I had seen him somewhere earlier, but in spite of straining every nerve I couldn't recall where. I had no acquaintances in Krishna Lanka and I had never set foot here. Though I belong to a suburb of Bezwada, I had been staying in Madras for over seven years. I had not visited this region any time during the period. Then where could I possibly have seen him? Even now, the reason for my coming here was the knowledge that the recent cyclone had razed a large part of this region. In fact the cyclone had ravaged this area inflicting an extensive damage. I had never seen such devastation in recent memory. All the occupants were lamenting that they could not salvage enough food grains for their survival. How could I help it?
Actually, I was returning to Madras. Having come up to Bezwada I wanted to look up for an old friend here. He was busy extending his helping hand to the cyclone-hit people and asked me stay back for the night and so I obliged. He invited me to accompany him to Krishna lanka where he was distributing beams, bamboo and Palmyra leaves to the affected poor. And among those I found this man. No doubt, I had seen him sometime earlier. He too appeared to have taken aback for a fraction of a second after seeing me. The face was so familiar. I racked my brains to no avail.
When we were returning home, a farmer accompanied us. I was terribly surprised when I came to know the person I was struggling to recollect was no body but the father-in-law of Koti Reddy. I knew Koti Reddy. He was also staying in Madras. I knew his father-in-law as well. Even I visited Koti Reddy when he was with his in-laws once. It was there I met him. Well, if I could not recognize him now, it wasn’t my fault. There was a sea change in him!
Having thought that he might have a message for Koti Reddy, I visited his father-in-law the following morning at Krishna Lanka before leaving for Madras. It was a place for the poor and destitute. As far as my knowledge goes, Koti Reddy's father-in-law was fairly well to do. I was not aware what befell him. And what compelled him to live here selling off his properties at his native place. Neither Koti Reddy ever mentioned that to me. All the structures were only huts and hutments. And Koti Reddy's father -in-law was living in one such hutment. He was attending to the repair work of other hutments around when I went there to see him... He was apparently embarrassed seeing me. He went in and came out with sagging cot and offered me to be seated. I wondered what circumstances had brought him to such state. I entered into a dialogue with him. He was answering nolens and volens to my queries. He enquired about Koti Reddy. I informed him he was fine. I asked him this and that but he never gave me a straight answer. And at last I told him that I was going to back to Madras and asked if he had any message for him. ‘Tell him, we are like this,' he replied. I took leave of him and returned.
On my way, I met the same farmer I met the previous day who informed me about Koti Reddy's father-in-law. I enquired how Koti Reddy's father-in-law lost all his property.
“What property? What loss?" he asked me back innocently.
“Well if not for such a loss, why should a man like him migrate to these hutments?"
“Oh, you mean that!" he laughed away my question and after a while resumed saying, 'do you know we belong to the same place? I know every bit of the man. He did not come here because of any misfortune’.
“Then why should he be living here?"
“To make money. He entered into money-lending business selling off his property in the village. Having learnt that the lands here at Krishna Lanka are available at throw away prices and would shoot up any time, he purchased land here. Tomorrow he will sell it off and buy at a different place. Look at that land he bought here. He thought he would gain little by keeping it idle and put up few huts and let them out. But you should only see what had happened the day the cyclone struck..." and broke into an irrepressible fit of laughter. Though I could not make out anything, I couldn't help laughing with him and then asked, 'well, what happened really?'
“For the three days before that fateful day the weather was stormy and it had worsened that day. All the people fled Krishna Lanka for safer places. But this man refused to move. No. he did not budge an inch. 'these houses sheltered me for long and at this hour I can't desert them,' he would say. And as for his wife, she was just made for him! ‘How long will this cyclone last? As it comes, so does it pass off. It’s all a waste to leave this place and come back again later. We better hang on,’ was her response.” “As it comes, so does it pass off,” he burst into a fit of laughter once again.
“Then what happened?” I asked.
“What else? Can we leave them behind even if they were so obstinate? God knows about them, but they had a kid with them. How could we keep quiet when that kid was drenching in the storm? We forced them to leave this place. But did you see that timber mart? After coming to that place he was adamant to move any further, come what might. It was his wish to be as near to his hutments as possible. We had to house him in that timber mart for the night. He called us all names. Relations of his son-in-law from town came and invited him to stay with them. But no. He wouldn't listen to them. Instead, he drove them away recounting in anger what they did and didn't do in the past and accusing that their real intention of inviting him was only to laugh at his plight rather than any concern for him. He somehow managed the night holding his breath and no sooner it was dawn, he landed back with his wife at his hutments. The storm had passed off by then no doubt, but nobody ventured out. He couldn’t stand the sight of his destroyed huts and was restless till he brought them back to shape. Between dilapidated walls he erected an ad-hoc shelter using flown-over Palmyra leaves, and began his work in all earnest. Poor Man! Now he has but one worry!"
“What is that?" I asked.
“Well, to start with, he built a decent and spacious hut for him to live when he bought the land. When there was demand for rented accommodation, he let out half of his portion for five rupees and adjusted in the other half. The demand for accommodation did not cease. So he let out the other portion as well and started living under the awning of the hut. The demand was such that he had to let out even that awning and he built another hut for himself. The same story repeated there also. And the more huts he built the more he realized that he was losing rent for the part he was himself occupying. How to overcome this problem was his eternal worry which was consuming him day and night," and again went into peels of laughter. More than the content, the way he narrated made me join him in the laughter. But within me the question however lingered what made him to come to such a pass. My memories about him were that he was a nice gentleman, respected by all in the village, enjoyed his life well and helped others, too. I had an impression that he valued being respected more. But, what a change in him!
I reached Madras by Mail the same night. I was busy attending to my own work for the next four days and could not meet Koti Reddy. I went to him on the fifth evening. He was at home writing something. After the usual pleasantries and a little gossip I informed him about my visit to his father in law, how he lost heavily in the cyclone and that he was alright now. He did not speak to me for a while. Then slowly he pulled out a post card from the table-drawer and asked me to read it. It was from his father-in-law addressed to Koti Reddy's wife. It read:
Your letter to hand. Though the cyclone was devastating, by the Grace of Almighty, we got away with minimum loss. While no body dared to move out, your mother and I went back to our place and erected the houses back to shape. Slowly our tenants started returning one by one. Your mother is demanding a rupee more than the usual rent for the repairs undertaken. Please be prudent with the money. Your husband squanders away money for books and similar trivialities. Have a strict check on that. If he doesn't have, you must have foresight for the sake of your children!
NB: Yes, I for got to mention one more thing. Your infant sister died of severe cold."
After reading it, I looked into his eyes in shock and disbelief.
“Did you notice? Death of a child has reduced to such a trivial matter for him that he had mentioned it as a P.S. Poor kid! She must have been drenched in the storm and perhaps was not even taken to a doctor. They have no other interests but their huts, rents and interests! Anybody trying to inculcate some human values is a big fool in their view. He was not like this from the beginning. It all happened ever since he started lending money selling off his farm land. And he is moving from bad to worse day by day," mused Koti Reddy.