The Royal Fighter by Munipalle Raju

Sprinkles outside. And inside, it was suffocating for want of air. The house was a crummy dump. It felt like the time had come to a standstill for over ten thousand years.

No dialogue was rolling between father and son. Both, the senior fighter and the junior fighter carried a commanding physique; they were world class fighters at the king’s court. Their muscles were built strong, under the king’s patronage; showed not even a trace of cowardice. Their forefathers had served the same sovereigns for generations.

Now, their blood was boiling, emitting fumes like the fire of damnation from the ocean’s nadir; their bodies have lost touch with the reality of the impending danger.

There was no lamp in the room. The senior fighter, Narasimhulu, struck two firestones and made a flame to light up the tobacco rolled in a raw banyan leaf.  His gray hairs glimmered like gold against the flicker from the firestones.

His son, Viraraghavulu, the junior fighter, sat next to the stove. He kept stirring the splinters and kept the fire going. They both sat down across from each other, one facing the east and the other the west. The splinters were raw; the fire was not steady; and the broth in the pot stopped simmering for want of enough heat. The pot contained grain barely a handful—that was all they could get after plenty of thrashing. For the two, the  time came to a standstill. Yet a ray of hope seemed to be cutting through time. A kind of vain pride weighed them down. It came out of an unbearable inner struggle at their hearts. The house looked like a place for an incarnation of the Goddess of despair. The two fighters were looking forward to the pot of broth, which was brewing.

The senior fighter was tired of waiting; he was ready to hurl away the pot but held back. The junior fighter felt pangs in his stomach; he wanted to smash the pot but could not. Something stopped him. He tossed away the blow pipe. Flames rose again and the broth started to simmer.

The two men were silent; not a word was spoken by either one. Not that they hated each other. The common property they shared was made up of hunger, blood and valor.

The tobacco roll in Narasimhulu’s hand kept dying on him again and again. He tossed it away in disgust. Then he opened his mouth finally and spoke of something that was on his mind for sometime. Without looking at this son, he said, letting the words fly into the noxious air in the room, “His majesty sent for us”.

Viraraghavulu blew into the pipe, like an avenging snake. He did not utter a word, not so much as a hum. But he was aware of the power of those words; good enough to break the noxious stillness of ten thousand years. He did not reply. Blood shot through his blood vessels, and went straight into his heart like a blast of lava.

The senior fighter added, “The young prince has come back from abroad, they said.”

Still there was no response.

“We are asked to teach the prince hunting.”

Not so much as a hum from the junior.

“The directive said we must eliminate the cheetah in the western forest.”

Then came a bolt from the blue; the junior fighter screamed, “I told you one hundred thousand times. Don’t talk to me about those rats.”

“We ate their salt, Viranna! We owe them.”

“I am telling you again. Don’t you ever bring up that stupid subject with me again. Whose salt we had eaten? We ate only our own. Mother died like a stray dog; which salt do you think had brought it down upon her? And whose salt has landed us in this wretched life? Even a sip of broth is a struggle for us, why? And about that wooden leg of yours, whose salt has gotten that for you?”

The senior fighter, Narasimhulu writhed with pain; his blood vessels puffed-up. He could see his own face even in that darkness as if he were looking into a mirror. It was red like a beet; an overripe, dark beet. Viranna’s words summed up his entire life span. It was too much for him; he moved away making a screechy noise. It came from his wooden leg.

Outside, the sprinkles turned into heavy rain. Inside, silence has taken over once again. The stove stopped its cobra-like hissing. The man sitting in front of the stove stopped grinding his teeth. On the other side, the wooden leg also stopped screeching.

The rain was wailing like a large army of chariots, elephants, horses and infantry from the heaven all at once. The fire in the stove died; ashes on top, and burning coal underneath.

Viranna poured the broth into two clay cups; he put down one next to the pillar; and sat down with the second cup. The broth in the two cups was letting out steam like the grief of the Mother Earth.

The young fighter blew on his broth and took a sip. It had no flavor, no salt. He got up with a jolt, gritting his teeth like two tree trunks in the woods. He stuck his hand between the beam and the roof and searched for the packet in that darkness. He could not find it. Then he went back to the stove; pulled out a stick, blew on it, and made it into a torch. With the torch, he found the salt packet in the folds of a paper. He opened it quickly and impatiently. There was barely a pinch of salt in it. He tossed it into the cup by the pillar, and went back to his cup.

The wooden leg also moved. His cup stopped emitting steam; the cold breeze coming in cooled it down.

“Listen, Viranna!”

His son did not say a word.

The senior fighter, bent down, holding on to the pillar with one hand, and with the other reached for his cup. He took a few sips quickly; stopped for a second, and shook the cup in circles, mixing the salt in the broth.

“Listen. Whatever happened has happened, it is over. You could not find work yet. We cannot even groom the king’s horses; they are all moved to the city. And you know I am not as tough as used to be. If we accept this offer and go hunting with the prince now, we’ll see a little money again. It gets us through until you find work.”

Not a single word came out of the son’s mouth. He kept sipping broth.

“I promise on your life. This is not right time for us. Let me go at least this once.”

Son did not speak. The broth in the senior’s cup got down to the bottom. The junior’s cup stayed the same, not a drop less.

Father spoke again, “The prince is a nobleman. Don’t you remember? You two had learned fencing and shooting together. What a poise in his bearing! I am sure you’ve noticed it too.”

Son has only one question to ask. “When they had blamed mother of stealing and broken her bones, did your poised prince stop them?”

The rain was pouring down as if the sky had a million holes; as several worlds in the sky were wailing unanimously in that dark night. It was getting heavier by the minute. The cold wind added its might to the rain like an older brother.

That one sentence, just one question spoke volumes about one harsh, unbearable truth. One family comprised of one housewife, one son, one father, and one atrocity.

The senior swallowed his wrath, which rose like a lava at this heart. Who is he? He threw the question in my face! Yet, I am alive!  Well, the man was his son—he shared the father’s blood, muscle, arteries and his features. That was reason enough for the senior to continue to live.

“I have given them my word, listen to me. We are dealing with the royalty here. We cannot fight; we can accomplish nothing that way. We just have to learn to live on broth.”

Son picked up his cup and threw it straight into the pillar ahead. That was the man’s offering to the sky’s howling. He screamed, “You’ve given your word to them! Go, you go. You’re their slave. I am not your son anymore. I will never be born to a coward, a low life like you. You and I are done. Go, just go.” And then, he leapt into the dark rain outside.

The grief-stricken gods up in the sky did not ask him to go out. He disappeared into the darkness underneath on his own accord.

The broken pieces from the cup pricked the senior’s other leg. He tried to peer through the rain and then put down his cup; it was his offering to the envoy of the bereaved souls in heaven.

***

The senior received the invitation from the palace. “The Prince is set out to go hunting. The yanadis are waiting with their drums. You may be the senior fighter, yet this arrogance is not befitting you. Come quick; move.”

What an invitation! The fighter mulled over the possible scenario:

That was an invitation from the prince! The prince would stand next to the lion the fighter had killed, and would have a picture taken; the picture in the newspapers would help the prince to climb up the social ladder.

Narasimhulu’s wooden leg screeched again. He knew he could crush the messenger into one hundred thousand pieces, just like Dhritarashtra had crushed the steel Bhima. But the invitation came from the palace; and then, the growling hunger from his guts! The senior fighter had to remind himself of all that.

 ***

 Father turned to his son, who was lying on the jute-rope cot and moaning; I wish he had not returned home. The son had dashed into the rain last night, returned completely drenched, and was down with fever now. He was running high temperature, lying in bed, and breathing heavily. But he is my son; and this is his house; he is my gem. The son returned home, threw himself on the shabby cot, and was coughing heavily.

The fighter looked at his son. His wooden leg screeched again, breaking the silence, which followed the messenger’s voice. Who’s that person? Yudhishtira or Dhritarashtra?

Son stopped coughing after one bout, and uttered feebly, “Go ahead, nanna!”

The senior fighter looked at junior. Father turned toward his son. Narasimhulu gazed intently at Viraraghavulu. Those words did not fall off the sky; nor did those calm words come shattering through the earth. That was the tone of his son; words spoken by his son. They came from the shabby cot and in between bouts of cough. Father’s wooden leg moved forward.

He got into the jeep along with the yanadi drummers. Behind the jeep, the prince and his friend followed them in a Cadillac. The friend came from the city, his interest was only courtesans.

Narasimhulu was brooding over: If the cheetah were to jump on the prince, he must throw himself in to save him; that could happen if the cheetah had sensed their presence or after eating a bullet. He must protect this prince with baby cheeks; must make sure that he was not hurt, not even a scratch by a thorn. He was the prince’s savior, yet was not good enough to sit next the prince. The fighter’s heart was crushed. He saw, in the murky side mirror of  the jeep, his son’s face, lying in the cot and coughing. Like the dark night, dark thoughts spread over his heart.

Within a mile from the woods, the clay resort disappeared. The vehicles stopped there. It was not dark yet. Fighter Narasimhulu got down from the jeep, went to the prince and paid his respects. The prince threw away the cigarette butt and called the driver.

“Who has sent this crippled idiot to accompany us?”

“He taught you firing the gun and martial arts in your childhood, your majesty”

The fighter could not hear driver’s response; he understood that the prince had forgotten him.

The prince’s ears failed to accept the message about a man equal to guru. He was busy comforting his friend who was upset because he had to accompany the prince and in the process had to miss the beastly pleasures he had enjoyed last night.

Stupid cripple!

Arrangements to exterminate the cheetah were underway. But the senior’s heart was not set on the arrangements.

Stupid cripple! He came from a long line of valiant fighters who had protected the king’s life, queen’s honor and the treasury when the foreign rulers had attacked the country. He was the one who had held high the winner’s flag in competitions with other wrestlers. How did he get this crippled leg? What about all those fights he had fought! When he fought the tribal warriors and protected the king’s forestry; and for being at their service day and night, he had paid back ten times for the food he had eaten at the king’s palace; he served them even while suffering vicious diseases like malaria and sores.

These new rulers – a new breed of Bhishma and Drona – had acquired a newly imported urban values and forgotten even minimum decency; they were acting worse than the low class people, worse than the rowdy car driver of the king. They would rob the people of their land, sell it and buy factories and race horses in the city. This new sovereignty would not allow anybody to take refuge in the palace, and not even in the quarters of the bodyguards. Who do they think this stupid cripple is? He was a hero, warrior, fighter, as good as a guru, the king’s lifesaver, and he was an enemy of the public in the past; now, he is the nemesis of the king. He would be Sikhandi for Bhishma, Vibhishana for Ravana, and also Dhritarashtra.[1] He was not going to die like Yudhishtira. He was Aswathama, who had escaped this clan of Kaurava princes. Now the only Vedic chant for him was the word his son had spoken in the rain. That would be his goal, and his duty. He would pay respects, doused in blood, to the tombstones of all his ancestors; their lives had been lost in the service of the sovereignty. His duty was to do justice; time to pay back the despots, who had been holding the rifles over their heads for centuries. Now the lion must give in to the other lions; blood to new blood; and old heroes to new heroes.

 ***

 It was getting dark. The quiet moonlight, escaped from the clouds, was spreading over the dense forest.

Fighter Narasimhulu made all the preparations for hunting. He tied a little goat to a small tree, barely sprouting, and fifty yards away from the lake. Across from the lake, and behind the tamarind trees, they raised a temporary structure. Narasimhulu helped the prince on to the structure, and he explained the ins and outs of hunting to the prince in a soft voice.

The prince’s friend and the driver stayed in the car. The friend was totally immersed in the bottle. He was brave only in assaulting helpless women but not in hunting.

The yanadi drummers were hiding in the bushes surrounding the wood structure. Their job was to play the drums at the right time and confuse the cheetah.

Hopefully, the cheetah would pounce upon the goat, and after eating would go to the lake for water. While so enjoying, the bullet would hit him. At that moment, the drums would raise a tremendous noise, driving the animal crazy; and while it was looking for the enemy, more bullets would be fired; DHUM, DHUM. … that was the plan.

“We need to examine the place thoroughly and have everything ready,” the fighter whispered in the prince’s ear. “If the cheetah smells a human, we cannot get him, no way.”

The prince brought his foreign, double-barrel gun, which he had bought in Austria. The fighter had an old, rugged gun, which he had received as a gift during the First World War. But, that gun had ripped through the brains of a dozen animals.

It was quiet.

The fighter could hear the thumps from the prince’s heart.

The prince was not as light-hearted as before.

The fighter took a look at the gun he had been saving like his own life for all these years. He had cleaned and polished it. The barrel was shining even in the dark.

The prince’s heartbeat traveled down his double-barrels and past fighter’s barrel and reached his heart.

It was quiet.

Suddenly, he remembered his name. His name was fighter Narasimhulu. In the story of the incarnation of Narasimha, the two demon kings, Hiranyaksha and Hiranyakasipu were killed and the young prince, Prahlada, was rescued. But, the Lord Narasimha in Mangalagiri, sat gulping down pots and pots of sugar water, and doing nothing.

Out of nowhere, came a question from senior fighter, “Babu, what is your name?”

The prince recited a yard-long name, including all his titles, and then asked, “Why do you want to know?”

“For no reason, sir. I taught you using the gun in your childhood, but never asked your name. You were very young then.”

Again, silence.

At a distance, there was a shadow in the bushes. The prince tapped on the fighter’s arm quietly. His hand was shaking.

“Cheetah.”

“Wait a little.”

Silence.

The shadow grew bigger; then the form became clear. The form moved towards the goat. … … … A desperate cry came searing through. The forest was shocked by the injustice, looked around and lowered her head. But, an echo responded to the desperate cry and resounded from the other direction. It was quiet.

The eyes of the men on the wood structure shone. They stopped inhaling and exhaling. The barrels of their guns also shone in the dark. Man’s justice was about to arbitrate the injustice and the equality as prescribed by Nature.

The fighter pulled up to the prince and said, “you”. But the prince’s Austrian double-barrel gun was shaking. Even in that dark, beads of sweat on his face were shining visibly.

The fighter nudged him again.

DHUM – a huge sound flashed and shook the wood structure. But the bullet did not hit the animal. The shaky hands missed the target and landed in water.

There was no more silence.

They heard a terrifying roar, like the preamble of a despot. The drums resounded in all the directions, like the orchestra at the time of Vedic rituals performed by the eight rulers.

The cheetah turned around and looked toward the wood structure. It sensed the human smell. Roaring, it jumped on. The prince did not wait a second longer. He left the fighter alone and ran.

The fighter stopped breathing. DHUM. He shot again. The animal spun around. Narasimhulu threw the javelin straight into the cheetah. It went straight through the animal and pinned him down to the ground. The drums stopped. Silence filled the space.

The fighter took a deep breath and looked around; he spotted the white shirt hiding amidst the shrubs. He aimed his gun at the prince and shot, DHUM. Far off, silence bowed down to the echoes. One more round – DHUM, DHUM, DHUM.

A thin veil covered over the white shirt. The prince fell to the ground.

The fighter jumped from the wood structure and sat next to the cheetah. He pulled the javelin from the cheetah’s body and tossed it into the river. The drummers hurried to the vehicles.

Not until the next morning, the police van surrounded him. He was sitting next to the prince’s body. He let the police see his face in the dim light of the lantern; and then stretched his hands forward, and said, “My name is Narasimhulu. I killed him. Arrest me.”

The senior fighter was scheduled to be hanged the following day.

The police allowed his son to see him in the morning.

 Son touched father’s feet and said, “Nanna, you are a fighter; a world-class fighter and I am your son. Please, forget the words I’ve said to you the other day.”

 [End]

(The Telugu original, jetty, was published in Andhra Patrika weekly; and included in the anthology, Munipalle Raju kathalu published by Visalandhra Publishing House, 1992. Translated by Nidadavolu Malathi and published on thulika.net, January 2005.)

Photo of the author courtesy of www.museindia.com

 



[1] The characters from epics Mahabharata and Ramayana, known for wreaking vengeance.