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Song of the Wound(ed)
|by N. S. Murty|
Vamsadhara river. She was like a wailing village Goddess. Her flow which was steady and serene till then, had changed all of a sudden to turbulence with flood waters streaming down changing its color to gray, and sweeping along with it corpses in hundreds and thousands. Some of them got stuck up at a sand dune, heaped up by the river earlier, which blocked and diverted its flow till now. Incessantly hitting and eroding it, the currents were now dragging it into their course. But for the headgear and the loincloth there was hardly any covering on the corpses. All of them had a smack of familiarity about them --- like the faces of one's grandsires, great-grandsires, and their kin. But were they so really? It's hard to make out the faces from this distance. But when watched from close, no single corpse had all the organs --like the nose, the mouth, or the eyes intact. One or the other was missing. The whole body of corpses was stiff like a plough.
Koteswararao was sweating profusely. His tongue dried up. He tried to quench his thirst by taking water into both hands but the water looked bloody. He was terribly frightened and tried to run away from the scene...
As he got up suddenly from sleep, his head banged against the upper berth and he swooned in pain. He put his hand to it and felt wet. He looked at it in fear. Was it blood? Or he was dreaming ? The injury to his head was a fact! He stretched his hand up to the window to put on the switch. Instead of flooding the compartment with its light, the bulb gleamed as pale as the torch of a gamesman. Like a bier carrying loads of dead bodies for disposal, the train was carrying the sleepy passengers out of their senses. He was more frightened in the lighting, having fully come to consciousness. He looked at his moist hand again. Thank god! It wasn't blood but only sweat, he said to himself. Opening the lid of the water bottle to take a gulp his eyes fell on the label on the bottle-- some foreign company's brand of mineral water! He swallowed in drams. Somebody enquired from the opposite berth:
" Which station is this ?"
Koteswararao took no notice of him.
How curtly his son answered! His son! His own son! Spoke as harsh as any other present day youth. May be he was right if only he could look at the problem from his perspective!
" Praveen! Your sister is leaving, " Vijayadurga said looking into her son's face.
It did not sound like a conversation between a mother and her son. It was more like a transaction between two strangers.
" If it comes to that, your father will repay you," assured Vijayadurga.
Koteswararao who returned home exhausted and relaxing lying on his bed was following the conversation right through, though he could not see them. He felt his son was talking more businesslike without any concern for the needs and adjustments between a brother and a sister.
" You think only of yourself and least bother about the position your sister is in? Isn't it your responsibility as the eldest of the family?" Vijayadurga ventured an argument.
The company where her son-in-law had worked was a government undertaking. Due to accumulated losses it was closed down paying some nominal compensation to its employees. A rumor was in circulation that one MNC was negotiating to take it over but the deal did not come through as yet. Unions, opposition parties, bureaucracy and the government-- each of them had their own vested interests in not allowing the deal to come through. So her son-in-law started a "Home-needs" business with the retrenchment amount and the dowry he received at the time of his marriage.
" Home-needs! Basic needs of the family and there are agencies for supplying them!"
Vijayadurga wondered. She recalled the days when they never had to run for the basic needs like water, milk, grocery, bedding, soap powder etc. Everything from a stool or a meals plate to a cot were handmade and by different artisans in their village. That's what she brought with her when she first set foot in her in-laws' place. She advised her son-in-law against that Home-needs business. Laughing away, he even made her inaugurate the shop. Some company was offering more commission for its washing machines now. He wanted money for that!
Until three years after his sister's marriage Praveen shared the burden of the marriage loan. But after his engagement with Harika he stopped that and started making plans for his foreign chance. Koteswararao began feeling the pinch of the loan ever since he joined his second son in engineering paying donation.
" Then you don't care for your sister?" Vijayadurga asked him finally following a long silence from him.
In the TV ad there was an uneven terrain and a leopard was leaping forward; a young man rode on a motorcycle faster than the leopard, and a lass embraced him in great admiration. Vijayadurga could not make out what the ad was all about. Did it imply one needed a motorcycle like that to lunge forward like a leopard and only then one would get a beautiful lass? She wondered whether the ads were selling goods or living styles. She got up immediately and put off the TV. Like a colorful giant disappearing from view, the TV screen turned black."
Koteswararao remembered all that had happened at home and lost in thoughts once more.
The passenger from the opposite berth shouted : ' Put out the light, man! Let people who want to sleep, sleep'.
Koteswararao looked at him. His shouting from underneath the bed-sheet seemed like coming out from a corpse which forgot to tell something when it was alive. He was reminded of the nightmare of previous night once more... hundreds and thousands of corpses.. from some war he was not sure what it was. Koteswararao wondered if he had become a repatriate carrying the wounds of this invisible war on his back? He put that question to himself. He could not recall life before destruction as clearly as he could remember the destruction itself !
* * *
He walked out of the station. Standing by an auto someone greeted him, " It was so long sir, how are you ?" Koteswararao turned his eyes towards that man and asked in surprise, " Oh, Somulu, is it you? Donning a pant and shirt like a youth? And with an auto, too?"
Taking the luggage from him and with a gentle smile that man replied, " I am not Somulu sir, but his grandson."
Koteswararao adjusted his spectacles on the bridge of his nose. Everything and everybody seemed standing out from the past, not only to his eyes but to his mind as well.
Auto started. He was the only passenger. Like an old pal the road was leading him to his village. On either side of the road trees stood tall but like the prisoners of Kalinga war gave a dejected look.
"What is your name?" Koteswararao enquired.
Was he the King Purushottam who fought with Alexander and lost?
Last night's dream was haunting Koteswararao. He was desperate to come into the present. Closing his eyes he tried hard to focus his mind. The difference between life and death lies only in its struggle! When the struggle ceases, life ends … be it a struggle within the body, a struggle within the family or a struggle amongst families!
" Bava!" Koteswararao heard somebody calling at him. It was a summer evening. He was sitting as usual by the Vamsadhara river, his old comrade, and watching it keenly. He was surprised at the call. Subhadra was standing before him in white nylon voni running over a parrot-green blouse and a matching petticoat. She looked beautiful in the attire and he was staring at her.
Subhadra's grandfather and his grandfather were brothers. His grandfather had two sons and a daughter. And the daughter's son was he. Her grandfather had only one issue, her father, and she was the only surviving child . The grandfathers lived and toiled hard together. In the zamindari period Subhadra's grandfather left for Rangoon leaving the care of his wife and son to his brother. He used to come home once in a while and sent home money regularly. One year he did not turn up. He died and was cremated in Rangoon . Not long after, what differences cropped up nobody knew, the house as well as the property were divided. Division of property had also divided the people and drove wedge in their affections. Identifications changed.
" Do you know uncle missed a fatal accident by a whisker?" She asked.
Koteswararao could not get at her. After joining the electrical diploma course in Calcutta a year ago, he was coming home for the first time for the summer vacation. From day one, he noticed, his grandfather's house which was otherwise busy always, bore an unusual calm about it --- like an examination hall under a strict invigilator. But he did not try to find out the reasons why.
" ... Once the whole village stood by one word. Now it is a divided house. The leaders from the neighboring village enticed my father to become the Sarpanch next time. So it has become a war of Titans between uncle and my father now. Everybody is in constant fear of what is going to happen the next moment."
Koteswararao's heart started beating fast. Now he understood the reason for the pall of silence at his grandfather's house. Then he suddenly remembered Somulu.
" He is in the hospital and out of danger. He will be discharged tomorrow, " Subhadra replied.
Somulu.... Though he was a Kambari for employment sake, he was treated more like a family member in his grandfather's household. Then what was the root cause of all these struggles? Could it only be Panchayat politics? Though that seemed an the apparent reason, there must be others unseen and unknown reasons, he thought. Instead of fighting against them they might be fighting amongst themselves.
"After the end of the rule of dynasties, zamindars and the British, some of the 'ruled' became 'rulers' now. New groups joined the power blocks. There was clash of interests between the old and the new groups and also between the 'ruled' and the 'rulers' " Koteswararao suddenly remembered the out of the way political analysis his electronics lecturer used to do in the class at the college.
The more Koteswararao struggled to get into the present the more his past played before his mind's eye!
" Sir! Have you come to see your grandfather who is ill? " asked Purushotham looking at Koteswararao who remained silent for quite sometime.
Suddenly a truck teeming with passengers came from the opposite direction. The road being narrow Purushotham slowed down, drove auto aside and gave it room.
Continuing the vein he said getting back to the road and changing the gear, " Sir, you might have noticed by now. With the advent of these trucks, our auto rickshaws lost business just as rickshaw-pullers lost their business because of us earlier. After he stopped working in your grandfather's farm, my grandfather Somulu pulled rickshaw for sometime." As auto picked up speed, he started once again, " just as the new modes of transport like the jeeps, trucks, cars etc., entered the village, so did new habits and inhabitants into the village. Sir, it is rumored that you would be settling here after your retirement. Is it true?"
The question pricked Koteswararao somewhere.
Without waiting for his reply, Purushotham continued, "do come and settle down here, sir. As the saying goes, it is meet to meet death at one's place of birth."
" Mother! One should not become sentimental. Unless we catch up with the speeding world we would be lagging behind. It is not the time to look for relations, one should look for opportunities now, " his son was advising his mother. A sudden feeling of weakness overcame Koteswararao as he overheard their conversation from the bedroom. "We have lands in the village. Are we getting anything out of them? Can we go there and live just for the sake of our love for the land? They are in great demand and the lands are fetching a good price. If we sell them off we can solve sister's problem as well. If anything is left over, we can repay our hand loans. Why should one keep the land just for the heck of a sentiment?' " His son proposed to him to cutoff his roots with his native land.
Recovering from his woolgathering, Koteswararao asked Purushotham suddenly, 'are you married, Uttam?' Purushotham was taken aback at the unexpected question. Looking back, he answered, ' no sir, but then why did you put me that question ?'
Purushotham could not make out what he said.
" ...in a day or two. Koteswararao already began experiencing the pain of alienation from his native land. But had he any roots left really, so to speak? He himself might have cut them off with the village long ago. So long ago when he left it for higher education in his childhood.
Auto entered village limits. Koteswararao noticed to his north and south orchards and plantations replaced by dalit and backward class' colonies. And to the west was a modern rice mill, standing like a victory pillar erected by a invader. And to his east were coffee and tea shacks. In the 'new street' auto passed by Sankararao's fertilizer godown which was like a fattened wild beast. Roads were widened with the Rojgar funds. And the Snow-white convent at the turn of the street was looking like a parakeet cage. Auto came to a halt .
' Sir, can mere sweeping of roads and white washing walls be called serving the motherland? Govt. uses students for every damn thing. Look at that human chain, sir!' Purushotham complained directing his attention towards children.
Koteswararao looked at them. Students stood in a circle holding hand in hand forming a chain and were taking oath to serve their mother land. He got down the auto. Children forming the human chain looked like generations of village folk agitating for something standing interminably in wait and collapsing to the ground ultimately. He stood there as if he was listening to something calling for his attention for ages.
The human chain dispersed. And so did the groups of yellow shirts and white-attired official machinery. One of the people who remained identified Koteswararao and going to him he greeted, ' how do you do, Koti? Coming home now? How long you plan to stay?'
As he looked at Bhukta, his past flashed before Koteswararao's eyes for a while.
It was an elocution contest in his school. The Subject was: 'Which is better :Village or Town'. While Bhukta argued in favor of Town, Koteswararao argued in favor of the village. Both of them presented their points with strong supporting arguments. Judges could not decide between the two and decided the winner by lottery. But ironically, Bhukta settled in the village where as he settled in the town.
Bhukta's father hated the Divanam system. He backed the ryots while the heirs to Divanam land stood for the system. He encouraged ryots not to pay taxes and argued that land should wrest with the farmer. Clashes and court cases ensued.
Bhukta entered politics founding his career on his father's death, and steadily rose to become an MLA.
Koteswararao could not think further. When he took out his bag and baggage and started walking homewards, Purushotham took them back from him and seating him in the auto, he started off once again.
" Sir, it is said that one of the relations of Rajeswara Bhukta, the deceased heir to the Divanam, is in foreign. Bhukta joined hands with him. They knew the litigation would prolong eternally and are now prepared for an out-of-the-court settlement. It appears ryots are also in favor of it." Purushotham continued. The news no less surprised him.
Land! Just a piece of land! But how many wars were fought on its name! How many twists and turns it gives to life! When did Ashoka the great embrace Buddhism? After the reconciliation? Or, over the corpses of hundreds and thousands of innocent folk? Buddham Saranam Gachchami.
Auto stopped at his grandfather's house and Koteswararao walked in.
Opposite to that tiled house there was once an ashram of an old man whom they fondly called 'Demudu Tata' and a large stone platform under a Peepul tree abetting the ashram. When Demudu Tata read passages from the Mahabharat the villagers listened to him attentively sitting on the platform. Koteswararao used to play mischief targeting some of the listeners with little pebbles. When they looked back to find out the thrower he used to hide himself prostrating on the floor.
One night when he was in his bed, his cousin Rajsekhar, who visited him for the Sankranti vacation, proposed going to a movie. There was a touring talkies about four miles from their place. As they had no money on them they took out some paddy from the silo stealthily and packed it in a bed sheet and went to the merchant Appalaraju's house to sell it. Applaraju was cozily abed with his wife as the night was very cold. They were perplexed as how to wake him up since if they tapped the door gently he could not hear them and if they tapped the door hard the watch dogs would howl about them and wake people. They cursed the cold, Appalaraju and his wife simultaneously. After repeated trials ultimately Appalaraju's wife woke up and standing behind the door asked in a low voice, ' Who's that?'
And only when they revealed her their identity, she went in and woke up Appalaraju.
They bartered paddy for the ticket charges and the cycle rent.
But in spite of all their best efforts to keep it a secret, it was known to everybody. Fortunately, his grandfather did not get angry as he feared. But after Rajsekhar had left, he reprimanded him, " boy, it is not good for us to cultivate the tastes of the town. All of us pinned our hopes on you."
He could not understand the purport of what he said then. But now when he was able to, his grandfather was lying on the cot emaciated to the bones.
Koteswararao's mother was giving him some medicinal decoction. His mother was surprised to see him .
Koteswararao slowly walked up to his grandfather's bed. Sitting on the edge and looking at him he said, 'why didn't you inform me when you are so seriously ill?' There was a feeling of hurt in his voice.
There was a fleeting beam of delight in the old man’s face as if he was glad to see his grandson. He struggled to speak to Koteswararao, and mumbled " boy, a falling leaf makes room for a new twig. That is agriculture. But now there is neither agriculture nor the cultivator. Farmers, cattle, greenery and granaries ... all of them have vanished nobody knew where. In their place have come tractors, engines, fertilizers, pesticides, and the rattling rattle-notes. They bulldozed the plough in their wakes and there are notes, and notes being sown in the fields! How did they come here? Where from? And why? Who brought them? Did we ever seek for them? Then why did they come at all ? Tell me why? Why? If you can't tell me now, take your time," and his eyes soon drooped under sleep.
" It’s like this everyday. He would speak incoherently for some time and slips back into sleep. When he wakes up, he would again speak as incoherently and walk away to his farm. No doctor has come forward to treat him. Only Apparao, the school teacher, is administering some sort of medicine ..." Koteswararao was listening to his mother bearing out her suppressed angst. "It was just like this in an earlier occasion also. You were studying in Calcutta, then. Your brother dropped out from high school and took to cultivation to help this old man; Your father was just released on bail. What transpired in this old man’s mind nobody knew. He suddenly called for a meeting of all the family members; divided the property and gave me an equal share with my brothers. There was no gold or silver, since they were already exhausted for your uncle's election expenses. He divided the land equally and I got five acres for my share. However, he divided the house between me and your younger uncle since he felt my Calcutta brother needed no house here. He bid us to live on our own.
" But that, however, never happened. As you are aware, Divanam land disputes cropped up. Divanam people used to take away the produce by use of force. There were clashes and skirmishes and in one such a ryot was killed. Your father ran away and we saw him only after police had shot him dead in the motor shed in our farm while he was in a meeting with the ryots.
" This old man could not bear it and lost his balance of mind wailing over your father's death: 'Is it for this I asked you to stay put with me. Did I marry you to my daughter or death?'
" Luckily, he recovered gradually and came to the support of your brother. But, this time around there is no such hope," she raked a long un-healed wound. Though it was all known to him, hearing it from her, he could feel the intensity of her pain! Somewhere, a gut feeling that he was unable to see his father in his last minutes flickered and pricked him. His father ... from whom he learnt to put the first steps in walking holding his little finger; sitting over whose shoulders he watched the world around; and on whose chest he learnt the alphabets, was shot and cremated by the police.
Koteswararao broke out.
His mother made no attempt to console him. She did not know it was not for his grandfather he was wailing as she supposed. He was wailing for the many sensitive 'touch'es he lost and for having come there on a different mission.
As the day came to a close, Koteswararao's brother, sister-in-law, and his cousins returned home from farm. With their comforting words he dried his eyes, washed his face and changed to new clothes.
His grandfather was still asleep. Koteswararao put his hand over him and felt the fever was still high. Sitting by him for a while and informing his mother that he would stroll up to the river, he got up. In the translucent darkness when people looked as hazy as figures on a distant screen, he kept his attention on his path and reached for the bank of Vamsadhara. It was dark all around. He looked for a sand dune and rested on it making the towel his pillow. Metallic sounds of vessels being filled preceded some fine tune floating in the air over the grass, followed by the music of the bamboo forest. Cool breeze caressed him every inch. Sleep overwhelmed him slowly. And in his sleep... Some same familiar images...
Then another dream. This time the setting changed to a large city with tall beautiful buildings and high standing factories. His job was to make repairs to the machinery and bring them back to life. He was moving among them like a machine himself. Yes, a machine. A relentless machine! So were his wife, his son and his daughter. They were also moving like machines and talking to one another machine-like. There he was .... Praveen, his son, another machine running at high speed. " Boy, Praveen! Don't run that fast. Praveen, you get reeling and fall down! Praveen, my boy!... Praveen! " he was shouting at his son in sleep.
Ganesh, Koteswararao's brother, woke him up shaking him hard by shoulders. Finding his brother and cousins he stammered for words, apologizing ' just as I leaned back on the sand I fell asleep instantly.'
" Come on, get up. Let's go home. You can go to bed after taking your meal, " Ganesh said. Coming back home he had his meal and rolled over his bed, but sleep eluded him. He tried hard but no use. Then he got up and walked up to the farmhouse. He remembered his bed on the attic. The farmyard was aglow under the high voltage lights. They were baling the heaps of cotton harvested. In the adjacent cattle-pen a tractor was silently asleep. What he remembered as a hut earlier, had become a cottage now. Resting his hands on the easy chair, someone was watching a movie on the color TV. About him, might be his family members, people were glued to the TV and watching the movie oblivious of themselves. Koteswararao knew not one of them. Not even any of the workers busy in baling the cotton. They were people coming from coastal areas to buy lands and settle there. He felt he was an alien in his own village. He returned home instantly and took to bed.
* * *
Salihundam Hill was as bare as the statue of a goddess removed of all her decorations. There was a gravel road up to the hill top. It was supposed used as a granary of Sali grain. There was a Buddhist monument of the shape of rumpus of an elephant at the top. When looked from above, the brick-built Buddhist Chaityas, Viharas and the confluence of Vamsadhara with the sea look so beautiful ... without a parallel. And thus watching for quite a while, Koteswararao walked into the museum run by the Archaeological Department. There he saw Bhukta showing and explaining the idols and sculptures to some foreign Buddhist pilgrims. For each of the idols at least a limb or an organ was missing. Dilapidated warriors! Or, were they idols of those shoulderless ryots of his previous night's dream? Inadvertently Koteswararao put his hands to his shoulders.
He saw among the relics, an idol of a goddess with three heads and six hands. On the card board beneath was written: Sweta Patra Aparajita Vairochani. Not a word he understood but guessed she must be a warrior-woman.
" Oh, Koti! You have come here? Then, let me introduce you to my foreign Buddhist friends." Spotting Koteswararao, Bhukta introduced him to them. Besides some foreigners there was an expatriate Telugu. While they were keenly watching the place as a precious rarity, local people, however, lost themselves in the stream of daily chores and were as casual about it as the flow of Vamsadhara into the sea!
Koteswararao could not make out what ultimately Bhukta was driving him to.
".. to sum up, black money entered politics as capital. That means a lumpen section has entered the politics."
By that time they got down the hill.
Getting into the car parked by the road, they proceeded homewards. Silent till they were ten minutes from reaching their village Bhukta began: ' my children have been asking me to come to them. Last heir to the Divanam, Raghuramachandra, is now in foreign. They have ideas to start a joint venture with him. God knows when the litigation in the court would come to an end! They are advising me to go for an out-of-the-court settlement. You must help me."
Koteswararao did not say a word. The dream he got in the train was still haunting him. There was destruction all around. Everyone was wounded. An irresistible current was sweeping towards them, he felt, and pushing them back ...along with the car. He leaned on to the back of his seat closing his eyes.
The car stopped with a sudden jerk in front of his house. When he was bidding him goodbye, Bhukta continued his refrain " You must help me. I will not forget your help.'
Koteswararao walked in and to his grandfather's bed. His grandfather was not in his senses. Apparao, the teacher had administered some medicine and asked all the people to move out.
"Let him breathe some fresh air. Temperature has come to normal and he may regain consciousness any moment, " he said, and looking at Koteswararao, enquired " Kotibabu, when did you come?". Taking him aside he also said, 'there is no medicine to cure psychopaths'.
But Koteswararao heard him otherwise... that there was no cure for his disease.
" But, poor fellow, he had to swim always against the currents: a brother who should have been his prop died at a far off place Rangoon; he lost part of the cultivating land under zamindari act; what he accumulated whit by whit toiling hard for years, his son spent in no time; the new commercial crops played chequered fortunes with him; and his son-in-law became a victim of the Divanam land dispute. Because it was him, he withstood it all. Had it been anybody else, well, it's anybody's guess. But for that land, he could have withstood some more..." Apparao, the teacher recounted the life of his grandfather as though he was reciting the heroic legend of a wounded warrior.
Koteswararao felt very uneasy. While all of them, his son, Bhukta and himself included, were treating the Divanam land as an asset, it dawned upon him now, his grandfather regarded it as a means of production! He suddenly remembered the words of a speaker at the worker's conference: he who commands the means of production, commands the society at large.
His mother called all of them inside saying his grandfather had regained consciousness. They walked in. His grandfather asked Koteswararao to sit by him and said, " Boy! I thought you might have left for home. Where did you go?" And before he could answer, " after toiling for the whole of my life, I could not retain even a cubit of land for myself. Can you buy me a six-foot land for my sake? I want to be cremated there. Can you?" He asked as though it was his last wish.
Grief gushed out of his heart. Welled up tears started streaming down. He was remorse stricken for having come there to sell off the land and take away his share. Feeling guilty he said,
" No. Let's not sell it. I don't want that money. Forgive me for coming here to take my share of the spoils. I don't want to live in that town of hellish machinery any more. I lead my life here itself. I tell my son that I am not going to sell the land..." Koteswararao spoke out what was simmering in his mind.
Everybody understand the reason for Koteswararao's sudden coming. His grand father seemed to have got at him, for he said, looking at Koteswararao,
A beggar was singing in the compartment. The song seemed to him the song of the wound(ed).
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