In my ninetieth year I have enough time to revisit the past. First things first, I remember the enigma of my birth, a happening hearsay and others’ behavior compel me to believe. Two witnesses who were eyewitnesses to it are now no more. The midwife who helped my mother deliver me died when I was sixteen. My mother who released me from nine months of incarceration in her womb passed away when I was 64 years old.. The strange thing is I was also there but remember little of what has happened..
When I was old enough to go to school I pestered my mother to tell me why I was dark when my bother was fair. I remember my mother telling me I was born dark because I was Lord Krishna reborn to restore dharma on earth and showing me a picture of adolescent Krishna with a cow standing behind him and a flute in his hands. I believed it because that lad in the picture also was dark
In the middle of my school years my mother had thought it was time I knew the full story of my birth. On that day in the monsoon month of Aashadh something had happened that hastened my birth. According to her account a few hours before my incarnation she had happened to enter the bathroom for an evening wash. She found an intruder in the bathroom, which in those days was built away from the main house. She panicked and ran into the main building. Immediately the labor pains began, the midwife sent for and in the evening I was born, earlier than God had proposed, in an unused room of my grandfather’s 21-room mansion. This account of my mother remains uncorroborated till today.
My mother’s collection of Jataka tales is inexhaustible. This one concerns a mistake of omission my parents had made in their excitement that the founder of Dwapara Era was born to them. They had failed to register my birth with the Registrar of Births and Deaths. This omission wrote a preface of doubt to my life. There was no document to show I was even born. The consequences began by stages to unfold.
In my fifth year, an orderly in my father’s printing press took me to a neighborhood school. He introduced me to the class teacher as the son of my father. ‘That’s great. What is his name,’ the teacher asked the office assistant. Whenever I remember that day I doubt if my father’s minion had given my right name to the teacher. ‘I don’t know. But the parents call him Kishtu at home,’ he said. The teacher guessed it could be Krishnamoorty, and entered my name as such in the muster.
Later my mother told me that Sri Krishna was my right name. But the Krishnamoorty moniker stuck to me like the election poster on your wall. That is not the end of the tragicomic tale. There were doubts about the date of my birth. If I was born, as many people and I believe I was, it must have been on some day in the calendar. My school-leaving document showed it as the first day of July. When we, my mother and I, consulted the equivalent day in the Hindu calendar for Bahula Dasami of Aashaadh the day of my birth according to the family priest, it happened to be 6 August in the Christian calendar. Throughout the world, the school document is conclusive proof of date of birth, which in my case was 1 July. This duality of birth, first on Aashaadh Bahula Dasami (August 6) and a second time on 1 July, agrees fortunately with the Hindu belief that a Brahmin is born twice.
My life began in this manner with doubts, controversies, rumors, acrimony and hearsay. Was it July 1 or August 6? Is my name Kishtu or Sri Krishna or Krishnamoorty? All these 90 years I have been living with a name marked by ambiguity, no matter that school documents and later government registers accepted either of the two dates.
Evidence or no evidence, I had managed to get into and out of schools and colleges without a birth certificate. That happy run of serendipity ended one afternoon at the US Consulate half century later. My daughter, an expectant mother and an American citizen, had invited my wife and me to come and help her. The next day we showed our visa-seeking faces at the Consulate. They asked me to get a birth certificate. I asked the consulate official what more clinching proof of my birth he would need than my physical presence before him.
‘Sir, what we want is an official document testifying to the day, month, year and place of your birth and the names of your parents,’ he said and called the next person in the line. The End, I told myself. “If you are born you have an existence. Born you were always to some parents. Naming them is no big deal,” I wanted to tell the visa-dispensing guy but desisted for reasons I couldn’t mobilize readily. I’d begun to doubt if my existence was real or was a trick of my consciousness.
The consulate official had no patience to listen to my metaphysical rigmarole. My wife, who got a visa because she had a birth certificate, was disheartened but remembering something soon brightened up and said, ‘Why don’t we try our luck at the Office of the Registrar of Births and Deaths? That will work. Who knows you’re hibernating as a palimpsest entry on some page in the books of the Registrar?’ she said.
This unholy record of two mutually cancelling events of birth and death co-existing in the same place had always intrigued me. But I remember the Sanskrit saying that to be born is to die. Birth and death are made for each other. Think coolly, the minute you’re born you’re headed for death. Every birthday is a year closer to the end. So, there is this umbilical cord binding birth to death and the Office of the Registrar of Births and Deaths is a living confirmation of this truth.
My wife accompanying me, I set out on a normal morning to the Registry, asking people on the way for directions. Near Kameswar & Co., a person told us, ‘proceed ahead for two hundred yards until you see on your right a shop selling old books. Next to that is the office you are looking for. It has no board. Ask the bookshop people. They’ll help you.’ We thanked him and moved on, remembering that Kameswar & Co was the same place we used to pass by on our way daily to the branch of Sri Kanyaka Parameswari Vissamsetti Venkatratnam Hindu High School..
‘Look, the bookshop,’ my wife cried in delight. We found ourselves in front of a complex of shops built on a ridge. It was ten thirty when we climbed five steps and reached a wide corridor closed by shop fronts on one side. At the bookshop we checked with a small boy who looked like he was waiting for his boss to come take charge of the shop.
‘Next-door. But ayya garu won’t show up before another half-hour,’ he said and pointed to a huge steel shutter displaying political graffiti calling for a revolution. He said, ‘that is the office.’ Outwardly it looked too poor to afford a board and sat between two shops, with their back to a building that sheltered out-of-towners for a small fee. One of the two shops sold bicycle tires and the other traded in used books.
There was no trace of any person of whatever rank at the Registrar’s office though it was ten thirty in the morning. Both of us looked at each other’s tired face, wondering if we had made a mistake in arriving early. The cycle shop boy noticed our unease and told us that ayyagaru wouldn’t turn up before 12 O’ clock. To kill time we entered the bookshop. The 12-year-old kid tried to help us but my wife dismissed him as a presumptuous brat. We will help ourselves, she told the boy who asked if he might be of help.
I thought we could buy a book or two and help the boy get a pat from his boss. After half hour’s panning I found purely by accident an old copy of Alexis Carrel’s Man The Unknown. I tapped the book against a rack. It sprayed a cloud of fine dust sending my wife into a paroxysm of sneezing. I spent some time reading a few pages and found it hard to comprehend in a casual reading. The boy quoted hundred rupees for the book. Knowing the ways of traders, I said ten rupees. The boy didn’t say anything. I didn’t accept his silence as rejection. I said, fifteen rupees. No, he said firmly.
‘He has come, talk to him,’ the boy said pointing to the boss who was just stepping inside.
The boss, looking forty and harassed like Atlas bearing the celestial sphere on his shoulders, addressed us,
‘What can I do for you, sir?’
He wore a Binny cotton suit faded and frayed, closed in the front with discolored buttons.. We told him about the book and the price we had offered to pay. He closed his eyes and looked like he was making some calculations. After a few seconds of meditation and stemming with his tongue the ooze of pan juice from the corner of his mouth, he said,
‘That is not possible, sir.’
‘Make it twenty,’ we said and tried to get him round by pretending to leave the shop.
‘All right, let it be thirty, sir,’ he said.
‘One last word, make it twenty-five,’ we said.
‘Okay, sir, as you please. You are our old customer,‘ he said though we had never visited the shop. As we exited the shop with the trophy, we heard only half of what he had said. ‘Crooks,’ my wife, who heard the other half, told me.
The officer in charge who documents God’s creation and destruction had yet to come. Time seemed to have pressed the pause button. I thought I could nudge it into motion by opening the Carrel book. My wife prodded my side with her thumb to draw my attention to a janitor opening a giant Aiigarh brass lock that secured the Registrar’s office. The janitor heaved the shutter up revealing the office display board.
To be summoned first we rushed inside smelling of burnt wood and swaddling and ageing paper. We could see some books looking like huge ledgers stacked on wooden racks and more resting pell-mell all over the place. Near the only window the office had we saw a pot of potable water resting on a bloated deodar stool and an aluminum tumbler chained to one of the window bars. A cardboard placard stood against the pot telling the public that the water was strictly for use by office staff. A table and a chair for the officer and two more chairs across the table, for visitors perhaps, were the other pieces of furniture in the office.
The janitor began sweeping the floor and dusting the furniture, driving us out into the corridor. Ten minutes later, the janitor called us in and asked us to wait. Waiting for the boss to show up my wife and I talked about the small things we could give away, in view of our migration, to servants and bigger things like furniture, the refrigerator, dining table and chairs, sofa set, TV and others sold to people in other flats. The biggest problem was the sale of the flat the builder had built according to our specifications, floor to ceiling windows, washable paint for walls, customized doors, Godrej door knobs, door stoppers, mesh doors for doors that opened out on the corridor and the balcony and the windows, imported switches and switchboards, marble flooring in every room and the balcony, and a score of other fittings not seen in other flats. These worries tormented us as we imagined the scenario that would present itself if my daughter asks us to stay with her permanently in the United States.
The janitor solemnly announced the sighting of his boss at the end of the corridor. In a minute the boss entered the registry. We stood up and smiled at him. He appeared in a Binny cotton suit and took some time to settle down and call us.
‘Birth or death,’ was the first question’ he asked us. He was perhaps a man of few words, we thought,
“Neither,’ I said brusquely.
‘’What else is the matter,’ he asked us impatiently making us think we are joking with him.
‘Doubt,’ I said with a straight face.
‘What doubt? I want more light on it,’ he snapped.
‘The birth of a doubt, sir.’
‘Come to the point,’ the officer nearly shouted.
I told him the history of my undocumented birth and the unreasonable demand of the Consulate official for a birth certificate.
‘Sir, how old are you?’ the official asked me.
I told him my age.
‘Gone, sir. It is impossible to keep such old records. After they attain the age of fifty we destroy them. No chance,’ he said. We suggested ways of skirting the problem to him. That didn’t work. We shook hands with him and stepped on to the Kameswar & Co. road.
As we were near Rajagopalachari’s house we heard a shrill shout from behind. ‘Sir, sir.’
We turned back and saw the janitor running up to us.
‘Don’t be in such a hurry, sir. We can work out a way to get the document.’
‘How,’ we asked him.
‘Leave the how to me, sir. It will cost you something by way of processing charges.’
‘How much?’ we ask him.
‘Five hundred,’ he says.
I look at my wife for a nod and after her nod, tell the janitor, we are ready.
We went back to the office. The officer smiled at us in pity and in less than 15 minutes issued us a certificate. I was born, a third time.
Our school, compressed in a private building, had no playground. So in nonschool hours we would play in the open spaces of the mansion of my grandfather where lived his three sons and their thirteen children. It was built on a sprawling square plot enclosed by four roads and consisted of the big house we talked about earlier, the cavernous hangar swallowing rows of composing racks, treadles, flatbed machines, a rotary printing giant, a power house, an administrative complex away from the monstrous hangar, a type-casting foundry and a silo to store newsprint and sundry printing stationary.
We really didn’t know where from all the money came. But as children we had heard many tales about my grandfather’s spirit of adventure that made him what he was, an uncrowned first citizen of the town, possessing two of the eight cars on its roads. So, add a double garage to the buildings I have mentioned.
The house is entered through a spacious vestibule opening out into a larger veranda leading to living rooms on the ground floor. The vestibule is flanked by two paved open spaces where my cousins, siblings and I played. We played hopscotch with the girls. In the other open spaces in the printing complex we played marbles. Since there was little traffic on the road opposite the house we sometimes played football with a tennis ball.
In the evening two bullock carts made the rounds of the town, playing pipes and drums. They distributed handbills of the films showing in the two cinema halls in the town, Durga Kala Mandaram and Maruti Cinema. We ran after the carts collecting as many bills as possible. The one who collected most was envied. One day an enterprising film distributor hired a trainer aircraft to shower the bills from the sky, The movie was Krishna Leelalu featuring Saluri Rajeswara Rao and Vemuri Gaggaiah. The bills floated in air for some time before landing on tree tops, roofs of houses and the streets, with boys running helter-skelter because the bills seduced them to one spot but actually landed elsewhere.
We had always watched films in the company of parents, Fans buying tickets would mob the ticket counters hours in advance because there were no queues in those days. One had to wrestle his way through the pulling and pushing mob to reach the box office. Another struggle to get out of the crowd clutching tickets in your fist like they are your very life. Those who failed to get tickets would wreak their frustration by throwing stones on the tin roof of the cinema hall. In the interval spectators came out and sprayed the outer wall of the hall with bottled up urine,
One day my father brought a small projector. With it came a few hundred feet of film. There was no sound track. The machine had to be cranked by hand. The film showed some bandits raiding a place using guns. An action film. A special feature of our exhibition was to run the film backwards. It was fun seeing horses race backwards and shrug off the rider. Fire turned into smoke and re-entered the muzzle of the pistol. We all enjoyed doing it. My elder brother was the operator. Children of neighbors also craved to see the film. So my siblings and I thought of collecting gate money. When we became rich enough we would build a cinema hall and buy real projectors. After sometime a few teeth of the cranking wheel broke, ruining our plans to collect gate money and become rich enough to build a cinema hall.
Next summer a grand uncle of ours told us that his grandson, who happened to be our first cousin, would be coming from Madras for summer vacation. He was three or four years older than us, We were seeing him for the first time. Madras is a big city where people traveled in trams and suburban trains. Boys and girls went to schools where they learnt to speak English. When the cousin arrived he matched our idea of a Madras boy. He behaved more like an uncle than a cousin.
One day he took some of us to a hotel, localspeak for a restaurant. We sat in one of the many rooms of the hotel. We called for upma and idli. As children we were forbidden to drink coffee or tea. The bill came to one rupee. Asking us to go out and wait for him the Madras cousin sat in a different room and called for coffee. A different waiter billed him for one anna. After coffee he paid one anna at the counter and walked out to join us. Later he collected one anna each from us. Thus he earned fthirteen annas cheating us and the hotel.
I had a classmate who would tell me stories about miracles. According to one of them, you can get anything you want by subduing a spirit. You mean the spirit can build a palace for me complete with fairies, I asked him. Anything you wish, he said. How is that possible? This is how, he said. Go to the cremation ground. When you see a whirlwind throw some salt into it. A spirit will materialize. Without fear you pluck a hair from any part of its body and tie it safely to your belt, Now, the spirit becomes your slave. Ask anything. It is done instantly.
So, two of my cousins and I stole salt from our kitchens and set out for the cremation ground. Though it was day, the silence and the sight of a few bodies burning frightened us. We would run after each gust of wind, pour some salt into the whirl. Nothing happened. Meanwhile, the keeper who happened to be a former employee of my grandfather recognized me and told my parents about it. A severe scolding ended our quest for miracles.