అనువాదలహరి

Son of Yasoda… Munipalle Raju, Telugu, Indian

1

I was under the wrong impression that I acquired the trait of “listening with utmost attention” from my childhood. That was not my nature. It was a trait I acquired from the compulsions of my profession. In the legal profession, particularly when you handle a major chunk of the criminal cases at district level, the lawyer has first to learn the art of listening to his clients patiently. Thinking, reading and arguing come only next to it.

The Madras Mail stopped briefly at Khargapur. The Bengali Babu who travelled with us from Howrah was busy getting down silently without saying even the formal goodbye. The two of us were left in the compartment. Switching off the light and putting on the night lamp Sadasivarao (Sada) stood still like a bent wood looking out through the window. Where were this many trains those days? Nor this much speed?

“So soon, Sada! It’s not even seven.” I was speaking about the night-light.

Mail picked up speed. At that hour of the night, you might have noticed, even trains would whistle out some musical notes of their own. Dissipating in the ambient air outside, this music of the darkness, sometimes, would make man feel lonely. How many strange and varied dark philosophical impressions would it leave on our experiences!

“Who else would enter into this coupe meant for two? … just you and I?”

Another blessing from my profession which perhaps had become my second nature was… to closely watch the psychology and behaviour of the people. I had been watching Sada for the past one week. Though it struck me the very day we commenced our return journey from Varanasi that he was desperate to shove the words leaping on to his lips into the deep recesses of his mind, in a bid to give him a fresh opportunity to ease his mind off the burden, I initiated,

 “Shall we finish off our dinner, Sada? It seems you are bored with the journey.”

“Pal, I don’t feel hungry” he said, and soon changing his mind, “OK. Let’s proceed. We anyway have to finish off this ritual sometime,” and walked towards the wash basin. We did not place any order for our dinner tonight, though the railway food those days was not as horrible as it was now. Placing the Rasagulla cans, fruit basket, and the sandwiches we got packed at the hotel we stayed in Calcutta, I was just hesitating what to open first.

“Pal, just fruits for me.”

“Good. Then take two or three Rasagullas as well,” I suggested.

“Why don’t you speak something, man? We met after such a long time,” he showed signs of mellowing.

“Contrary, it should be the other way. I have been chattering without break for the last four days,” I complained.

He rolled his eyes towards me in surprise. I knew. I knew that he did not pay any attention to what I was babbling all this while and, the reason behind that surprised look was his not remembering even a whit of it. Without laying his hands on fruit, instead, snipping a piece from my sandwich, and adjusting the nightlight to shade his eyes, he said at last,

“Yes pal! You must forgive me. There’s a lot I should tell you and speak to you about.”

Being good at the art of listening, I settled to listening to him opening the lid of the Rasagulla can and taking them silently. For the first time I had noticed, with the knowledge of having listened to many voices of the accused, witnesses and police for long, that even the voices of very thoughtful lawyers like Sada would choke when it came to speaking about them. Breaking through the veils of darkness, the ethereal music of the wheels was playing in the back ground.

2

“Pal! You know our house in Madras… almost to the end of Mylapore. That day, one of my juniors Venktachalam took my car for the marriage of his sister. The other junior Joga Rao was already in office, waiting. My wife had already sounded twice about the lunch and I was about to close the file and walk in. Then, there slipped in a youth into my office, quietly, without even making the customary greeting. He stood there searching for something in his satchel. It irritated me.

“Who are you?” I looked at him inquiringly. Donned in dirty clothes, he did not seem to have had a decent education. However, he looked quite healthy and of light complexion. Pulling out a bunch of papers from the satchel ultimately, he stretched his hand towards me.

“Why don’t you speak up? Tell me who you are first?” I expressed my irritation in words.

He kept the papers silently on the table. “My mother asked me to give them to you.” He said.

Then I had a close look at him. His face seemed very familiar. The lapping of his lips, those cheerful eyes and a small forehead and age about twenties… I strained my memory to recollect.

“Your mother? What is her name?”

Then he said, “I am son of Yasoda.”

My doubts were cleared. That seemed-familiar face was that of Yasoda.

“Sit down.”

I had a quick look through the papers the boy had brought. It was a complete record of a court case lost in a lower court.

Showing him the papers I asked, “What else did your mother say?”

It might be that he travelled all night, his clothes were looking dirty; he did not seem to have had his breakfast; perhaps, he might have even struggled to locate my house.

“Nothing. She just asked me to give these papers and say that I am her son.”

My wife sent the maid cook to remind me of the lunch for the third time.

“I am not hungry. Get me two cups of coffee.” I ordered.

Giving me a hint that we had final arguments in an important appeal, Joga Rao was looking at his watch repeatedly.

“There is no time to go by tram, Joga Rao. Can you please call for a taxi?” I looked in his direction putting on my black coat. “Did another devil turn up?” my wife was asking the maid cook coming into the hallway.  I ignored it.  Was there any meaning in losing my cool for every word she uttered, when we had long lost our respect for each other?

Dropping the boy near High court at a hotel in Tambu Chetti Street, I said, “Refresh yourself. Take lunch and have some good rest. We shall think about the papers later. I shall pick you up in the evening. OK?”

He nodded his head.

“By the way, you did not tell me your name?” I asked.

“Siva.”

It came like a bolt to me. I forgot Yasoda altogether; but she did not forget me.

3

Sada fell silent again. He did not show any inclination to take something, either. I peeled a particular variety of banana available only in Calcutta … with black, pebble-like grains inside… and gave him one.

“Sada! You did not take anything tonight.” I pleaded.

Putting on the light he searched for his cigarette tin.

“So you did not change your old brand,” I broke the silence. It was his habit to smoke only costly cigarettes. If I remembered correct, that was a habit he picked up from the days of enrolment in the Bar Council.

Putting out the light and without lighting the cigarette, he said,

“But pal, you never asked me who this Yasoda was?” he complained, and before I replied, he continued. “I once asked you for your advice in Varanasi while we were boat riding on the Ganges.  Do you recall?”

“That’s what I was trying to recollect. I think once when we were getting down from a boat, you broached the subject of inter-caste marriage. Was it she?”

He heaved a very deep sigh. I understood that it was a precursor to some romantic account which he otherwise wanted to bury within himself. It was my turn to keep mum.

“Timid can never achieve lofty things in life. I did great injustice to Yasoda. What I mean by injustice is…” he stopped.

“Nobody believes if you say you are timid.”

He looked at me inquiringly.

“It was Yasoda, in fact, who turned me timid.”

Yasoda! Yasoda!! Yasoda!!

I strained to recollect her…

Siva once took me to his village when we were degree students at Christian College. He suddenly stopped in front of a house in his street. He shook my shoulder and said, “Wait here. I shall get you some guava.”  It was then I saw Yasoda for the first time. At that instant I felt the Yasoda I saw for an ephemeral second was not an ordinary girl.  I was not sure if it was beauty or infatuation that prompted such thought.

“That house of guava?” I asked, at last recollecting her face.

“Of course. But there was something I did not tell you.  It was not Yasoda’s likeness that I saw in that boy… it was mine. He was my son!”

This time Sada lighted his cigarette. But I could clearly notice the shivering of his hands even in that translucent darkness.

Silence took over the reign once more. We never cared what station in Orissa the train had stopped.

4

Sada and I did not hail from the same place. We were not even remotely related. Our first meeting happened some thirty years back in a Secondary School Examination centre under very strange circumstances. The invigilator in the examination hall deliberately accused one boy of copying while the culprit was somebody else.  It was only Sada, among all, who stood up and told the Invigilator that he was acting unfair. It was I, the wrongly accused. We became friends instantly. And from then on, he started influencing me and my thinking.

Those days, neither a separate Andhra State existed nor was the slogan of “Visalandhra” coined. However, we were occasionally reading scattered reports about some Andhra Maha Sabha meetings being held; of course, along with that news about internal rivalries of Andhra leaders as well. It was benefited by Sada’s analyses and special remarks about these issues. It was only after visiting his house that I could make out the reason behind such level of political awareness in a High School lad like him. His father was a ‘non-co-operator’. The presented day youth might find it hard to tell the import of the term… It meant that the person was a Congressman who participated in the non-co-operation movement and the Salt Satyagraha of Gandhiji, and went to jail. His mother’s affection was a rare commodity found only in highly cultured families. Then, how could I resist relishing his influence over me?

It was Sada who introduced me to fashion… like tucking the shirt in; he inculcated the habit of reading general books. It was he who persuaded me from Christian College to Machilipatnam because those days the Principals of Christian institutions widely propagated a feeling among the innocent people that whosoever was against the British was against the Christianity. It was he who unveiled before my eyes the dreamy institutions of Varanasi and Madan Mohan Malavya’s Benares Hindu University. I just followed him like his pale shadow wherever he went. Our intimate friendship thus continued for six years.  Doing a course in Law as our aim; and roaming along the ancient bathing Ghats along the Ganges… symbols of centuries old Aryan Culture … as our daily routine, it flourished. We were the poet-twins of those days. The arguments and counter arguments were endless at Hostel as well as in the Mess.

Whether it was the Ayyangars who prided themselves as peerless scholars for their superiority in English, the Bengali Babus who blindly argued that only they were the real patriots, the Bhiahs who resorted to show of strength after they lost their argument, or the Maithili’s who were the children of rich landlords from the plains of Bihar… there was not an instance I could recall to date where they did not respect our pair. There were number of occasions when, after every heated and vehement arguments, both the contending parties left satisfied with the moderating remarks from Sada in the end, with their hearts remaining as pure as the Ganges of those decades.

Apart from the token signs of civilization like wearing a tie or playing tennis, Sada, my peerless friend, also taught me the inner virtue of treating all people equal. Sitting in this Madras Mail, I was just wondering in my heart of hearts…if this choking voice, this sad philosophical inquiry, and this penitent confession… were of the same young discerning intellectual I was familiar with? Was it the reason why he called me to the meet of the Law College Old Student’s Association at Varanasi sending telegram after telegram?  Was it to complete the confession he left mid-way through? My memories were delving deeper still. Perhaps I would be able to find the reason for his present angst if I could explore further.

Yes. Returning from home after vacations at the end of first year, he abruptly asked me while we were boat-riding on the Ganges, “What do you think the consequences of inter-caste marriages will be like?” Assuming that the question was prompted by the presence of seething mass of pilgrims from different parts of the country on the bathing Ghats of the Ganges performing obsequies to their parents, I replied in my usual way, “What else? Unity in diversity and diversity in unity. But, how do you expect me to know better than you?” He jumped out off the boat before it was anchored, and he never touched the subject.

We were together till the University and Bar Council examinations were over. It was time for us to start our practice at district headquarters. We returned to our respective places. With the kind of reputation our families had, we were confident that we would get on very well at the district level.

But one morning before I got up from bed, I found Sada sitting next to me on my bed. What hour of night he got up, I wondered, to come to me cycling for thirty miles!

“Pal, shall we commence our practice in Madras? My father can arrange for some good seniors.”  He proposed.

Recovering from the shock, I said, “Let’s first finish our ablutions and breakfast and then sit over the matter,” in a bid to delay the matter.

“No. No.  Just say yes or no. That’s all,” he insisted.

“You know me, Sada! My financial position shall not allow.”

That’s it. He did not say a word more. He changed the direction of the dusty cycle and rode off. I sat dejected on the cot without even removing the blanket.

Thus we had to part our ways. I remained at my place and he set off to Madras.

“Why did he take such a sudden decision to go to a far off place? Though what I said was true, why did I hurt him? Are we not from the same stream? Are we two tributaries flowing in different directions?” I rued. Spending sleepless nights, confidence touching the lowest ebb, and with the lurking fear that I might not be able to succeed on my own, I wrote him a long letter seeking his pardon for saying no to his proposal.

“Hey pal, you are a sentimental fool. I came here for different reasons. Set all your doubts aside. Make Criminal Procedure Code and Evidence Act are your Gita. Don’t look at Civil side. Rest assured your flag shall flutter high in the skies,” … was his blessing, in response. It needed no mention that I followed his advice to the letter. He presented me for my marriage a load of books I did not have in my library.  I attended his marriage, which was not held in his village, but in Madras.

I had a gut feeling then (or sixth sense?) that the bride was no match to his exemplary character. And within five years it proved my gut feeling was right.

When my name was suggested for the Public Prosecutors’ Panel, I followed his advice. “Pal! You can’t keep cool dumping patriots in jails. I know your mind. Forget about the Panel” was his advice.

Sada…having commenced practice with vengeance, he became a roaring success in no time. He decimated ruthlessly all ‘the invincible’. He secured many cases from Tamil districts which were never on the radar of Telugu Lawyers before. Same time when Andhra lawyers roamed on the verandas of Madras High Court as veritable examples of inferiority complex, he commanded the Bar as leader of Bar Council.  He sent me a telegram once: “They want me to stand upon the bench” … which meant offering of the position of a High Court Judge. I replied: “If you stand upon the bench, won’t your legs, eyes, and your heart start aching?”

Such was our intimacy. Yet today in this long journey, containing the flares of repentance swelling up in his heart as he was trying to revealing himself to me in this dim-lit coupe, I felt I was witnessing a different Sada… a Sada, I never understood before.

I wouldn’t perhaps have got out of the vacuous reverie had I not heard him say:

“Pick up smoking, pal. You can kill time like anything.”

I just laughed away.

“Pal, I intend we visit all pilgrim centres spread across the length and breadth between Kanyakumari and Manasarovar. Do you follow me?”

“You mean, with families?”

“No, just two of us. Man is a lone traveller, pal!”

I thought it wise not to speak further.

“You did not ask me why? The wheel in the hands of creator shall not roll us all in the same phase. Each shall have his own.”

It appeared an empty philosophical jargon first. Then I guessed that it was a prologue to another chapter of his life he was to avail. I simply uttered an ooh.  Later I regretted for having thought about him so. For, he never uttered such empty philosophical jargon like many others who hide behind the hypocrisies of tradition and its half-truths. Perhaps, with the singular exception of earning more money than what he needed, he always looked to me a Rishi. Rishis were seekers of truth and wantless. Even the deep meditative composers of Upanishads who scrutinized the skies unencumbered and serenely searched for the lasting truths, might themselves have been riven with doubts sometime!

The chain of events of his life that Sada had narrated appeared, at that time, like it was a beginning of his troubled soul’s struggle to reinvent itself after surrendering to doubts. Might be that my friendship could not break into sharing his personal matters, might it also be that I seem insignificant compared to him, yet, a man could share his grief only with another man, after all!  So, I would put before you the exact way Sada unveiled the agony of his heart to me from the very beginning…

5

“Pal, you are in the know of my village. Our street commences immediately after crossing the paddy godowns on the trunk road. The street is small but the few houses therein are spacious enough. Then again, the houses are only to one side of the lane and in the opposite side there are only compound walls and no entrances. Amidst those compound walls is there a dilapidated arch. And facing that arch is Yasoda’s house. Our house is the last one in the lane. That’s perhaps the reason why our street gives a deserted look. I wonder how it is now. It is almost twenty to twenty-two years since I last visited it.

“Yasoda’s father settled in our village living with his in-laws.  Poor fellow! Before he hardly settled in, his wife delivered Yasoda and died of tetanus or lock-jaw. People praised the beauty of Yasoda’s mother high. After her death Yasoda’s father became an introvert, grew beard, started singing philosophical strains and wizened with religious observations and abstinence from food.  In spite of her unfortunate entry into the world, Yasoda was not left an orphan fortunately. She came under the affectionate care and upbringing of her grandmother Manikyam. Manikyam was reputed to having good landed property. It was also rumoured that she had many gold ornaments in those days when a Navarsu or a Sovereign (a fraction more than half a Tola) of gold cost thirteen rupees.

“But, people called Manikyam a miser. They said that she saved counting every pie in order to leave her granddaughter some good inheritance. Once when thieves decamped with some of her jewellery, she brought the remaining to my father for safe upkeep in our wooden chest. She used to take them out for festive occasions to adorn her granddaughter, and deposited them back in the vault after the event. Yasoda and I were of the same age. Maybe I was older by two or three years. In fact, most of what I said now was not from my knowledge but only from hearsay.

“My father had little faith in Vedic rituals. He spent most of his time in philosophical enquiries. After his return from Salem jail, he appointed a Harijan boy as the chief worker in our house. I grew up without ever being conscious about caste… like barber or washer man. And for Yasoda ours was a second house.

“There’s no foreyard for Yasoda’s house. There were guava trees in the backyard, through which once thieves easily entered their house. We used to play around them.

“Do you remember our house? It has very large compound with spacious foreyard and an equally spacious backyard with cattle shed on one side. Walking along the small footpath behind the cattle shed, Yasoda and I used to attend the street-school of Sri Ramakrishnayya Pantulu, where we grew up from learning Telugu alphabets to reading Sumati Satakam and Pedda Bala Siksha, the first Telugu Reader. That footpath remained desolate always.

“I will never forget in my life either the foot path, or the long trailing shadows of the Banyan, the Jamun and the Fig (Ficus infectoria / Tsiela) trees, which had outgrown the compound wall to span the canopy, and under whose shade Yasoda and I ran to school hand in hand, told stories to each other about Brahmin daemons for fun and then, after getting frightened at our own ingenuity, ran away from there.

“How many memories our waxing-moon-like childhood and the waning-moon-like youth have harboured! From attending street-school of Sri Ramakrishnayya Pantulu to joining District Primary School and long after, we used to walk together in the loneliness of the jingle of those shadows though it was a longer route. It was where I innocently kissed Yasoda for the first time when the rustle of the dry Fig leaves bewildered her and disturbed our privacy; and also the place where I forced her to keep her hand in mine and promise that she will not marry till I reached adulthood.

“Normally, classes commenced at school with the prayer by Yasoda in the hall. She used to sing a poem, a song or a verse alternatively with varied intonations each day. I used to bring books from my home and insist her sing from them and as she sang, felt I had some privileged authority over her. How could I think otherwise when she so secretly gave me, and only me and nobody else, slices of guava for the entire season?

“But one day she appeared before me eating fish-curry. “Fie! Won’t it smell foul?” I asked. “You get intelligent if you eat fish,” she replied. “There is phosphorous in drumstick. That will be good for a dunce in mathematics like you. I don’t tolerate you eating fish.” I said. “It’s to my liking. Who are you to say no?” she answered rather haughtily. “Is it so? I shall see.” I dared, and attended school for the next two days on my own.

“I expected her to come and entreat me. But, she did not turn up. On the third day when her grandmother sent word for me I did not go. On the fourth, I left for another village along with my mother to attend a marriage. You know the marriage practices of those days. They went on for five days… an exacting strain for the bride’s party … and a lifetime fun for the groom’s. Amidst such hectic activity when my aunts liked me but teased, I lost my cool over them without any concern for my mother’s feelings. No sooner had I reached my village than I dashed to Yasoda’s house. When she came running and informed that she stopped eating fish, I felt my authority over was established. Won’t I? Or, do you say it was only my male ego?

“That it was only my male ego was confirmed later. Did you know how? She revealed the truth on her own when I went home for the next vacation from Benares. Her grandmother was initiated into Vaishnavism by a guru from some northern math and turning to vegetarianism was its natural consequence. When it became evident that her not taking fish was more out of religious strictures than anything to do with my authority or liking… well, you can only imagine my mental agony.

“Did I tell you that within one month of my joining eighth class Yasoda dropped out from school? In a wicked civilization where shooting down a free bird … which courses through the azure skies spanning its wings and singing its strains silently for pleasure, for nectar, in search of food, out of thirst, or in search of its mate … with an arrow or bullet is dubbed as game; and in the unhealthy atmosphere of a male-dominated society, one cannot expect girls like Yasoda without a male guardian to continuance their education.

“There was one riffraff fellow by the nick name ‘Tata’ in our back lane. He was a nincompoop hailing from an illiterate but rich family, without any worthwhile vocation and grew up in the typical lazy village atmosphere of the times. Nobody knew that he was writing love letters to Yasoda until it became unbearable for her. She came to me wailing and showed the last letter. It was full of foul language and her body description.

“I asked her “Does your grandmother know?”. She crossed her head to indicate she did not. “Then don’t tell her. I will take care of that fellow,” I reassured her.

“How confident was she about me! Showed that letter to only to me and nobody else! Then we… Perla Narasimha Rao, I and Pulladu, our boy-servant… were on the hunt for that fellow. Narasimha Rao was as robust as a wrestler. Rao and I learnt the basics of fencing with a bamboo stick from Pulladu, after pestering him a lot. One day we caught Tata alone on the banks of irrigation canal. I thought I was a hero the day when I handed over to Yasoda his apology in writing, after beating him black and blue and dipping him in the turbid waters till he apologised. But, from the same week Manikyam stopped sending Yasoda to school.

“My father might be aware of this incident but he never asked me about it. Later I came to know that Tata, who was ignorant of his own sister’s sullied life, was incidental to the abrupt end to Yasoda’s schooling. Manikyam was an opium addict and took the size of a Bengal gram grain each day. When even in her drowsiness, she would never let her guard on her granddaughter flag, how would she, then, heed to our pleadings to send Yasoda to school?

“One can put a hold on her studies at school, but can anybody hold up Nature’s visitations of youth on her? She had grown in proportions to be a paradigm of epical beauty. In the German Prints of Ravi Varma at my home, wherever I looked, I saw Yasoda’s beauty reflected.  Not only did I wonder at her beauty, there were occasions when I noticed, coming home for vacations, a demeanour of measured and selected utterance of apposite words and the absence of earlier carefree childlike prancing. It was a transformation of a bud into a graceful, full blossomed flower. I was perplexed whether her metamorphosis was borne out of her tireless reading of most of the books in my home, and its consequent elegance in taste and refinement of her manners, or, was affected by her confidence resulting from the awakening of her inner self.

“Though the occasional jesting that lingered on my tongue, which earlier passed off for joke, disappeared watching her serious bearing, it was, however, not because of any restrictions imposed on our movement, and our freewheeling in both houses continued as ever.  If I pulled her leg for calling her grandmother as ‘mother’, she in turn made fun of my calling her grandmother “auntie”. And gradually even those small pleasant exchanges disappeared. When I came for vacation I noticed certain mien of graveness in the atmosphere.  I wanted to get myself cleared.

“Before that, Yasoda came to my house early next morning, took the key from my mother and opened the wooden chest.

“Following her and cheerfully looking into her face I asked, “What news?” There was no reply. She was serious. On top of it, she was silent. I took liberty to lift her chin towards me. “Won’t you tell me?” I pleaded, about to hand over the jewellery box. “There is a visit by some of my relatives,” she said caressing the dimple on her right cheek. “Come on. You were always telling you never had any relatives?” I complained. Then she spilled, “There is an engagement today.”  “Whose engagement?” I asked anxiously. “Why should I come here if it were somebody else’s? It’s only mine.” I felt as if the temple roof had collapsed on the devotee’s head. My head reeled.  I was not sure if it was fear or anxiety that overwhelmed me.

“Collecting all my strength I hit her on her right cheek, how hard I was not sure, but all the ornaments spilled out of the box and scattered everywhere. In that confusion I did not even notice her falling down on the ground, and I walked out into the veranda. I had no knowledge of the stream of warm tears falling on my forearm and their merging into the surrounding darkness with me. I did not observe when she got up and left collecting her jewellery. But after a long time I faintly heard her plaintive voice, “Why did you hit me? What authority you have?”

“Father was perhaps busy with his setting up of Swaraj-Ashram in the village. Mother might be meditating in her Puja room, abetting the kitchen. I got up drying my tears and went in. I found the ‘crescent-moon shaped necklace’ of my childhood pal, who questioned what authority I had over her, glittering on the floor. Like a severed snake it was lying broke in the middle. I reasoned that in her confused state she might have even noticed it. I put it in my pocket. There were ten more holidays to go. The monsoon was on time and the clouds were busy thundering overhead. The only thing that was roaring in my ears was her question:  “What authority you have?”

“It was a six-string gold chain. Two strings broke at the base.  It looked like a six-faced snake.  I took it to our family goldsmith Omkarachari for repair.

“It is not our chain, boy” he identified instantly. After all, he was our family goldsmith.

“True.”

“It’s not something respectable people like us keep. They are old ornaments of Chintamani’s” and began the repair work.

“Who are these Chintamani’s?”

“They are a community of prostitutes. Now I remember.  Last time a similar chain from Manikyam was brought to my father for repair. Her name should be engraved somewhere here on the necklace.”

“My God! What a memory you have,” I said, not knowing what to say.

“Why not? Had she not kept her jewellery under the safe custody of your father, dear boy, somebody by this time might have taken it away by strangling that old hag. To tell you the truth, boy, this Manikyam is an honest whore. People say that the Zamindar of Pudi kept either her mother or her sister and rewarded substantially. But Manikyam did not enter her family profession; nor did she put her daughter into it. They married and lead family lives in a systematic way. Take it from me, boy, she will not die before she performed the marriage of her granddaughter. Even that opium addiction was only out of her zealousness for the girl.  She insists the boy must be from her community and must also agree to come and live with them. Nagalimgam, it seems, has brought an alliance for the girl. I saw the boy; he is an utter mismatch. He is quite bald already; and has a womanly face. And don’t ask me about the girl? She is a danseuse fit for heavenly court.  I think the engagement was over. Your father and mother must be in the knowledge.”

The conversation had ended just as he completed the job. I offered him the charges but he refused.

“Boy! It’s enough if you remember my services. People say it takes six months to go to Varanasi, but you are frequenting it twice a year. That’s what Potuluri Veera Brahmam had long predicted.”

He lighted a bidi the moment I had turned away from him.

When I came home, I saw father was sitting in his easy chair and Manikyam was at his feet. I thought she had come for the necklace.  But, no.

“Surely, Sir! Anybody would accept the girl without second thoughts. But if I choose the boy from a different community won’t they insult her later that she was an ignominy for them? Am I that wise to tell you, Sir? I am dragging this life just for her sake. If the boy is from my community, she and her children can hold their heads high and live with pride. That’s what I am thinking about, Sir. The girl is already twenty. I have been praying every god for the blessing of this moment. She will live in front of my eyes. But the problem now is the groom insists that the property should be on his name and not on hers. If it was on her name … he says it is an insult to him.”

I did not care to listen what my father advised her. I took that opportunity to return the necklace to Yasoda.

Thoughts besieged me…

Why was I having this feeling of hatred? Apart from the animal instincts of food, sleep and intercourse, what noble purposes in life people were craving after? Manikyam and Yasoda, were they not thinking of their community prestige along with their own family’s? Or, was that a question prompted by my inner faculties? But I was a lover… that too… a damned one. Whether it was anger or jealousy, I was not sure, but was unable to put up with the idea of having to look at Yasoda, my precious gift of God, as someone else’s possession… she being reduced to a marketable commodity and alienated from me forever. If caste was so sanctimonious to this world and it is so blind to, then Yasoda and I …  I was so confused that I had to search for words…

I hurled the chain into her lap.

She flinched in surprise and said, “Are you still angry?”

I returned quickly making no note of what she had said.

Another week of holidays was left still … with each day looking like an eon to drag. I felt that man living amidst this space – time continuum was always alone and was never a part of them. I spent that whole day alone. I was lying down on an old cot in the animal shed. I was not sure if I was awake or dreaming. As darkness fell Yasoda came searching for me. Sitting by me on the cot and caressing my hair was the person who challenged my authority over her earlier.

“Why do you hurt yourself with those mind-boggling thoughts? What do you want?” she asked, waking me up with her sensual touch.

“I want you.”

“Then come to night, after mother was asleep”

She left.

But the whiff of sweet aroma she left behind filled the shed.

I knew Manikyam would be fast asleep by eight after taking her dose of opium. Telling a lie that I was going to watch Gayopakyanam, a stage play, I set out on my bicycle. Perhaps, Yasoda was waiting for me.

If I say that I was not aware that night whether the exotic flower was crushed or ruined by the mad infatuation of a guy, would you believe it?

I heard her wailing as I got up to leave.

“Yasoda! Don’t worry. Let’s elope.” I suggested.  Caressing her head and giving her a kiss, I returned.

The following day too I went for her… perhaps to give her an idea of what I was thinking about. He, who is seized with lust, knows no shame or fear.

I learnt from Yasoda that night, how the weak, the poor and the helpless while submitting to the ineluctable circumstances on one hand, could still express their resentment… resentment in the sense of protest… on the other if they want.

“Have you appraised all the consequences?” she asked, as I got up. She was not wailing today.

“Yes”

“Then, you make arrangements for the news of my mother dying heartbroken after hearing of our elopement. Also make arrangements to listen how your parents live in shame for the rest of their lives. Search for the means to erase the memories of the person, who I was engaged to few days back, from our consciousness; for his loss of faith in all humankind, and his eternal anger and revenge for me. Let’s rejoice as your friends and acquaintances gossip on our backs, that your wife is not a respectable lady but a prostitute. Also enquire people who pass judgements on people’s behaviour with the final verdict that a prostitute is a prostitute, after all!”

“Yasoda, I said I was going to marry you.”

It was clear that her thinking was on a higher pedestal. She continued,

“For centuries, our so called Kalavantulu community was an object of sensual pleasure or a plaything for the Kings, the warriors and the rich of olden times to the Zamindars and officers of the present day.  However depraved a traditional woman might be people would still respect the concept of marriage for her. But in case of us, branded prostitutes, even if a marriage was performed with all religious fervour, they won’t accept it. Our lives are inevitably entangled with our community. And if you want to emancipate them, tell me, whether or not you think we have to make some sacrifice?”

“But then… you…”

“Yes, I know you want to remind me that I surrendered my body to you. That’s because I felt it was your right! I learnt many things from you and from our childish innocence; I also learnt the kind of sacrifices your parents did to the country at large and to the people around them in particular. Did your mother cry when she gave all her jewellery to Gandhiji for his Harijan fund without a second thought? Why should my grandmother get addicted to opium worrying for me, instead of throwing me into my family profession and enjoying a worry-free life?  Because, if someone from my community marries me, she believed, he would never utter, even at the height of his rage, “You whore! How can you change from your ingrained habit?”

“I enjoyed your company. I know that you protected me from the searching eyes of lechers and satyrs. Even I had dreamt of consummation with you. I surrendered my body to your authority only to repay my debt.  My mind and my heart learnt a lot of things from your books…that I should live not only for you, but also for your people. Do you want that I should surrender my being to you after all this exchange?”

Pal! I heard her with a troubled and confused mind trying to analyze the sequence of events, and when I was up against contradictory arguments, and the complexities became more complex, I receded from the world and followed you to Varanasi. You knew that.

Pal, I heard she was married soon. I also heard that the groom got all the property transferred on his name.

That was also the time when Mussolini attacked an innocent state of Abyssinia with a crooked idea to civilise it with cannon and air sorties. We used to discuss everyday about Fascism and where would the atrocities of Hitler stand in comparison etc.   How desperate was I to heal my wound at Law College! How badly I struggled to keep you in dark! And, did you know why I tried to swim across the river Ganges paying deaf ear to your warnings? I was just hoping that some crocodile would catch me and end my agony.

Of the two birds that should happily have migrated to distant lands, the female bird had volunteered to enter a golden cage for the welfare of its kin. And the lone idling male also entered another cage to keep off its kin from grief…the cage of marriage… an ornamental cage.

Well, before it should relapse into the dark recesses of my memory, pal, I should tell you that Yasoda gave that gold chain back to me on our last meet.

“In her memory” I asked.

“You exercised your authority over me.  Should I not have a similar authority over you? Take this,” was what she said to me.

It might appear like a cryptic line from one of mystic poets…which I could neither understand then, nor decipher now.

As you were aware, those were the days when there were no Copper Plaques, no ministerial posts or any share of political authority for the freedom fighters. The only bequest my father left us with was the marks of lathi on his person. Did Yasoda have a hunch that I would pawn her necklace to protect the prestige of the family, then?

However, the story did not end there. Her husband thought the best way to enjoy the easy-earned property was through succumbing to vices.  I heard she had a son; but, never heard the property was sublimating like a clump of camphor.

When Sada lighted another cigarette I felt like restraining him, “You did not take anything in, but you have not stopped this chain?” I reminded him of not having taken any food.

He continued his vein taking no notice of me.

“People say some lives also transform chemically into air and smoke. After the demise of Manikyam, Yasoda inherited her habit of taking opium. And you are aware that this accursed childless me was addicted to the opium of excessive earning.  I don’t think it is any more necessary to speak about the culture of my wife. She was never endowed with the ability to lift me out of the abyss of addiction.  Perhaps at the time of our marriage, the astrologers made no note of the disharmony and rivalry between our stars and Lagnas. I got a lot of comfort from your letters when my father and mother died one after the other. I eagerly awaited letter from Yasoda. I was so restless why she did not write when she knew about it?

“I was not aware that she moved from Madanapalle to Rajahmundry sanatorium suffering from TB. I never made any serious attempt to know about her on my own but just waited every moment to know something about her.

“Nagalimgam… that was the name of her husband. He wasted away all her property. When his sisters insisted, he transferred some lands on their names as if they were his. He also sold away the house…  you know who…to that riffraff Tata.   And he spent the rest … for playing cards and drinking.”

“Didn’t Yasoda have any more children?”  I asked.

Shooting the cigarette out, he said,

“No. Can a pure and limpid stream emanating from the mountainous heights, flowing for miles without a shade, deliver crystal waters when once it enters woods and flows through marshes and mires, forest glades and glens, turns dirty with mud, leaves and refuse?

“Do you know where she took shelter after the death of her husband?  In our cattle shed.  My father, as you know, bequeathed our house to Swaraj Ashram. As its trustee, the village officials wrote to me for my approval for providing shelter to a destitute woman. And that destitute happened to be Yasoda!  But she did not quit fighting blaming her destiny. She moved around courts for the sake of her son. If you look into the record you can understand her tenacity. She fought with all the vigour of a woman.”

“Where is she now?” I asked.

Pointing to his heart and then towards heavens, he said,

“There’s one more place… her son.”

“Then?”

“After studying the record I asked the boy if his mother had suggested filing an IP petition. But he said no. He said his mother on her death-bed asked him to hand over all the record to me.”

I foolishly asked him, “Manu’s Jurisprudence and Hindu Law of Heredity

is your domain. Did you win the appeal?”

“Hands down. But pal, that’s not my dilemma. What should I tell the boy? Shall I reveal him the truth that he is my son and, thereby, demean her in his looks? Or should I consider this lone son of mine my client forever?

6

I never saw tears in Sada’s eyes. We passed Waltair. We bought all Madras news papers there. I had to get down near Vijayawada. Dust collected over the body, and it was so irritating. I was not sure if it arose from the coal dust spewing from the engine or was borne out of Sada’s dilemma.

As I was packing up my luggage he asked, “Why don’t you speak up?”

“Sada! You have always been philosophical in your thinking… then and now.  Don’t put me to test.  You get down here. I shall send a telegram to your juniors Joga Rao and Venkatachalam that it shall take another four days for you to reach there.” I implored.

“No. Let me extend your ticket to Madras. You come with me to Madras. I have to introduce you to my third junior.” He said.

“Who is that great personality?”

“Why would I bother to introduce him to you if it were anybody? He… he is… Yasoda’s son. He made me first believe, like his mother, that he was an illiterate. But he was a graduate by then…completing ‘Law’ in Madras.”

“Then, did you tell him?”

“No. In fact, I have no authority of whatsoever on Yasoda.”

I got down the train.

***

Telugu Original: Munipalle Raju

Translated by: NS Murty & (late) RS Krishna Moorthy.

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 ఆలస్యంగా (2006 )నైనా కేంద్ర సాహిత్య అకాడమీ గుర్తించింది.

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