. She was sweeter to look at. She became fluent in Hindi. She was singing old Hindi songs.  Her husband was also tall, white and stylish looking like a hero of old Hindi movies.

She said to me, “we want to go on a world tour.  He was educated in Britain and many of his friends are there.”

I giggled unable to contain my crazy thoughts.

“Hey, laddoo! Why are you laughing?” she asked.

“You drove the people of this country mad with your beauty.  Poor foreigners! Will you let them live in peace? Be on guard. They might eat you up.”

 “Fellow! You became wiser. There is finesse in your speech.” She mock censured. Then she asked,

 “Laddoo! How far your music lessons from David with the Cantala leaves near Seetaram Baba Cave have come to?  Have you learnt anything from him?”

 “We are killing a Cantala bush each day. And the cave is not helping our music lessons.”

 She burst in laughter. “It seems David did not turn up this year. Isn’t it?” she asked.

 “Yes, he is joining college. He said he would come next year. But how long will you be there in foreign?”

 “I am not sure when we shall return.”

After a week she left on foreign tour… first to Sri Lanka, then to Singapore, Malaysia, Japan and Germany.   She used to write letters.

Then there were no letters for one year. No communication about Kalapi. I was worried about her. Some inexplicable grief seized within. I wished everything should be fine with her. She should be happy… and happy the way she wanted. Because, hers was a lofty character. There is beauty so long as it stands erect and upright. If it succumbs or submits, it loses its charm. I tried her Baroda number to enquire about her. Some male voice answered in Hindi that she was not there. 

After four more years I received a letter from Kalapi. It was written in clear Telugu. She wrote that she separated from that Baroda nobleman and that she had married Japanese, from royal lineage. She also wrote that the marriage was held with much fanfare. She also passingly mentioned that she received as marriage gift jewelry and a great fortune.

There was no trace of her after that. Years passed. Kalapi remained an endless dream.

And now after a long time she greeted me with this letter.

 ***

The person who brought me the letter was briefing me about Kalapi…that she was into Hotel business, that she had no children and all that. I opened the packet she had sent.  There were three sets of finest variety of Corals, bangles and a coral-colored Kanchi silk sari along with a note:  “wear all these when see me.” 

 ***

We reached Colombo on the fourth day. It was a palatial bungalow. There were guards for security. Attendants informed that I could see her after refreshing myself and completing breakfast. But I was in a hurry.  I searched for her in every room there. I did not find her. When I asked the person who accompanied me the same, he said, “this is only guest house and if you can get ready quickly, we shall go to see her.”

I got ready quickly. I obeyed her instructions she gave in that note.   He took me to a house about two miles from there. Silence pervaded the house.  A nurse took me into Kalapi’s room. It was cool. There was a body on the bed veiled by a mosquito-curtain like draping. Lips that should have been slivered by a smile were quivering like a new leaf. What could I say? How should I describe? Is it really Kalapi? Before I decided, ‘Tut! I was mistaken,’ she opened her eyes.  There was the same familiar glow in her eyes.  Yes. These are the very eyes of Kalapi. Nobody else can have them. “Laddoo! Don’t draw near. Stay where you are. Me and my skin have turned abhorrent,” she almost cried out.

What should I do now? I was reasoning … if I were in her place, what would Kalapi have done? Or, if my mother were to be in Kalapi’s place, would I not go near? Would I not touch her?  My purse dropped from my hands. That sound ended all my wavering and indecision. I rushed to the cot in one go, lifted her up with both hands, and embraced her madly. I don’t know why, but I said mom thrice.  I held that body oozing out blood and pus for some time. Kalapi did not object. She remained silent as if she had expected it. I held the tears streaming out of my eyes at the threshold and let them dry there. I consoled myself. I decided to stay by her until the last moment… and to fulfill her last wish. I got the rubber sheets under her body removed and spread instead young banana leaves. I made her drink cool water.  There were no signs of any pain her face. There was a kind of reassurance. I was attending to her wounds. Even with those wounds and sores, she started looking interesting to me. She looked as if she was adorning sun-stones all over.

One day they arranged a large screen in front of Kalapi’s bed. There was a remote switch in front of her.

“What is this?” I asked her.

“Just watch,” she said.

It was an inauguration of a Rehabilitation Center for Girls. She asked me to press the button.

“No. It is fitting that only you should do it,” I said and helped her.

She then said:

Laddoo! What shall I do with all this jewelry…and property? I converted all my wealth into money. This country is suffering from the wounds of Civil War. I spend that money for the rehabilitation of these destitute women and girls and victims of sexual violence. I married eight times. I toured around the globe. I enjoyed every pleasure that riches could buy.  Yet, there was always a search for something missing. I did not get comfort anywhere. Never was there a satisfaction. I could not get what I wanted from any man. Man is not permanent. He is like a coursing stream. If you curtail him too much or leave him too free, he is not yours. The peace I am searching for is within me. I can only gift it to myself; that nobody else can do is what I have learnt. People shall enter our lives and be leaving. We are permanent to ourselves.  I am what I am. All that I have gained in this enduring search is only experience.” Words streamed out of her throat steadily and peacefully.

“Shortly you are going to see a person who shall discharge all responsibilities I entrusted to him faithfully… and would see me off.  He stood by me all through the life, and in all my decisions. He is a friend from the beginning unto the last,” she said. I freshly saw the old glow in her eyes when she uttered these words. That was very familiar to me.

A tired-looking man was coming walking slowly. He… He … was my elder brother.

“You…thief… Kalapi!” I said to myself.

“Will you fulfill my last wish?” she asked us.

“What is that?”

“I want a mirror.”

“I will get you mirror, no doubt. But only on the condition that you should lie closing your eyes and shall open only when I ask you to open.”

“OK” said Kalapi.

Asking her to close her eyes, he went into the adjacent room and brought a mirror. There was engraved on it Kalapi’s face in her youthful days. Taking it very close to her face, he said, “Kalapi! Open your eyes now.”

Opening her eyes and looking into the mirror, she laughed like a snake besieged and bitten by ants.

Those looks of the wide brownish-black circular eyes sank into the image in the mirror. 

Kalapi remained a mole on my throat.

***

(Dedicated to Suren, Kalapi’s lifelong friend.)

Mannem  Sindhu Madhuri.

Read the Original Story in Telugu here : kalapi1       kalapi2

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