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The Water Bridge
|by N. S. Murty|
I always liked the Godavari delta. People who befriend water will be as pure and clear. Tears and water ... they are the two banks of life.
That was the first time I had ever been to Rajahmundry. I heard about the town from my childhood but never had I any occasion to visit that place. I always imagined her as a mother breast-feeding her suckling.
For a town having the fragrance of history and the character of literature as warps and wefts, the streets of Rajahmundry I found, were very narrow. Of course, for that matter, in any ancient city the streets might be narrow but the minds of the people are broad.
My mother-in-law whom I admired most, died. To perform the final rites with her mortal remains, I had to go there. Our bus from Vizianagaram reached the place very late. My brother-in-law Ramu was by my side.
Rain greeted the bus entering into the town. It was due to some depression in the bay, they said, it was raining for the previous two days. It was on the increase with time. To put it correctly, one should not call it a rain. It was a heavy downpour. I never witnessed such a downpour in my life. A downpour like the enigmatic barrier between man and man; like a money-membrane; like a curtain of iron. It was five minutes short of seven in the morning when we landed in the town. We were seized by clouds from above and the overflowing drains beneath.
We went direct to a nearby lodge in a rickshaw, completed our ablutions, and waited for a while to see if there would be any let up. But soon realised that there wasn't any hint.
"What shall we do?" I looked-up to my brother-in-law.
We took a rickshaw to Kotilingala Revu, where obsequies are normally performed. It was more like going by a boat rather than going by a rickshaw. The rickshaw puller was very old. "How can you expect anybody there in such a downpour, Sir? Better if you had stayed in your lodge for today, and attended to your work tomorrow,” the rickshaw puller gave an unsolicited advice struggling hard to pull the rickshaw.
But, I should get back to Vizianagaram after attending to this work, no matter whether it was rain, flood or a tidal wave.
I had great respect for my mother-in-law. I liked her, too. She treated me like her eldest son. She died of cancer. Few days before her demise, I had been to their village, Alamanda. She was already in a terminal stage. After a brief stay, I drew near her bed to take leave. I cannot forget her looks at that moment. May be, every person having the sixth sense of impending death in a few days, would look like that. Mind has vision. But Life has neither looks nor form.
A month after coming to Hyderabad from Alamanda, I received the telegram. Then I rushed to her village, but by the time I reached the place the funeral was over. My father-in-law insisted that I should stay till the eleventh day. It was decided to engulf her mortal remains in river Godavari as it was the custom. Normally that was a duty to be performed by one her sons. However, for some reasons none of them could move out of the village and my wife's cousin, Ramu, suggested my name and promised to accompany me.
Rickshaw-puller stopped. The place where we should go was much ahead. But the rickshaw-puller cried off saying with a heavy breath, "no more Sir. It can not be." He was wiping off the sweat even in such a rain.
I was holding the plastic bag containing the mortal remains of my mother-in-law. Each time I looked at it, I was reminded of her. And I was telling myself, perhaps, I was recompensing her love towards me... this way.
We started walking towards Kotilingala Revu.
We were dripping to bones. Our goal was about ten yards away. There was a hut seen at the turning. It was a small tea-stall. There was a bench inside and a man about fifty was sitting on that. With fond hope to get some information from him we entered the hut.
"Shall I get you two cups of steaming hot tea, sir?" The old man initiated. Drying up our faces, Ramu and I sat. Within three minutes we were taking the tea and were listening to the old man.
“I very much doubt if there would be anybody around in this rain. I am afraid they won't turn up even if you call on them at their home,” he expressed his doubts.
“It was raining on and off for the last two days. But it was only today, that too from early hours it has become so heavy as though it were raining stones. I was watching these people for the past two days. They did not seem to get any customers," said the old man.
"Customers?" I wondered.
"Yes Sir, these rituals and obsequies may be a pious duty for you. But to them, it is just their means, their livelihood. They see you as a customer and their profession, as a commodity for sale. Here chips of money and chops of wood only matter. Man and life count for nothing," he spoke rather matter-of-factly. Be it a ritual in a temple, or rites at a funeral they are one and the same. They are the means and 'end's of life. I understood why he said so. In front of me I saw the swirling curls of drains overflowing on the road and in the flow I could hear the toll of death.
“Then, do you think nobody would be available?" I asked him hoping against hope.
I looked into my watch. There wasn't much time to lose. I must hasten.
“Come on. Let us go." I said to Ramu.
Covering our heads with hankies, we came out of the hut. We were wading through knee-deep water. Ahead of me was the great river Godavari in full spate. Caught in its vortices, the floodwater collected debris, filth and what not in its course, and the ageless holy river Godavari was flowing furiously stretching to its banks.
We reached Kotilingala Revu. We were standing under a huge Bunyan tree. Temple of lord Siva was next to it. One or two people like us were also restlessly pacing hither and thither. Some sadhus took shelter under the tree while others wherever they could find place and were lost in chit chatting among themselves. It was rain above. It was rain below.
“Shall I make enquiries at the temple?" Ramu offered and without waiting for my reply went in and came out soon.
“They say that the Brahmins who conduct these rites did not turn-up today and they may not likely to come unless somebody calls on them at their residence. Shall we send in a word?" He looked rather enquiringly at me.
"But we should know where they live in the first place, isn't it?" I said.
"They gave me some information. Look over there. Find you the Neem tree in the distant horizon? There they say one or two people might be available. If we can send word they may turn up."
“But who is there to send a word other than us two. One of us must go." I said.
"Then you stand here. I will go and fetch one." Ramu proceeded ahead.
To me, this Kotilingala Revu looked like a living example of ' touch of icy hands of Death.' I don't know why, but death seems to be superior to life. It was there for everyone to leave behind his travails, tears, hopes and despairs, selfishness, ambitions, love and affection, joys and everything so covetously cherished. Hadn't there been any fear of death, well, it is anybody's guess what man would not have turned into! How wonderful this creation is! There can't be a greater miracle than creation that coupled Life with Death.
Wind started whistling. It was like the last phase of life: getting emotional and looking gloomy. I stood behind the Bunyan tree. Wind. Whistling wind. Shrill wind. I sat on the bund around the girdle of the tree. I wondered at its enormity. How old could it be! May be from the times of poet Nannayya or of the reformer Veeresalingam. That it had such a hoary past was undisputed.
Then I saw him.
In the opening of that huge Bunyan tree… to the left of it...drawing himself close… a boy. He might be about six or seven. Looking as White as the Vedas; eyes glistening as Mantras; donning shorts and a chequered shirt, face seeping water; and a long conspicuous nose with glittering chubby cheeks.
Just as every body, he has a glow... A characteristic glow of the mind. With such a halo around, he appeared bright. He was looking straight at me. At that moment he appeared a childlike Godavari to me.
As I was looking at him there was a splashing sound by me. I turned my head. It was Ramu with the Brahmin.
“What Sir! What a day you chose to come! Didn't you find better time?" He was commenting on the inclement weather. I told him my urgency of purpose.
"Oh! In such a down pour! Well! Under the normal circumstances we would charge the usually agreed rate. But now it is a cyclone, we can not do for the same rates," and when he said what he would charge, I was rather stunned. But since there was no alternative I submitted saying, "It is up to you."
He began in all earnest. “You don't need it but yet, do you like to take a dip in such a down pour?"
“I don't mind.'
“Look at the river. To my knowledge I never saw this river Godavari as angry as saint Durvasa. I am afraid you will be swept away if you attempt taking a dip. Nevertheless, be careful. Come quick, otherwise you run the risk of catching cold...' There was noticeable concern and impatience in his words.
Putting the mortal remains I was holding at the place indicated by him, I walked towards the steps leading to the river. I took a dip, changed my clothes. The Brahmin started conducting the proceedings on one of the steps itself. As I opened up the bag, I could not resist my tears.
I was going through the motions mechanically. Then, through a thin film of tear I saw the boy standing there. I looked up to him in surprise.
“Sir, if you don't mind, can I ask you a question?"
I nodded to mean yes.
“Was it your father?"
"Must be your mother, then?"
"One of your sisters?"
“Then who is it? When you are performing these obsequies with such seriousness, under trying conditions as these, it must be… Sir, by the way, am I talking beyond my limits?"
I cannot say why, but his enquiries irritated me. “What exactly you want to know?" I asked.
“Pay no heed to him. He was hanging around here for the last two days. Some cock and bull story he would tell you. Don't believe him. It is all for money. You will see many people of his like here," warned the Brahmin.
The ritual was going on.
After another two minutes the boy spoke. “Sir, tell me who it was. How are you related?"
“It was my mother-in-law."
“Do you want me to wail for her?" He asked me instantly looking into my eyes.
"Wailing for her? What for?" I could not hide my surprise.
" Sir, when somebody dies people wail near the corpse, at the funeral, and when the rites like this are performed. But neither you nor the man sitting beside you is wailing. Let me wail for her. Her soul would rest in peace. I can wail very well. Sir, if you hear me wail, surely, it will make you, too, wail for her.”
I looked into his face. There was no kidding but innocence writ largely in his face.
Why should the boy weep when I perform the rites for my mother-in-law?
" Is wailing a proof of love for the dead? If it were so, then I should wail for her and surely, not you?" I told the boy.
"Sir, you say it was your mother-in-law. Then let me wail on behalf of your wife and on your own behalf. Sir, allow me. I can," entreated the boy.
" But then, what would you get out of it if you wail?"
For a second, the boy was silent. It was still raining heavily. My brother-in-law Ramu was watching us both with interest. Godavari was speeding as relentlessly. Rain seized us from all sides.
" You will pay me for it if I wail. Isn't it, Sir?" He replied.
I looked at him again. There were tears in his eyes. After all, heart is to tears what clouds are to rain!
"How much do you charge to wail for her?" I enquired.
In the changing circumstances, tomorrow, perhaps there will be rates for laughter as well. I was just thinking about what could be his need. "Shall I pay you fifty?" I volunteered.
Meanwhile, the Brahmin was chanting the mantras. "... get up once again...take another dip... Close the right nostril now and then the left alternatively... Revolve about yourself, “ the instructions were going on continuously.
" I take two hundred rupees, Sir."
There was gloom in his eyes. There was grief in his words. Without another thought, I looked at Ramu, my brother-in-law. He took out money from my trouser pocket. The ritual was going on one side and the boy was wailing on the other side.
There was no pretension…He was wailing his heart out.
The ritual was over. Offerings were given in her name. As a culmination of the rites, I took the final dip and was fully satisfied the way proceedings were conducted by the Brahmin. Ramu paid him his charges. Everything was over. The Brahmin was about to take leave. I was changing to my original dress. Then, without telling a word, the boy started running all of a sudden to the left of Kotilingala Revu. There I saw two people, looking like undertakers, to whom he went running. He was talking something to them. He was crying, pleading and roaring at them in anger. I could see everything clearly. I was wondering why that fellow was entreating them and what for.
After fifteen minutes he returned... Still wailing.
" Sir, ...my purpose was not served. It is raining you see, and they hiked their charges; they demand hundred more now, " he said amidst his wails.
"Why?" I asked in surprise.
He did not speak but bade me to follow him
To the left of us--
On the steps--
Beside a dilapidated wall ... lying in state ... I saw a corpse, drenching in rain.
" It's my mother, Sir! Lying that way since two days. I had no money for the funeral. To throw her into the river, I was too young. I cannot drag her. Those people asked me two hundred fifty in the beginning. And now, they have raised it to three hundred fifty. I wailed for your mother-in-law only to earn that amount. But my purpose was not served," he spoke in broken words, amidst tears.
Grief... It must be raining very heavily in his heart.
I did not waste a second more.
I looked into the eyes of the boy, walked towards the corpse, raised to my shoulders it and walked straight towards the river Godavari, lifted the corpse up with both hands and slowly allowed it sucked into the river. I turned.
The boy was looking in the direction of the fleeting body of his mother without batting an eyelid. The notes he held in his hands dropped off and were floating like paper boats. Between tears and water, I stood.
Telugu Original by Late Sri Datla Narayana Murty Raju
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