I walked up to the door and opened it.
“Money order for you, madam,” said the postman handing me over the form.
I returned it after signing. Postman counted the notes and gave them to me. After paying him the usual tip, I was about to close the door when I saw my husband coming home.
"Anything wrong with you? You came home by return of post? Aren’t you well?” I enquired.
"Nothing. I am absolutely fine. The whole office went on French leave to visit the hospital. I followed suit but returned home. That’s all!”
"The whole office went to hospital? What for? "
"Nothing. They say PK died. The Body was kept in the mortuary. They just went there to see him,” he said rather casually.
"My God! When?” I don’t know how I uttered those words since my heart missed a beat for sometime on hearing the news.
"This morning. Around ten."
"How did it happen?" I was desperately trying to contain my tears.
“As usual he tried to cross the road blind fold, and he came under a bus."
"Did they send any message to his kin?" I know it was foolish to ask the question but nevertheless, I could not restrain myself asking the same."Who is there for him to send word for? Not to speak of the wife who long eloped leaving this fellow. And having known his eccentricities, his kin did not let him draw near. For that matter, nobody knows who they are or where they are. "
"Then why did they keep the body in the mortuary?"
"Someone has to perform obsequies, isn’t it? It is a question of money. Narasimham has come forward to do the obsequies, but nobody has come forward to foot the bill."
"What a pity! There are so many friends here and every one of them was benefited by him to some degree or the other. Can’t one of them come forward to perform the final rites of a destitute? At least, why don’t (you)...” the last word did not come out. In fact I wanted to say, ‘you owe him three months rent. You can repay the debt at least this way.’
But he came upon me angrily saying, ‘why should I? How was he related to me to take upon this headache?"
I crossed my threshold. Looking at the flood of tears in my eyes, he said "if that mad cap dies, why you should wail as if you had lost one of your own?’
I wanted to answer him "Yes, he was near to me. We are not siblings but he treated me more like his own sister...” But, like saliva, the words too did not get out of the gullet.
The country has progressed. Women are taking up key and responsible jobs; yet, women are respected only so long as they perform their duties as a mother, wife and a kitchen maker. No way, can they volunteer to express their opinions! That too against the will of the husband? Can you imagine the consequences? Won’t the marriage break up instantly? Take me for example. How old the episode was! As a newly-wed teenager, I entered the precincts of married life ... still not completely aware of peoples’ knack of getting things done... I took to writing as there was no other alternative to express my ideas and opinions. But did I ever aver wrong as wrong? No! Just because the readers and the editors liked whatever I wrote, and apart from some identity among the Telugu diaspora, I was also getting some remuneration for my writing I was left to myself. Otherwise, I would have been deprived of even this simple privilege.
He went out after taking coffee but my mind was totally occupied with PK (People damned him mad and shortened his name to PK). It was almost forty years since, but those three months were as green in my memory as if it were only yesterday.....
I think it was the first month of my marriage. He was employed in Bhilai Steel plant ... in the then Madhya Pradesh, a totally alien place, neither of our place nor of our language. The plant was still under construction then. And the few quarters constructed were allotted to the seniors. His turn had not come yet. Counting my days with the help of day dreams and hoping against hope and praying to every god and goddess to bless my dreams come true, I had to stay put with my parents.
There it was! Just at that time, we received a letter from him one day. It said “Quarter allotted. Start immediately.” Father, mother and I started with the entire luggage. Mother paid a deaf ear to my asking why we had to carry so much luggage just for two people.
Part out of enthusiasm for the new place, part in anticipation of undreamt experiences, I entered Bhilai, my place of dreams.
It was Sunday. Though we sent him a telegram about our arrival, He did not turn up at the station. My sixth sense prognosed something amiss.
"What to do now? Our son-in-law has not come to the station?' The fear peeping through the expression of my mother was in fact mine.
"You just keep quiet!" there was reflection of my concern in my father’s irritation. Walking towards the Station-master’s office, father returned after a while with another Telugu-speaking person and a porter. “He knows our son-in-law. The Telugu speaking person gave directions to go to ‘his’ place.”
“Let’s go.” Father walked us towards some rickshaws.
"Thank God!" I heaved a sigh of relief.
All along the way, I could see nothing but newly painted machines and wooden packing boxes. And like the omnipresent, a fine red dust enveloped everything in its reign. As if to confirm it was inhabited, occasionally people were seen moving here and there. After a feeling of having travelled eternally, our rickshaws stopped in front of a beautiful array of houses. Father knocked the door of a house and waited for a response. His profile flashed in my memory for a second. I yearned to see him. The moment the door was opened, God, I saw a beehive! All of them were in their shorts and banians and nothing else. All of them were of the same age group as he was.
He came out in the same uniform and on seeing us, ran inside blushing. It was his turn to express surprise: “What! I gave an express telegram three days back asking you not to start. Didn’t you receive it?”
"Asking us not to start? We did not receive any. We started with this entire luggage." Mother was so depressed.
"The allotment was cancelled at the last moment," He apologised.
"Bad luck! Don’t worry. Let us go to some hotel first. After finishing the ablutions and lunch we shall think of what to do next,” suggested father.
"Hotel? You just can’t think of a hotel here, uncle. As the plant is still under construction, even the township hasn’t fully developed.”
"Why should he be so eager as to ask us to start without ensuring the allotment of a house? He could as well have written after taking possession of the same. What is the way out? Should we get back?” A feeling of anger coupled with anguish enveloped me. I felt as if I were the culprit. I was drawn between this guilt on one side and the reluctance to leave this place on the other. I was terribly disappointed.
"Then what do you suggest? Do you think that we can’t secure a room anywhere around this colony?” father asked him.
"You must have noticed, uncle, how all of us crowded here. This house was actually allotted to four people by the company. With four guests to each member, we are twenty people huddled together in this two-room tenement. We even thought of putting up in Durg, but it was too far and the houses were also kutcha structures," he replied.
"Alright, then. We shall think for an alternative later. But first, let us keep this luggage in,” father said.
It was 1 o’ clock in the afternoon. Other than some tea available occasionally, coffee was not available at any station all through the journey. My head was aching like hell, and hunger was only aggravating it. It seemed that all the struggle underwent to come here was just coming to nought.
With excellent roads and drainage, the four houses there, were standing like school children in a “drill period”. The disappointment that I was unable to find a shelter under these lovely roofs sat heavy on me.
In the two-room choultry of his, half a dozen of them were stretching spreading a durries on the floor. “Our Turner Choultry is thousand times better than this. God knows how this pack is living! And to start a family in a place like this! How can we? It is just not for me” mother spelt out categorically, though in a hushed tone.
"Nobody forces you to stay put here, take that Tiffin carrier out, we have to get meals for all of us,” said father.
I looked around when an unfamiliar voice greeted me shortly after father had left with my husband.
"I am Venu, a friend of your son-in-law Mohan. I met him on the way and he informed me that you people have come. Pity! You might be facing a lot of trouble,” he said.
Venu was lean and tall with curly hair. He was talking very freely with my mother.
"What can we do, my child? When the son-in-law wrote that he had got allotment of his quarters, we started off with this entire luggage. But after coming here, things have come to this pass. Is it that easy, tell me son, to get back after having spent so much money on rail travel?" she said.
‘True! But, it was three days since Mohan gave a telegram asking you not to start. That too, it was an Express Telegram,” Venu said.
"God knows why it was not delivered! And if you look at this house, it’s like this. Wayside living seems much better than staying here. I just wonder how they manage to live without cleanliness or hygiene!!! It is more like an animal shed."
I know my mother. If she starts ranting, I know the kind of similes she uses. So, before the last words could be heard, I interjected, “Mommy, enough. That doesn’t look nice.” I got tense, when a fleeting thought came whether he might be one of the twenty.
At last, father- and son-in-law managed to get lunch in the carrier from the mess. After our lunch, they made some room for us in the kitchen, removing trunks and miscellany into the other rooms. Complaining about the all-pervading cigarette-smell, mother reclined. “He” and Venu deliberated for long. When it was getting towards evening, they called for rickshaws again and seated us there along with the entire luggage. The Rickshaws stopped after the fourth or fifth street in front of a house. The house was locked. Venu took out a bunch of keys and opened the door after meddling with the lock for ten minutes.
We stepped into the house. When I had a look, forget the pleasure of securing one, all my energy was drained out. It had a strange look. It was pitch dark. All the window panes were blacked out with carbon papers. Though there was power connection, not a single bulb was in place. To preclude collection and storage of water, there were taps everywhere... two in the kitchen, one in the compound, one in the toilet, one near the water tank, and two in the bathroom. But every one of them was left open. Water was jetting out with full force. The House and compound were flooded with water. It was water, water, and water everywhere!!!
"What is this? All the taps were open? The House is soaking wet. Daughter! Close all the taps first,” ordered mother.
I had a good look at the interior. The rooms were spacious. The kitchen was very compact. The backyard was wide and open. To sum up in one word, it was a house a newly-wed would dream of. With a little bit of effort, you could shape it into a veritable heaven.
"This quarter belongs to Krishna Moorthy, our common friend. He is away. He will not turn up for another week. You can stay here till then. Besides, he is staying alone. So, when he returns, you can continue if you wish. If he stays in one room, you can stay in the other,” said Venu.
"Thank heavens. We could get some accommodation without having to return.” My mind was at peace. The house was in a total mess with everything scattered around, full of rags and shards of tiles, stones, and cobwebs. It had the look of a dilapidated house. But, that was to be my house henceforth.
I did not notice when He left, but when he returned, he returned with a housemaid and put her on the job of cleaning the house. He went out and in another hour brought two beds, pillows, and bed sheets in a rickshaw. In the mean time, Venu brought hot coffee in a flask. I felt my senses returning to me after taking a cup.
"We stay in the adjacent street. Please feel free to ask us whenever you are in need. I will take you to my house,” Venu said.
That was how my family life began!
Father and mother stayed for two more days and left after addressing most of the needs for my family life to take off.
The night after they had left, he leisurely informed me the all important thing. A bomb exploded within me. I shivered with fear. “God damn family life, I don’t want to stay here. Please send me back home,” I wailed. “We can somehow make a living if we stay alive,” I pleaded. I accused him of cheating us without informing my father about this. I was mortally afraid that the owner would turn up at any moment.
“When I am here, why should you be afraid,” he allayed all fears ignoring my accusations. "If you leave now, we will have to live separately for three years,” he scared me. "In the meantime, I will search for another house with the help of friends,” he reassured me. "How long do you have to put up with this difficulty? At the worst, for a month or another fortnight, but not more,” he said. When I was still hesitating, he lay his hands in mine and promised “After the owner returns, if you don’t feel like continuing, I will send you home. OK?”
But what was it that he said so secretively? That the owner is M... A ...D!!!
Then I realized why the house was in such disarray when we stepped in.
I cursed myself. I reflected on my position. Should I leave saying that I did not like it? Or, should I brave the consequences staying here, trying to set things right? If I cry off now, I am not sure how long it would be before I got another chance? I comforted myself that I should not lose the bird at hand. I mustered courage. But, then, what if this mad fellow turned up when ‘He’ was not at home? I discussed everything in detail with him. We decided that I stay home only when He was at home, and once He left for office, I would spend time in the house of our neighbour Sarmagaru till he returned from office in the evening. That would serve two purposes... I would not have to be afraid of the owner in the first place, and I could also while away the time my husband was in office.
Leaving the back room for him, we arranged our wares in the front room. Then onwards began my wait for the owner’s home coming. Four days passed without any incident. On the fifth night, I heard a heavy knock on the door. The morsel in my hand dropped into the plate below. Seized with fear, I looked at my husband.
"Don’t be afraid. Let me have a look.” He got up.
I was watching. No sooner was the door opened, than a person swept in like a whirlwind. And as he came, he went on putting out every light. My heart was beating fast.
"Stop! Stop! Stop! What is this? Why are you putting off the lights?” my husband said in the confusion. He switched on the light again, terrified at the unexpected turn of events. The stranger opened the umbrella in his hand and shielded himself from the light. He made a turban of a towel such that the ends were hanging on his forehead and covered his eyes.
"Are you Krishna Moorthy?” my husband asked.
“Yes,” came the reply.
"Please sit down. You must excuse us. I know what an offense it was to enter your house without your permission. But I was compelled to do it under unavoidable circumstances. When Mr. Veerraju offered his house to me, I sent a telegram asking my people to come. But, Mr. Veerraju’s family turned up before these people arrived. Venu brought us to your house in such a helpless state. Please allow us to stay here for a few days. We will look for another house and vacate it shortly. Please! I’ll pay you what the company deducts from your salary towards rent. You can stay with us in our house, I mean in your house, and take food with us if you don’t have any objection. Please! We use the front room and the kitchen. We will not put you to any inconvenience.” my husband pleaded.
Krishna Moorthy heard everything, but made no reply for long. Then he burst into laughter for some time, and all of a sudden, became quiet. He took out a piece of paper, scribbled something on it and showed to my husband. The blood returned to his face after reading it.
"Many many thanks!” My husband then returned leaving PK in his room.
"What did he say ultimately? Did he say yes to us staying? Why did he laugh so loud without speaking anything? I was scared to death that he would beat us to death putting out all lights.” I said in a hushed tone.
My husband laughed at me. “He said he was allergic to light. And that he won’t talk to anybody. Though I remembered what Venu had said, I was as scared as you were in the first place."
"Then, what did he say?”
Squeezing the paper that PK had scribbled on into my hands gleefully, he said “See it for yourself. Wrote poetry!” My husband rejoiced having come up trumps.
I opened the paper. In a hand so crooked, it was written as under:
“After all, we are birds of the same feather
No worry! Let’s all stay together
Hard times befall anyone
In need we should stand at least by one.”
Thanking him for his magnanimity in my heart of hearts, I also prayed to every God for having helped us tide over this difficulty.
In no time, that man had brought a bucketful water into his room and started taking bath there. With a mixed feeling of fear and surprise, I looked at my husband. He signalled ‘stay cool!’ When water started flooding our room after he finished his bath, I set upon mopping it up with broom and cloth. The man closed the door with a thud on my face. Thanking God, I finished my chores soon and got to bed. But, I could not take a wink all night with the fear of what might happen next moment.
I wonder, when I think about how quickly people reconcile to their circumstances. You face an extreme situation. You can even reasonably guess what is going to happen. Yet, with fear seizing you, your mind gets benumbed. And when that eventuality actually visits you, don’t ask me how, but you somehow manage to garner enough strength to face it squarely. Not only that, you will even reconcile to the changed circumstances brought about by it, in double quick time and continue this eternal journey of life as usual.
It did not take me as much time, fearing what perils await us in the form of that mad person, as to reconcile to his presence and to co-exist in his very quarter. I just wonder how I had spent three months there, putting up with all his idiosyncrasies, whereas, under normal circumstances, I would never have even dared to draw near his precincts. That did not mean however, he did things *unspeakable. As a matter of fact, Krishna Moorthy was a first rate gentleman and very humane. But for taking bath in his room, piling up tile chips everywhere, and, God knows where he contracted that habit, cigarette smoking, he never made any mischief. He kept his room totally blacked out, day in and day out. He used to roam about the streets with a blindfold drawn over his head with ends dallying in front. If he left home in the morning, he did not return till ten o’ clock at night. And when he returned, he used to get some meat and liquor which he consumed locking himself in his room. Smoking cigarette after cigarette, he used to jabber loudly. He used to lecture in fluent English on Indian politics and economy. And his unrestrained flow of arguments seemed analytical, rational, and meaningful. I used to wonder at his command over the language and his knowledge of the subject. Thinking of Krishna Moorthy, it appeared to me that the saying ... that the divide between a scholar and a lunatic is only a hairline ... might well be true. May be madness is a higher echelon of enlightenment ... Who knows!
In fact, his madness was not of a kind that troubled others... with the sole exception of, perhaps, our neighbour Sarma*garu. Whenever his disposition touched its nadir, he used to rant about his eloped wife and our neighbouring Sarma garu together in unbound profanity. Spreading the bed sheet on his room floor, he used to heap up tile chips on the four ends. He would accuse Sarma garu of drilling a tunnel into his room and making off with his wife along that. ‘They are our enemies. Don’t talk to them,’ he used to insist. Standing before the common wall between the two quarters, he used to shout and rave. He would say that once Sarma garu left for office, he would jump over and elope with his wife. And if by any mischance, Sarma garu encountered him on his way, you can’t imagine. Folding his umbrella and holding it like a spear, he would dash into Sarma garu like a rocket. Poor Sarma garu! He stopped using the room abetting the common wall. He constantly feared what misfortune would befall him on account of this deranged fellow. Actually, more than us who stayed with PK in his house, though neighbours, they were more scared. Having opted and selected adjacent quarters for the sake of a Telugu neighbour, they suffered hell for want of an alternative. They had a breather after we shared his house. Exchanging few dishes now and then, allowing me to stay with them through the day, Sarma garu and his wife treated me affectionately.
Now and then, Venu visited us and enquired about our welfare. It was he who narrated the story behind the enmity between Sarma garu and Krishna Moorthy. “Krishna Moorthy worked in the military. He was a nice guy and was fond of his wife. Unfortunately she hated even his shadow. She had love affairs in her youth and became an addict. Ultimately, she eloped with somebody, and unfortunately, Sarmagaru has a close resemblance to her lover. So he developed a grudge for Sarma garu, presuming it was he who eloped with his wife. There is a perceptible change in him since you joined. His raving has waned considerably. It looks he is getting back to civil society.”
Sarma garu endorsed what Venu said. “If you stay here, there is every likelihood of Krishna Moorthy getting normal.”
“But how could they employ a person like him in the first place? What work can he turn out, after all?” I asked him.
“What is it that he can do really? Nothing. Out of compassion for him, colleagues share his work and run the show in office. But no one knows how long this can go on. He could be dismissed any moment.”
A new fear seized me now. What would become of us, if he were to be dismissed and the quarter to be surrendered? Didn’t it sound strange? I, who was worried about a month or so ago how to live under the same roof with him, was now worrying about what to do if the quarter were to be vacated. Once we settled comfortably in the house, the search for another house took a back seat. Neither did Krishna Moorthy press for the promised rent, nor did my husband pay him unasked. When I reminded him once, he answered, ‘let him ask first, we shall think over, then.”
One night Krishna Moorthy brought a marriage invitation and handed it over to us. Where he collected it from I know not, but it was addressed to us. It was my brother’s marriage invitation. I had known of it before. We even thought of applying leave for a week to attend it. But this lunatic presented a sudden problem... that he would attend the marriage. ‘OK’, we said assuming that he did not really mean it. But, the next morning he gave a slip scribbling ‘when are you leaving? I have to apply for leave.’ We were in a dilemma. ‘How?’ was the big question hanging before our eyes. Here, we were somehow able to get on with him. But how to put up with him there? “What shall we do?” I asked my husband that night with concern.
“You just keep quiet. I will take care of it. If we were to take him, you can’t imagine what would come off,” he said.
Next day Krishna Moorthy brought many things with him at night. After a while, as huge smoke with the smell of clothing going up in flames started emanating from his room, we were frightened and ran into his room.
He placed a photo of Goddess Durga in one chair, and on another he lit a lamp making a wick of his handkerchief dipping it in ghee. Next to it , was a heap of sugar he was propitiating the Goddess with.
“What is this all?” my husband asked without concealing his irritation.
I saw a strange glow on his face under the light of the lamp. Surprise! His hallmark blindfold wasn’t there! He was looking into the light without any fear!! And instead of scribbling on paper whatever he wanted to say, as was his wont, he was talking directly!!!
I was surprised to hear his voice that way for the first time.
“Since our brother is getting married shortly, I am praying to Goddess Devi for its success.” He said with a smile on his face.
I was at a loss if I should be happy for his affection, thank him for his prayers, pity his innocence, or should be ashamed for our attitude towards him. Without a word, we returned to our room. Deliberating for a very long time, we drew up a plan to avoid taking him with us. Three days before what we had informed him, noting the time that he was not at home, we reached Raipur and ‘breathed easy’ after getting into the connecting train.
Upsetting all our calculations, Krishna Moorthy reached our compartment just when the train was about to depart, pacing fast. His landmark blindfold was hanging over his face again. Lifting his veil, he laughed at us. Squeezing an envelope quickly into my husband’s hand and dropping his veil as usual, he left as fast as he came.
And inside the envelope, there was another small envelope and a paper with something scribbled in his hand.
There was a song in his hand writing on the slip that read:
“You can’t fathom
What is real and what is a dream
An enigma, what life is
We reconcile, for what it is.”
On the smaller envelope, the names of the groom and the bride were written and inside, there was a Fifty rupee note!!!
We were stunned for a second time!!!
After we returned from the marriage, neither Krishna Moorthy responded to our greetings nor did he seem cognizant of our existence in his house. It was I who dared to tell him that the marriage went off well and offered him some sweets. Leaving them “as is where is” he returned to his room. As if to confirm that he did not forgive us, he came home drunk. He denounced all political leaders individually and collectively.
He fulminated against his wife and our neighbour Sarma garu in all vulgarity. Until the wee hours, incoherent lecturing was heard. But contrary to our apprehensions , he did not ask us to vacate the house.
From the next day onwards, my husband went on a hunt for an alternative accommodation and was successful within one week. We were careful that Krishna Moorthy did not get a scent of our new address. And in his absence, we shifted our entire luggage into the new house. Without speaking a word to him before leaving, we left as stealthily as we entered his house.
The feeling of guilt still pinching me, I said, “Poor fellow! He is too good. He gave us shelter this long. Let us just say a word before leaving.”
“Enough! You just keep your mouth shut. If he gets to know of our new accommodation, he would be after us saying “After all, we are birds of same feather” and sit on our head. We put up with him this long for want of no other go. But why should we bear with him anymore?” he said rather harshly.
The new house was even more spacious and comfortable. And there was no fear of Krishna Moorthy now. With the money my parents provided, we purchased a new sofa, a dining table, furniture, and other drapery. With that, we had more or less acquired everything for a comfortable living.
From where he secured it, I don’t know, but somehow Krishna Moorthy got our new address. My husband said he saw through the window, Krishna Moorthy loitering, once or twice, around our house. He said he carried a rusted iron rod wrapped in paper in his hands. “Be careful,” he warned me. We were really scared if he would make it to our house and create a nuisance. But like every other time, disproving all our calculations about him, Krishna Moorthy never entered our house.
When I remembered the past, a flood of emotion seized me. Krishna Moorthy.... in the eyes of the world PK, a lunatic... who came to our rescue in our hour of need, who forgave us when we entered his house with a duplicate key, who tried to mingle with us, when we were conscientiously avoiding him, saying “we are birds of the same feather” and, who prayed for the success of my brother’s marriage even though there was no sanguine relation whatsoever between us, and who said “hard times befall anyone, in need we should stand at least by one,”... was today lying lifeless in the mortuary with nobody to mourn or prepared to return him to the elements!
“Maybe he would have become normal if only we had shown a little bit of compassion. But we treated him with the same indifference as to anybody else. Was this what our education, culture and civilization had taught us? Did I not profess a profusion of ideals in my short stories? Were they limited to preaching to others? My mind was confronting me over and over. Was I so helpless as to take help from everybody but not return even an iota in return? Am I so selfish? Pooh! Pooh! What a life!”
Angst swelled up in me. A vague feeling of something to be done. Inability and helplessness to do something. Am I so weak as not to express my compassion for an individual? Somehow, my mind was in disagreement with that argument.
When I looked around impatiently, more than this house ... so spacious and with all furniture and fittings ... that house in Bhilai which I stepped in for the first time , that dark dungeon-like accommodation seemed more spacious and pleasant. These rooms looked more congested and people narrow-minded. I was gasping for breath. I felt that unless I did something immediately, I would choke to death.
I got up immediately. “If there was somebody to foot the bill, Narasimham was prepared to perform the rites”... I recalled the words of my husband. I picked up my hand bag. I kept the remuneration I received for the short story a while back, therein.
Recanting Krishna Moorthy’s words:
“After all, we are birds of the same feather
No worry! Let’s all stay together
Hard times befall anyone
In need we should stand at least by one,”
I walked out with resolution.
Original story in Telugu by (Late) RS Krishna Moorthy