He Is I by Malladi Ramakrishna Sastry.

The young man was aboard the train heading east. The train was moving slowly and gracefully like the Karnataka damsel of Srinatha.[i] The train left the depot the day before. It kept stopping at each and every station, hardly a few miles away from each other, and people were getting on and off. The young man could not get a wink of sleep through the entire night for all the commotion of the passengers.

At one station, a Swamiji got on board with his luggage. He looked like Bala Gandharva, the Maharashtra musician, in appearance. He sat down in a tribanghi[ii] posture like Yadavalli[iii] in the role of King Dushyanta.[iv] It was the posture when King Dushyanta was leaning forward curiously and listening to the story of Sakuntala’s birth. Swamiji looked at the young man. The young man stood up, tied his upper garment around his waist as is the custom, gave a brief account of his lineage, touched Swamiji’s feet reverently, and beseeched him to visit their village and bless his home. Swamiji laughed like Madhavapeddi[v] playing the role of Duryodhana. He cast sidelong looks at the young man and spoke, “Look, young man! No need for this fuss. I will gladly come to your home, not just for a visit but for a full meal. I am not any swamiji, just a sanyasi. This saffron-colored outfit is only for a show. I wear them as the occasion calls for it. You know the saying—the mind runs wild while  the heart is stuck on the wife. I am not lying! Don’t you get it? You seem to be a good man. Have any children? Not married yet? Aah! Does not matter, not really one way or the other. Nothing wrong if you are married and no big deal if you are not either. Being alone is a good thing if you ask me, nobody to bother you at home. If you go home in the middle of the night or even later, nobody is going to pester you with questions, pressing for details. Tired of cooking? You can always find a hotel to eat in and a nook to doze off. You can live like a prince wandering around like a jolly good fellow. Tell me, am I right or not?

Young man, don’t think that this old man with a big beard is blabbering some ancient philosophy. I am neither crazy nor stuck on any dogma. I am not saying this to tease you or give you a hard time. This is the real truth. Let me explain why I became like this and then you will understand it yourself. You will have all your doubts cleared. I used to have a house, family and all that in our village. I had a wife, my uncle’s daughter, who was superb in managing the house. She was perfect looking like the famous actor, Avadhanla Purushottam, in a female role. She had a good heart and was gorgeous even without jewelry. She had such an impeccable honesty, the neighbors would bow to her in reverence. You won’t find a woman like that, not one in a million.

Our relationship was exemplary. The entire village admired it. My job was only to stay home and enjoy the wonderful life. Unlike others I did not have to go to the farm nor return home late. I was not the type to meddle in others’ lives and was not interested in any chitchat. I was practically nonexistent in my village and that was fine with me. But the others in the village couldn’t take it. That was especially true of Bapamma vadina. Who’s Bapamma? Well, she was the grandchild of one of my grandfathers, thrice removed. She was married when she was three-years old and became a widow within three months. Her husband died in the floods. As far as I could remember, I saw her only in her widow’s outfit—draped in white sari and her head covered, as was the custom in those days. She kept herself busy ordering people around always. Not a thing escaped her notice. Her mouth was never shut and her legs never stayed steadily in one place. I am not saying  that she was asking for trouble. She was just that kind of person. She could not help it, she had to keep looking for problems. Are you asking me why I was talking so much about some widow? Well, you would not understand without this lengthy introduction.

Bapamma, the widow, came to our house one day while I was cooking my supper. My name is the same then and now—Chidanandam. I changed the last syllable making it Chidanandudu. I thought  ‘am’-ending sounded too much like a  family-type. Anyway, she came and said, “Look! Alludaa! I asked the other little boys but nobody would come to help me. Could you come in for a few minutes and pick some leaves for me?”

I couldn’t say ‘no’ and so I went to her house. She made me pull the entire cluster of leaves from the tree and then started cajoling me, “Look, I am old enough to tell you and you are young enough to listen. You used to pour me water wearing barely a loin cloth. Now you have grown this mop of curls and became a big man. You have grown big all right but not word comes out of that mouth. You stay home and follow your wife holding on to her sari frills, how come? Are all your peers living like this? Good god! Do you think you are the only one who loves his wife? Aren’t other men having a good family life? People are laughing at you for sticking around like this! You keep this up and soon you will be reduced to nothing in your wife’opinion. And that is so unbecoming in our families! Take your thatha for instance. He was never at home, not even for a second. Think of the villages he was trotting through—Kapramapalem today, tomorrow to Kauthavaram. The following day he would be in Kunderu and then he’d show up in Valluru and move on to Vanukur. Your thatha was always on the move, each time moving on to another farm in another village. That does not mean that he was wanting for anything. He was never worried about returning to his own home. He was not turning cold on his own wife either. He had four girls and six boys. Tell me, my boy, how come you did not inherit his ways?

Let’s forget thatha for a second. What about your father? Your father may not be a match for your thatha but was not bad either. Wherever your father had ten-acres of land, he went there and made himself comfortable, without of course anybody noticing it. Don’t get me wrong. Your father was a gentleman to the core at home, no comparison in the entire world. You know the old adage, a woman’s life is ruined if she goes out and a man’s life is ruined if he does not. Look, my boy! Don’t think that I am asking you to take to evil ways. All I am saying is if you want to be happy in the years to come, this is not the way. In a few years nobody is going to feel this free to talk to you in this manner. You had better start thinking for yourself. If you stay where you are, like a smear on the door frame, how could your wife have her fantasies fulfilled?

You might think that you know how a woman’s mind works. You and I may think that a woman mulls over things like, “My man left two days back and is not home yet. Usually he returns home by the time the evening lamps are lit, no matter how busy he is. It’s three days since he has left. He did not return the same day, not yesterday, and not even today. He would not stay out unless it was a matter of life and death. I have seen them all. I have had him tied at my sari end.” You might think like that. The truth is any woman would want to break her heart mulling over a man who went out, wonder what her man is capable of—which woman might have caught his eye. … And after he returns, she would want to jump on him like a hungry lion, let her hair down,  spill some fake tears, do some song and dance, threaten to starve herself, make him squirm for a while, force him to beg with her chin in his palm, make him promise a  silk sari for the next festival … At the end, she would want to tuck jasmine flowers in her hair, come down gradually, step by step, and surrender to him after midnight—that is what any woman would crave for, don’t you think?

   What’d you say? You can’t go out and prove you’re a man? All right. At least watch the others and learn something from them. The reason I am telling you this is because you and your wife shouldn’t sit across from each other for the rest of your lives and get sick of each other. Go, my boy, go out and be a man …”

She kept badgering me on and on. I was upset and also amused. If I said “no way,” she would come back at me with renewed vigor. It was clear to me that I could not escape from her grip for the evening. I nodded, “okay,” and managed to walk away after a while.

I got away from that place all right but I was beset with an internal strife that was beyond my comprehension. She was not crazy, not the kind of person that would go against the grain. Actually I think she meant well; was only interested in my well-being. She has no grudge against me. I kept reflecting on what she has said. Several quotes from the classics came to my mind. Some scholars have stated swabhaaryaayaam ca yauvanam.[vi] Others, Kalidasa for instance, stated yauvane vishaishinaam.[vii] Not only Krishna but Rama also had the same reputation. Even Vatsayana had made a special note of paaradaarikam.[viii] Considering all these opinions expressed by great scholars I have come to believe that there was some truth to Bapamma’s words. I debated further in my head and concluded that I must follow her advice. But that was something I was not used to. Where do I start? In general, I was shy and nervous. Each time I put my foot forward my heart was pulling me back.

Still struggling, I decided to check it out and went towards the lake one evening. Fearing that somebody might recognize me, I wrapped my uttareeyam around my head, pulled up my dhoti frills and tucked at the waist. As I was walking I saw somebody come toward me, carrying a bale of straw. I squinted my eyes to take a good look and noticed that that person was a woman. She came closer, looking like Sanjeeva Rao’s Chitrangi[ix] in that dim light. I managed to say, “You, girl!” She stopped there, looked around and giggled. I picked up my courage and approached her. She looked at me and said, “Sir, you?! Are you lost in the dark? Come with me, sir. I will walk you home.” I started trembling. I mumbled hastily, “You go, just go, go away,” and I ran across the fields in a rush. I heard her laugh behind me, which was even more distressing. I wandered around for a long time, I don’t know for how long, and finally returned home.

My wife was standing at the door with a big smile! As I was about to enter the house with my head lowered she stopped me. “Emandi![x] If you feel like going out for a walk or something, why didn’t you start out early? Why do you have to run across the fields? Why get stuck in the darkness? The woman you saw in the fields was our Lakshmaya’s daughter. She told me about you and advised me that next time I should send somebody along with you and with a lantern. Silly girl! I was about to send Bapamma but then you showed up …” she said in a coaxing tone. I asked her quickly, “What did Bapamma say?” I was shivering in my shoes.

“It doesn’t matter what she said. Never mind that. If you are really so disposed, why don’t you go to the next village and try. There are women like Rambha and Urvasi[xi] there. If you think you are that good you should go there and save the reputation of your ancestors. That would be a great amusement for me too,” she said, laughing.

She was getting under my skin. “Don’t you think that I am not capable of it. I can take the entire village if I had a mind to. I am just trying to be civil,” I replied.

“Who asked you to be civil? Go as you please. I will pull out the best dhoti with contrasting borders and hand it to you. Put it on and also take a couple of hundred rupees. Remember! When that woman offers to apply perfume, don’t tell her that you are not used to it. If she sprinkles perfumed water, don’t say you will catch cold. Don’t hold back a few rupees from the amount you took with you. Don’t dicker with them. You might even want to give them a little extra. If you don’t have enough cash, just send word to me. If you find someone very interesting, don’t hesitate to bring her here. I will also have some entertainment. What’d you say? Why waste time?” She went on like this and got to me like never before in all my life. I said, “Okay, bring it.” She brought the dhoti and money. I left for the village. I went to the same village my wife had mentioned. I have heard sometime back that there was a woman by the name Rakenduvadana in that village. I went straight to her house. I went there all right but I was not sure how to start the conversation.

“Sir, what’s new? Why are you here?” she asked.

Not a word came out of my mouth. I pulled out the stash of bills I had tucked at the waist and put it in front of her. “I will stay here for the night,” I managed to say.

She looked at me for a second and laughed. “What’s the matter? Upset with your wife? Is this your first time? I can see that very clearly.”

I sat there totally lost.

“What is it, babu? who tutored you on this one? I am asking since I am not seeing any sign of this conduct in your blood. Come, tell me.” She came closer and sat down next to me, taking my chin into her palm. She threw me off completely. I told her the entire story. She listened to me and advised me, “Foolish boy!  Any  parrot talks only the language of her habitat.[xii] This is not something that comes with practice but has got to be in your blood. Let’s see about what you’ve said. Did the great sage Vatsayana go around the country looking for the experience so he could record it in his book? No. He could envision the entire science because he was an intellectual. If Rama had the makings of a romantic hero, why would the poet Valmiki spend so many chapters describing only Rama’s grief? It is senseless to assume that there is no happiness at home. It is idiotic to think that there are women as gorgeous as Rambha in our neighborhood. It is foolish for persons like you to resort to a display of prowess in this manner. Please, get on the return train and go home.” She finished her speech, shoved my money back into my palm, threw in an extra rupee and sent me away with some fellow named Ankaalu.

I boarded the train all right but was worried about showing my face at home. But then, where else can I go? Should I go to another village and knock on another door? Well, what if I have to hear the same song and dance—all the eighteen chapters on good behavior—one more time from one more woman?

I went home straight. I must be really an idiot; I told my wife the whole story. She laughed again. “Your face is such that even a prostitute would take pity on you. You keep this up and go around the country, you will soon turn them all into worthless sanyasis. Maybe that is what your horoscope is saying! Womanizing is not recorded in your chart. You might as well behave from now on.”

Oh, Lord Srihari! I am reduced to nothing even in my wife’s view. And I’ve been living with her for so long! Even she is treating me like a child. I tried to be nice and this is what it I get in return? I was ticked off and told my wife, “I will not live here any more.”

“What else can you do? Where else can you go? No matter where you go, you are looking at nothing but a dead-end,” she replied and laughed again. Don’t ask me how I felt. I reiterated, “I am  leaving.” She nodded, still smiling. She looked at me as if she were saying, “Don’t I know you?” I was scared a little but walked out, gritting my teeth. I walked out all right. And then what? Given the kind of person I am, what can I do? I cannot sleep except at home. I can’t relish food unless she served it. Evidently, I need to straighten out these things first. Whenever I was hungry, I ate fruits, bread and butter, and milk. At night I started watching two movies, one after another. Are you wondering where I got the money for all these? I took care of it before leaving home. Anyway, I got my craving for home under control eventually. My desire for revenge on my wife also softened a little. I felt annoyed with myself at times though. I had everything one could ask for. Why did I get into this mess? Should I just go home, holding my head high or low? No I couldn’t, my pride was still lingering around. I know I was avenging myself on my wife. But what about that clan of prostitutes who drove me to this point? I could neither declare war on them nor could I be a romantic hero in this life. My only alternative was to go one step further and teach them a lesson.

Here’s what I did. I went around, town after town, village after village, city after city and confronted the prostitutes. I lectured to them, “God bless you all. You’ve got to save your reputation. Guru Bharatacharya[xiii] was your mentor. He made you perform “samudra mathanam[xiv] at the court of Lord Devendra in ancient times. Isn’t it true that, if there were no prostitutes, Rushyasrunga[xv] would never have got married? Pleasing male population has been your heritage for centuries. That was your talent, exclusively and predominantly. Haven’t we heard that our rulers got resorts of romance built for travelers? And that is only because they had realized that the males with experience with prostitutes would have good familial relationships. Our present government, knowingly or unknowingly, may have told you to throw away your ankle-bells, get married and get stuck in a corner like respectable housewives. Is that a vedic prescription? How could you take that word and forget your duty to the public? In fact, all women, then and now, even the women in the royal families, have been learning the teachings of your ancient guru Bharata. So what? Could they be as talented and fearless as you are in their expression and physical movements? Could they be available as readily as you are? Your well-being is in your hands. The country’s well-being is in your hands and under your control. Take my word, trust God, and save the world as has been your custom. Some pundit may create pointless havoc in the name of “eradication of prostitution” and belittle you in the process but how could you keep quiet? Don’t you see that the same people are also calling it “honoring the fine arts,” an d begging you to go to the felicitation meetings? You’d better see the crooked game they are playing and make the best of your lives. I stormed them with my speeches, like the floods of the Ganges. They all listened and  said they would agree but not one person came forward openly.

Then I went around and contacted a conscientious government official. I threatened him that I’d go on fasting unto death if he refused to find a way out for these women. He heard the entire story and laughed. He said, “Mister, I have no time to be concerned with such things now. I am not in a mood to listen to this. You come back after the elections. Take your time. Write down briefly whatever you want to say. I will submit it to the members here and then forward it to the higher authorities. We will see what they’ve got to say. Are you asking me what happens in the meantime? You don’t want to wait? All right. You can go straight to the central government and worry about it yourself. If they say, “yes,” we will not say “no.” Even if we say “no” and they will take our “no” for an answer, then again we will have no choice but agree. This is All India. The states have no power in any matter. Besides, it looks like you didn’t understand the word, democracy. Unanimity means the chairman tells something and all others raise their hands indicating their assent. How long do you thing this rule lasts if every one screams personal freedom and expresses his personal opinions? Look, you can do anything you want as long as it is not illegal. We don’t feel a thing, not so much as an antbite. We may come to know about it but we don’t care. If you cross the line, you are bound to be punished. Understand?”

“Yes,” I said.

   It was obvious I could not get this done by running after them. The only way was to chop it from the other side as the saying goes. I had to take this to the legislative assembly. For that, I needed to find the right person. Do you remember the woman, Rakenduvadana? Well, now she is known as Rattamma. Never mind that. She is the right person for this job. I decided to find an auspicious day and go to her and tell her, “Amma Rattamma! You must run for a seat in the legislative assembly, get elected and go to the center. You must pound on the table with all your might and express your concerns. That is the only way to save your race.”

Swamiji stopped for a second and asked the young man, “What do you think?”

What could the young man say? He said, “If you are talking about the woman, Rattamma, no need to go to her village. She will be coming to our village. We have arranged to honor her in our village. It would be great if you could preside over the function. Of course, there is also an about-to-become minister attending the meeting. He would say a few words first for the sake of formality. But the presence of a swamiji like you is important. Besides that strengthens your movement too.”

Swamiji replied, “Excellent. I will be there for sure.”

“Young man, no reason to hide this from you. The truth is I am tired of this drifting. I am convinced that I’ve done whatever I could. Ask me what did I accomplish after all this traveling. Nothing, to speak the truth. The more I think about it, who am I after all to save others? People have to take care of themselves. How long can we keep pushing them? As I said, I would go to that village one more time, and shift the entire responsibility to Rattamma, and wash my hands of it. She is a super achiever, I am telling you. By the way, who went to invite her? Did you go? Are you coming from there now? How did she receive you? Did she wait on you, you know what I mean, really? Young man, you don’t have to hide it from me. Come, tell me.”

The young man described his visit with Rattamma in great detail. Swamiji nearly jumped with joy and screamed, “Oh, my, you are incredible! Lady Luck smiled on you. You look very naive but obviously you have a way with words. You played your part and she pretended to believe you and served the best way she knew … Aah! I must say you were born fortunate. So be it. How else can you have your desires satisfied? Young man! after listening to your story, I know now how deluded I was all these years. What am I doing, going around like this? Nothing. Actually, I was planning to go home straight this time, I mean, after visiting Rattamma. Yes. I must go home.”

The train stopped at the next station. The passangers inquired and found out that another train was coming from the opposite direction and their train had to move on to the other set of the tracks. Swamiji thought, “If I hop on that train, I will be home by eight this evening.” The other train came on time.The passangers watched as the other train arrived. As soon as the train went past them, Swamiji looked up with a jerk. He pulled out a dhoti and his uttareeyam from his bag hastily and changed his clothing. He took some money and left the rest of the things right there.

“The train stops here for about ten minutes, right?” he asked and continued, “Here, keep my baggage with you. I will take them when I come to visit you. It does not matter even if they are lost. There is some money in the bag. Use it anyway you please. I am going back. My wife is on that train. She is returning from her mother’s home, I believe. My father-in-law is also on that train.” He laughed and jumped out of the train.

The young man felt happy for Swamiji. The other train left. So also the train the young man was on .

                                                                                                                        [End]

Translator’s note:

This is a peculiar story with two narrators, besides the author. The author used, for the first narrator, a third person reflexive pronoun ‘taanu,’ for which there is no equivalent in English. Normally the use of ‘taanu’ implies that the story is narrated from the perspective of that person. In the current story, the first narrator appears as taanu only in a few places. I replaced ‘taanu’ with ‘young man’ for the purpose of clarification. Most of the story is told in the first person by Swamiji also known as Chidanandam.

Translated by © Nidadavolu Malathi.

(The Telugu original, soham was published in the anthology, Malladi Ramakrishna Sastry kathalu – 2 published by Navodaya Publishers, 1986)

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[i] Srinatha was a 11th century poet, known for his amorous depiction of female characters.

[ii] A dance posture.

[iii] A famous actor known for his extraordinary performance in the role of King Dushyanta.

[iv] King Dushyanta and Sakuntala were the parents of Bharata, whose name India inherited.

[v] A famous actor known for playing the role of Duryodhana, the Kaurava king in maha bharatam.

[vi]Lit. Enjoying physical pleasures with one’s own wife during youth is appropriate.

[vii] From a famous kavyam of Kalidasa, “raghu vamsam,” the story of Rama’s geneology. Kalidasa seem to imply that enjoying physical pleasures during one’s youth is acceptable, not necessarily limited to marital bliss.

[viii] Reference to a chapter on the extra marital relationships in Vatsayana’s “kama sutram.”

[ix] Sanjeeva Rao was famous for his role as Chitrangi, a female character.

[x] In some families, wives do not address husbands by name as a mark of respect. For want of a better term, they just say some thing like ‘hello’ inviting their attention before starting a conversation.

[xi] Rambha and Urvasi are divine damsels, known for their extraordinary beauty.

[xii] A popular Telugu proverb, e guuti chilaka aa guuti paluke palukutundi meaning the ideas expressed denote usually one’s upbringing.

[xiii] Bharata or Bharatacharya was the first exponent of the Indian classical dance, bharatanatyam.

[xiv] An episode from the famous epic, maha bhagavatham, the story of Lord Vishnu. The story refers to the churning of the ocean by the gods and demons in pursuit of finding the devine nectar.

[xv] A sage in the epic Ramayanam