Railway Signal Post by M. V. Ramana Reddy.

 Murthy was shocked as he recollected the old story of the fish that did not dry up in the sun[1]. He noticed a bizarre similarity between the reasons –the one behind the fish not drying up and the way the modern day political system is operating. Just like the little fish that could have dried up easily but did not due to so many obstacles, so also the little jobs in our government—they could get done easily but do not; they just get lost in the muddle of the mechanism. Our government has a unique skill in stretching out the work, without ever finishing it. The fish story was written long time ago probably to make a mockery of a vain king. But ,for zealots of freedom, like Murthy, the similarity between the fish story and the prevalent democratic government is  simply humiliating.

  Murthy was on his way home from Hyderabad. His spirits were slipping lower and lower as he approached the town. He was dispirited since he could not get the job done. How could he show his face to babayi [uncle]?. Babayi has great faith in his abilities. Up until now, he never returned home without getting done any job assigned to him. Babayi is getting old; for over four years now, he has been assigning to Murthy all his errands. For Murthy, also known as Guru Murthy, babayi is like God. Babayi took him in when Murthy became an orphan, raised him, educated him up to degree level and made a person of him; for Murthy, babayi is the only bond to the world. It’s only natural for young men of his age to have interest in worldly pleasures; but Murthy has no such interests; and that was because of the values babayi instilled in him. He didn’t seem to have any other goal in life except completing, meticulously, the jobs babayi assigned to him. Now, with his help, lot of things are getting done—things like teaching children, helping them take the entrance exams and taking them to the city to admit them in high school, helping the poor children obtain scholarships, and be supportive to the farmers in villages in time of need, etc.

Murthy’s meticulous care alone is not the reason for all these things to happen systematically though. Babayi’s influence in that neighborhood has been the primary force behind that. Local offices viewed Murthy as babayi’s representative. They obliged him as a way of paying their respect to babayi. Now, the job he has on hand is beyond the scope of local offices. At that level, where he needed support, there is nobody to  help him; nobody would even think of babayi, let alone show respect for him. The country has changed a lot. The khaddar, which was once a symbol of higher aspirations is now a mark of power; the spinning wheel which was a symbol of self-reliance is now a party icon; Gandhi, who had inspired people to earn freedom has turned into an effigy. The spirit of independence has worn out and the sacrifices our fathers have made for achieving it are lost in the history books. In that environment, who would remember babayi who had fought for our freedom so long ago? Babayi never ran for a position in the assemby; never sought any nomination; never craved for contracts; and had never applied for loans for the khaddar industry. The city of Hyderabad is in no mood to make a special note of such historical personae of the past amidst its three and a half billion population.

***

The train blew whistle announcing that it is approaching the station. Murthy, sitting in the third class compartment, looked out the window. Darkness has not gone totally but is dissipating slowly. The electric lights at the station are approaching fast. The train stops there only briefly. Murthy has no reason to hurry though;  He does not have to worry about getting his luggage out before the train left. He has only one handbag, no other luggage. In the past, he’s used to standing near the door to jump out, as soon as the train stopped. Today, he got up leisurely, hung the handbag on his shoulder and moved toward the door. He has no expensive items that needed to be packed in a suitcase. He wears a khaddar shirt and a pair of khaddar pants; as far as he’s concerned, two more such pairs are enough for him to travel any distance. While one pair was washed and put out to dry, the other pair served as a spare. He did the same even in his college days. Murthy was not offended when his friends teased him that he was born old.

The train came to a screeching halt along the platform ledge. Murthy got off the train; he noticed that he was the only one, nobody else got off there. A tea vendor is shouting tea saar tea, peeping into each compartment, looking for customers, and moving forward. At that time, in that station, there is nothing one can get but for the tea. If it were daytime, one could get a soda or roasted peanuts. The tea vendor stopped as he saw Murthy and said namaskaaram saar. He did not say have tea, saar. He knows that Murthy does not drink tea or coffee.

“Basha! Aren’t you going to quit this job ever?” Murthy asked him.

“I will, saar, after this month.”

It’s a year since Murthy had asked him this question. It’s a year since Basha’d given him the same reply. Murthy is trying desperately to make him quit this job and go to school. The boy is slipping through his fingers.  Basha cannot sleep unless he had earned a quarter of a rupee and watched the movies at the village theater.

The train shrieked again and set out to leave. Murthy turned around and looked at it as if bidding farewell. The train was soon out of sight. The station was empty. The station master folded the green flag, nodded to Murthy and went to his office. Murthy moved in the same direction the train went and walked slowly towards the far end of the platform. There is no need for him to leave the railway station and go into the town; that way he’d have to walk two more miles to reach the asram. On the otherhand, if he had walked along the railway tracks, he would reach the same place much faster. Through the picket fence, he could see the village at a distance, probably, a mile and a quarter from there. The village is neither big nor small; a kind of mid-range township. It is also taluk[2] headquarters. A bumpy path connects the station to the town. Along the path, there is a ten-acre, fallow land, which Murthy is trying to acquire at the behest of babayi.

The fallow land is full of seeku trees and looks scary. Recently, a few harijan families cut down the trees and built a few huts to live in; the rest of the area remains a wasteland, unfarmed. The local committee decided to  build a high school on that land; they determined it serves their purpose. There is no school within a radius of twenty miles. Most of them in town had neither the guts nor the economic resources to send their children to a far-off city. In recent times, the number of students went up, thanks to the encouragement from babayi, but not enough. Babayi believes that the country can progress only after every citizen has been educated. He embarked on a mission since he believed that a school in the vicinity would help more people to receive education.

Murthy walked down the incline of the platform and reached the path. The path runs parallel to the railway tracks. It was formed by the regular stomping by groups of day laborers and the farmers who had farms on the other side of town. It’s hard to walk on that path unless one is used to. The gravel and the sleepers lying under the tracks thwart every step of the way. Murthy however is used to walking on such roads with the ease of a centipede. Today that enthusiasm is missing in his gait.

Babayi undertook the burden rather unnecessarily. The committee members tried to convince him that they could have the school built through the Jilla Parishat.[3]

Babayi did not accept the suggestion. He said, “How far can we move forward if we leave everything to the government? The backbone of democracy will crush under its weight. Don’t you remember the condition in which the white man left the country? He robbed us of everything and left only a begging bowl for us; he handed down only the empty coffers to us. If we keep insisting that the government must undertake all the projects, when is that going to happen? Each one of us must do whatever we can and then only we can move forward.”

Originally, babayi inherited a ten-acre, rich farmland; he is the sole heir of his very rich ancestors. His ancestors had no bad habits like gambling or betting on racehorses. Once, during his father’s time, Mahatma Gandhi came to their town once. Those were the days when Gandhi was going round in the country in an attempt to strengthen the Congress Party. At the time, babayi was just finished with his Intermediate exams and came home for holidays. He went, along with his father, to visit Gandhi. Babayi’s father was eager to invite Gandhi to his home for dinner that evening.

Gandhi said, “Feeding me for a day is not a service to the country. What’s it you could give to the country?”

Babayi’s father replied, “Come to my home and see for yourself.”

We don’t know what Gandhi had seen in his face but he immediately stood up and followed him. The Mahatma is no less than Vamana[4] when it came to begging for support for his movement. And, babayi’s father is like an older brother of Bali.[5] After dinner, babayi’s father brought out a silver bowl and put it in front of Gandhi. Babayi’s father swept clean all the valuables in the house—jewelry, two handfuls of silver coins, and all the gold items that were kept in the cabinet—and filled the bowl to the brim.

The Mahatma’s eyes were moist but the little smile on his face lingered on as well. “Don’t you have anything else?” he asked.

“Name it, swamy!” Babayi’s father said in all humility and without a cringe. People around him were taken aback by this reply. They wondered how could this man, wearing nothing but a loincloth, be so greedy.

“Give this boy to the movement,” he said.

The eyes of Babayi’s father sparkled exuberantly. It was the pleasure one would experience after realizing that there is one more way of living up to the Mahatma’s wishes.

“With pleasure, swamy. What more could I ask for but living up to your aspirations?” he said, dabbing tears.

“Not right away though. I’ll take him after he had realized himself that he has a role to play in the movement that is fighting for our independence. Until then, you keep him with you,” Mahatma said.

After that visit, Babayi returned to Madras for his Bachelor’s degree. But he quit after the first year. The Congress Party invited him to join in the Non-Cooperation Movement. The Movement against British rule spread all over the country like a wild fire. Babayi was arrested and sent to jail in Chengulputt and was released after one year. After that, he was invited by the Mahatma to help him in running the Sabarmati asram. He spent four years in Sabarmati asram in the company of the Mahatma. Then he has learned about his father’s failing health and  returned to his town.

With his father’s health deteriorating, the farming suffered. After his death, it came to a complete halt. Babayi, instead of managing the house, got totally immersed in reorganizing the Congress Party at the district level. It is not in his nature to ask others for help under any circumstances. His income started decreasing and the expenses kept increasing. The British rulers never missed an opportunity to throw babayi in jail, even on the smallest pretext. His property disappeared, bit by bit. His mother pestered him about getting married, bear children and let the lineage continue. But Babayi was determined to remain celebate on the grounds that family was counterproductive for public service. Only a person like the Mahatma could practice celebacy while having wife and children. Who else is capable of such fortitude? Babayi said, “We will forget the country if we got involved in family.”

After his mother died, the house and the property were gone, babayi continued to live on the income from the remaining ten-acres of land. He never thought that that would not suffice for him. Practically there’s nothing he wanted for his own sake. He built a small dwelling on the shores of the river and planted a vegetable garden also. He cooks a modest meal for himself and thus the income from the land is actually more than enough for him. He has saved the excess money and is planning to use it for the school building now.

The numbers of poor students whom he had helped to obtain education are in hundreds. They often come to visit babayi. Most of them believed that applying for the fallow land was not a sensible idea but nobody had the guts to say so to babayi. They argued that the government was not aware of even the availability of the fallow land here; and nobody would care if the town took it. Babayi refused to occupy the land illegally; he is not asking the government to give it to him free of cost; he is asking to let him have it only on payment of the price. But it’s not working. Murthy has been running around for over a year now; his sandals are worn out in the process but to no avail.

A small stone pricked his foot and jolted him out of his thoughts and into the present. He shoved the stone under the sleepers and sat down on the tracks. Holding down his heel on the ground for relief from pain, he looked around. The horizon turned crimson as the gentle rays of sun spread far and wide The farm, ready for harvesting, is looking like bright gold. The white sand on the dried up riverbed far away is shining like a diamond mine. On its shores, Babayi’s hut stood like a lone traveler. Until now, Murthy did not realize how far he had wandered off, having been caught in the labyrinth of his thoughts. He has almost reached the second signal post. The footpath between the railway tracks and the signal post goes farther on to the other side. After passing the second signal post, he need to get off the shoreland, walk along the farm and reach the asram. It’s a good thing that the little stone pricked his foot. Or else, he’ss not sure how far he would’ve wandered off, lost in his own thoughts.

Murthy looked up at the signal post. It stood about six feet away from the railway tracks and close to the hedge. The signal post is made of twisted iron bars and woven like a net; it stood stright up, twelve feet high into the air and split into two bars at the top—one big and the other small. The bigger sign is set higher and pointed toward the station; the second one is shorter and is set below the bigger bar. At the end of each bar, a wooden branch is attached; and, each branch has two marks, red and green, one over the other. A piece of wire, an arm’s lengh, is tied to each of the two branches. For Murthy, the sight is not new. Since he was living close to the railway tracks during his childhood, he had watched it as long as he could remember. He played around that post, holding on it and hanging from it, on numerous occasions. But today, for some reason, it looked strange.

Murthy, for the first time it seems, understood the important role this little mechanism has been playing in a colossal industry like the railways. One barely notices the importance of the signal post amidst thousands of miles of railway tracks, the huge, roaring engines that run on those tracks, and the railroad cars like gigantic ships. But, no matter how big the train is and how far off it’s coming from, the train cannot enter the station unless the signal post gave the signal and again cannot leave without a clearance from the signal post. Also, the train must take only that line which the signal post pointed to. If the big signal is lowered, the train takes on the main line and reaches the platform; if the small signal is lowered, the train shall take the loop line. The train has to pass by several signal posts in this manner  before it reached its destination.

Murthy waited for six months and still there is no response from the Collector’s office regarding his application for the official document. So, he went to find out about it himself. As it turned out, the clerk, who is handling his file, is new to the job; he just let it sit on his desk  without doing a thing about it. Murthy got help from some of his friends, who were working in the same office, and got the signal lowered like in a railway station. The file moved and reached the District Collector’s office, after passing through the stations, namely  the offices of the Section Officer and the Hujur Siraddaar. The Hujur Siraddaar sent a memo asking the Regional District Collector to send his report. Eventually, the file moved from station to station as mentioned above and returned to the first clerk’s desk. A rough draft addressed the Regional District Officer was prepared by the clerk, was sent up, passed through all the stations and came back. At the end, the memo took the final shape in the hands of a typist, and sent up and came back to the office of the  Regional District Officer. The process was much the same in the office of the Regional District Office. Also, going up and down to Lower Division Clerk, Upper Division Clerk and R.D.O.—like a passanger train and through several stations and finally reached the office of the Tahsildar. Its journey in the Tahsildar’s office was again similar—from the L.D.C. to the U.D.C., to Deputy Tahsildar, and to  the Tahsildar and again to the L.D.C., and then to the Revenue Inspector, and, one more time, to the L.D.C.; after running through several stations went to Tahsildar, back to the L.D.C., and then to the Surveryor, again moving up and down, up and down, and so on. Murthy had some friends in the District Office and so the file moved a little faster in its final stage.

“The land is not yours; you’re not asking for your own sake. Why’re you bothering us?” the clerk at the Revenue Commissioner’s office asked him. Murthy understood right away that it’s not going to be within his means to move the file from there. He set out to leave Hyderabad.

Murthy chuckled as he stood up and proceeded to the asram. He walked past the signal post, got off the track slopes, and on to the farm hedge. There is no water in the river. The shore land hardened and became comfortable for walking. If it were wet, one has to be careful, to avoid slipping and falling. In addition to this footpath, there is another route also passing through the town for vehicles to reach the asram. But it would be no good for people to walk if it rained. Not that we can dismiss it as useless for that reason. That bumpy road has a history of allowing cars and jeeps endlessly. In the beginning, big name political leaders used to pressure babayi to run for office. But babayi was not interested; he felt that the country has no more use for the Congress Party after the independence had been achieved. Then, several people tried to pursuade him to get involved in promoting the party’s interests. Babayi just smiled and shrugged them off. During the elections time, several contestants came to him seeking his blessings. Several political leaders used to visit babayi while touring the country. Eventually such visits slowed down and ended finally. From babayi’s behavior, it was clear that he became more relaxed after the visits came to an end.

***

Murthy walked in. Babayi just finished his puja and sat down at his spinning wheel.

“Came just now? You haven’t washed up yet, it seems,” babayi asked, watching Murthy’s weary face.

“No, not washed up yet, babayi.”

“Go ahead, freshen up. We can talk later.”

Murthy went in, took  bath, and returned; he sat next to babayi. Babayi usually spreads a cotton sheet at the center of the room, and sits on it to spin thread on the spinning wheel. It is just one room—15 feet wide and 20 feet long—and without any dividers; therefore, it looks spacious. In one corner there was a puja set up and in another corner the kitchen utensils. Pictures of leaders like Gandhi, Nehru, Patel and Tilak were hung on the walls. There was a teak cabinet in another corner. There wasn’t much of anything worth mentioning in the hut but for a few baskets, bowls and a wood attic. An armchair which babayi uses for resting was propped against the wall. He never uses a cot for sleeping; he spreads a mattress on the floor and sleeps on it. Murthy also noticed that babayi never used the mattress except for sleeping at night.

Babayi handed him a basket with two or three varieties of fruits. That comprises babayi’s snack. He eats fruits and drinks milk. Murthy took the basket, started peeling the skin leisurely and eating bit by bit. Babayi noticed Murthy’s sluggish behavior and understood the situation. But he pretended not to notice; he thought that Murthy might feel even more dejected, if he showed any interest. Babayi kept his eyes on the spinning wheel and kept working on it, leaving it to Murthy to broach the subject.

“It didn’t look like the job gets done without you being there,” Murthy said, speaking softly.

“Me?”

It’s long since babayi set foot outside the borders of his town. There was no need after Murthy took over.

“It’s not something I can do.” He explained the situation at the Commissioner’s office.

“Is there anybody I knew works there?”

“It can be done in a snap if Lakshmayya garu takes it up. He is the Revenue Minister now.”

Murthy wouldn’t have had the nerve to suggest the idea if it were somebody other than Lakshmayya. Generally speaking, babayi would not like to approach government officials, currying favors.  But with Lakshmayya it is different, they continued to be friendly terms. All other classmates and friends have stopped visiting babayi but not Lakshmayya. He has not come in recent times but he was here two years back. Babayi feels very uncomfortable when the others visit him but not when Lakshmayya comes. Lakshmayya sits on the mat along with babayi; spins the wheel for a while, drinks milk and feels right at home here.  Once babayi asked him directly, “You’re a minister[6] now, what do I have to give you, what’s here matching your status?”

“Why do you think of me as a minister? You just be you, the friend from our college days, the person who bought me books when I could not afford them,” Lakshmayya replied.

Cha. That’s friendship. Friendship makes no such distinctions.”

“Neither do we, not now, not ever.”

Babayi introduced Murthy to Lakshmayya. Both babayi and Lakshmayya reminisced for a while about their college days and the time they worked together at the Sabarmati asram. After babayi left Sabarmati asram, Lakshmayya continued there for a long time. Lakshmayya was very worried that the Congress Party was falling apart because of some opportunists who went after power; and who ignored the great leaders who had made enormous sacrifices during the early days of the movement. It breaks one’s heart to hear from him the problems our country is facing today. Babayi’s eyes turned moist as he listened to Lakshmayya.

Babayi was surprised by Murthy’s account. He could not believe that a public service project would get stuck in an office under Lakshmayya’s supervision. He wondered if the office had come under Lakshmayya’s supervision only recently and Lakshmayya was unaware of its indolence. He told Murthy, “Let’s wait and see. It would not be easy for Lakshmayya to accept that his office failed us.”

“This kind of thing would not reach the ministers unless some one pointed it out to them. If Commissioner rejects the file, we are back to square one. Or, if the commissioner is transferred to another branch, then we are lost for good,” Murthy said.

Murthy kept arguing; he was determined to make babayi move. Babayi understood he had no other choice but to start.

This is the first time for babayi to visit Hyderabad after it became the capital of Telugu people. Murthy had found the address of of the revenue minister, Lakshmayya. Babayi was stunned. It was more like a royal mansion, huge, has a garden in front and a high, picket fence all around. The gate was wide, making it easy for vehicles to come and go; a sentry post on one side of the gate stationed by two armed guards; a plaque carrying the name, Konda Lakshmayya, Minister of Revenue Department, was hung on a cement slab next to the gate. On seeing all this display, both babayi and Murthy hesitated for a second, wondering whether it was proper for them or not to enter. Murthy collected himself and said, “Let’s go in, babayi.” Babayi put one foot forward, still hesitating.

In the next second, a guard came forward with his gun and shouted, “Stop, where do you think you’re going?”

“To meet the minister,” Murthy replied.

“Who’re you?”

What could they say? What kind of status they have to claim?

“He’s a friend of minister garu,” Murthy mumbled, pointing to babayi.

The guard looked at babayi head to foot. His outfit—coarse, khaddar shirt, hand-washed and faded dhoti, old-fashioned eyeglasses, and the cloth handbag hanging from his shoulder—was barely a testimony to their claim. Then the guard turned his eyes toward Murthy. His outfit was similar—loosely-hanging pants made of khaddar, khaddar shirt, and khaddar handbag—but for the age, there is no difference between the two men in terms of their sophistication. A small smile came up on the guard’s lips.

“Have made an appointment?”

“No.”

“We have no permission to let you in.”

The guard appeared to be a nice person. Probably anybody else would not be that nice in letting them know that they are not welcome.

Babayi was stiff like a stone statue. Murthy did not know what to do; had no idea to find a way to get in. Suddenly, the car standing at the entrance honked, announcing its departure. The guard, politely, made them move out of the car’s way. The second guard also came out and they both stood at attention. A white car came out of the porch and passed through the gate, like the moon dodging a white cloud. The tri-color flag featuring  emporer Asoka’s dharma wheel[7], fluttered on the tip of the car’s nose. The two guards clicked their boots with a big noise and saluted. The car bustled through the gate, and past babayi and Murthy who snuggled behind the gate. The Revenue Minister  was on his way out. Nobody knew where he was going, nor when he’d be back.

The car moved about 15 yards forward and then came to a sudden halt. The guards rushed to the car. The car slowly moved in reverse toward the gate. The minister opened the door himself and got out. He jumped to babayi in one huge step and embraced him. Murthy was overwhelmed; he has recovered from his feeling of hurt. He looked at the guards. The first guard was perspiring; the second guard was looking confused. How could they know that these two paupers, wearing crumpled outfits, could be friends of the minister.

Abbha! Finally, you’ve come into the present world!,” the minister said. Babayi was lost for words. The minister’s eyes turned to Murthy.

“Aren’t you Guru Murthy?”

What a memory! It’s two years since they’ve met.

“Yes, sir,” Murthy replied, folding both the hands in namaskaram.

“Why is he like that? Is that how you are raising him? You should let him live in step with the present,” the minister asked babayi.

Murthy bent down his head shyly. He tried to remember how the minister looked in the past; it was vague. He lifted his eyes and looked at him. Now also the minister  is wearing clothes made of khaddar but  it is of very fine material, like a fluffy cotton ball, well-starched and crisply ironed. The dhoti has an inch and a half gold thread border, the uttareeyam on his shoulder has red and green borders and neatly-set folds.

The minister gestured to the secretary to approach him; the secretary immediately rushed to his side.

“Cancel all my appointments for the day.”

“Yes, sir.”

Babayi tried to protest, “Oh, no, your work should not suffer on my account.”

“No big deal, the sky is not going to fall apart in one day. Let’s go in.”

The minister put his arm around babayi’s shoulders and walked him in. Murthy and secretary followed them.

The house was built on a four-feet high raised foundation. One has to walk six steps to reach the ground floor. The doors, windows and the pillars are in style with the muslim emperors’ mansions. There are some cane chairs on the porch for visitors; there rooms on either end of the porch. The secretary who is walking behind Murthy disappeared into one of the rooms, probably, his office. Murthy followed babayi into the sitting room. The floor was covered with fine carpet; and the sofa set along the wall was partly covered with embroidered sheets. At the center of the room, three expensive coffee tables were set, slightly away from each other and carrying porcelain flower vases. The minister invited babayi to sit on a sofa, and he sat next to him. Murthy stood a little away and slightly scared

“Come on, sit here. It’s okay. You can be as free as you are in the asram,” the minister said. Murthy couldn’t figure out whether he meant him or babayi. He still kept his distance and sat on the edge of the sofa.

The electric bell rang. A servant came running.

“Tell the cook to prepare food for the guests. Everything must be vegetarian,” the minister told him officiously. The servant nodded and went away.

“You must eat here today, with me. Can’t even remember how long since we sat down together to eat,” the minister said to babayi.

“I’ll be happy as if I had eaten at your place one hundred times if you could get my job done,” babayi replied.

“I see. So, you’ve come with such a colossal job on your hand! To move a mountain like you, it has to be really a mammoth task. So, with whom, anyways?”

“With you, who else?”

“That’s even better. I am lucky that you’ve got something I could do for you.”

“You haven’t changed a bit.” Babayi is beginning to believe that the chimera of power has not shrouded his friend. He is feeling comfortable enough to address him as orey[8] like in their younger days.

“Anyway, what’s the job?”

Murthy leaned forward and started explaining before babayi could start. He explained at length the  situation in regard to his file. .

“Do you have the file number?” the minister asked him.

Murthy is in a fix. Office files are supposed to be confidential. If he gave him the number, the question—how did he get it in the first place—might come up. Babayi would not appreciate any shady action on his part.  Murthy had to pick up the courage since he was determined to accomplish his mission; he’d come so far after all. He pulled out the notebook from his pocket, noted down the number on a piece of paper and handed it to the minister.

As it turned out, there was no need for him to be afraid. The question did not come up at all. The minister pressed the electric bell, while taking a good look at the number on the paper in his hand. This time the bell sounded different from the earlier one. The secretary came running.

“Look at this file and tell the Commissioner to talk to me right away,” the minister told him.

“Yes, sir,” the secretary said and left.

“The British ruler did not trust us; and so, he appointed supervisors from among us, one over the other. He called it circulation. The British are gone long time ago. We have achieved independence, yet this has system not changed, how come?” babayi asked naively.

“You are so child-like! Did you expect the robbers to leave because the British left? Who do you think are all these businessmen, contractors, and overseers? They were the same people—our people—then and they are the same people now. If we are not careful, they’ll sell the country.”

“If that’s the case, what difference does it make whether a white man ruled us or a black man ruled?”

“Oh, God! I thought you became an ascetic, not a communist! The white man had robbed us during his regime and taken our riches to his country. Now, our riches stay put within the country, at the least.”

The phone rang. Minister picked it up, “Yes.”

“Put him through.”

“….”

“Namasthe. Did you see the file?”

“…”

“The settlement order must be signed today.”

“…”

“Very good,” the minister said and hung up.

  Murthy understood that the phone call was about their business. The minister did not ask the Commissioner about the reasons for the delay. Murthy was happy that it’s getting done now at least.

“The order will be ready today. You can take it with you,” the minister said turning to Murthy.

“Sir, the Home Minister is here to meet with you,” the secretary brought the message.

“I’ll send him away in a few minutes and be back,” the minister told babayi and left to meet the home minister. They both went into the next room and were talking for two hours. Snacks and tea were served a few times. The time was one o’clock in the afternoon by the time the revenue minister was finished with the home and sent him away.

“Please, don’t misunderstand. It was an important matter. He came here personally, you see,” the minister said apologetically.

“No. Don’t talk like that. After all, work is more important than our chitchat, right?” Babayi was really happy that he did not waste their valuable time.

“Shall we eat?”

“Yes,” babayi said, getting up.

“Come on,” minister said to Murthy and Murthy followed them.

Babayi was washing his feet, looking worried that he might slip and fall. Murthy stood behind him, to stop him from falling, in case that happened. Both came out of the bathroom without any disasters.

Babayi looked at the dining table and stopped, astounded. He stared at the dishes and his jaw fell. The table is in the shape of an almond leaf and there are eight chairs around the table. The top of the table is crowded with porcelain dishes filled with numerous, piping hot items. Murthy lost count of the number of items.

“Why are you hesitating? They all are vegetarian dishes,” the minister said to babayi.

“That’s fine, Lakshmayya! But so many items! Are they all just for us?” babayi asked, after recovering from the shock at the sight of all those dishes.

“As the taste buds experience a few varieties, the mouth will swallow a few more bites. If we could overcome this temptation of our taste buds, where is the difference between Gandhi and ordinary people like us?” the minister said.

Babayi felt trapped. He would not want to say that there is no difference between Gandhi and himself; at the same time, he could neither change his habit—the habit Gandhi had gotten him into. Murthy made up his mind that he would never bring babayi to Hyderabad again. Once for all, it is clear, here is a proof, that the trains running on the loop line can never take the main line pressures.

***

(The Telugu original entitled, “rekkamaanu”, was published in India Today, 6 September 1994, and later included in the anthology parishkaaram, published by the author. Author’s permission is gratefully acknowledged.)

Translated by Nidadavolu Malathi and published on thulika.net, July 2004)



[1]A popular children’s story. The story narrates a chain  of events in support of the fish for not drying up but there was no convincing argument.

[2] A geographic unit, smaller than district and larger than township.

[3] Local government.

[4] One of the ten incarnations of Lord Vishnu.

[5] Bali was a extremely generous emperor whom Lord Vishnu, in the form of dwarf Vamana, begged for three feet of land. After he was granted the wish, Vamana grew up into a colossal figure, measured the entire earth with one step, put the second step on the sky and asked Bali where he could set his third step. Bali, finding no other place, told Vamana that he could put it on his head. The story is often quoted as an example of total honesty and sacrifice.

[6] Government official, a member of administrative branch.

[7] The emblem on the national flag.

[8] Informal term of addressing each other among males. Osey fem. form.