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A Pan of Musk
|by N. S. Murty|
Rammurty was getting used to fasting these days. On the first few days he said to his wife, “Rama, I am not feeling hungry, don’t cook food for me.” Later he started inventing one reason or the other saying, “It is Ekadasi today. I fast in the day; today being Saturday I don’t take food to night, a vow for Lord Venkatesa.”
That day, before his wife Rama got up from bed, he peeped into the rice-drum and found only a half seer of grains, barely enough for Rama for the day. He was having four Anna in his pocket. Without any plan or purpose he walked out into the street, for, those two had deserted him for almost three years since!
He heard the bells in Lord Siva’s temple tolling. He suddenly remembered that it was Sivaratri festive day. “Thank god! There’s no question of my taking food for today. Rama can manage the day with the left over grains. Of the four Anna in the pocket, I would buy lady’s fingers for two Anna and with the other two, curd for Rama from shepherdess Rattamma.” He comforted himself that, after all, he did not get into the street without purpose.
There was nip in the cool breeze still. Normally by the Sivaratri day, with the fall receding, the days would start warming up; but this time Sun god wasn’t kind enough. Rammurty covered his ears with the handloom towel he had on him. Recalling the hey days of his tobacco export business, he said to himself: “Can I get the suits I ordered for, on my way to London, or the foreign leather jerkin I purchased in the Army-Navy stores to protect me from this cold now?’ and walked regretfully ahead.
Suddenly, he overheard the curses Seshamma was heaving on him and his family from behind:
“May you go childless. No matter whether it’s you or your forefathers who had done it, the evil that men do will sure, one day, boomerang upon them. You can’t escape the throes of agony my family was put to!”
Seshamma was hunched by old age. Her vision was also poor. She was cleaning the foreyard of her half-dilapidated house. The bleak, half-ruined house was clearly visible through the chinks in the compound wall.
That old woman was of the same lineage and a close relative to him. With the jealousy and rivalry most common amongst such relatives, Rammurty’s father relentlessly chased her family to run around courts for almost twelve years. And in the process properties were lost and both parties sold off Inam lands. She was the lone survivor of her family.
Rammurty was inured as much to the curses of that lone representative, as he was to the pangs of hunger for the last one year. Heaping up the lady’s fingers he brought from the market in the kitchen, Rammurty walked into the veranda. An un-seasonal drizzle started outside.
Rama did not get up from bed as yet. “I am feeling a little uneasy,” she said.
“You better send word for Gangamma,” she said. Gangamma was the village midwife.
He perceived that the drizzle outside had increased to a lashing rain. “Oh! God!” he seemed to have heard a groan somewhere from the depths of his heart. He saw Sivayya soaked and standing in front of his house, calling him.
Sivayya was a palmist by profession; occasionally he studied horoscopes also. “You have Mars in the seventh house. He is a malefic. Your wife’s life is in danger,” he had said to Rammurty last week.
“What did he turn up for now?” he worried.
As clouds gathered over the sky, the shadows in the veranda were merging with the darkness.
Rama was swooning in pain. Rammurty tried to cover and keep her warm with the rug he had set aside after selling off every thing. “I set apart ten rupees to meet any emergency. You find them in the spices-box,” she said feebly, throwing aside the rug.
Rammurty started off for Gangamma’s house in that rain with Sivayya as escort. Before they took a turn at the end of the street the rain had ceased briefly, but not the second spell of Seshamma’s curses. She might have watched them coming through the fissures in the compound wall.
“Why? Can’t anybody other than that wretched fellow be found for an escort? Ominous if he were to cross one’s way or heard. One who keeps such drunkard’s company learns only gambling. Go to hell!”
Rammurty understood the curses were directed towards Sivayya. He knew he had those two vices. But how could he help it? In his anxiety, he showed him his horoscope for study. And Sivayya badly needed money that Sivaratri festive day for ganja. He was after Rammurty in the hope of getting that.
Rammurty never wrote me any letters. After our student days, it was for the first time I received one that morning by post and I instantly recognized his hand. His name in full was Medha Dakshina Rammurty. His grand father named all his grand children after the characters from Puranas and Itihasas. His elder sister was Gargi and his younger one was Lopamudra. In my childhood, to attend school we had to cross rail lines. While my schoolmates Pankajam, Vanaja, Gargi and Lopamudra headed direct to school after crossing the lines, Rammurty and I used walk along the rails for some distance before running back to school, gasping, at the stroke of second bell.
Rammurty was a taciturn. He would join the conversation if he was interested; otherwise he would just keep silent. At times he would speak of matters beyond his age philosophically. And on one such occasion he said, ‘just as these rails, our paths may never meet after we grow up.’
How True! He soothsaid. Long before completing college education he started talking about doing some business and before long he was steeped in tobacco business. To start with, he put up two tobacco barns in our village. And soon he floated a company in Guntur. He was seen around moving in a white car. Later he entered into export business with some Gujarati brokers. I heard he had even constructed a big building in Guntur.
I was sure he got into the tobacco business, where lakhs changed hands, with the confidence of the property he had in the back of his mind. But, it was my belief that he misread the facts behind that. His grandfather was childless. He adopted Rammurty’s father. After getting decent education and marriage, the adopted child assumed all the rights over the property. He stopped agriculture; Sent out all lessees. He ran his affairs only through lawyer-notices, plaints and court cases. He quarreled with every one of his relatives. And in a dispute over fifty square yards of house site, he went up to High Court against the husband of Seshamma. He won the suit after twelve years. Rammurty’s grand father died before that. Like the Bahamani Sultans who united against Aliya Ramarayalu of the Vijayanagar Kingdom, his relatives united to fight against Rammurty’s father in the Inam Lands’ dispute. What was left after all these litigations was a mere hollow. Assets barely liquidated the debts and only Rammurty’s house was left out.
By that time I had already migrated to other states in search of livelihood. Rammurty’s business was on the ascendance. Clearing off all the liabilities he was slowly returning to his earlier prosperous state.
For tobacco, color of the leaf is the soul. It shouldn’t have been affected by pests. The business which he never had to look back had suddenly run into rough weather the very year he planned to visit London. Repetition of crop in the same patch of land, ignorance of the farmers about rotation of crops, and their greed for money had resulted ultimately in the loss of color of the tobacco leaf and the multiplication of pests. For three years in succession he lost the advances and the investments for pesticides he had given to the farmers.
Rammurty stared helplessly as the edifice of his business crumbled. There was tremendous pressure and cutthroat competition from fellow exporters. He could not shift his business to other districts as they could. Nor had he any political back-up, since caste came in his way, to salvage part of his principal by exporting inferior quality tobacco to Russia or China. Selling off everything from buildings, cars, and jewellery down to radio, gramophone and even his apparel, he reached his native village.
I don’t know exactly when, but when he remembered me, he wrote these few lines: ‘I ran after the rewards that life could bestow. Now I can’t appreciate the truth in daylight. With the chances of achieving my desires appearing hazy, I am praying that the night may never turn to morn. You may not perhaps remember the words I once said in childish delinquency that our paths would never meet like those parallel rails. Rama, my wife, is seriously ill. I write this letter in expectation.’
After examining Rama, midwife Gangamma said, ‘they are not labor pains. They may start later after fall of night,’ and left. Until evening Rammurty was shuttling uneasily between his house and Siva temple like a cat on a hot tin roof.
By evening the slow drizzle changed into a storm.
Rammurty was waiting for the midwife, helplessly listening to the cries of Rama on one hand and was trying to shield the little kerosene lamp lest it should throw them into darkness. He was not on talking terms with any of his relatives around. Milkmaid Rattamma came to his rescue turning up in that heavy rain.
Standing by Rama, she sent him to fetch the midwife.
Before Gangamma turned up, Rama delivered a male child. The midwife attended to cutting the umbilical cord, making the child cry and cleaning the mess. Rattamma by then readied hot water. With fore sight Rammurty kept firewood ready for that purpose two days ago by breaking his grandfather’s old armchair.
Rammurty was now convinced that Mars in the seventh house was not a malefic.
Rattamma said to him before leaving, ‘the weather is so cold, why don’t you give the mother a pan of musk?’ Gangamma seconded her.
‘Where can I get it, Gangamma?’ he asked.
‘Till last year it was available with Iyyanna, the priest. It’s not available even with him now. It must be available within your family. You have so many relatives here. Why don’t you try with any of them?’ Assuring him to turn up again the next morning, she left. ‘What an auspicious time it was!’ he wondered at the time of his child’s birth. For, the rain which was pouring so heavily until then, relented all of a sudden as if somebody had ordered it. But it was chilly still. Rammurty hurried towards the temple. ‘Parvati Kalyanam’ Harikatha was going on there to help people keep awake through the night, an observance for Sivaratri. He found Sivayya there.
“Why to search with all and sundry? There is musk of the size of a stone with that old widow,” Sivayya exaggerated what he thought about the musk. By that old widow he meant Seshamma.
Rammurty’s heart missed a beat. ‘Will she, who has all the while been cursing him to go childless, do him such a favor?’ He was unsure. He ventured to go upto her house, but no further.
When he got up from his floor-bed the following morning, awakened by the nightmares of devils and spirits, it was a clear sunny day. The baby sun’s rays were gold-plating the sanguine world. He walked inside apprehensively.
Rama, whom he feared might have stiffened with cold, was looking fresh and cheerful. Wearing a red cap and nestling cozily in his bed, his new family-twig was engrossed, perhaps, in the thoughts about the world he had come from. Rama said faintly, ‘can you imagine? Seshammattayya paid us a visit! She gave me a pan of musk and re-arranged baby’s bed. Where were you last night? She complained it was milkmaid Rattamma and not you who informed her.’ She could not restrain her streaming tears.
That day Rammurty could not muster enough courage to go to Seshamma’s house to express his thanks, as well as, his apologies. He dilly-dallied the following day also. Rama asked, ‘Seshammattayya left another tablet of musk under my pillow. Will you please roll it in a pan leaf and give it to me?’ After giving the pan, Rammurty ran towards Seshamma’s house.
There was a large gathering of men and women about her house.
“What a life it was! Innocent woman.”
“Ask for a pinch, she would serve a bowlful of pickle.”
“She would prepare pickles for distribution only. Harsh by tongue but kind at heart.”
“Nobody knew where she went out in the heavy rain at night the day before. She was drenched to the full and might have slept that way. She caught fever and died of it.”
“A steadfast woman. How rich she was once! She lost every thing, but never held out her hand in begging.”
Rammurty might have received my money order the same day.
“You are the mother who saved my family lineage. You returned love for hatred. I see to it you reach higher planes of Heaven; I will perform your funeral rites. You are my mother-like.” Repining for her thus, he set out to perform her last rites.
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