A cold wind was blowing swishing noisily. It was raining hard. There had been a cyclone.
It was well past midnight. In pitch darkness the kerchief on my head was not much of a protection. The clothes were making a lot of noise as I was struggling along on the deserted road. The street lighting was not working.
I could reach my room but could not feel the padlock. The fistful of my tired heart released a measure of adrenaline and I broke into a cold sweat. I pushed the door and since it was not bolted from the inside it opened creaking. I got in and switched on the light. Surprisingly, the light came like a flood: at least this was saved: I sighed.
“Hmmm-“ a groan was heard from the floor.
It was Sharma sleeping on a bedspread on the floor.
Right from childhood they had been together singing, playing, later, sharing rooms in college days. In cinema houses, restaurants and coffee clubs they graduated into early adulthood. Sharma missed it by a hair’s breadth: otherwise he too would have been doing his final year of Medicine.
“First you change your clothes and dry you hair with a towel. You’d catch a cold easily! When did you come? How did you open the padlock?”
“I have the key. You haven’t changed even the padlock. While I was opening it, I felt like being a student again.”
While listening to his words, I looked intently at his face. A hundred questions were bothering me.
“First wipe your hair dry …” As he was saying this he began to cough.
I saw his face and heard his cough, both sent to my mind many messages.
His health broke. Sharma has always been a good man who wouldn’t limit his ideals to mere words. He has always been seeing to that his words got reflected in his deeds, big and small, always getting him choked in the process. He must have lost his job yet again. He must have eaten quite some time ago. He could not have had a shave for weeks. The chink on the shirt shoulder gave out that he had been down and out. But the eyes shone as brightly as ever. It wouldn’t be easy looking into his eyes for long.
It’s a blessing in disguise that he was not spotted by anybody opening the padlock on my door. There was another outburst of nagging cough.
My training and discipline restrained the movement of my conscience. Slowly I began undressing, draping my shirt on a hanger and hanging it on a nail on the wall. I got into a towel and removed my trousers and hung them on another nail.
“Where is your posting now?” he asked me as soon as the cough subsided.
“Peripherals. Tomorrow I’m going to the T.B. Hospital. We were out for a movie. They were gossiping after the show was over. I had to wriggle myself out.”
“There’s an unknown bond which relentlessly urges you to repay your debt.” He sang a snatch from a film song, which conveyed this powerfully. He believed in the ‘debtor –creditor’ relationship continuing through successive births.
“Stop that nonsense! I defy all that kind of superstition.” I said to bring him back to his usual self.
“You have a delicate sensibility!”
My face must have become red: I flushed.
“You sleep on the cot.”
“I’m used to this!”
“Take this pillow.”
“I don’t need it. I have this. This would do!” - He showed a pile of old newspapers under the sheet.
“Did you come by East Coast or Konark Express?” I asked. What I had in mind was a question about his wife’s whereabouts. He knew it too for he came up with the answer.
“She is in the seventh month now and her brothers came and took her to their place for the delivery. That is another reason for this nagging cough.”
“Congratulations! Did you bring again your job into danger?” I asked him straight without mincing matters. It is impossible beating about the bush when we talked to each other.
“Dry your hair first. If you catch a cold you are in trouble,” he said. He has always been like that, full of concern for me.
I switched off the light.
Six months ago I searched for his place in Hyderabad. I had the house number but it was not easy to locate. At last when I could find his place and got in he was overjoyed.
“Brother has come, Mahalakshmi!” There was joy in his voice.
“Namasthe! I’m Karunakar Rao!”
“Karuna, you first go have a wash, we can sit down and have a long chat! Mahalakshmi, your meal should vie with Bharadwaja’s feast in the epic.”
“Don’t talk of a feast now. They are waiting for me there. I promised to be back in an hour and it took forty minutes to locate your place.”
“Don’t be foolish! What would you do getting back in this night? Ever since I received your letter, not just me, your Vadina too has been waiting for you.
I did not want to wound his feelings and so stayed to dinner. It was a single room tenement. It is not that I am a stranger to poverty. I am just above the much talked about poverty line. I am in the Medical College but penury has all along been my element.
She had just a small kerosene stove to prepare her husband’s prescriptions.
-“You peck at your food like a bird! A budding doctor, is that how you should eat?” he said while I went about the business of eating.
He went on talking while she was coaxing me all the time to have something more of one thing or the other. But I am very shy when women are in the company. Somehow I could finish the meal.
“Please forgive me, sister-in-law: they are a group of naughty fellows and wouldn’t easily forgive me. I must leave now.”
He came up to the bus stop and we had a little time to talk.
-“Now the management would come to its senses. I’ve brought them down several pegs, not just one or two. I have been the unanimously elected leader of the union and I asked them pointblank in the board meeting. The Managing director was struck speechless. Now he knows what I am. After all it should be in you and then adequate power in your pen. It’s not great to face and fight injustice.”
“All that is fine. But who would win in the fight? Be a little selfish too: not for just yourself but my Vadina too. Don’t try to leap into the air to exhibit your martial valor.”
I began to plead seeing that it was an opportune moment.
“I don’t care for myself. They have to shell out the minimum wages. They have all along been hoodwinking us, short changing us, taking us for a ride with sweet words. This cannot go on, at least if I am to be with them. How long can we put up with this exploitation?”
I kept quiet. It began to trouble me as to how he has been getting along with what he was earning in the state capital.
“In addition to the salary they have been giving, drawing illustrations for stories I’m able to earn enough for the two of us. Don’t worry about me. My father-in-law sends my wife some money now and then. I’m on the lookout for a better job too. How are things with you? In less than a year’s time you’d have your degree in your hand. You go in for a doctor girl and settle down.”
He bubbles with optimism and has all kinds of dreams about my future. He has no idea as to what it means to be a medical student with just nothing behind. God knows when I’d be able to earn any money and meanwhile I’ve to look like a doctor: shouldn’t walk or even take a bus. There are medical graduates, full-fledged doctors who have been waiting for jobs. Those with at least one parent in practice are a rare lot. But I made up my mind not to make him apprehensive with my problems. It’s cruel to destroy his dreams: not befitting a friend of my intimacy.
He hugged me when the bus came into sight.
When I got in the conductor stared at me.
Showing heartiness and intimacy is also an art and Sharma has a unique distinction in that. He knows that I am unequal to express what goes on in my mind and hence the hug was a gesture of reassurance. It’s a kind of consolation. I did tell him what I had in my mind. Cautioned him with all the force I could muster for the occasion. Emotion and hauteur can go well only with the rich and the well to do.
For the likes of us who cannot go for hard work as coolies, ideals cannot be ornaments.
-“They can’t do anything to me. I have a thousand behind me.” This made me very uncomfortable at the moment he uttered it. In the hands of the rich the poor cannot be anything more than helpless pawns: they can kill us for their sport. I wondered if he could stand his ground for long.
All night he was tossing on the sheet coughing. It would be no use asking questions about his health. I decided to take him to the hospital as quickly as possible and show him to the Chief.
Perhaps it was before the wee hours that we went to sleep. By the time we woke up it was well beyond eight in the morning.
The Chief was in the Out-Patient Department.
I went to my class fellow, Rohini, at the counter and asked her to get an Out Patient ticket in the name of Balagangadhar Sharma, Male 24.
“Who’s this Sarma and what is his tale?” Rohini was trying to be jovial.
“My class fellow,” I said with a grim face and she filled out and handed me the form.
My friends helped me and in the briefest time possible I took him into the chief’s room.
He examined him and said brusquely “Admit him. Follow the case carefully!” he told the Post-Graduate students.
I felt very happy and totally relieved.
I used to be with him for quite some time boosting his morale. We used to talk about many things. After a week’s time he gave me an idea as to why he had to leave that place leaving behind that job.
In the scenario of his tussle with the management, his house began to get pelted with stones in the dead of night. First he thought it must be the rival union. After some nights a man came to him in the night telling him that a group of fifty were outside.
“Well, what is the problem, Yadgiri?” Sharma asked him.
“Pantulu: you must leave this place and quickly.”
“That man in the house opposite yours died suddenly. They say you’re the one behind that black magic. They say you jinxed him. I may keep quiet, but they wouldn’t: you may be killed if you don’t make your escape good!”
“What! Are you in your senses! Black magic, jinxed and I behind that! And I’ve to leave! What’s all this?”
Another man barged in with a stick in his hand.
“You stay put, Yadgiri! Pantulu, it’s you who caused his death. He died throwing up blood. He was strong like an ox. If you don’t fly, you’d be finished.”
Another came and then yet another.
“We’d see your end. We thought you’d help us get our rights but then all you are capable of doing is just this. If you don’t disappear on your own…”
It was only then that I understood that it was politics. It became difficult to get on. Yadgiri hid me in his house. My ‘influence’ just vanished. It was a nightmare living in such constant fear. Their stupidity was appalling. The management sent for me, asked for an explanation. The Managing Director and the welfare officer pleaded with me. I was asked to leave without causing a ruckus. They gave me three months’ pay and an order of termination. There was no mention of black magic in the order. They simply said they were asking me to quit for unsatisfactory service. I was convinced of the role of the rival union and the management’s complicity. I came to hate my enemies. Dissension was sown and we were divided. It is difficult for the straight forward to survive. It’s incomprehensible how they could see me as an enemy and worst of it all as one practicing black magic!’
I listened to him patiently. There was nothing that I could do beyond that.
“Losing a job doesn’t mean the end of the world. You’d get another, a better one. Be patient for a month and look after your health first.” I tried to reassure him. But inwardly I was worried that there was nothing that I could for him.
No matter what his own condition, he has always been affectionate, solicitous and optimistic. He always was dreaming about my future as to what I would do how I’d prosper etc. But I never tried to stall his dreams. Dreaming, I thought, would do him good.
“What’s here! Instead of asking these poverty stricken to eat well and take a holiday in a health resort, it’s better to go some gulf country and get rich there,” he would tell me.
I used to be surprised as to how his idealism had just evaporated. There were days, not very long ago, when he used to lecture on service to the less privileged around us, our own country and so on.
But while he was lost in his dreams of my future, drawing rainbow lines before me, strange desires used to stir in me.
-Rohini and I were returning from the TB Hospital one evening. She suddenly asked me:
“How’s your Balagangadhar Sharma?”
“Better! He’s perking up!”
“I told you before, it’s not good to go close to those stricken ones!”
I was shocked: never expected she could be so crude.
“I know!” I could say from between clenched teeth.
Tears eddied in her eyes. She was stricken as if I had said “Mind your own business!” In fact that’s what I had in my mind. But I didn’t want to be cruel. If that were to be her brother would I have warned her as she did me! She turned livid.
“That’s not my intention… Though you know it very well …”
“Miss Rohini! If we were to be frightened like that, we can never go forward…”
Our bus arrived and Rohini got in from the front and, unusually, I preferred the rear entry.
In about two weeks Sharma improved: the cough was gone and the ESR showed decline. My little acquaintance with the staff helped his recovery. He was getting the best medicines and food and this made him altogether different.
One morning he told me with happiness in his voice: “On receiving my post card our Hyderabad Branch secretary came, listened to my narration and promised to do something.”
But, for some reason I grew apprehensive. My posting at the TB Hospital was drawing to a close. My next posting was at the Mental Hospital.
I could find time to visit him once only in three or four days.
When I went to see him he told me that his travails began the very day my posting came to an end there.
-There were injuries on his body and he was in no position to stand up.
“In the evenings, I began to take a walk outside just for fresh air… Yesterday, three ruffians came and bashed me. One of them gave them what I thought was the cue: ‘This fellow is the banamati bapanayya, dangerous, practices chillangi and banamati. Beat him up!’ It’s funny my being out only to be dumped in again.”
I didn’t have the heart to ask him any further
“Karuna, please rescue me from here. They’d kill me.”
It was pathetic: he never lost his balance so badly ever before. But, how can I? I didn’t have either the money or backing. Then there is his ailment treating which costs quite a packet. There may be something in changing the hospital but who’d do it at my request? As a student of medicine, I knew it wouldn’t be easy either.
I requested a class fellow to keep an eye on him but pat came the reply: “Sorry boss! It appears to be a psychic case. Everyone around appears to dread him.”
I kept my cool though it was a shock. I spoke some soothing words to Sharma and returned to my room thinking hard as to how to be of help to him.
Ten minutes afterwards, Rohini came in saying: “Your friend has jinxed our love.”
I was furious: “What stupidity is that! You are a student of medicine. Do you believe in this balderdash? Why should he be thinking of blighting the love between us?”
“You trust and love your friend to that extent!”
“Please! Don’t talk lightly of either Sharma or about the love lost between the two of us. For decades we have been intimate friends.”
“If you don’t give him up…” She was about to deliver a threat.
“I just don’t care,” I said and got up.
On the third day I got word and I rushed to the hospital. Sharma was dead. I was stricken motionless.
The previous day he got a letter announcing the arrival of a girl baby along with the news that the infant and the mother were fine. Sometime later, a patient died in the hospital. Several patients saw the man dying and so did Sharma.
I could guess what had happened.
Had I done something to take him away to another place, he wouldn’t have met with his death. This is real ‘black magic’.
Hyderabad is far away and who could have followed him thus far?
Was he such a dangerous man? How could he have harmed anyone?
I thought hard for weeks on end with no glow of an answer appearing.
Rohini never attempted to speak to me again.
Needless to say, I never regretted it.
Vadina, elder sister-in-law, bhaabhi; Pantulugaru, Respected Brahmin, Panditji;
Banamati and chillangi are Telugu words for black magic.
(This story appeared first in YUVA monthly in September 1988)