“Who’s that? Gopalam? how come you’re walking away as if you’d not seen me?” Rama Sastry called out.
Gopalam turned around with a jerk on hearing those words. He was lost in his own thoughts, unaware of his surroundings. He saw a vague outline, short, stout, and well-rounded, as if three balls were stacked up. The man who’d addressed him was of fair complexion and had no shirt on. He was wearing a green silk shawl and his tummy was peeking through its folds. He wore a dhoti up to his knees; lion-headed bracelets on his hands, and big red dot on his forehead. Gopalam wanted to laugh but did not.
“You’re looking at me as if I were a stranger. What’s new? How is father?”
“Oh, no, no. I was just thinking about something. Yes, father is fine. He thinks of you now and then.”
“I’d like to see him too. I’ve been so busy lately, no time at all.”
“Of course, no time. I’m sure you’ve heard about our conditions at home after father’s retirement,” Gopalam told himself in his mind.
Rama Sastry was a well-known priest. So, he would get calls for all festive occasions in the houses of high ranking officers and ministers. He had no match in drafting horoscopes. In all, he has had good income and also some clout in social circles. He had all his children good education and good jobs.
“How is father’s health? Are done with your schooling?” The concern in his voice sounded unnatural.
“Father’s health is not good. I am finished with B.A. in first rank. I’ve been trying for a job in so many ways for the past six months. That is one more worry for father,” Gopalam said, sadly.
“What’s the use of worrying? Father knows so much, why would he worry about such small matters?” Sastry’s face was illustrative of his philosophy.
Gopalam was irritated. He wanted to tell Sastry to recall the life he had when he first came to this town. At the time, Gopalam was just twelve. He could still visualize that day, Sastry had been sitting looking desperate, and Gopalam’s father had cheered him up.
“Wouldn’t there be problems for people who had been knowledgeable about life?”
“Of course, there will be. But, does it help if you beat yourself up? Praptavyamartham labhyate manushyah. Devopi tam langhayitum na saktih,” Sastry said, with partly closed eyes, and waving his hands in the air.
“I don’t know Sanskrit. Can you please tell me the meaning?” Gopalam asked, irately.
“Certainly, listen. It means man will receive whatever he’s supposed to receive. Even God cannot prevent that,” Sastry replied, submerged in the thought.
“Are you saying that whatever we’re destined to receive, will come to us on its own? And even God cannot do anything to change it?”
“That’s correct, Gopalam,” Sastry replied proudly and with a smile.
“That means God cannot save a man. So, tell me what is it that God can do?” Gopalam also smiling asked him.
Sastry was baffled a little. He took out the gold-plated snuff box from his waistband and snuffled a pinch of it. “Where’re you headed?” he changed the subject.
“From no point to the cosmos?” Gopalam replied, watching Sastry keenly.
Sastry missed the sarcasm in Gopalam’s words. He burst into a laugh. “You speak strange, Gopalam. Where did you get this vocabulary?” he said and finished rest of the snuff that was in his palm. He wiped his nose and hand with his shawl.
“And you? From where to where?”
“On, me? I’m coming from the collector’s house. He’s gotten a son, savior of his lineage, after four daughters. I’ve drawn up his chart. He is an extraordinarily fortunate boy. That is the chart, that’s the way a chart should be. He’ll live ninety years; enjoy a royal life. Let’s go, we can talk on the way.”
Gopalam followed him without questioning whereto. Today, Gopalam would not want to let go of Sastry that easy. He set out without any goal, just to kill time. Thoughts about future were eating him up inside like a bug.
“So, Sastry garu, you say collector’s son is a blessed boy. What if your chart were …”
“Oh, no, what a thing to say! Are you questioning the chart I’d drawn?” Sastry’s voice was sharp.
“Maybe you’ve forgotten now, you used to say the same thing to my father. You’d an extraordinary chart for me too. You’d written that I would attain a very high status,” Gopalam said, staring into Sastry’s face.
“Yes? Are you facing any hardships now? How much of your life you’d seen yet, that you should question my chart? Just watch out, and tell me if the Lady Luck had not come to embrace you soon,” Sastry chided Gopalam.
“Lady Ill-Luck had embraced me long time ago,” Gopalam mumbled, as if he was talking to himself.
Both of them kept walking silently. Gopalam asked, breaking the silence, “So, you’re sure that the collector’s son will live ninety years per your prediction.”
“Yes,” Sastry replied in calm but steady voice.
“What if the boy died in a day or two?”
“There is no way that can happen. No matter how many dangers he had encountered, he will live to be ninety,” Sastry said firmly.
“Then, guruji, can you tell me what do people mean when they say akaala mrutyu?”
Sastry felt cornered. He pretended to be looking at something at a distance, and not listening to Gopalam, and kept walking.
“When time comes, nobody can evade death, that’s what you’re saying, right?” Gopalam was persistent.
“Yes. It has been prescribed in our texts, na kale mriyate kaschit praapte kale na jivati.”
“That means if I were down with fever and was destined to die, even a million attempts to recover are sure to fail.”
“That’s true my boy. What is in our hands? We are simply human. How can our attempts stack up against the decision of that uncanny Lord?”
“How come two years back, you’d been to Dr. Nair when your son was sick? I heard that you’d fallen on your knees and begged the doctor to save your son somehow. You, who’d known everything, groveled in front of another human, begged him to save your son’s life, why?”
Sastry was stuck like that of a rat in a rut.
“udyoginam purushasimham upaiti Lakshmi. Boy, we must act the best we can.”
Gopalam broke into a big laughter. Sastry suddenly stopped.
“Keep walking. We can talk while walking,” Gopalam said, smiling.
Sastry slipped into a reverie. ‘There is nothing more stupid than getting into a debate with these young fools. Modern day youth! Oh Lord Rama! The world is going to the dogs, no fear of god at all! What kind of education is this? Atheists are growing in number by the minute.’
“What’s it, guruji? Seem to be lost in reverie? Look, the baby goat in the arms of that little girl, a charmer, isn’t it?”
“Yes, yes,” Sastry said, unable to figure out Gopalam’s approach.
“Let’s say that she is destined to die at the end of six months, per her horoscope. You’re saying nobody could kill her in the meantime.”
“As the proverb goes, even an ant cannot sting without orders from Lord Siva.”
“All right. I’ll kill her right now, while you’re watching. What can you say for that?” Gopalam gazed into Sastry’s face. He thought this would make Sastry’s mouth would go dry.
Sastry’s face was lit up with a mix of smile and solemnity. “If her life were to end today, Lord Siva would cause you to think of it,” he replied, and took a pinch of snuff and rubbed his nose with his palm. The sight made Gopalam feel sick in his stomach.
“You mean our brain makes act per our destiny.”
“Correct,” Sastry said enthusiastically.
“That means our brain does not act independently; and man is not responsible for his actions. That means man does not have to account for his good and evil deeds. All the dharma sastras and legal canons, which stipulate rules, are meaningless, I suppose.”
Sastry was walking, looking around. He hastened his steps. Gopalam also hastened his pace. He said, “Sastry garu, I have a small doubt.”
“What is it?” Sastry growled.
“Man’s brain does not act independently, right? That follows the lord’s command, right? If that is the case, why does not God make all the people do only good deeds?”
Sastry was really upset. He was baffled for want of a good response. He said, “Gopalam, Have you ever made the mistake of going to the temple?” His tone was filled with disgust.
Gopalam laughed heartily. “Why are you upset? You’ve not given me an answer to my question. Let it be. I’ll give you my answer to your question. I used to visit the Anjaneya temple along with my mother in my childhood days. You know why? For the prasadam. I’d never been to any temple as an adult. My heart is still pure. There is no need for me to go to the temple and wash off my sins,” Gopalam spoke fervently.
“So, in your mind, all those people who go to the temple have committed sins?”
Gopalam was shocked by the anger in Sastry’s tone, stopped for a few seconds and then continued walking. He said, “I didn’t say that. But I do think that most of them are that kind. Some of the people go to have their wishes fulfilled, and a few others to have their hardships removed. You tell me how many go there simply with a sense of devotion and only devotion?”
“How do you I know? You tell me that too,” Sastry said, stressing each word as he spoke.
Gopalam felt like laughing but stopped it by keeping his lips tight. He was afraid that Sastry would be even more upset. “Today, I’ve learned a very important lesson from you. I’ll remain grateful to you for the rest of my life,” he said sounding casual. But Sastry noted a streak of sarcasm in it.
“What is that?” Sastry asked, stressing his words.
“The man who has sinned need not be afraid, nor he be afraid of god.”
Sastry stopped suddenly. He, surprised, looked into Gopalam’s face for a second and said, “Oh, Lord Rama, did I say that?”
“You’ve said it just a few minutes ago. You’ve said brain is not independent and that it acts as preordained. Whether the lord made the man perform good or bad deeds, man need not fear it,”
“I don’t know how to respond to atheists like you. We’ve believed our guru’s words. We never raised gawky questions like you do,” he said, unable to come up with a better answer.
“Oh, no. We’ve come too far, while chatting. Come on, let’s go to the public gardens. We can sit there for a few minutes,” Gopalam said. He was feeling down; it seems this would be good pastime.
“Why, so you could kill me with your questions?”
Gopalam giggled to himself.
Suddenly, they came across a dead body on stretcher. The carriers were chanting ‘Hare Rama, Hare Rama’. Some of them were looking sad. The dead man’s son was walking ahead with a pot of burning coal.
“Don’t walk in front of it, come here,” Sastry grabbed Gopalam’s shoulder and pulled him to a side. Then, he stood to a side, closed his eyes and prayed to the lord, “Oh Lord, may this dead man’s soul be blessed with peace.”
Gopalam stood there watching Sastry. Several questions about life and death sprang up in his mind, ‘What is that life has and death does not have? How does the life’s inner stream, that has been alive up until then, dry up so suddenly? How does that consciousness freeze abruptly? The issues and hardships, which pervade life, do not exist in death. But, why is man afraid of death? Is it because he is afraid to imagine this world without himself in it?’
Sastry commented, ardently, “Today is mukkoti ekadasi. One must have plenty of good deeds to die on this day!”
“Sastry garu, you’re ecstatic as if you’ve attained that status yourself,” Gopalam blurted out and regretted it in the next second.
Sastry eyeballed at Gopalam. Gopalam turned away, acting as if he did not notice Sastry’s displeasure. “So, guruji, you do believe that the people who had died today would go to the heaven straight.”
That question threw Sastry into a spell of ecstasy again. “Yes, Gopalam, today all the doors to the heaven remain open. One can go straight to the feet of Lord Vishnu.” Sastry closed his eyes partly and felt immersed in the heavenly beatitude.
“Then, guruji, do you believe there is something called Atman?”
“What kind of question is that? There is of course Atman in this temporal body. Atman has no death; it is immortal. This body is like a shirt on our bodies. When the shirt got dirty, we’ll remove it and wear a new one. In the same way, Atman discards the decayed body.”
“But sometimes it also discards a child’s or youthful body, how come?”
Sastry was furious, his eyebrows were knotted. “That’s because of their actions in previous lives. Each one lives in this world only to settle the account, based on their good deeds or evil deeds in the previous lives and then they go back,” he said.
“Some people are dead as soon as they are born, they enjoy nothing. And then there are others who are born dead.”
Sastry’s rage hardened even more. He kept walking without a word.
“You’re angry with me, it seems.”
“What for?” Sastry said.
“May I ask one question?”
“Will you let it go, if I say no. Ask.”
“What does Atman mean? Will it be affected by the little annoyances the body is afflicted with? Will the Atman also suffer along with the body?” Gopalam asked him, with a show of humility.
Sastry’s face reddened with a heightened irritation. ‘Way to go,’ he told himself and his face became solemn.
“There is something beyond body, senses, heart and mind, and a manifestation of Truth, Beauty and Beatitude. That is Atman. Atman is a self-created bliss. It has no pain. Atman is simply another manifestation of the Lord. It will not be touched by the affliction the body suffers from.” Sastry went on like a sermon.
“Is the Atman in you the same as the one resident in me?”
“Exactly. In you, me and, in fact, the Atman resident in all the animate things is the same one. It is a fragment of the Lord. Since it is covered by illusion, the Atman forgets its original form, and craves for corporal pleasures.”
Gopalam looked at Sastry while he was lecturing like a great philosopher. He smiled.
“What are you smiling about?” Sastry asked, annoyed.
“I am smiling at your arguments, which seem to cross each other out,” Gopalam replied with a smile.
Sastry felt like he was being rolled on a bed of burning coals.
“Come here, let’s sit on the bench,” Gopalam headed toward the park bench near the gate, without looking for Sastry’s response. Sastry followed him mechanically. His mind was hovering around Gopalam’s question. This nut has always been like this ever since he was a child. There had been one incident when Gopalam was eight-years old at most. Sastry was telling Gopalam’s father about somebody’s death.
Gopalam sat on the floor and cutting pictures from his picture book. He stood up and came near his father and asked him, “How do people die?”
“They just die, that’s all,” his father replied, not knowing how else to answer.
“What does it mean to die?” Gopalam asked again.
“Go to bed, you and your stupid questions,” his father yelled at him. Gopalam did not move.
“Dying means life leaving the body,” Sastry replied.
“What do you mean by life leaving the body?”
“Life leaving the body means the person cannot talk or walk; he becomes stiff like the bat you play with. Then he is burned to ashes,” Sastry replied.
The little boy’s face was filled with fear and curiosity, one after another. “How does the life leave the body?”
“It flies away.”
“Does the life have wings like a bird?” Gopalam asked him with surprise and glaring at him.
“No. … Yes. …” Sastry was perplexed and did not know how to answer.
“Where does life come from?”
“From god,” Gopalam’s father replied.
“Where will it go again?”
“To the same god.”
“Will the god take it back himself?”
“Yes,” Sastry replied.
“Do the lives of people in Japan and America also go to the same god?”
“Yes,” Sastry said.
“Is the same God causing wars?”
“Does that mean god is not a good person?”
Sastry and Gopalam’s father stared at each other. A little puppy appeared in the front yard. Gopalam ran quickly to the puppy, forgetting everything else.
That was long time ago. Gopalam brought him back to the present with his question, “Guruji, what’s it? You seemed to have been lost in deep thought. You didn’t answer my question.”
Sastry returned to the present with a jerk. He told himself, ‘I couldn’t answer your question on that day; and certainly not today.’ And then, he turned to Gopalam somberly and replied, “You say that my arguments are contradicting each other, right?”
“Yes, sir. On one hand, you’re saying Atman is a manifestation of beatitude and independent; it will not be touched by ordinary problems and evil. At the same time, you’re also saying the Atman is shrouded by illusion and thus craving for carnal pleasures. How can the Atman, independent and a fragment of the Lord, be shrouded by illusion? Earlier when I’d seen the dead body, you’d prayed for the peace of Atman. What is the point of praying for the peace of the Atman, if Atman were already a manifestation of Truth, Beauty and Bliss? You’ve also said the Atman would go straight to the heaven since he had died on the mukkoti ekadasi day. The Atman had already been a part of the Lord, where else would it go if not to Him? Better yet, life and death are only physical attributes of the body; that being the case …” Gopalam stopped abruptly, looking into Sastry’s countenance.
Drops of sweat were glistening on Sastry’s face, like pearls. His face turned crimson. He took the remaining snuff and sniffled deed. Gopalam felt sorry for him. ‘He is senior, why bother him? He has his own beliefs, why not leave him alone?’ he thought. But the problem is such people try to rub their beliefs on others, and that’s what bothered him.
“Please, come to our house. Father has been thinking about you,” Gopalam said, changing the subject.
“I’ll,” Sastry said, feeling relief.
“Shall we go to the exhibition grounds? Today, a sixteen-year old boy is going to douse himself in kerosene, set on fire, and jump into a three-hundred-yard deep well,” Sastry said, in an attempt to preempt Gopalam from reverting to the earlier topic.
Gopalam was surprised; he looked into Sastry’s face, “You have such interests too?”
“Just for fun,” Sastry laughed aloud. Gopalam could not understand Sastry’s humor.
“That’s true. For many people, watching others in peril is a pleasure,” he said.
Sastry could not understand Gopalam’s comment; he frowned.
Gopalam continued, “Guruji, why do people get excited about watching boxing, circus and others standing amidst lions and tigers and poking at them—why people rush to watch them?”
“What do you mean why? That’s fun and pastime. Why do think it as watching people in peril?” Sastry was getting vexed with him.
“Don’t be annoyed with me. I am just asking. Why don’t the same people show the same enthusiasm, if it were playing with dogs or cats? But they buy ticket and go to watch if someone were jumping from a ten-foot high structure?”
“Why would anybody go there? What is special about it?”
“Don’t ask me what is special about it, say where is the danger in it?”
“Are you saying, there is cruelty in wanting to watch these sports?”
“In a way, yes. This is the proof to say that the humans evolved from beasts. Actually, you can see the animal qualities in many human beings. In some, they are dormant. Man need to satisfy his animal instincts.”
“I don’t know, Gopalam. I don’t understand your logic. Just tell me, are you going with to the exhibition grounds or not?” Sastry asked as if he were questioning Gopalam.
Gopalam by nature was not interested in watching such shows. In his child he could not watch the dommari girls tumble on the top of long poles; he used to close his eyes then. All his friends used to call him coward. But today, Gopalam was feeling down. Spending time with Sastry was a welcome pastime for him. “I’ll go with you, let’s go,” he said.
It was dark by the time Sastry and Gopalam reached the exhibition grounds. The entire area was splendid with dazzling lights. People were pouring in. Gopalam was surprised to find that the number of women and children to be higher. He wondered why children should be brought to this kind of shows.
They both bought tickets and went in. By that time most people filled the seats closest to the well. Gopalam did not like people gathering so early there either. In fact, he did not even like watching that spectacle. He wanted to see the young performer. Sastry’s eyes were also rolling around, looking for someone. They both kept walking and chatting. They saw a small crowd at a distance and walked toward the crowd. There were about ten to fifteen people gathered there, and a young boy wearing khaki knickers there. He was zealously answering their questions. Sastry and Gopalam understood who the boy was. They both elbowed into the crowd.
Suddenly a man with bushy moustache walked into the crowd and suggested to disperse. He saw Sastry, folded his hands respectfully and greeted him. Sastry’s face opened up like a fresh blossom.
“Ayyagaru, come on, come here. I sent for you this morning,” he said. His name was Yadagiri. He was very happy to see Sastry had come to his show.
“Yes, I’ve got your message. I could not find time to meet with you in the morning. That’s why I came now,” Said Sastry.
“You’ve bought ticket, why? If you’d sent word to me, I’d have come to fetch you personally.”
“That’s no problem. This young man bought the tickets. He is a good friend of mine,” said Sastry. Yadagiri greeted Gopalam with folded hands. Gopalam also folded hands quietly. Yadagiri escorted them, Sastry, Gopalam, and the boy away from the crowd. Gopalam was trying to figure out the connection between Sastry and Yadagiri.
All the four disappeared into the enclosed tent that was ten-feet away from the well.
“The reason I’ve sent for you is, I would like to perform Satyanararayana puja at our new house the day after tomorrow,” Yadagiri said.
Yadagiri has been organizing merry-go-rounds, lucky-dips, and other stunts at village fairs and other places, have entertained people in a number ways and amassed one hundred thousand rupees. He had a new house built. He has been inviting for pujas and rituals. He was not afraid of hell but did believe in god.
“Sure, I’ll perform the puja for you,” Sastry replied, thinking about the gift he was going to receive on the occasion. His eyes however were glued to the boy. Yadagiri introduced him to Sastry.
The boy looked at Sastry with curiosity and joined both hands in reverence. The boy was fair-complexioned and chubby. His features were well-defined and attractive. In his eyes under the bushy eyebrows, several hopes and ideas were sparkling. A dark line over strong upper lip was looked like highlighting youth, which was about to take over his body. The signs of childhood seemed to be leaving such a charming face rather unwillingly.
Yadagiri left the three of them in the tent and went away. He told them he would be back soon.
Gopalam’s heart was shaken as the thought his crossed his mind, ‘what if this boy died in the flames?’
Sastry was curious; he asked the boy, “What’s your name?”
“Nagesh.” His voice sounded like wind came out of a broken bamboo stem. Gopalam was amused about the voice; the voice at that age would sound strange.
“How long have been performing this feat?” Gopalam asked Nagesh.
“This is the first time,” he replied.
“First time? Aren’t you afraid?” Gopalam asked again, pitying him and gazing keenly into his eyes. What a charming face; he even seemed to be educated.
“Afraid? Why?” Nagesh answered with a counter-question, with a smile. Gopalam thought if he had asked the emperor, Sikinder, who’d set out to conquer the world, probably he would have given the same counter-question, just like Nagesh.
“Whom did you receive this skill from?” Sastry asked him.
“From nobody. This is a family vocation for us,” Nagesh replied.
“Are you saying your father also used to do the same feat?” Gopalam asked him anxiously.
“Yes. Not only my father, but also his father and his grandfather were in the same business,” Nagesh answered with renewed enthusiasm.
“Is your father around?”
“No, sir. My father died while performing in Pune last year.”
Gopalam cringed and looked deep into Nagesh’s eyes. He could see nothing in the boy’s eyes; they filled with tears at the thought of his father.
“How did your grandfather die?” There was pain in Gopalam’s tone.
“My grandfather was also performing the same feat for a long time, and eventually died while performing.”
“And then, what about his father?” Gopalam’s concern was escalating. Sastry was tired of this line of questioning.
“He died of natural causes. He fell sick and died, I was told,” Nagesh replied with a smile.
Gopalam sighed. “You’ve been aware of all this, and yet, are willing to perform?” Although it was intended for Nagesh, it sounded more like he was asking himself. He tried to look far into the future of Nagesh.
Nagesh broke into a hearty laugh. Gopalam looked at him, with a stupid expression.
“Babu, let’s say your father and grandfather had died at work in an office. Would you be scared to work in the same office?”
Gopalam did not know how to respond to that question. Surprised, he kept staring at the boy for a second.
“How can the two instances be the same? Anyway, why didn’t you learn the feat from your father?” This time, it was Sastry’s turn to raise the question.
“My father did not like me taking up this profession. He did not even allow me to watch when he was performing. A couple of times, I sneaked into the place and watched him. Later he had come to know about it and beat me up.”
“What did your father want you to be?” Gopalam asked him, curiously.
“He wanted me to study well in school and take up a good job.”
“What did you study?”
“Just two days back, I wrote the high school final exam.”
Both Sastry and Gopalam were shocked to hear his response.
“You’ve finished high school, and still want to pursue this profession? Why? Why don’t you look for a job, per your father’s wish?” Gopalam said.
Nagesh laughed a funny laugh, like a veteran thinker. He said, “Babu, you don’t seem to understand the situation. Nowadays, even people with M.A. and B.A. degrees are scampering around for jobs. Who would give me a job, especially without recommendations. Haven’t you heard of a recent incident? An engineer went for a lower division clerk position, and the officer turned him down. Probably, the officer had a B.A. degree and got the job, sponsored by some politician. Possibly he was afraid to take a better qualified person under his supervision.” Blood shot to his cheeks as Nagesh spoke ardently.
Gopalam was surprised by the boy’s knowledge.
“So, after all that education, are you going to settle down in the same profession?” Sastry asked him.
With that question, Nagesh’s face was covered with somberness that was beyond his age. He was thinking quietly. And then his eyes flashed; the light overtook the somberness in his face.
“No. I will study further, pass the I.A.S. exam and become collector,” he said, looking far into the horizon. The words sounded like he was making the decision for himself.
“You will certainly become a great man, boy! Your face is radiating like royalty. Look at that forehead, Gopalam. What a superior forehead that is!” Sastry said zealously.
“Sastry garu, read his palm,” Gopalam suggested.
Nagesh, out of curiosity, looked at Sastry, and then toward the almanac under his arm, and stretched his hand forward.
Sastry took Nagesh’s hand in his own, and studied it. He said, “Vow, extraordinarily fortunate boy you are! You’re sure become collector. At that time, you must reward me with a pair of dhotis.” Nagesh blushed. He opened his wallet, gave a five-rupee bill to Sastry and touched his feet, seeking his blessings. Sastry hesitated to take the bill for a second. He said no but took it anyway and stuffed it at the waist, next to his snuff box. Gopalam felt bad for a second. He looked at Sastry resentfully. As for Sastry, he was not even embarrassed; he did not notice Gopalam’s resentment.
Suddenly, Gopalam got a brilliant idea. “Sastry garu, read Nagesh’s palm and tell us how long he is going to live?”
Sastry examined the boy’s palm carefully and said, “No doubt, he will live eighty years, at the least.”
“Pay close attention,” Gopalam asked him anxiously.
“Yes, I did. Look at this line, straight as an arrow. There is not even a single cross-line. Anyway, Gopalam, you don’t believe in such things. Why now?”
“I feel like believing now,” Gopalam replied. On any other occasion, Gopalam would not have believed it. Now, being haunted by some kind of mixed feelings, he wanted to believe, just for a respite. He turned to Nagesh and asked him, “You said you wanted to go to further studies. How can you afford it?”
“These two months are free time. I will perform during these two months and earn good money. Today’s earnings already reached five hundred rupee mark. I will get at least one hundred rupees for my share.”
“Who gets the rest of the income?”
“Some of it goes to cover the expenses. Contractor Yadagiri garu and I split the net proceeds. He takes care of the arrangements.”
“After that?” Sastry asked curiously.
“I’ll earn three thousand rupees at the least during these three months. The income is big since I am young. I have an older sister, and my mother is worried about her marriage. I will spend that money and arrange her marriage. I will earn the money needed for my education by performing whenever I get a break from school,” Nagesh was raving with great fervor. Imagine the number of Niagara water falls that could make up for the outburst in Nagesh!
“But you did not learn this technique from your father. How could you perform? What if …” Gopalam’s voice registered a note of discord.
“I will not face any peril. Look here, a locket with Anjaneya swamy picture. My father used to wear it at time of his performance, and so also my grandfather. You see, now I am wearing it too. Nothing is going to happen to me,” so saying, Nagesh unbuttoned his shirt and showed us a palm-sized copper locket hanging from a black thread. It contained a distinct picture of Anjaneya holding up the sanjiva mountain in his palm. Nagesh brought the locket up to his eyes humbly, let it down on his chest, and started buttoning up his shirt again.
Sastry looked into Gopalam’s face pompously.
“What about the day your father had died? Did he not wear it?” Gopalam asked him; the questioned aggravated Sastry very much.
“No, he didn’t. He had forgotten it. That morning my mother, it seems, had polished it with tamarind mush, and worshipped it. My father forgot about it and went away. My mother keeps talking about it and weeps even to this day.”
“Even if that were the case, I am sure that locket alone is not enough to save anybody. I am sure there are some guidelines, peculiar to the feat; and even the clothes could be of specific kind. How about asking your mother about them?” Gopalam suggested, with his heart slipping down.
“My mother does not know about this. I told her that I was going visit a friend of mine in Hyderabad a vacation. Had she known, she would never let me go, not on her life,” Nagesh replied, peeking out from the tent.
Gopalam became nervous. He said, “It’s not a good idea for you to perform without her knowledge. Postpone it for today. We’ll figure it out later.”
“How is that possible, babu?” Nagesh said , wistfully.
“Why not? Just return their money to the audience. We can ask the contractor to explain them that you fell sick,” Gopalam suggested.
Sastry cut in quickly, “Do you think, this crowd would let go of Yadagiri alive, after all this humdrum? Anjaneya swamy is blazing forth splendid on his chest, why fear? Atheists like you do not understand the powers of that swamy. Besides, look at the lines in his hand, so perfect! He will live for eighty years, no question. He has a great future.”
Beams of light filled Nagesh’s eyes. Life flows in each particle of this body wholly. Gopalam kept watching the boy without batting an eyelid. Commotion started in the crowd by the well at a distance. Nagesh cringed and looked out.
Contractor Yadagiri’s voice was heard gravely from the mike. “Quick, come quick! In just five minutes, there is going to be a world-shaking performance right here. The entry fee is just one quarter of a rupee! Twenty-five naya paise! Quick, Come on, time is running out!”
Nagesh stood up.
Sastry got goose bumps.
“A performance nobody has ever heard of in the entire world! Come and watch a raw, sixteen-year old boy, turn into a ball of fire and jump from a height of three hundred feet and into the well of death. Just for a quarter! Well of death for the price of a cup of coffee! The cost of two balloons! Twenty-five naya paise. Hurry, the show will begin in a few minutes! Well of death!” Yadagiri’s voice was resounded at a high pitch.
“Well of death.” Yadagiri’s voice was resounding in Gopalam’s ears. His head was aching. He stood up, approached Nagesh, and grabbed his hand.
Sastry’s heart wobbled.
Nagesh spoke first, “Babu garu, don’t be scared. Time for me to go. I’ll be back in about half hour and meet with you. Don’t go away without seeing me again,” he said, bowed to both Sastry and Gopalam, and rushed out.
Gopalam walked out of the tent behind Nagesh, and stood there. He kept staring keenly at Nagesh, who was standing at the foot of the ladder by the well a little away from them. Sastry tapped on his shoulder and said, “let’s go. Let’s watch the show.”
“I’ll wait here. You go,” Gopalam said, sounding like he was speaking from the bottom of a well.
Sastry stared into his face surprisingly and went away, elbowing the crowd.
After a couple of minutes, Nagesh started climbing of the steel steps. Thousands of eyes were climbing up the ladder, step by step, along with the boy. They all were watching him as if they had forgotten even to breathe.
Gopalam looked up, straining his neck. Nagesh looked like a moon amidst stars, at the top of the steel frame under the expansive sky and clusters of black and white clouds. The sixteen-year old Nagesh looked small, more like a five-year old.
The people around the well were so thick, specks of sand would not seep through. They were anxiously looking up. A pregnant woman in her second trimester, and with an eighteen-month old baby in her arms, was staring at the boy nervously.
Nagesh pulled out a bottle from his pocket. People shouted, “petrol, petrol.” Nagesh doused himself with the liquid and threw down the bottle into the well. He pulled out a matchbox from the other pocket and showed around to the audience. Everybody understood what he was showing, although the matchbox was not visible from there.
Sastry was sweating slightly; the almanac under his arm and the five-rupee bill at his waist were dampening. He very much wanted to have a pinch of snuff, but what if the show opened at that precise moment!
“Straight grappling with the death! Well of death” Yadagiri’s voice stopped instantly. A big bell rang at once.
The fire broke lose like the hunger of a poor man. Along with the blazing flames, a desperate cry came out exploding even more ghastly. The sizzling form came down twirling, and fell not into the well but on the heads of the crowd!
The gathering scattered in panic and in all directions. Some of them caught fire. They ran away, stomping on each other, unmindful of the others, young and old, men and women, alike; it was a huge rampage. The only dharma in that rampage appeared to be saving one’s life even it meant walking on the people on the ground.
Gopalam’s heart broke into two; balls of fire flared up in his mind. In the next moment, darkness enveloped him. Indistinct shapes hovered around. He was not aware of his surroundings until Sastry came and pulled him up by the shoulder. Gopalam came to his senses, stood up, shook off the dust, and walked out, holding on to Sastry.
The exhibition ground, which was bubbling with enthusiasm, excitement, and cracking up until a few minutes back, turned into a terrible sight, and was crammed with desperate wailings. Sastry and Gopalam saw it and left the scene mechanically.
Gopalam, who was walking on a paved street, was dragging along as if he were walking on sand. By his side, Sastry’s feet were hitting the ground furiously. Silence stood up between the two like the Himalayas. Gopalam’s brain was in a very cold place suitable for solidifying. Sastry’s brain was like a snowball, ready to melt.
Gopalam heard something, and stopped suddenly and without thinking. Sastry also stopped, watching him.
They both heard the bells from the temple. That was Anjaneya swamy temple. Since it was Saturday, the temple was crowded. The chanting of Anjaneya swamy prayer was clearly audible from sanctum sanctorum of the temple.
Gopalam could not see anything, it was all dark. Darkness inside and outside. He folded his hands and entered the temple premises, as if drawn by a supreme power.
Sastry watched him, with astonishment. He was about to take a step in that direction, but stopped, like a machine after electric supplied failed. He felt something soft under his foot; he heard a feeble screech. That could be a baby crying for milk or a fetus from a full-term mother!
Sastry shook his head vigorously; took his almanac, opened it and studied it for a few minutes. His eyes were burning like lamps. He tossed away the almanac on the dog that was rolling in the garbage next to the temple walls. He pulled out the five rupee bill from his dhoti folds, and gave it to the blind beggar at the temple entrance. He sniffled two pinches of snuff. He shook his head a couple of time as if he had a revelation, and went away hastily in big strides and past Anjaneya swamy temple.
Translated by Nidadavolu Malathi and published on thulika.net, January 2006.
(The Telugu original, tamaso maa jyotirgamaya, was published in Jayasri, 1967)