Into a dream-like atmosphere stepped in Ananda Sankaram timidly. That was a farewell party organized for the final year students of Social work by their juniors. And that evening, the University campus wore a romantic look about it. And merging with the steady silence of the evening was the Bismilla Khan’s serene Shehanai music.
Colorful bulbs were hanging on to the long tresses of the damsel-trees. Chairs were arranged in an arc and a small dais was put up in front. Dividing into little groups, the students were chitchatting on the lawns. That was a festival of life! Ananda Sankaram was not at all interested to attend that function. But, how could he help it? His Professor Gangadhar had threatened that he would put zero against internal assessment for the absentees. So he had to attend the function disinterestedly, out of compulsion, and with great unease.
And it was Ananda Sankaram’s nature!
He was scared of the changes that come up in life. He was afraid of walking into tomorrow. He was so fond of mother’s lap, father’s pampering, relatives’ entreaties, and still coveted that wonderful childhood of yesterday. He was brought into the world of youth as though he was suddenly pushed into it. God! How many responsibilities! And the most unbearable amongst them all was the necessity to live in a group. He had to face people; shake hands with them; had to create an amiable atmosphere by exchanging views and opening his heart out. They were all beyond Ananda Sankaram. He felt so insecure and tense if he trespassed the safe enclosure of “I”. But now Ananda Sankaram, more popular in the campus as, ‘A Timid Creature’, ‘Bespeakable’ ‘Ananda Sankaram, Who?’ etc., etc., was preparing to face one of the most turbulent events of his life.
‘Ahoy! That’s Ananda Sankaram!’ Niranjanrao inadvertently blurted his name loudly to his friends. When he was absorbed in gossiping about the secret love affairs of University lady students, he suddenly saw Ananda Sankaram. And only minutes before he wagered ten rupees on Ananda Sankaram that he would not turn up for the party saying that ‘he was a timid creature; a hare scared of people and run away miles if he saw them.’ But he cursed him within himself ‘dirty fellow, turned up.’ Patting him on the shoulder, he said, “Anand! It is thrilling to see you attending this party. That’s the way you should behave. If you try to come into public like this and socialize, you will certainly come up in life! Come on. Go! Go, and wish the Professor!” Niranjanrao was the only friend that Ananda Sankaram had in the University. Niranjanrao got closer to him by identifying their social proximity of belonging to the same caste. In fact, one shouldn’t call it a friendship. It’s an exploitation of necessities: They go to the movies together, but Ananda Sankaram takes the tickets; they take chicken biryani at Alakapuri, but Ananda Sankaram pays for it; books will be issued in the name of Ananda Sankaram, but they remain with Niranjanrao for months together and Ananda Sankaram pays the dues. Though he was well aware that he was the looser in the bargain, Ananda Sankaram could not help it otherwise.
After greeting the Professor, Ananda Sankaram looked around. There were about twenty- five of his classmates and twenty-five juniors, about ten members of staff, the Principal, The Registrar, the Vice Chancellor and their staff. They were all bustling with activity, humor and gay mood. They were everywhere. There was a strange but very pleasant ambiance. Ananda Sankaram longed to be a party to it. But fear, terrible fear, overcame him. He felt heaviness of heart, and was gasping for breath. No. It’s not for him. He can’t stand it. He searched for a corner where he could not be seen and stood all alone like a scarecrow.
“Hello, Anand! What a man you are? You promised that you would come to the library in the morning and did not turn up!” his classmate Vijaya came looking for him. “Last night my uncle and other relatives came to my room. I had been to the bus depot to see them off and, unexpectedly, I was delayed there,” he mumbled. Though he invented a reason off the cuff, he was not sure if Vijaya believed him. He searched into her face for any traces. She was not in a mood to care for what he had said. “In fact I asked you to come to the library to take your advice on a very important matter. You are a very innocent baby. You don’t have any prejudices. And I am sure you give me a solution to my problem. I waited for you till twelve noon. I was terribly disappointed.”
Ananda Sankaram’s looks conveyed he was sorry for that. She telephoned him in the morning and asked if he could come to the library by ten. Though he said yes, he started feeling uneasy from the very next moment. “Library! There will be so many students and lecturers there and can he talk free there? But what exactly she wanted to talk? There was a rumor circulating in the campus that the affair between she and her lover Nandagopal was wrecked.
By any mischance, does she want me to mediate? Nandagopal is a known roudy-sheeter. So long as he could, he might have taken her to lodges and along beaches and in the end he must have spurned her now. Fellow with the face of Amrish Puri! If I say anything, he would beat me black and blue. What a misfortune I wrought upon myself! I should have said no to her,” he debated within himself. He started by nine in the morning as if he was in a hurry, roamed about the bazaars till noon show time, saw the matinee in Jagadamba and was back to his burrow at one. Ananda Sankaram, who made it a habit not to keep his promises and run away from the realities of life, did it once more.
And now he was feeling guilty and a lot of inconvenience to talk to Vijaya. And when the first opportunity presented itself, he ran away from her to some other place. There, as usual, Niranjanrao was talking gibberish with four or five students around. “What can I tell you? It’s unfortunate that I had to join this social-work course. Life has reduced to just visiting the deaf, dumb, mute and destitute homes or the “Nirmal Hriday” old age homes! I lost interest in life itself listening repeatedly to the same pitiable stories, and same monotony of recording them time and again in the records! And to top it all, Sudha, the only girl friend I have thinks herself another Metha Patkar. No taste for joys, no cinemas, and no sweet nothings. Just a dead wood! Sometime she says ‘to Bal Nivas’ and sometime later she says ‘to Old-age Home’. When I am at my wits’ end with this Social work, she is like a Kannamba to me! I feel like running away leaving this Kannamba and this Metha Patkar!” and his flow stopped instantly when he saw Sudha coming to them.
“Niranjan! Instead of whiling away your time gossiping here why don’t you come and help me? I am finding it hard for the last one hour to dress and make up the destitute-home children all alone. They are in the final rehearsal. Go there! I will find if I can manage some tea and snacks for them,” she said, and left the place as hurriedly as she had come. Niranjan headed towards reading room in obedience.
And the whole electrifying atmosphere had changed all of a sudden into hushed silence and one junior student shouted in his irrepressible excitement: “here comes Mohini! Mohini!” Mohini was the class beauty. Junior Lata Mangeshkar. She was the campus Cuckoo who could sing with enchanting ease the classical ‘Nagumomu Kanaleni.’ Or the pop ‘those were the days my friend, we thought they never end’.
When Ananda Sankaram saw her, his heart throbbed. Mohini was the sweet hum of Rag Mohana of his dreams. Being able to talk to her for few minutes was the most cherished of his desires.
“Your attention please,” Niranjanrao came to the mike, “it is the desire of our respected Professor to conduct the party in the most informal way. So you will hear no speeches, no sermons, and no advices. Just fun and music, that’s all! Of course, you hear songs from Ms Mohini without saying. And today’s special attraction is the musical Ballet compeered and presented by Ms Sudha. And I sincerely hope that this evening, this excitement and its sweetness lingers and haunts you for years to come. Let us start this evening’s programme with a very brief, one minute address by our honorable Vice Chancellor.”
Vice Chancellor Rammohanrao walked up to the dais. With gray hair and eyes so radiant, he looked like the light of knowledge.
“Fear is more dangerous than death itself. It’s cancer that terminates all our good traits. There is so much of happiness in this world. Hubbub and activity, arresting beauty, sweetness of friendships and the colorful spectrum of togetherness. But all these things this fear can deprive us of. The youth that should fly to the limits of horizon fearlessly like the hawks is behaving like hens put under a basket. Forgetting that they envelope enormous amount of energy hidden within them, they are trying merely to exist like ‘bespeakables’, and in an unseemly and unbecoming way…” Ananda Sankaram started and even thought if the V.C. was speaking keeping him in his mind. “If you can break these shackles, the world will prostrate before you!” The words reverberated in his ears.
The Ballet of the “Bal Nivas children” commenced. That was a wonderful stage adaptation of Richard Bach’s famous novel “Jonathan Livingston Sea Gull”. All sea birds (not seagulls) argue that it was enough if they can get few grains for the day than run after mirages. Jonathan argues that one should touch the limits of horizons and unfold new vistas of life, and that earning a livelihood is not the end of life itself. He will be banished from the group. Ananda Sankaram lost himself in the ballet. “We show the way and the world follows,” the girl playing Jonathan was singing beautifully, “open up your wings of courage and follow, I lead you to wonderful worlds unknown!” Jonathan was still singing.
“The song was so lovely. Isn’t it?” Vijaya came to him asked. Ananda Sankaram who lost himself in the ballet. The words of VC that “fear is more dangerous than death itself’ remembered Ananda Sankaram who was about to get into his shell reflexively, and the song ‘open up your wings of courage’ was still reverberating in his ears. Now he is a different man. He opened up himself and talked freely with Vijaya. “Anand! I did what that Jonathan had tried. I developed an unforgettable relation with the children of ‘Bal Nivas’ in these two years of social work. I wish to adopt a child from them and Nandagopal does not like the proposal. He wants me to choose between the destitute children and him. I am unable to decide,” she said with a sigh of despair. Ananda Sankaram was perplexed. And the very proposal seemed to him strange. To an Ananda Sankaram who could not face a girl friend and ran away like a thief and invented reasons to cover it up, it shocked him to realize if people would think so nobly about life. He felt that the layers were slowly melting and the real meaning of life was steadily unfolding before him.
The ballet had come to the end. All other birds were following Jonathan. They were heading towards the new horizons. “Open up your wings of courage” What a great message that was! The words of Jonathan were ringing in his ears. All the spectators gave the children of ‘Bal Nivas’ a very big hand in appreciation. And Ananda Sankaram who was in a trance, forgot even to clap.
Mohini commenced her song. It was a nagma, a poem: Soughat kise pesh karoon. It was like the wetness of ice skiing down silently. And when the song was finished, the whole atmosphere was agog with claps. And a student unable to contain his excitement shouted, “Mohini Zindabad!” And the rest joined him in chorus. And bowing her head in blush Mohini expressed her thanks in lovely smiles. That song gave Ananda Sankaram an inexplicable pleasure. And when the darling of his dreams was so splendid in that gathering under the full moon, he felt a little pride and was happy that he could be her mate, at least, in his dreams.
Ananda Sankaram, who was captivated by her thoughts, was shocked to hear his name over the mike and the announcement ‘Ananda Sankaram should sing a song now’. Niranjanrao was looking at him in sadistic pleasure. When there was no response from Ananda Sankaram all the students started singing in chorus: ‘Ananda Sankaram should sing. Ananda Sankaram should sing.’
And his old comrade of fear seized Ananda Sankaram. His heart started beating fast and he felt short of breath. He recanted to himself those words of the V.C. that ‘fear is more dangerous than death itself.’ No use. He remembered Jonathan Seagull. Still no use. His legs refused to budge.
A man may be rational and kind, but a group is not. It will not tolerate timidity and excuses. A student pushed Ananda Sankaram forward. Another handed him the mike. And they were all shouting rhythmically that ‘Ananda Sankaram should sing. Ananda Sankaram should sing.’
Nobody knew what impulse had driven him and what courageousness had seized him, but he opened his mouth. “In this vast, lone serene surrounds of this palace, Jahapana, my lord, please rest peacefully!” That was a song by MS Rama Rao. He was himself not aware he knew the song. It was a song he learnt from his Telugu teacher in his childhood. He hazily remembered the tune. But it came afresh piercing through the manifold layers years. There was angst in it. Touch of tears in it. And the song suspended in the whole atmosphere like the tang of sandalwood. And the listeners felt the touch of a rose washed in tears in their hands.
Claps! Claps!! And the whole assembly reverberated with claps!!! And the simplest means man had to express his pleasure and assent are claps. And the listeners indicated how they enjoyed it by a long two-minute spell of claps.
Ananda Sankaram was suffocating with pleasure. Drying his eyes he said ‘thanks’ bashfully. And then happened the most unexpected event of his life! Like a Gandharva Woman under the enchanting spell of a magician, Mohini walked up to him in steady steps, and saying, ‘what a wonderful rendering of the song! This is a song one should covetously keep in the mind’s album. Take this little compliment from me,’ and delicately planted a silent kiss on the cheek of Ananda Sankaram.
It must be ten past at night. And the world was glistening under moonshine. And birds were cooing in their nests. Ananda Sankaram looked around with his eyes wet with pleasure. He found young men and women ready to take to wings like Jonathan Seagull to explore unknown horizons. He was no longer afraid of assemblies and people. He was now able to comprehend the meaning of intimacy between people. And in no time Ananda Sankaram was everywhere. He felt his wings, withdrawn for ages, were slowly opening out.
“Hello Uncle! You sang so well!” That was the girl who played Jonathan. He hugged her affectionately. “There is nothing great about it. Your dance is still fresh in my mind. You show a great talent beyond your age,” and kissed her in sincere appreciation. And they moved freely in the party like close friends.
To the right of reading room and near the arbor of crotons Ananda Sankaram saw Vijaya and Nandgopal. It seemed there was row between them. Vijaya was drying her eyes with the frills of her sari. Under normal circumstances he would have run away from the scene. But he was a different man today. He was a Jonathan with a pair of new wings.
“What Gopal! Is it the time for you to quarrel?” he said with a tone of disapproval.
“Tell me then, what can I do? She behaves as if she is another mother Theresa to uplift all the destitute children. Don’t you think that one should be practical in life? Is it enough if you just adopt a child? One will end up in life burning his hands if he lives it trying to follow his ideals. Anand! At least you try to convince her. As a matter of fact, my marrying her is itself a great adventure. She compounds it with another.”
Ananda Sankaram did not say a word. He could not say anything, in fact. He silently retreated from that place. Education is different and life is different. To cant ideals is one thing and to put them in practice in life is a different thing. He then realized that his timidness, his trying to accommodate things, and Nandagopal-mark practicality had all come from the same origin.
The duet, in base, by Sudha and Niranjan was melodiously flowing from the stage. And a lone cloud on the sky is hurrying somewhere. Tilwito! Tilwito! A bird is cooing as if it had woken up from sleep.
Ananda Sankaram gripped the hand of the girl who played Jonathan firmly and tightly with his shivering hands. And the girl felt a great effort, a great fight, and an unflinching decision in that touch!