Original in Telugu by L.R. Swamy
Even though the fan was whirring, it looked as though air stood still. It was quite sultry. Mrigasira has made its advent, yet there was no respite.
Clouds wearing black coat have been arguing, demanding imprisonment for searing summer vexing for the past two to three months. But, the judgment has been reserved.
I felt quite thirsty. How refreshing it would be if a cool drink was available. I came out of the library in bar council and looked around for thaatha.*
No sign of him.
Might be moving around there…supplying tea or chilled soft drinks…. conveying messages to the clerks concerned…. But, that day he was not to be seen. I approached a clerk.
“What happened to thaatha?” I asked.
“What do you want?”
“Please get some chilled soft drinks for me.”
I reached the library again. With a book in hand I sank into a chair. Though there was a book in hand, I could not concentrate. My thoughts veered round the old man.
I wondered. He was not my relation….nor was a friend…not much acquaintance with him….yet, why did I feel sorry for him?
“Hi. Why are you lost in thoughts?”
I was startled by Vani’s Voice.
“About which accused have you been thinking.” keeping her black coat on her arm, she enquired.
“Have you confined any one in the dock?” Vani persisted.
I was furious.
“What nonsense?” I snapped.
“Don’t be wild dear. Just for fun I said so.”
I turned my head.
After a while I said, “Today, thatha is not to be seen, Vani!”
“Oh! That’s bothering you. He might be somewhere round.” Vani said. “Satya, for lawyers like us, tender feelings are alien. Why are you so upset about that old man? He is one among numerous clients that approach you.”
‘True! Agony for not securing justice for him as a lawyer is devouring me.”
“If we are sentimental, we can not survive in this profession, madam!” Vani said.
“Look at me. I lost a case today. My client was convicted. But, am I feeling bad for it?”
Vani was her usual self with a gentle smile.
‘Look, just like other professions this one also … for a livelihood. In our line we should bother about fee to be collected, but not about rendering justice. It leaves us without peace of mind .The moment a case is disposed off; the client too should be disposed off.”
Vani got up. “I have another brief tomorrow to attend.”
She walked out pulling her black gown.
I could not concur with her.
The old man started stretching across my mind’s screen.
Stubble, unkempt hair, a worn out dhoti in tatters, and a towel on his shoulders ---in effect, it summed up the old man.
But, when I saw him for the first time, he was not like that. Appearing like a steel girder, he looked like a man of forty years, not the one on the other side of sixty. Clad in a white, crisp dhoti with a matching kurta, he was quite impressive.
My acquaintance with him was by chance. I went to the court for the first time to seek an adjournment for my father’s case. Stepping down from the car, I was ascending the steps.
“Kindly get me justice, ammaayi gaaru**! Get me justice.” Some one touched my feet.
I halted in my tracks.
“At least you render me justice. You will be blessed to benefit.”
“Snatching my home, fields, we are being dumped on the street, ammayi gaaru.” He said again.
I was dumbstruck like an innocent accused listening to the allegations of a government lawyer.
“Move on”. Vani, who came there, said to me, “It is quite normal. He keeps pestering every lawyer to render him justice. Madcap.”
“I am not mad. Believe me, ammaayi gaaru. Trust my words. Please render me justice.”
Tears rolling down his cheeks landed on my feet warmly. Holding my hand, Vani virtually dragged me from there.
“It seems his fields have been taken over for construction of a factory.” Vani said. “In return he demands cultivable land. Crazy fellow.”
Even after I reached home on completing court work, my thoughts revolved round him. What was his problem? Without a strong reason, why should he behave so queerly?
I thought it would be better if I talked to him.
I summoned him.
“I am from Nadupuru, ammaayi gaaru!” he said. “Ten acre wet land. Cultivation took care of us. But…”
“A factory is going to be constructed in my village. A lot of land is needed. For that…”
“Our lands are acquired.”
“Is that all. There is nothing wrong.”
“How can you say there is nothing wrong, ammaayi gaaru? If our land is taken away, how are we to live?”
“You will be paid well.”
“Ah! They gave us fifteen thousand rupees.”
“Fifteen thousand!” I was stunned. That worked out to fifteen hundred per acre.
Five years ago, my father purchased five acre land. I remembered pretty well that it cost him ten thousand rupees per acre. But that old man’s version was different.
“So, you received fifteen thousand,” I said softly.
“When did I get fifteen thousand ammaayi gaaru? Half of it was exhausted in realizing it. With the remaining half, how do I wait for the dawn?” The old man broke down.
“Owing to mother earth’s munificence we are managing to live on gruel or porridge. Now we are hit hard. I am an aged fellow. Other than cultivation, nothing else I can do. With the remaining seven thousand rupees, how am I to live?”
My eyes were moistened. I had no answer. I felt as though thousands of cultivators who lost their lands echoed the question in chorus.
On his insistence, I visited Nadupuru one day. The owners of the factory had not started acquiring land. Without sparing an inch, the old man raised some crop. As it was well irrigated, it looked like a well spread green carpet.
I was surrounded by about twenty five persons moving on the raised field bunds. I thought that cultivators of the village came to meet me.
‘No, ammaayi gaaru,” thaatha said. “These are my sons, daughter’s-in-law and grandsons.”
Right from two year old child to girls who came of age….five girls in a row…seven sons with their ages ranging from thirty years to fifty, their spouses…all members of a family ...a livelihood for all of them…
“All work in the fields… other than cultivation, we know nothing!”
I looked at them again. They appeared like those who lost all their fortune in litigation and were reduced to penury.
“Who is this girl?”
“Saraswati, my eldest grand daughter.”
“I am in ninth class, ammaayi gaaru!” The girl said.
“She wants to study.” thaatha said. “Her teacher informed that she studies well. The government pays some money.”
Even after reaching my home, I thought of thatha’s family. The factory has triggered a devastating storm in his hither to peaceful life. These cultivators, deprived of their livelihood, might take to robberies just for a grub. Some others might turn extremists. Who should shoulder responsibility?
I was angry. These people had to be supported. They should not become destitute. Should not be deprived of a livelihood.
I spoke to my father, hoping that his forty year experience in the line might show me a way out. But, father discouraged me. He opined that taking such cases might not help budding lawyers.
“Then, is it not an injustice?” I asked. “If cultivable lands are confiscated for starting industries, what should be the fate of cultivators surviving on them?”
“Without industries, how can the country progress?” my father asked. “A lot of land is required for starting industries.”
I looked at him quizzically.
“There are barren lands…hundreds of acres …in our country. Better earmark such lands for industries.”
“Yes, can be done,” my father said pacing the length of the room. “But, we are not the ones to take such a decision.”
No one spoke for a minute. Then, he said, “We can resort to one thing Satya. We can file a case demanding better compensation. Get him some more money.”
I did not waste time. I filed a case demanding better compensation.
Time sublimated like the money in a client’s hand.
The court ruled that thaatha was entitled for better compensation. He responded to my summons.
‘How does this money help me, ammaayi gaaru?” He said with a wry smile.
“Does this amount see me through?”
“Then, what for? What I need is not money, ammaayi gaaru! A livelihood. A means to carry on life. Let them keep this money with them.”
“No, it’s not possible thaatha!”
“Why is it not possible?” It looked as though he was angry. “Pattas are given to the encroachers. We can be offered a five acre barren land. Cultivating it, we can eke out our livelihood.”
I was benumbed with the revelation. Yes! Cultivators like thaatha eke out a living through manual labor.
But, was it possible? If it was so desired, why not?
Leaving the money thaatha went away.
After six months Vani informed that thaatha was seen carrying loaded cartons in the bus station.
After one year, thaatha was seen again.
I went to the vegetable market with my father.
I was in the car.
Carrying the vegetable basket, thaatha followed my father. He could place me.
“Is it ammaayi gaaru?” he asked in surprise.
“How are you thaatha? What is this?”
“Some thing has to be done. Should pull on. I am not able to carry loaded cartons.”
“How about your sons, grand sons…?”
“Migrated in search of a livelihood.” He mopped his moistened eyes with towel.
“Don’t know where they are.”
I was overwhelmed with pity. I offered him a twenty rupee note.
“How does it help me, ammaayi gaaru? I am yet left with some strength. I will earn through sweat of my brow.”
“It is not for you,” I tried to shift gear. “Advise Saraswati to buy bangles.”
“Where is place for Saraswati still, amma?” He broke down. “We wanted to educate her well. Her life ended prematurely on account of the factory, ammaayi gaaru.”
‘What! What are you saying?”
“As she passed tenth class, she got a job in the Mission hospital.”
“That should be nice.”
“How nice it was, ammaayi gaaru! They defiled her. Saraswati jumped into a well and died, ammaayi gaaru.”
Covering his face with the emptied vegetable basket, he sobbed inconsolably.
“Compose yourself, thaatha.”
“What else could I do? Helpless fellow, I am…that’s why we remained mute when our fields were snatched and ancestral home was raged to earth.”
Even as time marched, I could not forget him.
After another six months, he was spotted in the precincts of the court.
He was quite emaciated.
“I am not able to carry even the load of vegetables. I want to do odd job here for my survival.”
He used to supply drinking water to the advocates. He also fetched cool drinks and tea or coffee. If any one offered a rupee or two, he accepted.
“Satya! Are you asleep?” Vani woke me up.
I got up in alarm.
It was chaotic. Many lawyers were briskly moving out.
“What happened, Vani?”
“Some one came under the wheels of the judge’s car. Let’s go and find out.”
We descended the steps in a hurry. A large crowd gathered near the gate. Pushing aside those that blocked view, Vani craned her neck.
“It is thaatha! Came under the wheels. It’s a pity! He is dead.”Vani said.
I too had a look, craning my neck. Thatha’s body was there.
”Thaatha is not dead.” I said. “He was killed. He became a sacrificial lamb for industrial growth.”
Perhaps, my words did not reach Vani! She looked at me quizzically.
When my words could not reach Vani so close by, how could they reach the nation galloping along the path to industrial growth!!
*thaatha: Literally grand father; used to refer (with respect and affection) to any elderly gentleman.
**Ammaayi gaaru: Respectful way of addressing a young lady (usually belonging to the upper strata.).
Original in Telugu by L. R. Swamy.
First published in Cyber Literature, vol xxiv,No-2, December 2009
L.R Swamy, a chemical Engineer writes in Malayalam, Tamil and Telugu. Translates from Telugu into the other two languages and from Malayalam, his mother tongue, into Telugu the language he learnt with love in Visakhapatnam where he lives. He wrote more than 150 short stories in Telugu.He received many awards and honors.
Image under license with Gettyimages.com