I was one among the hundreds assigned a piece of work officially labelled ‘confidential’.
Outside the mill, as a thinking man given to contemplating different hues of light and darkness in life, one day during lunch break, I nudged and asked Ranganath: “Who is she?”
Ranganath was junior to me and always addressed me as ‘guruji’, which word of address was not much to my liking.
“Ongole or, Kurnool, I couldn’t catch it.”
“Hm… A very comely lass”
“You sigh like that! Guruji! You’re a married man…”
“Is she married too?” I was about to ask but kept silent looking a little grave.
The next day we were a little late. In the mill the red pens had already started what could well be a danse macabre on government stationery scrawled variously by examinees.
No sooner had I settled down to work than Ranganath who appeared to have made up his mind shot his question at me: “ Guruji! Why did you ask about …”
“You’re young. If you have a measure of appreciation for beauty, if you are an aesthete…” I had to restrain myself from getting into the professional mode.
“Good afternoon! Meet my friend, guruji,” said Ranganath and introduced me his friend too. Behind him was the young lady who had roused my curiosity. “My friend, Miss Kanyakumari,” said the buoyant Krantikumar. Thus ended the introductions.
“I read your novel till the very end without ever missing even a single instalment,” the young woman said all in one go. I blushed, a strange feeling for one married for a decade.
“You mean you read some here and there?” Krantikumar asked a little foolishly.
“Our Sir’s novel came out as a serial. I didn’t miss even a single part! Sir, is Sundari very beautiful? I am not able to forget her.”
Krantikumar brought me a cup of tea and announced “We are going to Golconda. Ranganath got your names included.”
“Do you know this Kranti?” I asked Ranganath.
“My senior: seventy-four batch.”
While I was fumbling for a cigarette. Ranganath produced one and for some reason I remembered the advertisement ‘Made for each other’.
-“Wake up, guruji, here we are at the historic monument!”
Our colleagues were moving ahead in little groups.
Someone was clapping at the entrance standing under the wide arch. The claps sent rumbling reverberations. It was very impressive.
Before me was the building that once housed a zenana. I suddenly remembered the medieval chastity belt.
“Do you mind our joining you, Sir,” asked Kanyakumari falling in step with us.
“This is Rangmahal. Here is the pool in which the nawab’s women used to bathe.”
-Kanyakumari and Kranti stood before what was once a pool. The mahal stood erect amidst the ruins trying its best to evade the piteous ruin around. I was trying to visualize a woman struggling to retain the firmness she took enormous pride in. Not only that. Something flashed in my memory.
--“Sir, a trunk call for you! Aren’t you Rama Rao?”
“A trunk call – for me? From Delhi?’” I shot back lifting the razor from my cheek.
I ran to the telephone my heart pounding.
“Rama Rao here.”
“Stop that grand posing. For three days … No call, not even a letter. What makes you so cross or so mean.”
I felt as though everyone around was listening and became stiff with shyness.
“Couldn’t really, no time, dear!: the mill…”
“A lie! A fib! I have been waiting here at my professor’s for two hours … luckily they don’t know Telugu.” She broke into her mother tongue. “You wrote that nasty letter in great anger. I don’t understand. You carried out your threat. Didn’t you? I’m worried - starting tomorrow. I’d reach Kachiguda , possibly, at six thirty.”
“Really! But … Rani … my colleagues...”
“Use your brains,” (She used English whenever she wanted the professor and his people to understand what she was saying)
“ But they are from our place!”
“They carry tales to your wife! Sir, I am the woman in the tale, not you. (Please extend… These operators could be really insufferable) Are you still there?”
“Oh, yes, I’m, shall I ring off?”
“ What do you mean, your silence …”
“What shall I say?”
“Is your anger gone?”
“Did you really think …?”
“I actually broke into tears. There were at least three with me: Grace, Unnikrishnan and that owl Madan. It took my life away answering their solicitous inquiries. Show me that anger of yours when we are together”
“You seem to be really upset. Don’t run up the bill. I’ll be at the station.” (I waited till I heard the click of the line going off.)
“Do you have any relatives in Bangalore?”
I too had an owl or two around me. We can never help it. There’d be one Rama Rao at least in every twenty in Andhra. I tried to tell him the call was for the one in the top floor.
-I was frantic. The train had arrived three minutes before time..
It was Rani. Sweater, muffler, all wrapped in wool. “You look like a ball of wool!” I said and as soon we got into the room, “You are like a bear…” and she leapt to scratch my face. We broke into laughter, which lasted long. We went to Golconda, Ramadas’s prison, then that temple … How could they build at that height! How they could go up all those heights! We had enough of roaming around. I was tired but Rani wasn’t!
“My poor legs!” I moaned.
“Shall I massage”
I put my finger to her lips and she held my fingers in her grasp for long.
“I want to tell you something very important and I came for that. I’d never be able to bear your anger in your letters.”
My eyelids were drooping and it was difficult to keep awake. “Whatever is that?” I asked drawing lines down her forehead with my fingers.
“Are you wiping away my bindi?”
“No, no!” I put my lips to her forehead
… And she forgot she had come to say something. I was not a fool not to have guessed what she had to tell me.
“They have fixed a match for me.”
“You’d be here to deliver your baby!” Some devil had taken possession of my speech. In adoration, a woman’s patience is endless.
“You seem tired, go to sleep.”
I couldn’t feel the tears, the anguish and the anger in that voice then: now I can’t forget that even for a moment.
Two days … two spring seasons … two life times … she proffered me the purest of sweetness and then got into the train. No, I had put her in the train.
“You look very bright!” said my roommate on that day.
Is the sparkle on Kranti’s face the same, then? Is that the very moonrise that sends its fragrance?
“They say they used to bathe in attar here,” Rani was saying.
“Don’t try to smell it here now,” Kranti was saying.
“You come for the delivery,” I was saying.
“Are you wiping my bindi?” Rani was saying.
There was only one thought in my mind. Man can never become an angel that a woman is capable of becoming. “You foolish fellow, Kranti! She adores you. Don’t you see that in her eyes, stupid! Take it and keep it forever. Don’t be stupid to let that flagon of amrit fall from your hold!”
Only the one who has seen its bottom can teach the value of suffering. He alone can show a way of redemption too.
There was some kind of emptiness, some feeling of resignation. Palaces and pavilions of pleasure in ruins, just heaps of stone overgrown by weeds. They were painful like splinters of glass piercing the flesh. No blood oozes out, and no tears issue forth. They don’t keep inside either. Perhaps this was what the lovers’ hell could be.
I could give a piece of advice to Kranti. I was a coward. The very thing I lost mocked at me. I couldn’t understand Rani’s anguish then. It was her devout wish that I should bless her. She knew that she couldn’t be mine all my life. She hadn’t deceived me. I didn’t deceive myself either. Whoever was responsible for these ruins? It was not Rani, not myself and certainly not the woman who had married this worthless me. Though I myself didn’t, I realised that both of them did understand me. That’s the reason why I would say again that for the adoring woman tolerance would be limitless.
Kanyakumari was standing before the deity in the temple with her palms joined.
“I don’t believe in this rigmarole,” Kranti was saying. Egoism could be at its ugliest in a male. No wonder it was only woman that was made strong and pure enough to tolerate it. It would take several millennia for a male who takes sexual pleasure to be the be-all and end-all in male-female relationship to get to the height of the female in the human species.
“Guruji, are you thinking about Kanyakumari?”
“No, about the sublime being a woman could be.”
“Isn’t it quite obvious?”
“Don’t be a brute. Why did she not marry so far?”
“Why marriage if this …” Ranganath whom I had always called ‘junior’ came up with a vulgar adage.
What a hateful thought! I lit a cigarette to overcome the stench.
“They are calling us for lunch.”
To my right there was ‘junior’ and to my left Kanyakumari.
“Didn’t you bring Sundari along to Golconda once?” Kanyakumari asked biting into a piece of sweetmeat delicately.
When in such tight corners, silence is a safe refuge.
“Why did you ever walk this great beauty to this height, and then, from so far?”
I rallied myself round quickly only to say: “You are a perceptive reader!”
“You can’t get away so easily with flattery. There is some beauty in your Sundari. Even with the smallest measure of perceptivity, a reader sees it. That’s the beauty of the writing.”
“Perhaps it’s tight rope walking, being wife to a creative writer,” she said.
“Why this literary discussion at the lunch table?” Junior said with a laugh.
“When can we have another darshan of Sundari?” Kanyakumari asked.
“I could get her out of my system.” I replied.
“You are harming yourself!” Kanyakumari sounded very sad. I never knew she could be so forthright. But then I pretended incomprehension and asked her: “Why? Why so?”
“Is this your way of eating? I made a mistake bringing up Sundari here.”
Sensitive girl! She thought that she reminded me of Sundari.
As one who could make me live a fabulous dream again, Kanyakumari appeared once again, this time at Warangal, after four years . This time there was another junior by my side, not Ranganath.
“This is ‘Guruji’, the complex novelist!” he said. Kanyakumari broke into loud laughter. The junior’s face fell.
“It’s inhuman, a crime leaving Warangal without seeing Ramappa Temple. Toiling in the mill is not life’s only mission,” a colleague said.
A good man in government service arranged a trip, which didn’t necessitate the camp officer’s permission, since we would return at work time.
“See how headstrong, she pretends she hasn’t seen me!”
Without turning my head I could guess that the junior was furious with Kanyakumari. I told myself: “A Malvolio.”
“Kanyakumari is coming to Ramappa gudi.”
“Is she?” Curiosity was dead in me. If I were to delve into her private life, there was no knowing what I’d come up with, diamonds or deadly whales.
Avoiding noisy groups, junior and I went into a temple in ruins, which lay adjacent to the guesthouse. I struck a match in the vandalized sanctum only to find an uprooted lingam. When we emerged into light, Kanyakumari greeted asking “So you too came!” There appeared my Rani in her. I was about to ask “Didn’t Krantikumar come?” but thought better of it. Junior went to get lost in the crowd, perhaps to see the rays of the rising sun on the vast lake.
“Two days ago along with the womenfolk I went to the quila. I remembered you.”
“On the very second day of our arrival we did it: the temple and purana quila. Between those thoranas and amidst those ruins I couldn’t help breaking into tears. Did you see the nandi there? It appears to be looking just at you from whichever angle you look at it. Some good man drew that to my attention. I must have missed something worth seeing to appreciate the sculptor. … In the name of progress we are losing great arts and aesthetic appreciation altogether. Come, let’s go.”
The bus took us to RamappaTemple. Kanyakumari came to me on alighting and we went round the temple taking in the beauties of the sculptures on the structure. A poor man coming across a treasure, not knowing which is which, would pour over his head all the invaluable gems on his head in a frenzy of joy. That was my state of mind then. In each of the pradakshina, we were taking a look at the sculptures from a different level: madanikas, nagins, devatas - all breath taking.
I stopped at a point. The sculpted damsel was standing naked without a trace of self-consciousness. What a joy in her face! She was radiating the most fabulous of the rasas– sringara. In the presence of her lover, the rasika, exclusively her own, with just her palm as cover … Some beast, some demon struck her hand, perhaps anxious to gaze at what was underneath her palm … What did it reveal except what he deserved – the stone. How deftly did the worshipper of beauty bring the beauty of it all on a stone! It was all under a veil, a thin cover, the beauty in what was to be seen and what was to be intuited. If you open the closed fist – nothing: that is the enigma of beauty. Would a Keechaka, a philistine or a moron have a flair for aesthetic appreciation? The damsel was looking at me – not at me alone – at every one casting a look on her. But we cannot say that the nagin was looking down upon us.
Dislike and hatred are proof of the inadequacy of understanding. Perhaps she pities us. Or, does she pity herself?
I heard a whimper from a distance and woke up to the immediate present. In the stone pavilion, Kanyakumari was weeping into her sari-end. Those who came along with her took their circles round the nagins and quickly disappeared.
“Sorry: forgive me. That sculpture … “ I began,not knowing what to say.
She stood up wiping her eyes. It was perhaps a woman’s greatness, to rally herself up, so quickly.
“Sorry! I remembered something. Can I take it, as a reader of yours, that your Sundari materialized in this milieu?”
I could never imagine a woman recovering from distress could be such an archer.
“Sundari? …Oh! Rani?”
I spilled the beans. My face was burning with a sense of exposure. I fumbled striking a match and lit a cigarette only to burst into a fit of coughing.
“You have a very fine sensibility.”
This time I pulled a long face. Was she trying to tell me something? Or was it I dying to … I said quickly: “Kakati queen Rudrama was supposed to have personally supervised the sculpting here.”
“Beneath every great effort there’d be a rare female.”
Shall we have some tea?” I went out to the tea stall in a hut and asked a boy to bring us tea.
After tea we sat down in the temple yard.
“I know you wouldn’t ask!”
Perhaps this was an invitation for a question but I preferred to be silent. In a minute leapt the tidal wave.
“Kranti got married,” she said her head bent low, “didn’t come here.”
“There is beauty in ruins too. For that reason perhaps the poet proclaimed that our sweetest songs are those that tell us of the saddest thought.”
“Would this kind of abstract thought come when one is in the dumps?”.
I kept silent for a while and said slowly, persuasively: “We have to teach ourselves that line of thinking for the simple reason that we have to survive.” Waiting for a while for the idea to sink, I looked into her eyes. She was looking intently at me. It was not shyness but fright that gripped me now.
“You are great!”
I stood up and proffered my hand and she too rose to her feet. In the distance I saw my young friend approaching. I knew what he had seen and what he would think he had seen. I overheard him saying to someone: “Some women are like that. In every camp she catches someone ... young or old…”
Did Kanyakumari hear those words?
In the sanctum of the main temple right in the presence of the deity she shot at me: “Do you believe there was something between the Kakatirani and the sculptor-preceptor?”
“I don’t. Even if someone were to prove there was, Kakatirani remains Kakatirani!”
“Where is Sundari?”
I wonder why people have such an itch to delve into others’ private lives. I pretended going into a pious mood joining my hands. But she wouldn’t let me off that easily. “Answer just this one question!”
Something possessed me. I took her hand and led her outside to show her the sculpture of the nagin whose palm covering her nakedness was cut off. She stared at the stone for quite some time and bent down her head.
The driver was blowing the horn as if to rouse the dead. Kanyakumari dragged me towards the noise.