(There are very few short story writers in Telugu that can match international writers of repute and Sri Munipalle Raju is one of them. He has extraordinary memory and refined taste for excellence in literature. He has fine sensibilities and could capture his real life experiences and the anecdotes he heard during his military service into some of his stories.)
It’s a common experience for the regular visitors to the Officers’ Mess of Artillery Regiment to find it teeming with people. It had a very large compound, a beautiful lawn in the foreyard and, more than that, a number of very large old trees from the British times. The onlookers would easily guess that even the building was of colonial make with its long wide corridors, and the three feet radii mortar pillars of the Robert Clive era used in construction of Forts.
In the tennis court behind the trees, Captain Tiwari (Tiks) and Narayanan (Niks) were playing singles. In the veranda, Rastogi (Rats) and Puri (Pickles) with their occasional shouts of ‘hurrah’ seemed enjoying tennis more than the caroms they were playing. Almost everybody had one nick name or the other. Even the Commanding Officer Colonel Jagannath, who was in his fifties, was jimmy for these youth. Of course, they would never utter the word in his presence.
Major Murty had just returned from the regiment’s playground with his white short and shirt soiled. He had great interest in the games of jawans. Selections were held for volleyball and football that evening. Being a very senior Officer, Major Murty would occasionally be given such additional responsibilities. Besides, he was a good player himself.
He being the Mess Secretary for the month, Murty gave orders to the Head-cook, Masalji, Bearers and the Boys after a brief discussion. That night it was a Mess-dinner night. All the officers of the Regiment would attend with families. As per the military convention, even the officers living with their families in the quarters are members of the Mess. There was a film show after the dinner. Everybody hated the meaningless selection of commercial pictures by Leela Jagannath, elder daughter of the Commanding Officer. This time, Captain Devgan was successful in convincing them for staging a Russian picture with sub-titles. Murty also liked art films. Though he was Secretary for both the Regimental Film Club and the Mess Library, he held the tastes of Devgan in high regard.
How could Murty not have a nick name for him? He’s “Deccans” for Dakshina Murty being his name in full, and additionally, “bookworm” for being a voracious reader.
The Russian movie was wonderful. It was only 100 minute long. The movie was “Sisters” based on the story by Vera Fedorovna Panova. Everybody acclaimed that the story line, the acting and the photography were unparalleled. If Colonel patted Murty on his shoulder, in turn, Murty patted Devgan’s.
Murty was lost in thoughts for some unknown reason. Why unknown? The movie was just a picturization of some of the events of his life. The difference is only in gender… the heroine therein was Galya, a young lady. If Galya was replaced by Murty, a young man, the story would still be the same.
Galya was a tender comely girl. Her mother’s untimely death cast gloom over her life. Her father was a great dreamer. He pampered her so much. He thought that the child needed a woman’s care and so married again. That was the grave mistake he did.
Her step mother was a fatty brunette. She was also a lazy bug. The moment she entered the house, she started entrusting Galya with some work or the other always. Not the routine chores. But, some hard jobs beyond her age. She never kept home neat and clean. Neither was she herself tidy nor allowed others remain tidy. In the beginning, Galya’s father tried to censure his wife. But once she started mothering his children, he changed. Now, he remained indifferent when Galya was either rebuked or abused.
Galya was getting good marks at school. She was performing on the stage as well. Her teacher Elizabeth Andre Yevana had been a great encouragement to her. The school librarian treated her with great affection. She could complete higher education against all odds. Her step mother did not want her to study any further. Her father, however, was in favour but did not express it openly. She was desperate to get out of that rotten place. With the encouragement of her teacher, Galya left from a small village near Seorophol to the theatre school in Moscow. Her only regret was about leaving behind her step sister who was as beautiful as her and also very careful. She was very concerned and worried that, left to the care of her step-mother, her sister might turn out rude and rough in her manners like her mother. Yet, she had first to get away from the nightmare.
Galya’s innate talent, creativity, and acting skills blossomed full like a flower in dew.
But somewhere in her heart she felt a nipping pain. She witnessed her father becoming a slave to drinking and occasionally her step-mother joining him. Though they were not born to the same mother, what would happen to her half-sister was the cause of her pain.
Galya enacted great roles on stage; Collected fat cheques. She even acted in one or two movies. Though she did not intend to migrate to the silver screen from the stage, it became imperative. She went out on a long foreign tour for theatre festivals and returned after few months. The day she returned she saw a three-month old letter in her sister’s hand. It read: “Father had ulcer in the liver. He neglected it. Finally, he passed away on the operation table. He yearned to see you in his last moments.”
The nightmare reappeared… that rotten place… her wrestler-like step-mother with her ruddy eyes; and the death of a father who could not protect her. Somehow, she could make it to her place in flight for the anniversary of her father with small presents to her sister, her step-mother, for her teacher who now retired and to the librarian. She recalled her last conversation with the librarian requesting to issue her sister library books without any restriction. She was not sure if her sister was continuing with her studies for these ten years. She did not think fit to remember those things in her life full of insults and swept them away into the recesses of memory.
Galya paid obeisance before her father’s grave. She paid visit to her old teacher. Librarian was not there, of course. There was no change in her step-mother; she was more interested in her presents than her. That night the two sisters shared Galya’s bed. They were talking through the night endlessly… her sister talked about the last days of her father, about her school, the economic condition of the family, how they had to live in a veranda renting out the whole house to tourists and lastly, about her own future. All her hatred melted away listening to her step-sister. Galya was afraid to think further about her sister, who was already showing signs of breaking and turning coarse, should she live there any longer.
“I must take her with me to Moscow. She should obtain a good graduate degree in literature and become a lecturer there. She is so crazy about literature. She should not be deprived of it,” She had decided.
Major Murty went into his room thinking, ‘the cinema was over, but my life has just begun.” He could not get sleep. All his fellow Officers were in deep sleep in the annexes to the Mess. Sometimes, even silence would not allow him to sleep.
Besides the two nick names at the regiment, there was another nick name Major Murty had at the military hospital. Specialist surgeon colonel Kalyana Raman and Officer Commanding Brigadier Dhawan called him “Bubbles”. He thought that he got it for his multi-lingual abilities like cutting jokes in Tamil with Kalyana Raman and in Dogree with Dhawan. In fact, he knew all dialects of Hindi… like Magathi, Khadi Bolee, Maithili, Rajasthani, and Pahadi etc. But that was not the reason why the military doctors called him “Bubbles”. There were two one-millimetre-deep injury marks on his right temple. Though they now disappeared under his new hairstyle, they presented quite a formidable challenge ten years back when he first appeared before the Medical Board at Allahabad after passing Services Selection Board Examination. One specialist on the board referred for detailed tests suspecting that the cause of the injury might have had its affects on his brain. That was when he perspired profusely and thought there was no light at the end of the tunnel for him.
Though they ultimately ignored the bubbles declaring them as minor playtime injuries, he knew how they were sustained: his step-mother dashed the pincers against his head while she was cooking. He remembered hoe blood streamed down from the injury. But was he aware that he fell unconscious? No. But it was a shriek… a heart-rending shriek “Father! Brother is dead” by his half brother looking at the flow of blood that brought him back to senses. Anguish! That was his life… his childhood… his youth. Anguish… an appeal! That’s why sound would wake him up; Silence won’t let him slip into sleep. A pair of wave-like marks… bubbles!
Those bubbles had taught him not to be afraid of life but wage battle to survive. Whenever he was depressed, whenever he grieved all alone, whenever he felt he was disintegrating into parts, whenever he was afraid and concerned about his future, he used to get recharged with energy and wisdom when he combed his hair with his fingers and caressed those bubbles. Whenever memories haunted him, he passed his fingers over the bubbles. That habit endured with him till he passed the second Defence Course. When it disappeared he was not aware, but then it reappeared this night… with that heart-rending shriek of a child: “Father! Brother is dead!” In the wee hours of night it woke him up untimely.
He thought it might be better to have a check up at the military hospital after taking an appointment over phone.
He did not know when his father died…nor, anything about that shrieking boy. All that he was aware and remembered was his step-mother’s bringing up. His mother’s was an ethereal form through a veil of smoke … sitting in Padmasana and meditating. His mother breathing her last in that posture was his faintest memory. He consulted an army psychiatrist, when he was doing a course, about his mother’s death and about her form peeping through his childhood experiences. “Get married. You can see your mother in your wife,” he advised. He was not going to follow that.
Who would he marry? Leela Jagannath who had great liking for him? Younger sister of Kalyana Raman? She would give him unending lectures on “Silappadikaram”. Or, that tribal girl he saw at Almora, sister-in-law of Major Noutiyal?
He was the Galya of the movie. Galya at least had Elizaveta Andreyevana to throw some light in her life. His light was at Joshi Math… his guru Narayandutt Joshi of the Himalayas. His guru appeared for the first time in front of Triyuga Narayana Mandir on the way to Badrinath, and protected him from cold with his shawl. He was a father-like figure for him. But, even that man was not alive now! Why did he go to Himalayas at all? Barefooted, with just a towel and knickers on, his Matriculation pass book and the chapatti packed by the Math people at Hrishikesh in his satchel, and with unflinching confidence at his heart he set out.
Running away?…There were timid who run away from the war front… there could be spineless fellows who run away from their lovers … but who is so powerful as not to run away from the fine, endless onslaught of memories!
Murty switched on the light in the library and selected a book…
From Jawan to Officer … everyone in the military service had annual leave up to two months, a free warrant to Home or Home town; in case of Officers they would have in addition a free warrant to home village once in two years and concessional warrant another year. They need not spend their leave at home town. They could go anywhere. That’s called LTC… Leave Travel Concession.
Major Murty never had a track record of having availed leave for more than twenty days in a year. Duty… duty… duty. Where did he have his home? What was his home village? Books in the library were his only friends. His bosom friends! Whenever an Officer appearing for examinations approached him to clear his doubts, he could speak effortlessly and endlessly on all kinds of designs and war strategies from Alexander the Great to the latest, the liberation of Bangladesh.
From “Timur, the lame”, Babar, Genghis Khan, Napoleon, Wellington, Eugen Rommel, Eisenhower, Zhukov, Kornilov, to our Field Marshall Manekshaw… he would speak, and more so, about the artillery specialists Napoleon, Marshal Joachim Murat and Jean Baptiste. Zhukop capped them all… he hoisted the red flag in Berlin. Though some of his lectures he delivered about these people while he was instructor were taped, his notable speciality was his ability to speak about every war Israel had engaged in and how, in spite of it being such a small nation, it could fuse science, daredevilry with weapon strategy.
After the death of his mother his father was remarried. It was his maternal uncle who took the initiative. His intention was not clear … whether he expected that the new bride would be able to arrest the losing string of his father at the game of cards, or thought that she would take proper care of him, the boy Murty. He was knocking at the doors of High School then. His step-mother was thirty at the time of her marriage. She might be conscious of the wasted charms of her youth. She might even have thought that the boy was responsible for her plight of second marriage. Not only had he reduced to a step-son, he had also become an avowed enemy to her. The game of cards his father had stopped briefly in the early days of remarriage, had become an easy route of escape for him later.
He did not take her chiding seriously in the beginning. She had coffee ten times in a day. Decoction was always available on low heat on the stove. Only his father could tell which was more expensive… the coffee powder or the card game. Afraid of her, his father stopped talking to him. And in her presence, he did not even dare to look into his eyes.
After a prolonged and painful labour she delivered twins the following year. But both of them died. “This accursed fellow was the root cause of all evil”.
She made him wash the dishes, sweep the foreyard and sprinkle cow-dung dissolved water. He did not mind. He was beaten for asking money for a haircut. The following year she had another delivery. He was given double promotion and he joined High School. He was having only one knicker and a shirt with chinks under arms. When he was memorizing the sums in the sun lying down in a rickety cot, he was beaten with the broomstick for not responding to her call immediately. She never gave him an oil-bath to head. He never had new clothes for festivals along with his half brother. He was “Evil fellow! Saturn incarnate”.
That’s how his step-mother prepared him for the battle of life. He never felt that he was fighting with any enemy. His fight was with himself… with his sums… and with his life… every day, every minute. Did he ever dream of joining military and really fighting with an enemy? But the very thought that he would ultimately succeed oneday excited him. And his confidence multiplied after he came to senses listening to the pathetic shriek of his half brother. He was sure he would never be humbled… never.
He reached his maternal uncle’s house once the injury healed with the encouragement of his friends. His books were his pals. Though his uncle did not utter anything, his aunt did not hide her disapproval. That year… amidst all tension… he secured first mark in mathematics and first rank. An artillery Officer should have a good grasp of projectiles. Where to position his gun… the approximate distance of the enemy target… the wind speed… flight direction of the cannon…since the cannon would describe an arc instead of going straight… everything needs precise mathematical calculation. Perhaps mathematics is imperative in every walk of life!
His hopes at further study receded… but not his confidence in himself. The following year he got admission into a Vysya hostel with the recommendation of some Good Samaritan. Vysyas helped him up to his Matriculation. They even offered him employment in their shops competing with one another. No. He did not want to stop at that. He aspired for more… and more.
Pilgrims who stayed in the hostel once offered to take him with them to north. At Varanasi, where they returned, he bade them goodbye refusing their offer to take him back home. He walked barefooted in the Aryavartam… Walked through legendary villages Hardwar, Hrishikesh, Lakshman jhoola, and was back to Prayag for Kumbh Mela. What a great spectacle it was! Oodles of people flocking together with indomitable faith and unshaken determination. He followed the village folk to a nameless destination.
“Paradesi! Paradesi!” (Not a native! Not a native!”)
Meal was assured sometime during the day.
“Child! Where are you going?”
On the way to Badrinath, he lost everything except his blanket, bowl and the Matriculation Marks Book. Whatever he left with was enough. He was not sure why Narayandutt Joshi liked him. He learnt how to milk a cow. His house was a veritable trove of Sanskrit and Hindi books. The next turn in his life was the letter from Joshi to his elder brother in Varanasi. He was a Panda (Purohit) there. Panda was very rich. He had even an elephant and a Palanquin. His was a forty-room mansion with a continuous flow of pilgrims.
Panda asked him only one question: “What’s your Gotram (lineage of Rishis)?”
“Your people for the last three generations had stayed in our house,” he said.
He was at ease reading Devnagari. He found the names of his grandfather and great grandfather under his Gotram in the books on the attic. It was with the recommendation of Panda he secured admission into the college… and into the University. There again he faced challenging sums. But, he was never vanquished.
Panda even looked a bride for him. He politely refused and took leave. Panda was angry. He was back to Joshi at Joshi Math.
A friend of Joshi gave him a word of advice. That was his first application form … for the selection of Commissioned Officers in military. Joshi did not allow him to touch the form till he performed Ganesha Puja. Joshi performed his Upanayanam to make him eligible to perform the annual rites of his mother at Gaya. And when he returned from Gaya he found orders directing him to attend training at Devalali. Training! Training!!Training!!!
His knowledge of mathematics came in handy everywhere. He was appointed Captain. He sent the first cheque from his salary to Joshi. And he took his army veterinary surgeon Srivatsava to Joshi’s house during his annual leave. The veterinary doctor examined the cows of Joshi and recommended buffaloes to run a dairy farm. He sent a separate cheque to Joshi for the purchase of five buffaloes. But Joshi returned half of it to him. He enclosed along with it his horoscope he received from Varanasi. He did not even give a cursory look at it and hid behind his books… between the pages of “Kamayani”.
He wrote a long letter to Panda seeking his pardon. He was not aware until then that he could write such good Hindi. He received a prompt reply… a Sanskrit Sloka. It means: Only great people shall consciously cultivate the spirit of gratitude. The man who receives it, and can still remain humble shall rise higher still.” That was followed by blessing: “Death shall keep its distance from you. I shall see you in a high rank in the military.”
He sent his German transistor and the two Assam-Monga blankets he bought in Nagaland through a special messenger, but never did his own house or people come to his mind. He was always referred to as the adopted son of Narayandutt Joshi. That Joshiji was no more now.
Just as his familiarity with literature increased, his familiarity with the country had also increased thanks to LTC for a homeless man like him. From Kajiranga to Kanyakumari… he was able to watch firsthand the sculpture and architectural beauty and the natural resources that influenced the history of this country through ages only because of his military service. Whether it is 150 MM gun or 130 MM Bofors it must bow its head before “Major Murty, Artillery, AVSM”. But after he understood Galya, the layer of pride with which he grew…that he was never vanquished … was slowly molting and, in the silvery moonlight was looking like his shadow in water.
A year-old letter from his half brother in an irregular hand. How could he secure his address! “Brother! Father expired. Lands were auctioned. Mother says that we are not solvent still. We are on hard times. Sister failed again.” And there was post script to it: “Brother! I long to see you in uniform”.
That letter did not stir any emotions in him… did not excite him. After a fortnight he sent a thousand in an Insured Cover. He did not enclose even a perfunctory courtesy note to it. Either when he sent his contribution to the Vysya Hostel or when he sent a draft for the six-month’ expenses to his maternal uncle, he did not remember his aunt, his half brother and the half sister he never saw. They just did not exist for him. But this Galya was an obstinate lady… she left his mind greatly disturbed.
In his search for sleep he consulted not one book … he picked “Vaitalikulu” by Muddukrishna, “Madhusala” by Duvvuri Ramireddy, “Sateesmruti” by Koduri Subba Rao, Vedula Satyanarayana Sastry, Rayaprolu, and Jashua from Telugu, which he purchased while he was at Golconda; Jayasankar Prasad, Mahadevi Verma, Dwivedi, Chaturvedi from Hindi… but no use. None of them helped him get sleep. Instead, they said: “there’s past … there’s present… and so there’s future. He who could not realise this is not a complete man”.
Major Dakshina Murty received his promotion orders late… as Lieutenant Colonel. He is Officer Commanding to a new Unit. He should take charge within one week. But he was in no hurry.
“Why do you need leave now” Colonel Jagannath asked Murty, unable to restrain his laughter. Because he knew Murty had always said ‘no’ whenever he was offered leave.
“Sir! I must join my brother in a decent school. He would come to nought if I were to leave him there,” said Major Murty.
Andhra Prabha Sachitra Vara Patrika (27.2.1991)
Translated by: NS Murty & (Late) RS Krishna Moorthy.
1400 th Post