Tears and poetry are akin. So are agony and tenderness in imagination, like the kinship in the land of the Telugus between a young man and his maternal uncle’s daughter when it comes to a wedding proposal. The universal truth in human condition is tragic.
“Why this writing? For some the joy they think their own is just madness for everyone else,” said my wife and became more pointed and added “Whoever wants this kind of writing? Does this give one give food or clothing?”
It took me some time to realize that she has been eves-reading what I was trying to put on paper. I bent down to my writing as if I haven’t heard her blatantly snide remarks. When the questioner answers a query she herself asks, what else is there to say! Luckily for me (and for you too, my dear reader) she didn’t say anything else before withdrawing into her own domain.
Is it right that somebody should do something, not for utility - food and clothing but just for one’s own satisfaction or as she said, joy! Is everything one does is just for the one or the other! Perhaps it is only the serious-minded that have the flair to look up, look around, and within.
Writing doesn’t come easily. It’s not possible to write on something unless it pinches hard, giving a jab of pain. It’s only when touched to the quick, thoughts flash compelling one to take to writing. Then writing becomes inescapable: there is the urge to shed the burden, if only to lighten the heart
In the morning paper I read a couple of pieces on euthanasia. One writer claimed that one has to have a right to take his or her own life. The other one pleaded that a right to self-killing should never be given to any. One is a human right claim and the other a religious sanction.
I had occasion, as a very young man, to read the Lunacy Act. My friends suggested I admit my mother to a lunacy asylum. As a single man with no one to take care of my ailing mother, that appeared to Hobson’s choice. Necessity drove me to study the Act. I placed my problem before a renowned lawyer who lent me the statute book. I read the provisions of the act and my lawyer acquaintance explained to me the salient points for admission into an asylum. First, certificates from two accredited medical practitioners and then an interview with a magistrate who would certify to the authenticity of admission for the particular person whom he has seen personally. Then the Reception Order would be given. At the time of the admission the Superintendent of the hospital ascertains whether it would be a paying case or otherwise.
A loner, with a job which is barely necessary for sustenance, how can one like me look after a mentally ill mother? It was quite hard. But the hospital superintendent happened to be a colleague’s brother and things soon turned out to be easy and the final result welcome. My mother returned home safe with me on my getting a letter of her discharge.
At that time I wondered whether urgent treatment for such a disorder should be so cumbersome. A friend of mine explained that, if such a procedure were not laid down, in matters of property partition, the rich would be unscrupulous to send a rightful co-parcenor into safe custody. There is a sound reason why I chose to preface my story with all this. If euthanasia were to be made legal, some believed that evil backlash would ensue. If I were to explain why I wrote, to begin with, with tears and tenderness of heart, I hope, it would not be ponderous and dragging.
“What’s your opinion about Leela Rani?” Kalyani asked Karunakar Rao, who came as a colleague, in a tone of asking an eligible bachelor and a prospective bridegroom.
Karunkar Rao looked at her hesitating to answer her question. He belonged to that type who would think of the whys and wherefore of a question before giving an answer, whom some call slow thinkers.
Like a seasoned reporter she rephrased her question saying, “Do you like that woman?”
“Do you have a specific reason to dislike her?” Karunakar Rao shot back.
“Oh, no. Not like that. Did I ever tell you I dislike her?”
Texts, co-texts, contexts… sentence, background, relationship between the individuals in the dialogue mode ... the apparent meaning, the latent, the real meaning, dhwani. But then…
Karunkar Rao did not lose his cool: he had a pleasant smile playing on his face when he spoke to Kalyani. But Kalyani turned red. There was no beauty in that. The tinkling of the telephone in the room preempted any possibility of further dialogue between the two in the room.
“Why should she be so proud and headstrong!”
Kalyani heard this behind her back while walking down the corridor.
“Nothing much. Walking ahead of the M.D’s car regally, when the chauffeur honked, your friend,” … Pankajam stopped as though to regain her breath.
“My friend, who is that?” Kalyani was a little slow, not deliberately but by nature.
“Who else could that be? It’s Leela Rani…”
“What did she do?”
“Even without seeing whose car it was she went on railing, shouting at the driver... The CEO pulling a long face had to get off and apologize.”
“Is that so?” said Kalyani simply.
The very next day on a wall in the foyer where cars of the heads of departments are parked, a big notice stood displayed: “Please ask your drivers not to honk behind pedestrians. Educate them gently in good manners. CEO.”
Every one saw this banner print out. The one who knew the background of the issuance of the notice was excited. She couldn’t contain herself like the one who knew the secret of the donkey’s ears of the king in the story and tried to leak out the secret by prefacing the revelation with the question: “What’s your opinion about Leela Rani?”
“Though there is goodness in the other person it may not always appear striking. Some people learn and imbibe goodness by seeing it in others. Even that is better than being rough and uncivilized,” said Karunakara Rao. He knew how roughness would hurt a sensitive person. He has the nature of one who would smile first say a thing next sweetly. He has in his mind not only linguistic ability to speak soft and sweet. He is very soft and gentle by nature.
“Why do you take sides with Leela Rani?” Kalyani asked a straight question.
“For the simple reason that she is not here. Unless you tell me what you have in your mind, how can I give a satisfactory answer for your question? Did I ever refuse giving you an answer for a direct question?” Karunakara Rao replied with a large smile on his face.
“You always take everything very seriously,” Kalyani said trying to show a pout on her otherwise lovely face.
“I don’t think it is a weakness. Come let’s go have a cup of coffee. If anyone should see you now he’d think you were offended.”
Kalyani’s mood got transformed instantaneously. She stood up, set the creases on her sari and went along with him into the canteen downstairs.
By the time Karunakara Rao got the tokens and the cups of coffee, Kalyani settled down in a cozy secluded nook. As soon as he sat down in the seat opposite, she asked him a straight question: “Why do you try to support Leela Rani all the time?”
“Why should you try to insinuate anything at all against her? Shouldn’t there be something to cause such a remark? ”
“You don’t find anything against anybody,” Kalyani said and kept silent for a while.
Karunakara Rao noticed her face turning red and lips trembling slightly.
“See how those two…”
Karunakara Rao heard someone saying a little loud. After waiting for while he said finishing his coffee, “Shall we leave?”
Soon after Karunakara Rao sat down to his work, his colleague and good friend Chiranjeevi greeted him and drawing very close to him asked, ”Why did that woman keep hanging on to you?” looking at Kalyani talking to somebody over the telephone.
“Hanging on ? How do you mean?”
“She doesn’t like some people around and one of them is Leela Rani. She’d deliberately single men into conversation and try to possess them all for herself. She cannot stand any other female talking to such. Since you are comparatively new to this office, and since you appear to be easily gullible, I thought I should tell you.”
“You know me. Understanding people around may not give you comfort but certainly a kind of strength to your mind. Anyway, thanks for your tip.”
Chiranjeevi withdrew casting a glance at Kalyani. Karunakara Rao fell in deep thought. Some people appear to be grave and sedate. Some appear headstrong and rash. Some are genuinely gentle. Some apparently overdressed are not dressed to kill. Though one is likely to misunderstand them, slowly their true simplicity becomes evident. Generally everyone likes to appear carefree and jocular. By being righteous, generally jocular and being good humoured one acquires a capacity to transcend sorrow and grief. Though he noticed Kalyani being a little glum, Karunakara Rao did not feel like making her talk.
It is not as though he did not know the ups and downs of life. He has deliberately cultivated an outlook of resignation, being ready take anything that comes his way. He liked people who, though suffering for themselves, make others laugh. Some are good dissemblers but they cannot be so long: a little thing upsets the façade of equilibrium in them. Some would go on picking holes in everything others do and find fault with small failings. Karunakara Rao’s finding on analysis is that, even in those, there would be some fine feelings. The more one tries to understand the more would be one’s own peace of mind.
Just peeping into his room, Leela Rani said to Karunakara Rao: “I’ve to leave a little early today. Please don’t wait for me” and left. Kalyani saw that and heard the words too. She smelt that Leela Rani’s appearance like that made Karunakara Rao a little puzzled and tense. She couldn’t contain herself beyond a couple of days. While it was close to closing time of the office, she went near Karunakara Rao and asked him: “Would you be free this Sunday?”
“It has been half an hour I’ve been waiting for your asking me to serve the meal,” said Rajyam. This he could hear… True this scribbling wouldn’t give food or clothing. Then it is not easy putting things on paper while being hungry. I rose.
Even while eating my meal, I couldn’t help thinking only of Leela Rani. Whoever could understand the feeling of agony in my mind trying to bring out the woman in her! She has wonderful self-possession. But eve then.. One has to take everything else lightly for the small bit of sweetness that life offers. Taking the bitter things easy is the secret of human happiness. This has to be conveyed to the reader convincingly. It’s only a person who stands amidst a quagmire of tribulations that can…
Can one ever grow to that height? A man, a bachelor … in the scenario of selfishness, lack of understanding of pain and suffering…
“A little sodium chloride…”
“You are very squeamish. You think saying salt is inauspicious at the night meal ..”
“Our forefathers …” I looked into Rajyam’s eyes.
“True! That’s the reason why I don’t sit to my meal with you. That’s orthodoxy too. Shall I peel a banana for you?”
The sweetness in affectionate words is a little specimen of sweetness in life.
Forty years of cohabitation… I felt tears eddying in my eyes. “Go ahead and have your meal first: we can talk later.”
Kalyani is impulsive. She would just lose her balance when excited. She’d do something unusual without knowing what she was doing. She argues that she has tremendous self-confidence. Though she crossed thirty springs there’s no evidence of her having done so. Marriage is something that comes into a woman’s head quite early, even as a girl. But then Kalyani didn’t have anyone to plant such a feeling or idea in her head. Though there have been many bachelors around, there was none who could withstand her ‘test’s. She would cut one dead who would so much as touch her in a third meeting. She could have gone in for marriage long ago, what with her sumptuous income. She preferred staying alone without foregoing her total freedom. She grew very independent.
One thing constantly occupied her mind. What does she think of Karunakara Rao? Would he measure up to her expectations? She remembered one, two, three and four, who came close enough to her at different points of time. She doesn’t remember them by their names but only as numbers. She quickly ran her mind into the past and looked with satisfaction into the mirror that her decision has been impeccable. She sprayed a little more perfume behind her ears and on the neck and heaved a sigh of satisfaction. Looking at herself in the mirror as though she was a different person, she came out and locked her house.
Karunakara Rao lived in a flat on the third floor. There was no lift. She clambered up only to see his door locked. Her face turned red but a moment later she found a little chit rolled up inserted behind the padlock. She pulled out and read “Sorry! Leela Raniji called up. I’d meet you tomorrow in the office.” The ‘ji’ hurt her. The ‘sorry ‘in the message didn’t rouse her forgiveness. “Pch! These married women are becoming shameless! Perhaps it’s matrimony that does it!” She was flustered. She climbed down the stairs two at a time and found an auto rickshaw empty in the light shed by the tube light on the road. She got into it.
“I’d see!” Leela Rani switched off the calling bell switch and opened the door. She was surprised the see the visitor but regained her self-possession immediately.
“Oh! You, please do come in!” she said turning on her heel and putting the silver dish on a table before the man with his face turned the other way.
“Please be seated!” She showed the visitor the sofa.
“Your husband…?” Kalyani couldn’t contain her curiosity.
“Been away camping. You know this gentleman, our colleague Karunakara Rao garu.”
Kalyani didn’t listen to this – didn’t have the need to.
“Would you have a glass of water first?” Leela Rani said walking towards the refrigerator.
Kalyani in a trice saw what appeared as a lightning flash and knit her brows. There was a stiff little boy in the man’s arms and he was wiping the child’s mouth with a piece of cloth in his hands. On the table was a bowl with rice mixed with curds.
Keeping the glass on the table, Leela Rani said, “Come and see my child!”
Kalyani felt her head swimming. She felt a horrible revulsion. So this is the child Leela Rani must be carrying from the crèche into an auto rickshaw. It must be an unearthly the relation that had drawn that child and Rao together.
“I have been trying to come to your place for quite some time…” Kalyani could say with some difficulty and bent down as if to lift the child and she could hear “You possibly can’t take him,” from behind.
“My little son is one in a million: he needs a lot of affection,” saying this Leela Rani took the child into her hands.
“I heard about the child …” Kalyani said feebly attempting to say something more.
Totally confounded, Kalyani said that she’d take leave. Leela Rani asked her to stay for minute and gave her prasad saying that she had been to the temple in the morning. She gave her a glass of water saying: “You have to take a little after eating the prasad: lest anything bad you say should come true.”
“I seem to have given you pain,” said Kalyani rising to go.
Karunakara Rao walked behind her.
The moment she came out Kalyani said: “I’m sorry I couldn’t understand you. Please forgive me!” There was the strain of a restrained tear in her voice.
“We all make mistakes: but with a little thinking and assiduous practice we can correct ourselves. Restraint is necessary to keep away hatred and jealousy. I’ve been trying to …”
For some reason Karunakara Rao didn’t choose to complete his sentence. Waiting for the lift she asked him, “Suppose I ask you to marry me, what would you say?”
“I can only say you are a very guileless person. Didn’t anyone tell you that I have a weak heart! …Anyway weaknesses are short lived… The child is crying hard: I’d better go. If food goes into the windpipe…” He quickly went into the apartment.
“What says our colleague?” Leela Rani asked.
“She doesn’t know what she is in for. It’s difficult to shed jealousy. It is easier to go through the eye of a needle than to shed misunderstanding. That which comes with birth can leave only after cremation, as our saying goes. I told her I have a weak heart since I didn’t like to say heart weakness…”
The phone rang and Karunakara Rao took the call. Listening to the voice at the other end said that the child has been fine, took the message and rang off. “Your husband is arriving by the night flight!” He told Leela Rani.
“By the time I came into the bedroom, after finishing my chores in the kitchen, you’d been fast asleep,” said Rajyam in the morning.
“I don’t know why I went into such a deep sleep in a few seconds! It is imponderable.” I said reaching for the towel on the rail to wipe my face.
Rajyam stood looking into my face. She likes to look at me like that on very special occasions.
(This story written and published in Telugu first was translated for For Old Sakes in 2009)