On the eve of First Death Anniversary of Sri Munipalle Raju garu
I had been working in Visakhapatnam for long, but I never occasioned to walk the steps of the Simhachalam Temple or visit the village Goddess, Sri Kanaka Mahalakshmi. My aunt had changed it all that with her recent visit.
Getting down from the train, she expressed her confusion about the name of the city and station, “What, Chinna! The board shows Waltair Station! Do you work here?”
“Waltair and Visakhapatnam are one and the same, auntie! There is no separate station for Visakhapatnam.”
“Then, when will you arrange for the Lord Narasimha’s Dashan at Simhachalam?”
“You have just arrived. Take some rest first. We shall think of that later.”
“Rest? No way. Your uncle was not well when I started. And your two sisters will be eagerly waiting for my return. Arrange some rickshaw to Simhachalam immediately,” she hurried me.
I took her to the Simhachalam Temple in the office jeep I came to receive her. She had a leisurely darshan of the lord. The Banana, wild Champac, Coconut, Jackfruit plantations and the Pineapple groves there had immensely pleased her. Tears streamed down when she hugged the “Kappa Stambham”. I knew the reason: My cousins, her two daughters, were still unmarried. I was already twenty five. They were much elder to me.
She took some coconut water before we started up the hill. She did not take anything thereafter. She was on fast almost for the whole day.
By the time I returned from office next day, she had already paid a visit to Kanaka Mahalakshmi Temple taking my neighbor’s daughter for escort.
“Chinna! I made a terrible transgression!” she said with deep regrets, “Without visiting the village goddess first, I visited other deities.”
“Don’t worry auntie. Lord of Simhachalam is also the lord of Kalinga, north Andhra upto Godavari plateau. You need not entertain such worries,” I tried to pacify her.
“But no. I am not happy with the grave sin I committed. I sought for her mercy. I vowed to break coconuts on five successive Fridays if she grants me my wishes.” She broke down again recollecting her unfulfilled wish.
My aunt returned home next day. I really wonder at the spiritual strength of that generation. She started almost a month back with a group of pilgrims from Guntur, took pre-dawn cold bath in the Bay of Bengal every day, attended to seasonal rituals of Magha (lunar month) at Puri Jagannath Temple, and without taking rest for a single day dashed to Visakhapatnam and paid visits to Varaha Narasimha of Simhachalam and Kanaka Mahalaksmi. That she continued to put up with the demanding physical stress and strain, not for her own self but her family, amazed me. Though I was not part of that ‘family’ in the strict sense, her spiritual strength seemed to have touched me. I bade her goodbye. She promised to write to me no sooner than her wish was fulfilled.
Skeptics like me may not find a causal relation between taking a vow and favorable events happen thereafter in one’s life. But not people like my aunt. My aunt could find a groom for my elder cousin. That she would not remain an old unmarried maid gave my aunt a great relief. “It is up to you to fulfil my vow,” she wrote me.
Why do you think I had started off to Kanaka Mahalakshmi Temple this Friday?
To my surprise, I found it behind the Hindu Reading Room I visited regularly. Interestingly, there was no Temple there at all. There was just a small idol sculpted in Kalinga Style … about twenty yards from me on a small platform, without any semblance of shade or shelter, and confined within grills.
Even the street was not that wide. I strode through the narrow passage flanked by small vendors on either side. I enquired the price of coconut at a shop and felt for the purse with my hands. I was stunned. I had one or two such experiences earlier in Madras but I never expected people would pick pockets of their own ilk in Andhra Pradesh. Somehow, I reconciled to believing that it would never happen here.
I was staring blankly at the electrical pole in front of the tiled house.
“What Babuji! What are you staring at?” the shopkeeper lady asked me.
I lost my purse, I said. I searched for the purse in my hip pocket once more.
“Did you come by city (bus)?” she enquired.
“Yes, I came by city bus.” I said.
“Where did you take the bus?”
“It looks you are not from these parts. Am I right?”
“Yes, of course.”
My slang betrays that.
I have some very strong convictions in this regard. Language is a double-edged sword. It can instantly bond people with love on one hand and can drive wedge between them inflaming hatred on the other. When I was in Madras, I read slogans like… “Edamillai… Go back Gongura.” on the walls. I heard people raising those slogans behind my back. Similarly, “This is not place for you. Go back to Andhra,” during Andhra agitation in Hyderabad. Historians may explain that this kind of reactionary agitations would be incited by feudalistic minds to grab power or by NGO’s for securing government jobs. But I was speaking about common people. The so called “common people” that the politicians, press, news media, Assemblies and Parliament speak so ardently about every minute. Of course, it is only they that need that double-edged sword every minute. In the bonfire of hatred they inflame, they never care to think who are natives or who the migrants are, or the political and economic compulsions behind settling in different administrative set ups.
As these thoughts flashed in my memory, I rather asked impatiently to her innocent question, “Why? Is every stranger an evil person?”
“I did not mean that Babuji! I am myself a stranger to this place. I only meant how the non-natives could understand the deceptions of vizagites?”
I felt really ashamed of my unwarranted anger after listening to her cool compassionate reply. Only then did I pay any attention to her mien and manner. I could not foresee at that moment that I was inviting some unnecessary troubles.
“Please sit down Babuji! You have been standing there all the while.”
I sat on the package box nearby rather comfortably. That being a Friday, the premises around Kanaka Mahalaksmi idol was busy and there must be hundred ladies performing Pooja.
She was arranging a coconut, few flowers, two incense sticks, packets of turmeric powder and vermillion in a bamboo tray briskly and selling to customers for an Anna less or an Anna more. My thoughts turned to her. I tried to conjecture her age… the exact number between twenty and twenty five. Why did she apply such thick line of collyrium to her eyes? She had a small gob and Champac-like nose… may be I was reconciling to such scanty description for want of better expression and ornate language at my disposal. For her well-proportioned ebony body, the dark-colored saree did not match. Hers was a prettiness that could not be grasped but from close.
“What Babuji? You are sitting idly. Won’t you break a coconut?”
I am sure I was taken aback coming out from my reverie.
“I am not left with any money,” I said.
“Don’t worry. You may fulfil your vow today and pay me next time.”
“Nobody would believe a stranger. I don’t know what makes you believe me. I shall repay you tomorrow.”
“Why do you say that? Can’t we assess people looking at their mien? Why didn’t madam accompany you? Are you a bachelor?”
“Yes, I am a bachelor.”
“Please come back soon. I have to shut down the shop to go to the movie. By mistake you may hand over that bamboo tray in another shop. Remember my name. I am Malles(p)ari.”
“I shall remember. Malleswari.”
However quick I tried to finish off my work, it took me around twenty minutes.
As I returned the bamboo tray I noticed a man in his shorts and a collared shirt standing at a distance behind the shop. That round-faced, moustache-less man was observing me closely puffing out smoke from a bidi. I saw him somewhere but could not place him in my mind immediately. I was not sure if it was the city bus I came by.
She returned the tray back to me, saying “Babuji, please pay me five rupees.”
To my surprise, I saw the lost purse in that tray.
My people think I am a fool. However, my friends commend my way of thinking. After a long deliberation within, I just wanted to check if I was right.
When I searched for him the hero was not there. He disappeared.
The purse however seemed as voluminous as before. “Mallespari” was winding up her shop.
Giving her a five rupee note, I asked her rather harshly, “What’s this?”
“Babuji! Take it as the miracle of Kanaka Mahalakshmi. Please count your money. We are not from this place. Why do we need to follow the cunning ways of the locals? I am already late…” After taking few steps, she came back and looking into my face she asked, “Isn’t it a vow for five Fridays?”
“Yes, of course, for five Fridays without break.”
This Malleswari must be his mistress. The coconut business was only a front for these riffraff fellows. But then, why did she return me my purse? There were almost three hundred rupees in it. You might have read many stories about lumpens of Visakhapatnam before. I had some firsthand experiences with them as well. I had a different kind of experience with one of them. Poorna Market is a very famous place in Visakhapatnam. It is a centre where if my your misfortune you try to bargain while buying anything like vegetables, fruits, grocery, fish, chicken, or egg, they unleash every kind of abuse on you. Last summer when I went there to purchase mangoes, the lady offered a dozen mangoes at twelve rupees. When I paid her the twelve, she started arguing that she said eighteen per dozen and I did not hear her properly. She wore at least a kilogram gold on her body and unutterable stock of taboo words on her tongue. She refused to take back the mangoes. Finally, she mediated on her own calling me a stranger who did not understand the local language properly and settled the issue for fifteen rupees. That was a concession for the stranger. And now, this Malleswari would want me to believe it a miracle of Kanaka Mahalakshmi. Why should they bear pity a stranger? That too, a feigned one?
I wrote to my aunt that I was fulfilling her vow. “Please don’t break the continuity,” she expressed her concern and conveyed her blessings. The marriage day was fixed. I must attend.
The next Friday, taking special permission I visited the temple early in the morning to avoid peak hour rush. Yet, it was very already crowded. I passed Malleswari’s shop.
“Hello Babuji! Have you forgotten Malleswari?” Malleswari called me back. Handing over the tray with Pooja material she added, “Babuji! Do you notice the Police Jawan standing there in Khaki shorts? Tell him my name and he will help you finish your job quickly.”
I had to obey. She returned twenty five paise taking five rupees from me.
What could I say? But, to tease her I said, “Malleswari, I did not take city bus today.”
“Please don’t say that,” she pleaded. But ignoring what she said, I left the place in a hurry.
Though I could ignore her then, I realized within two days that this uninvited acquaintance was not going to ignore me that easily. When I reached office I came to know of the training program I was waiting for long and I would not get for another two years if I missed this time. Though it was only a two-week training, it has a definite bearing on my career prospects.
That was Thursday. I should leave by night train to Hyderabad. My mind was searching for proper person to delegate the responsibility bidden to me by my aunt. She was the person who supported my college study after my father had died. I was obliged to fulfil her vow. My house owners were Brahmo Samajis. They were against every kind of idol worship. One family I knew were Christians and with another, I developed a sort of rationalist image. So, I could not ask them. I was forced by circumstances to go to Malleswari.
“Babuji! Have you forgotten the day today? It is only Thursday?” she said.
“Yes! But I came here on purpose. I have to leave by night train to another town on important work. Malleswari, you have to help me tomorrow and next week in fulfilling the vow,” I said.
“Babuji! It’s enough if you call me Malli. We being low-class people is it alright if we perform the vows on your behalf?”
“God cares little who performs. All that is needed is one should perform it whole-heartedly. Besides, if you change to light color saris from dark, you look as dignified as any lady from upper class,” I said patting myself for the initiative I had taken.
I saw a fleeting flash of pride at my remark in her face. I also noticed her looking at me adoringly.
“Is it so, Babu? What’s wrong with this color?”
There was an unprecedented familiarity in her tone when she called me Babu instead of Babuji.
“I don’t know. You look much better in light colours. Take this money.”
“I don’t need money. You are going out of the city. It serves your need. You can pay me after your return.”
“Take this. I don’t have any problem.” I handed over her a ten rupee note. And to tease her further, “didn’t you see my purse the other day? I have enough money with me.”
She seemed embarrassed.
“Did I count? After all, it’s your money. You did not even tell me your name to perform the Pooja,” she complained.
Giving the name of my aunt I walked up a few steps. I suddenly realized somebody was following me from behind. The same fellow. The pickpocket. As I was taking a turn he came in my way. Locking the scooter I turned towards Reading Room. His first warnings were directed towards me…
“Let me warn you! Don’t flirt with that gal. It is not good for your health.”
I already said that I have some firm convictions about people and their behaviour. If we are afraid of rowdies, they would ride over us … was one of them.
“Who are you to say that?” I shot an angry look at him.
“Don’t you know? Everybody knows this Ramana, including police,” he said. He must be roaming between Berhampur to Nellore. There wasn’t any particular slang in his speech.
“I am from Burma. A Burma evacuee. Why do you dally with that lass?”
“I don’t care if you are a Rangoon Rowdy or a London evacuee. I know you picked my pocket? What is she to you? Are you her husband?”
It was a blind shot. My hunch worked. The result was an evasive answer from a man whose confidence took a dent.
“Should I be her husband? That gal came to me. Don’t suppose her to be a woman from the barracks. You will get a sound beating.”
He was telling me she was not a wanton woman that roam about police barracks. I wanted to give him a taste of what his threats. But with better sense prevailing, I said,
“Oy, Ramana! It is clear that you are a number one fool. Malleswari is a woman of character. I am leaving you without doing harm only for her sake. Better you know about me. I am a magistrate. Never in your life can you get into a bus. Listen. I did not come here to dally with her. I came here for a pious cause. Understand? Get lost!”
The harshness of my voice sounded strange to my own self. But, having been convinced of my opinion about people and their behaviour, I was pleased and thought I could count myself one amongst the social scientists. I started my scooter. There was a lingering concern that I should perhaps have informed Malleswari about this.
Maybe, I was not too convinced about the character of Malleswari whom I defended so strongly. That’s why neither I turned the scooter towards her nor did I remember her during training.
I visited my aunt on my way back. I did not want to bore her with my training matters. So I briefed her about the happenings at Visakhapatnam and how I tried to attend to her five-Fridays vow.
When she blessed me saying, “You are so innocent at heart Chinna! If you have developed faith and devotion, it is only because of the blessings of Goddess Kanaka Mahalakshmi,” I felt sure Malleswari did not break the continuity. And as for my elder cousin, what could I speak of her delight! She was happy to get an employed groom who did not insist on dowry. Marriage was to be performed soon. It’s nothing short of dreams coming true!
I reported for duty on Friday. As I was feeling happy that with the last instalment that evening was a culmination of fulfilling my aunt’s vow, Ramana and Malleswari flashed in my memory. Suddenly and I felt guilty to delegate that responsibility to such an unscrupulous woman. I wondered why I could not see through her intentions when she returned my purse.
Setting aside all my apprehensions, I got ready to go to the temple taking bath afresh in the evening. I took a rickshaw to the temple. Malleswari’s shop bore a desolate look. The person was also not there. I bought the necessary ingredients from the neighboring shopkeeper who was keenly watching me. I paid my oblation to the goddess with due confession and seeking forgiveness for the lapses.
Malleswari was standing in front of me. There were two halves of a coconut almost smelling foul and a half a rupee coin in her hands. She looked an incarnation of grief and her eyes were teeming with tears ready to break the barrier any moment.
“Babu! I looked for you in the morning. I know you will come any way in the evening. I fulfilled your vow without break.”
“What happened?” I asked her. It was then I noticed she donned a light-color saree. Her beauty was not without… it was manifesting from within. I was so overwhelmed with pity, gratitude and passion that I was tempted to embrace that unlettered girl and reassure her. But can I do so in public?
“Get into the rickshaw,” I asked her as the street lights were put on. She got in without any hesitation.
“Did you take your lunch?’ I asked.
She turned her head indicating she did not.
Sitting in the restaurant cabin on the first floor, and holding the reins of my emotions I enquired,
“Malli! Do you have any schooling?”
She looked at me bewildered and said,
“I studied up to class nine.”
“Then why do you speak like an unlettered person?”
“Babu! Do you know the kind of people I live among? If I show any superiority on that count, do you think my life will be safe?”
Very pragmatic and undecorated fact.
“Then why did you entertain such a mean fellow like Ramana?”
The way she looked at me conveyed that she pitied my innocence.
“Babu! Many creepers grow in the forest. If there is no support of a tree or stump for them to entwine, they will be mercilessly stomped and trampled by every beast and bovine. Without Ramana, my life would become wretched. Will this world allow a woman to live on her own? Babu! This is a wild … wild… forest.”
She stopped eating and started crying.
I understood Malleswari too had her own convictions about people and their behaviour.
“Why are you weeping?” I asked.
“She was thrown into a jail Babu! When he was selling tickets in black-market at the theatres, I restrained him. When he was picking pockets, I fought with him and stopped. I reasoned him out to run our business with dignity. He will agree to everything. But, no sooner the day turns to night, devil seizes him. He runs away to play “Matka”. Without playing that game he will not be at peace. They caught him red-handed the other day thieving along with others near harbor. He is such a timid fellow that cannot do such things on his own. Only the bad company has encouraged him.”
“If he is really timid, how could he dare to challenge me that day?”
As if she wanted to explain me an esoteric truth, she pulled her chair forward.
“Babu! I came to know about that. I chided him. I censured him. When I speak with other men…” she paused…
“Yes, I can understand. He gets jealous.”
“Whatever it is. He doesn’t like anybody speaking ill of me.”
I tried to assess the situation she was in.
“Malli! You sold out all your ware and spent for Ramana. Isn’t it?”
She kept mum.
After a while she said, “I thought I could bail him out. But it did not work out.”
“Do one thing. Don’t you think you need to take care of yourself?”
“Babu! I trusted you will come to my rescue. Goddess Kanaka Mahalaksmi never failed me.”
I pulled out three notes from my purse.
“How much it costs to start your business all over again?”
She made some calculations and said, “one hundred and fifty rupees, Babu!”
I gave her the money. And added, “I make enquiries how to bail out Ramana. I can inform you the progress only after two days.”
As I was about to leave, she stopped me and said, “Didn’t he brag about that he was from Burma and an evacuee?”
“But it was all a white lie. He was conceited. He comes from a small village near Vizianagaram. I am from Anakapalle. We eloped in the style of cinemas.”
“And yet, you did not stop seeing cinemas.”
“What can we do?”
She answered the root-cause of all problems, helplessness, in a matter-of-fact way.
“I changed to light colors on your advice.”
I noticed it before. Amidst all her engulfing grief and helplessness, she did not lose hope of life. Can I cultivate that urge? Never.
Unable to say anything in return, I said, “I don’t like you speaking in that slang.”
I got my promotion and with it my transfer. I had a week’s time to report at the new place. And my sister’s marriage was few days thereafter.
I was busy for the next three days. Malleswari was attending to her business as usual when I went there. She tried to give me a coconut.
“Let me come to it later. But first listen. I arranged for Ramana’s bail. But he will get two months sentence for sure. Go to this address. The pleader will identify you. They release Ramana on bail either tomorrow or the day after. Put him under your control at least from now on.”
She was awe-struck. “You… you…” she was searching for words to say something.
“I got my transfer and I am leaving.”
Taking coconut from her, I expressed my lingering doubt, “by the way, he will not run away during bail period. Isn’t it?”
Perhaps she was trying to regroup herself to speak, she answered standing in the shade of the pillar,
“No, Babu! He cannot leave me!”
“But Babu, shall I return your money by money order?”
“You can do it later. Not now. Besides, I may turn up at Visakhapatnam in future.”
I did not look back.
Possibly, she might not have understood the import of my words. Yet, I was happy for what I did.
Next day, I booked my scooter by railway parcel and reached my room very late. Malleswari was sitting at the doorstep. It was late in the night. Almost ten o’ clock.
“What happened? Did they release Ramana on bail?”
“They said they would release him tomorrow afternoon.”
As I entered the room, she followed me.
“Why did you trouble yourself coming all the way to inform this? And that too, at this late hour?”
“Babu! How much did you pay to the lawyer?”
“Don’t bother about it. Take a rickshaw and go home. It is late already.”
She did not leave. She was standing. She donned a light blue sari and the jasmines in her tresses were wafting sweet scents around.
“I want to sleep here tonight.” She said in her natural sonorous tone looking at me. She was looking at me through the silence. She was manifesting her beauty under the electrical lights. It was a prolonged silence where I was recovering myself.
“You wanted to repay your debt with your youth. Isn’t it?” I asked.
She did not reply.
“You owe me nothing. There was no debt or obligation between us. In fact, it is us who are beholden to people like you. Malli! I am not sure if you can understand what I say. But, ours is an irredeemable debt. It grows with interest every day. When did I take you to the hotel? Yesterday or the day before? I would have brought you to my room thinking mean of you. But your view of life, and your trust in me reopened my eyes. You taught me a great moral, standing on the high pedestal of a Guru! Please come. Let me arrange a safe passage home!”
As she tried to touch my feet before getting into a rickshaw, I refrained her.
“Don’t you allow me even to pay my respects? Goddess Kanaka Mahalakshmi put me to a severe test. It is you who passed the test, not me!”
They did not sound cinematic. They touched my ears like the subtle ripplings from a grief-stricken heart.
Rickshaw-puller intervened saying, “the days when due respect was accorded to elders were gone. There is nothing wrong in her paying respects to you. Let her!”
The rickshaw melted into the night leaving the silence behind.
I left Visakhapatnam soon.
But, how can I forget the Visakhapatnam Kanaka Mahalakshmi who restored my pride of being a human being!
Never! Never ever!
(16th Mar 1925 – 24th Feb 2018)
First Published Swati (June 1987)