A Pan of Musk… Munipalle Raju, Indian

Rammurty was getting accustomed to fasting these days.  On the first few days he said to his wife, “Rama, I am not feeling hungry, don’t cook food for me.” Later he started inventing one reason or the other saying, “It is Ekadasi today, I fast in the day; It is Saturday today, I don’t take food at night… it’s a vow for Lord Venkatesa,” … and so on.

That day, before his wife got up from bed, he peeped into the rice-drum and found only a half seer of grains, barely enough for Rama for the day. He was having only four Anna in his pocket. Without any plan or purpose he walked out into the street, for, those two had deserted him for almost three years thence!

He heard the temple bells of Lord Siva tolling. He suddenly remembered that it was Sivaratri festive day. “Thank god! There’s no question of my taking food for today. Rama can manage the day with the left over grains. Of the four Anna in my pocket, I can buy lady’s fingers for two Anna and curd from shepherdess Rattamma with the other two for Rama.”  Thus, he comforted himself that after all, he did not walk into the street without purpose.

There was nip in the cool breeze still.  Normally, by the Sivaratri day, with the receding fall, the days should have already warmed up; but this time Sun god wasn’t kind enough.  Rammurty covered his ears with the handloom towel he had on him.  Recalling the hey days of his tobacco export business, he laconically said to himself: “Can I get the suits I ordered on my way to London, or, the foreign leather jerkin I purchased once in the Army-Navy stores, to protect me from this cold now?” and walked ahead.

Suddenly, he overheard the curses Seshamma was heaving on him and his family from behind:  “May you go childless. No matter whether it’s you or your forefathers who had done it, the evil that men do will sure, one day, boomerang upon them. You can’t escape the throes of agony my family was subjected to!”

Seshamma was hunched by old age.  Her vision was also poor.  She was cleaning the foreyard of her half-dilapidated house. The bleak, half-ruined house was clearly visible through the chinks in the compound wall.

That old woman was of the same lineage as he and a near relative to him.  With the jealousy and rivalry common amongst such relatives, Rammurty’s father relentlessly chased her family to run around courts for almost twelve years. And in the process both parties lost properties and sold off Inam lands.  She was the sole survivor of her family.

Rammurty was inured to the curses of that lone representative, as much as he was to the pangs of hunger for the last one year.  Heaping up the lady’s fingers he brought from the market in the kitchen, Rammurty walked into the veranda.  Outside, an unseasonal drizzle started.

Rama did not get up from her bed as yet. “I am feeling a little uneasy,” she said lazily.

Rammurty felt a thunderbolt, for, he had spent to the last pie. Rama was in the ninth month of her conception. The first two were aborted. For the last two days he was shuttling between his house and post office in the hope of receiving some money order. He stood bemused as it was a holiday today.

“You better send word for Gangamma,” she said rather uneasily.  Gangamma was the midwife of the village.

He perceived that the drizzle outside had increased to a lashing rain. “Oh! God!” he seemed to have heard a groan somewhere from the depths of heart. He saw Sivayya soaked and standing in front of his house, calling him.

Sivayya was a palmist by profession; occasionally he studied horoscopes also. “You have Mars in the seventh house. He is a malefic. Your wife’s life is in danger,” he had said to him last week.

“What did he turn up for now?” he worried.

As clouds gathered over the sky, the shadows in the veranda merged with the darkness.

Rama was swooning in pain. Rammurty tried to cover her with the rug he had kept aside, after he had sold off everything, to keep her warm. “I have set apart ten rupees to meet any emergency. You can find them in the spices-box,” she said feebly, throwing aside the rug.

Rammurty started off for Gangamma’s house in that rain with Sivayya escorting him. Before they took a turn at the end of the street the rain had ceased briefly, but not the second spell of Seshamma’s curses. She might have watched them through the fissures of the compound wall.

“Why? Can’t anybody other than that wretched fellow be found for an escort?  Ominous if he was to cross one’s way or heard. One who keeps such drunkard’s company learns only gambling. Go to hell!”

Rammurty understood that the curses were directed towards Sivayya.  He knew it was he who had those two vices.  But how could he help it?  In his anxiety, he showed Sivayya his horoscope for study. And on that Sivaratri festive day Sivayya, who was badly in need of money for ganja, was after Rammurty in the hope of getting that.                 

**  **  **

Rammurty never wrote me any letters. After our student days, it was for the first time I received one that morning by post and I instantly recognised his hand.  Medha Dakshina Rammurty was his name in full.  His grandfather named all his grandchildren after the characters from Puranas and Itihasas.  His elder sister was Gargi and his younger one Lopamudra. In my childhood, we used to cross the rail lines to attend the school. While Pankajam, Vanaja, Gargi and Lopamudra, my schoolmates, headed direct to school after crossing the lines, Rammurty and I used walk along the rails for some distance before running back to school, at the stroke of second bell, gasping.

Rammurty was a taciturn. He joined conversation only if he was interested; otherwise he would just keep mum. At times he spoke philosophically of matters beyond his age.  And on one such occasion he said, “Just as these rails, our paths will never meet after we grow up.”

True!  He soothsaid. Long before completing college education, he started talking of doing business and before long he was steeped in tobacco business. To start with, he put up two tobacco barns in our village. And soon he floated a company in Guntur.  He was seen moving around in a white car. Later he entered into export business with some Gujarati brokers.  I even heard he had constructed a big building in Guntur.

I was sure he got into the tobacco business, where lakhs of rupees changed hands, with the confidence of having had a large property in the back of his mind. But, it was my firm belief that he never knew the facts behind that. His grandfather was childless.  He adopted Rammurty’s father.  After getting decent education and marriage, the adopted child assumed all the rights over the property.  He stopped agriculture. Drove out all lessees.  He ran his affairs only through lawyer-notices, plaints and court cases.  He quarrelled with every one of his relatives.  And in a dispute over fifty square yards of a house site, he went up to High Court against the husband of Seshamma. He won the suit after twelve long years.  Rammurty’s grandfather died by then. Like the Bahamani Sultans who united against Aliya Ramarayalu of the Vijayanagar Kingdom, his relatives fought united against Rammurty’s father in the Inam Lands’ dispute.  What was left after all these litigations was a mere hollow.  Assets could barely liquidate the debts and only the house where Rammurty was presently living in, was left out.

By that time, I had already migrated to other states in search of livelihood.  Rammurty’s business was on the ascendance.  Clearing off all the liabilities he was slowly picking up to his earlier prosperous state.

In the Tobacco business, colour of the leaf is its life and soul.  It shouldn’t have been affected by pests.  The business, which he never had to look back, had suddenly run into rough weather the very year he planned a visit to London.  Repetition of crop in the same patch of land, ignorance of the farmers about rotation of crops, and their greed for quick buck had resulted ultimately in the loss of colour of the tobacco leaf and the multiplication of pests.  For three years in succession he lost the advances and the investments for pesticides he had given to the farmers.

Rammurty stared helplessly as the edifice of his business crumbled.  There was tremendous pressure and cutthroat competition from fellow exporters.  He could not move his business to other districts as they did.  Nor had he any political back up, since his caste came in the way, to salvage part of his principal by exporting inferior quality tobacco to Russia or China.  Selling off everything from buildings, cars, and jewellery to radio, gramophone and even his apparel, he reached his native village.

I don’t know exactly when, but when he remembered me, he wrote these few lines: “I ran after the mirages that life could present.  Now I am not in a position to appreciate the truth in sunshine.  With my desires appearing hazy, I pray to God that may the night never turn to dawn. You may not perhaps remember the words I once said in childish delinquency that ‘our paths would never meet like those parallel rails.’  Rama, my wife, is seriously ill. I write this letter in expectation.”

But he did not mention any figure. Whatever little I could afford then, I sent him by a telegram money order.  Perhaps it did not reach him by that time.

**  **  **

After examining Rama, midwife Gangamma said, “These are not labour pains. They may start later at the fall of night,” and left. Until evening Rammurty was shuttling uneasily between his house and Lord Siva’s temple like a cat on a hot tin roof.

By evening the slow drizzle developed into a storm.

Rammurty was waiting for the midwife, helplessly listening to the cries of Rama on one hand and trying to shield the little kerosene lamp on the other lest it should throw them into darkness.  He was not on talking terms with any of his relatives around. Milkmaid Rattamma came to his rescue by turning up in that heavy rain.

Standing by Rama, she sent him to fetch the midwife.

Before Gangamma could turn up, Rama had delivered a male child.  The midwife attended to cutting the umbilical cord, making the child cry and cleaning the mess.  Rattamma by then readied hot water. Rammurty, with foresight, kept the firewood ready for that purpose two days ago by breaking his grandfather’s old armchair.

Rammurty was now convinced that Mars in the seventh house was not a malefic.  Rattamma said to him before leaving, “The weather is so cold, why don’t you arrange for the mother a pan of musk?”  Gangamma seconded her.

“Where can I get it, Gangamma?” he asked rather innocently.

“Till last year it was available with Iyyanna, the priest.  It’s not available even with him now.  It must be available with someone with-in your family. You have so many relatives. Why don’t you try with some of them?”   Assuring him that she would  turn up the next morning, she left.

 “What an auspicious time it was!” he wondered at the time of his child’s birth.   For, the rain which was pouring so heavily until then, relented all of a sudden as if somebody had ordered for it.   But it was chilly still.  Rammurty hurried towards the temple.  ‘Parvati Kalyanam’ Harikatha was going on there to help people keep awake through the night, a customary observance for Sivaratri.  He found Sivayya there.

“Why should you search with all and sundry?  There is musk of the size of a stone with that old widow,” Sivayya exaggerated what he thought with his gesture.  By that old widow he meant Seshamma.

Rammurty’s heart missed a beat.  “Will she, who has all the while been cursing him to go childless, do him such a favour?” He was not sure.  He ventured to go up to her house, but no further.

**  **  **

When he got up from his floor-bed the following day, awakened by the nightmares of devils and spirits, it was a clear sunny morning.  The baby-sun’s rays were gold-plating the sanguine world. He walked inside, with apprehension.

Rama, whom he feared might have stiffened with cold, was looking fresh and cheerful. Wearing a red cap and nestling cosily in his bed, his new family-twig was engrossed, perhaps, in the thoughts about the world he had come from. Rama said faintly, “Can you imagine? Seshamma attayya paid us a visit!  She gave me a pan of musk and re-arranged baby’s bed. Where were you last night? Seshamma attayya complained that it was milkmaid Rattamma who informed her, and not you.” She could not restrain her streaming tears.

That day Rammurty could not muster enough courage to go to Seshamma’s house to express his thanks, as well as, his apologies. He dilly-dallied the following day also. Rama asked, “Seshamma attayya left another tablet of musk under my pillow. Will you please roll it in a pan leaf and give it to me?”  After attending to her request, Rammurty ran towards Seshamma’s house.

There was a large gathering about her house.

“What a life it was! Innocent woman.” Someone remarked.

“Ask for a pinch, she would serve a bowlful of pickle.”

“She prepared pickles for distribution only.  Harsh by tongue but sweet at heart.”

“Nobody knew where she went out in the heavy rain that Sivaratri day.  She was drenched to the full and might have slept that way.  She caught fever and died of it.”

“A steadfast woman. What a property it was they had once!!! She lost everything, but never held out her hand in begging.”

**  **  **

Rammurty might have received my money order the same day.

“You are the mother who saved my family. You returned love for hatred.  I see to it that you reach higher planes of Heaven; I will perform your funeral rites. You are my mother-like.” Repenting for not being able to meet her, thus, he set out in earnest to perform her last rites.

That was the content of his second letter. As I bid to open the letter, a whiff of musk-odour filled my nostrils.


మునిపల్లె రాజు
Munipalle Raju
Image Courtesy: వెనుక పేజీ
మునిపల్లె రాజు అత్యుత్తమ కథాకృతులు,
కణ్వస గ్రంథమాల, హైదరాబాదు, 2012

1925లో జన్మించిన మునిపల్లె రాజుగారు తెలుగు కథా జగత్తులో తమదైన ముద్రకలిగిన రచయిత. Military Engineering Service లో దేశం నలుమూలలా తిరిగి స్వాతంత్ర్యపూర్వం నుండీ తను చూసిన దృశ్యాలను కళ్ళకు కట్టినట్టు తమకథలలో చెప్పగలగడం, చేనేత కార్మికుల కడగండ్లూ, వాటివెనక  గ్రామీణ రాజకీయాలూ, ఇప్పుడు మహావృక్షమై శాఖోపశాఖలుగా విస్తరించిన  రాజకీయ అవినీతి తొలిదశలో ఎలా అరికట్టకుండా పెంచిపోషించబడిందో రికార్డు చెయ్యడమే గాక, కొన్ని కథలలో  మానవీయ కోణాలని ఎంతో హృద్యంగా ఆవిష్కరించారు. కస్తూరి తాంబూలం, విశాఖ కనకమహాలక్ష్మి, వారాలపిల్లాడు, సవతి తమ్ముడు, యశోద కొడుకు వంటికథలతో బాటు మాజికల్ రియలిజం మీద కథలు వ్రాసిన రాజుగారిని చాలా ఆలస్యంగానైనా(2006) కేంద్ర సాహిత్య అకాడమీ గుర్తించింది.

Telugu Original:  కస్తూరి తాంబూలం

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