అనువాదలహరి

Sri Visakhapatnam Kanaka Mahalaksmi… Munipalle Raju, Telugu, Indian

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?”

“Akkayyapalem…”

“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.

“So what?”

“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?”

“Yes.”

“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!”

“Good! Bye!”

“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!    

*

Munipalle Raju

(16th Mar 1925 – 24th Feb 2018)

Telugu, Indian

First Published Swati (June 1987)

ప్రకటనలు

Half Brother … Munipalle Raju, Telugu Indian

(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.)

*

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

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)?”

He replied.

“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.

***

Munipalle Raju

“Savati Tammudu”

Andhra Prabha Sachitra Vara Patrika (27.2.1991)

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

 

 

1400 th Post

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.

900th Post

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

700th Post

చితిమీద ఒక కవి … మునిపల్లె రాజు

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చర్చిగంటలు మ్రోగడం లేదు.
బజార్లు రద్దీగానే ఉన్నాయి
ఆఫీసులు మూతపడలేదు
సంతాప దినాలు ప్రకటింపబడలేదు
వాహన సంచారం యధాప్రకారం అస్తవ్యస్తంగానే ఉంది
సినిమాహాళ్ళు ఎప్పటిలాగే కిక్కిరిసి ఉన్నాయి

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శవయాత్ర సాగుతోంది… అయితే
ముందు బేండు మేళాలు మోగటమూ లేదు
వెనుక గుర్రపు సవారీలు అనుసరించడమూ లేదు.
పాడె మీద కవి ఏం పట్టనట్టు పరున్నాడు
శవవాహకులు నలుగురూ పిడికిళ్లు బిగించి నడుస్తున్నారు.

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జండాలు అవనతం కాలేదు.

కొందరు ఇరుగు పొరుగు వాళ్ళూ,
తోటి కవులు మరికొందరూకనిపిస్తున్నారు.

అతని ప్రచురణ కర్తలు కనపడటం లేదు
ఫొటోగ్రాఫరు జాడలేదు
కాకపోతే ఒకరిద్దరు విమర్శకులూ
బాధ్యత మరువని ఓ విలేఖరీ వెంటనడుస్తున్నారు.

శ్మశానంలో పాడె క్రిందకి దింపారు
మృతునిగురించి ప్రసంగం చెయ్యవలసి ఉంది
వక్తకి కళ్ళు చెమరుస్తున్నాయి
అతని మాటలు శాంతగంభీరంగా ఉన్నాయి.

కాని, కాల్చడానికి కట్టెలూ,
వెలిగించడానికి ఇంధనం ఏవీ?
కవి ఆత్మకి శాంతి కూర్చేదెలా?

కొన్ని నిముషాలు దొర్లిపోయాయి
చందాలు వసూలు చెయ్యడానికి టోపీ కలదిరిగింది
కానీ, అందులో చేరుకున్న నాణేలు కొన్నే.

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ఆరె! ఎవరది ఓ డొక్కు రిక్షాలోంచి
శ్మశానద్వారం దగ్గర దిగుతున్నది?

అతని వితంతువు అతని వ్రాతప్రతులన్నీ
కట్టగట్టి తీసుకు వచ్చింది.

ఇక మనం చితిముట్టిద్దాం రండి
మరి ఎంతమాత్రం ఆలస్యం చెయ్యలేం!

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మునిపల్లె రాజు

మునిపల్లెరాజు గారు కేంద్రసాహిత్యఅకాడమీ బహుమతిగొన్న కథకులుగా సుప్రసిధ్ధులైనా అతని ప్రథమ వ్యాసంగం మాత్రం కవిత్వమే. ఆయనే చెప్పుకున్నట్టు విద్యార్థిదశలో ఆయన జాషువా, మాధవపెద్ది బుచ్చిసుందర రామశాస్త్రి పద్యాలకూ, విశ్వనాథవారి కిన్నెరసాని గేయాలకూ సమ్మోహితుడైనారు.

ఈ కవిత ఆయన 1998 లో ప్రచురించిన “వేరొక ఆకాశం- వేరెన్నో నక్షత్రాలు”  కవితా సంపుటిలోనిది. ప్రస్తుతం వారు సికిందరాబాదు సైనిక్ పురిలో విశ్రాంత జీవితం గడుపుతున్నారు.

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Poet On The Funeral Pyre

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No bells are tolling.

The  bazars are throbbing

Offices not closed

No mourning declared

Traffic as usual chaotic

Cinemas are crowded systematic

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A funeral procession passes by

Sans brass bands leading

Sans any cavalcade following

On the bier a poet unconcerned rests

Pall bearers four grim like fists.

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I see flags on fullmast

His humble neighbours few

And fellow poets some

You spot no lensme

His publishers are unseen

But a gentle critic or two

And a duty bound reporter too.

The bier is grounded

A funeral oration to sound

But the speakers eyes are moist

His words are deeply silent

Where is the fuel where is the firewood

To lit the pyre to put him to rest.

A few moments roll

A hat is passed on to fill

But the coins offered are few.

*

Lo, a rickety rickshaw at the entrance sighted

A widow alights with all his manuscripts piled and bundled

Now let us lit the pyre

We can’t wait any more!

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Munipalle Raju

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