A Study of the Telugu Novel Jigiri by Ashok Kumar Peddinti
Lives of the downtrodden in the far flung regions of Telangana where backwardness and poverty are visible as stark reality have compelled litterateurs to present realistic portraits in their literary artifacts. Jigiri, is the variant of Telugu spoken widely in Telangana is a short novel by Peddinti Ashok Kumar, by now an important and renowned fiction writer. Translated into English and titled Friends Forever by P. Jayalakshmi, the novel is a study of field reality in the penury stricken area. The functioning of the government departments of Forests, Police and Revenue make the lives of the unfortunate all the more miserable. The powerful and the rich in that area put these people to intense hardship. The rural folk suffer at the hands of heartless politicians as also from the village officers like Sarpanchs. Human values like sympathy and compassion disappear in many people when men are both poverty stricken and powerless. Apart from many hardships there are problems owing to generation gaps too. The hopes and aspirations of the youth without opportunities to get real help contribute to deepen the anguish of many. Readers of this touching piece of writing see men like animals and at least one animal, a sloth bear, as humane as a man.
Friends Forever is a unique novel by virtue of its subject. The original was written in Telugu of a regional variety known as Telangana variation with a mixture again of a variety of Urdu. It deals with a family of the poorest of the poor Muslims known as Kalandars, a nomadic community, who make a living by acquiring sloth bear cubs, training them to play and perform for the merriment of the young and old in villages and hamlets. Going round begging with the decorated bulls called Gangireddus is a way of living in the entire state of Andhra. The Kalandars in the Telangana region speak their Telugu with a mixture of Urdu. The novel has limited personae: Imam, the Fakir (Pakkir), his wife Bibamma, child Chand and, most importantly, the sloth bear they named after a god, Shadul. The period of the novel is slightly before the strict enforcement of the law forbidding the capture, training and using of animals for gain or even for a living. Bibamma’s natal home also depended on bear playing. Her father Rasool gave his daughter enough understanding of training and even putting an end to the animals when it becomes necessary to do so. Imam and Bibamma lift a cub from the forest braving dangers. Chand their son and Shadul are roughly of the same age.
Shadul is treated as lovingly as their son Chand both by the husband and the wife. Bibamma knows bears for she has seen the death of two at her natal home. She is very kind. We are told: ‘Seeing that buffalo milk was not agreeing with Shadul, Imam set upon feeding him cow’s milk. He mixed ground jaji to cow’s milk. In order to ward off evil, Bibamma ties a black string round her husband’s hand. With cow’s milk the cub’s condition worsened further. As a last attempt, Bibamma decided to feed the cub her own milk. Bibamma suckled Chand at one breast and pressed out milk from the other for Shadul.’[p.25] She cares so much for Shadul that though she is a Muslim, when the cub falls ill she does everything possible to the extent of going to Ellavva a woman who goes into trances possessed by Lord Shiva. With this, we are told that once adjusted to human milk, Shadul slowly becomes a part of the human world. He begins even to push aside Chand to lie cuddled in Bibamma’s lap wanting to be fed with her milk. While Imam has been teaching and training the cub, Bibamma asks her husband not to be too harsh. She tells him: ‘He picks up slowly, don’t beat him. That nose bridge is vital for life … just hit yourself once with that stick, you’ll know how painful it is. He can’t speak nor can he express his pain to anyone, can he? We’ve to understand. …’[p.33] We are told further: ‘Chand had not yet learnt to walk, but Shadul had picked up all tricks – Batukamma dance, reparation of roti, riding a horse, sauntering with lunch on head, shoot with a gun, play khusti, two legged walk, somersaulting, bear dance and all. The one trick left was that of blowing out a charm when placed in his mouth. That one trick when learnt would earn Imam some money; a trick that would attract both children and adults alike to watching him perform. [p.33]
The kindness, affection and humane attitude of both Bibamma and her son change when land is expected to be coming, thanks to Chand’s eagerness to become a land-owner. Imam is blessed with the sweetness of the milk of human kindness. He believes that Shadul would not live off anyone and that he would sustain them lifelong. The grave problem arises when Chand grows up to twenty and the possibility of his father getting two acres of government land glows before him. The government goes on making promises and starting schemes like palle baata and Indiramma plans. Chand as a little kid loves Shadul, plays with him and enjoys his performances. As a little boy, he says to his mother that he has two fathers, Abba and Shadul. This love and affection disappear when the hope of getting land the government offers to the poor creates a compulsive passion in him. He believes what he is told. It is said the Mandal Revenue Officer insists that the bear should be left in the forest or given to a zoo for there is a law that animals like bears should not be used for any play or performance and that transgression would lead to severe punishment like imprisonment.
First Imam is asked by his family to sell the bear. The moment the bear is taken out, the hut on the outskirts of the village is cleaned, throwing away Shadul’s plate, goad, and other things. Chand has the dreams of borrowing from a bank, have a bore well in it and start cultivation. He dreams of even having a poultry which is not possible with a bear around. Bibamma too begins having dreams of prosperity. But in spite of Imam’s serious efforts the bear is not sold for there is none to take it. The mother and son get disappointed when Shadul is brought back home. The struggle in the family grows more and more intense by the hour. The bear is the stumbling block and it should be sold, sent away or even killed.
While the humans Bibamma and Chand begin to be cruel and brutal like animals, Imam and Shadul are humane and compassionate. The sloth bear Shadul as a character in Telugu fiction is unusual. Shadul, though an animal understands the sudden shift in the attitude of the mother and son. The reader is told: ‘The hands that had earlier caressed his body fur pulled back. The legs that had at one time moved forward to receive him stepped back. The eyes that had showered love and pity on him till recently, now showered fiery anger. In an instant, Shadul noticed the change that came to bear upon her.’[p.23]
Right from the beginning Imam does not like the idea of parting with Shadul, not to speak of killing it, in spite of the various suggestions and plans from his wife and son. Even as a toddler Chand loves the bear. The instances of extreme love and affection shown to Shadul are many. He appears as intelligent and thoughtful as a human being. The ideas and efforts of the mother and son are observed and understood by the bear. The readers are told how the couple struggled and worked hard to get a cub. They get the cub from the forest when its parents are away and keep it in a net for a night. Then they bring it the next day it in the net put in a bamboo cage like thing. After it is trained and has been earning the livelihood they have been getting their sustenance from the bear. Once, when driven away by dogs in a village it is lost, we are told: ‘Bibamma could not control herself. She raged angrily against her husband and ranted ‘May your idiotic head break to pieces! You leave him if the dogs are after him, couldn’t you have chased then away? Do you take his life for nothing?’ [p.37] The husband and the wife grieve so much that even the villagers are moved to pity. The next day a farmer sends for Imam and tells him that he knows the whereabouts of the bear cub. But he lays down a condition that if given the information, Imam must work for a week in harvesting his crop without any wages.
They find Shadul near an old well lying in hunger and thirst, with his mouth muzzled.
Keeping their promise, they serve hard in the fields of the person for ten days without expecting any money.
Human feelings are given the go-by with the prospect of getting land appeared before Chand the youthful young man. The qualities of craving, greed and haughtiness in young Chand are not there in Imam who has seen the world, understood men and matters. He is content with what he has been getting with the labour and love of Shadul. Chand is hell bent to get rid of the bear and plans various methods. Bibamma too wants his son’s dreams to come true and takes sides with her son goading Imam to follow what Chand suggests. After all there are only three ways to get rid of the bear. To sell it, leave it in the forest or kill it. The first two options have not worked. There is none to take it even offered free, the animal returns home even when left in the forest. The only option lrft is to kill it. Chand digs a pit to push the bear into it and plans to bury it in the deep pit. Though he digs the pit quite deep very quickly, the bear does not fall into it. But when pushed, it jumps to the other side. Though beaten for long, it suffers silently. But at one point it throws down the young man and pounces on him and is ready to bite him. Only Imam’s shout to stop prevents the bear. But for Imam’s timely shouting, Chand would have been killed. The bear’s attempt to kill her son’s makes Bibamma furious.
Imam goes on remembering the ways Shadul saved him. He recalls the wager the Pahilwan Malla Reddy at Gambhiraopet thrust upon him and the fight. Innocuously Imam while asking Shadul to show his best says that the place is the Pahilwan’s and asks him: ‘“Will you win against Malla Reddy? Will you challenge him or stay home folding your tail?’ This innocuous statement is carried to the wrestler Mala Reddy. Then follow the wager and the fight. Imam tries to soothe the wrestler but he is egged on by his henchmen. When he is sent for and the wrestler wants to fight with the bear, Imam makes a sincere effort to cool him down first. But later tells him that the bear is next only to the lion, tiger and the elephant in strength. Then there is this: ‘Malla Reddy fumed wondering how Imam could dare him. Words flew between them:
“So, do you say I’ll lose against your bear?” He sad mocking.
“Not just you, Patel, … any person will have to lose.” Imam replied humbly
Malla Reddy felt piqued. ‘I wager a thousand rupees if I lose, what’ll you?”’[p.56]
Chand, then only a bold boy, proudly answers that he will give ten thousand.
Though Imam tried his best to assuage him the wrestler does not budge. Then the pakkir submits that Shadul being an animal, he could only play kushti. The wrestler agrees. Well trained in kushti the bear throws Malla Reddy down and pins him to the ground. The wrestler keeps trying to wriggle out for quite some time and then Imam asks Malla Reddy if he has won or lost. One in the crowd watching shouts to Imam to move the bear. Then Imam feels proud and happy. ‘Disregarding the vociferous clamour around, Imam sat unmoved. Malla Reddy continued throwing his hands and legs. He panted for breath but was unable to upraise himself. Everyone watched petrified. Trying one last time, in feeble tone, Malla Reddy pleaded, ‘Hey Imam! Lift his weight off me!’[p.57] The wrestler places on thousand rupees in Imam’s hand and peevishly asks him to quit and never to show himself in the village again.
Chand does not agree to spend the money won by the bear for the house. He insists buying gold and getting an ear ring made for Shadul. But the ring is removed by himself. Remembering all this, Imam rues the idea and plan to serve the wild poisonous mixture to his beloved Shadul. After all, the bear staked his life to save him. From then on Imam goes on postponing the act of feeding poisoned food to Shadul. Chand goes on threatening to kill himself and the father has no way of refusing to act as directed. Being inexperienced, the young man is unaware of the trickery and mischief of the officers like even the village assistant and the jealousy of the villagers. Then there is the caste factor too. While Chand believes that the officers being Muslims they would be helped, it is the smaller staff that tries ways of thwarting the hopes and plans of the really deserving applicants. The bilious talk of Sunkari is just an example:
‘Imam! Hey Imam! What prosperity has befallen this fellow! Yet he’s not shown up even once when invited with an offer of land! It’s as lowering one’s clan for offering a girl unasked!’ Sunkari, the village assistant, was yelling outside.
‘Hey … Coming!’ Chand rushed out.
“My boy! Isn’t your father home?’
“He’s gone out. … What have you to do with him?’
“The MRO is asking for him.’
‘I’m coming … Let’s go.’ So saying Chand stepped forward.
‘How have you all got together, you all! The SI in the station, MRO in the Mandal office, the division RDO...all Muslims! You’re getting the land without stirring from your place, seated. … Where’s the sloth bear ... not to be seen?” The sunkari asked probing. [p.60-61]
In his anxiety to get land Chand does not understand his father who knows the arrogance of the officers and even the lowest of their servants. He remembers the Sarampalli incident. As per rules Imam appears before the SI along with his son before going into the village to make a living. But the SI finds him in the market place playing the bear and asks them to come to the station. Father and son wait for him all night and the next morning when he comes he orders them to clean and wash all the police station before going away. Remembering all these Imam tries again to make his son see reason and show kindness to Shadul before it is decided that the bear must be poisoned. ‘Leave him in the forest? We brought the animal in the forest to the village, changed his habits and made him go round with us for twenty years. If we now decide to leave him all of a sudden in the forest … what’ll he eat … how’ll he live? The very thought seemed unbearable to Imam.’[p.77]
Both father and son spend a sleepless night. The two have their bags together to go into the forest to lave Shadul there. Then there is an argument once again:
‘I don’t want anything but Shadul … I can’t stay without him!’ (Says the father
I don’t need anything except land … I can’t live this life of a beggar! Chand cut in.’[p.78]
The tussle continues to go on and on. Bibamma tells them that two sunkaries came calling and went back and they are distributing land there. Imam develops cold feet and Chand reaches for the rope to hang himself every few minutes.
While things are like this in Imam’s family, there is another incident described. A villager called Buchchiah seeks the Sarpanch’s help to see his name included in the list of people to be given land under the government scheme. He feeds the scheming Sarpanch sumptuously and places half a seer of Ippa toddy. People try to get the land and Buchchiah, close to the Sarpanch is one among them. Goes on the conversation between.
The ambitious one feigns even a relationship with the Sarpanch calling him Mama.
“’Tell me Mama, am I any rich? Do I have a gunta of land or livelihood? I’m not even finding work of a coolie. Taking the land to be mine, I spent six thousand borrowing … now I’ve no alternative but to take poison.” Buchchiah asked in pain.
‘To pacify him the Sarpanch added, “What can I do, I did whatever I could. In the last minute, the SI entered the picture to tamper with the list. I hear he recommended Imam’s name to the MRO. Don’t you know the officers? They all bond together … they have their own quotas, don’t they?”’
“How does Imam know the SI Mama?” So Buchchiah asked as he poured some toddy into the glass.
“They belong to the same community…don’t know where they bonded in a relationship … whenever I go to the station, that Chand fellow is always seen hanging around the place.”[p.84]:
A typical politician the Sarpanch has his own plan and ploy: “There is only one way out … We’ve to see that the SI harms his own case, as one who blinds his eye with his own finger … make the SI himself to (sic) strike out that name. That involves setting the SI on to go mad with anger, that’s the only way out!” The Sarpanch said finishing the last round of toddy. [p.85]
Before leaving he asks Buchchiah to tell him if he sees Imam and the bear together so that he can make moves for his plan to succeed. This is about the intelligence of the villagers to win whatever the effort or whatever are the deserts of an applicant to get any benefit.
The efforts of driving away or killing Shadul by burying him (even before death) fail. Having no other option since he can not bear the thought of his son committing suicide, Imam agrees to take his dear Shadul into the forest himself with food for the animal and cyanide. He sees Shadul looking eagerly at the remaining porridge in Imam’s hand and angrily at Chand. He explains to his son at length: “Arrey … pagal… Imagine if I Gave him poison here … won’t he scream in pain dying… won’t he writhe in agonizing pain … imagine the villagers hearing to his cries. Won’t they come to know of him … I am only thinking of you … if it’s the forest, we don’t have to fear in the least, no one will be around to see him struggle in pain.” [p.93]
Bibamma asks Chand to let his father take the bear to the forest and let him (the bear) die there itself though with tears gurgling in her throat. Chand asks his father to stay in the forest till he dies and to come back only when he is dead. The last words of Imam are revealing though the tale is set as open ended. “I won’t be long, will be back in half an hour’s time. The poison is very powerful. It’ll work fast, sure!” [p.93]
We are told that the half hour, the night and a new day faded and Imam did not come back. The sensitive reader wonders whether Imam would ever return, what his wife and son would imagine of Imam, whether land would ever be given and whether the mother and son would be able to get any means of living at all. But we are sure that the intimacy between the animal, a bear and a man Imam would be there forever.
Ashok Kumar Peddinti, Friends Forever, Tr. By P. Jayalakshmi, Yugadi Publications, Hyderabd, July 2012, p.25