O …n…e …o …n …e …
The old stick is going slowly one foot after another.
The hand, looking like a dried twig, is holding on to the worn out stick and going along with it.
The concrete road, flooded with the light from the street lamps, like muggu powder put out to dry, is receding at the same pace.
After moving on thus for sometime, the white powder put out to dry has turned into hardened tar.
The tar road, glistening like a dark cobra, also has retreated farther and farther to the back.
It stops for a second and rests.
How far yet to go?
Has to go past twenty more “elitry” lampposts from where the tar road meets the gravel road.
From there, it will have to turn left and walk eighty feet.
Past the twenty electric lampposts and the eighty-foot long gravel road, there is an old two-storey building on the left.
On the right, there is a house with clay-tiled roof, partly collapsed.
But for that old building, the entire area is lit with not electric lights or from any other source. It is totally dark.
Not that there are no small houses and few gardens beyond those two houses across from each other. But the man holding the old stick with a withered hand has nothing to do with any of them.
He is going there only to sit in that part of the verandah that is still up in that run down house and watch.
He rests for a second, and starts walking again with difficulty and breathing heavily as if he is exhausted, and counting the lampposts.
The gravel road of twenty lampposts long has receded somehow. The old stick turns left.
Only eighty more feet to go.
There is no moon in the sky. No municipal lamps along the street. The glow from the stars is not enough for his eyes.
It is densely dark. A small breeze flurries by.
Despite the darkness, the cane knows its way very well. Despite the tiredness, the stick pushes the eighty steps to the back quickly and sighs.
There is the window!
Here is the verandah!
A part of the front porch of the clay-tiled-house is up still. Another part of the roof over the dark verandah in one corner is broken. The entire floor underneath is filled with dents in several places, almost everywhere. The remaining two stone pillars are lacking in flesh and blood. A mango tree standing outside with branches overhanging above the house. Scanty beams of light from the building across the street are spreading over the mango tree and the shattered part of the verandah.
The man sat down by the wall in the dark verandah, put down the stick, unloaded the weight from his shoulder and put it in front of him, and looked at the building.
There is the window, he could see.
Rest of the building is dark. Only the window is visible.
Faint glow from the stars, barely noticeable, is submerged in the shimmering darkness. The two-storey building in front and the row of palm trees behind are merged into the darkness hazily. Small stars are rising into the sky from the tops of the palm trees moving inconspicuously.
They all are shades, mere shadows. Even those stars, all of them, are lackluster stones sunk in darkness.
The only thing sparkling in that area and in that darkness is that window; radiating brilliantly.
Just one room upstairs in that building. Adjacent to it, there is a terrace same size as the room precisely. The place he sits is across from the wall that separates the room from the terrace. The room is to his left and the terrace to his right.
The room is not very big. The window located in the middle of the room is not small. There are no rods, either of steel or of any other material, attached to the window. The windowpanes are open. The window is glowing like a diamond in the light from behind.
It seems like somebody has cut out the part where the window is from a thick dark curtain and held a lamp up from behind for everybody to see. Some pious man has either slashed the curtain or pushed it aside and created an opportunity for him to watch it, feel elated and enraptured by it each night.
Behind the curtain, it is all happiness.
All that he does not have, that he would like to have and he would wish everybody to have is behind that window. It is conspicuous from that window.
What is it that is behind that window?
Just only one room with whitewashed walls.
The person sitting in that darkness can see through that window—what are they?
–The electric lamp with a green glass shade hung by a wire in to the middle of the room , dazzlingly glowing light, a blue wall clock on a bracket on the wall in front, next to it a not big glass chest of drawers, two dark sandalwood statues set on the chest, between them two small colored marble statuettes—one that of Lakshmi and the other of Saraswati, a picture hung on the wall above the chest of drawers, in it a woman lying down and reading a book, above that a piece of a clay tile of the roof, in one corner, the end of a bed frame to which mosquito curtain is tied, and a sofa suitable for one close to the window.
Because not all these items are perceptible clearly to him through that window, they are that much more fascinating to him.
In that room,
Those two persons are!
Only two of them!
A marble statue that has come alive; sweet mango shoot just bloomed; blossomed flower; frozen lightning rod; a goddess descended to earth.
She is a refreshingly charming young woman.
His body is polished metal; hot blood is bubbling in his veins. He is a male black bird that has landed on a branch; he is a butterfly turned into a human. He is the deity that has descended to the earth for her sake.
That is the heaven transformed into that room. That is a dream behind the curtain. There is everlasting spring.
The old man comes there everyday, walking and walking and walking to watch that dream, that everlasting spring, that heaven through that open curtain.
How long since?
Maybe a year’s gone by …
It’s a year since he’s come to this town, or, nearly year. The night he came here, he lost his way and kept wandering in the dark. Then the dark clouds beset him from all sides like the scheming army of Sikander. He didn’t even realize that it was raining until it had started pouring down.
In one big sweep, the bone-chilling winds and the torrential rain came together and bashed him.
He had to drag himself and his cane to the nearby verandah quickly.
On that day he was not feeling well; couldn’t eat, couldn’t relish any food at all.
In a split second, his heart melted and became a pool.
– stupid, stupid, stupid life, life is stupid.
How long to live this way? Why live at all for however long?
Sun in the street, water in the lake, shade under the tree, for how long do I have to live like this?
Where did I come from and how? Why am I living here and why in this manner?
When will I go, how and whereto?
Probably some people would know answers to these questions but he does not know clearly even how to ask them.
In this world, jammed with the word “I” in all case endings [grammatical forms], nobody knows the reason for the pain caused by “falling” into this world even when it is in plain sight. And he does not know either.
It is raining. He is shivering. He pulled up the sheet tight and covered himself. His entire body is aching.
-Legs are aching
Powerful gusts of wind, torrents of rain showering intermittently, streaks of lightning in between, and roars of thunderbolts continually …
The verandah is getting drenched in the rain. Water is sliding down from the remaining part of the roof.
-Dying would be nice. Why not some thunderbolt strikes me? Thunderbolt did not him. They struck in so many other places. Probably they all thought, “why strike an old hag snuck in a corner” and left the rundown clay-tiled house alone!
– No kind man would look at me. Why talk about this or that man when god himself does not care?
That’s what is happening—the falling thunderbolts, the nice people who care, and the god looking askance—they all are keeping their distance and continuing to do so.
– Would be nice if I could die this time.
It is not correct to say that the situation “has come” to the point when he would wish “it would nice if I died.”
The situation has been in the same place always.
Conditions have always been the same.
As long as he could remember, his situation has always been the same.
He has no recollection of who had given birth to him.
Wretched couple, sinners, weaklings, slaves.
What does it matter who did. He was born to somebody.
And the person who had given birth to him ran away out of fear.
How can he remember anything now?
But he remembers very well the old woman who had raised him.
“Had I not looked out for you that day, you would’ve died long time ago, idiot, show some loyalty,” she used to say again and again. She treated him horribly and died long time ago. Before she died, she had left him here on this very street.
He has no choice but keep walking along the same ghoulish path the old woman had walked and showed him. He could find no other way; nobody is there to show him.
His ghastly life knows no happiness, no comforts.
A few—very few—sweet memories are still lingering.
What kind of memories are they? How great are they? Or, how poor are they?
One afternoon, a kind old woman saw him. Her face was white; she wore a dot as big as a rupee coin, a hairdo as big as a water-jug, and a charming smile. She called him to come closer, was kind to him, gave him her blessings and sent him out into the world. Her blessings had not materialized, so what? Isn’t blessing with a kind heart in itself worth something. One day he found a missing child and brought him to his mother, and the mother gave him a brand new dhoti. One night a foreign soldier got drunk and threw away a five-rupee note. On another night, he shared some of his food with a woman and in turn, that woman let him lay his hand on her. One day, a mad dog jumped on him to bite, and somebody came and drove it away. One evening, a policeman let him go without thrashing him.
In addition to these memories that flash across in his mind, there are a few others:
A charming little girl who wore anklets and bopped around under a tree in a village one afternoon, a caring woman, with the charm of soft moonlight, who was sitting in a train and feeding her baby, a jangilee fellow who sang the urmilamma nidra one night, a drifter who told him about the distinctive features of snowy mountains in the heat of smoking hukka …
It makes him happy him whenever he thinks of these people and these occasions also.
Rest of it is,
Hard, hard, hard survival.
It was okay while he was young and he was not ailing.
Now the age is telling on him. He has fallen ill. His hand is shaking when he holds the stick. He is feeling cold even when it is not winter. The heat is unbearable even when it is not summer. The feeling in his stomach is the same whether it is filled or not. Having an empty stomach is becoming normal.
It is raining everywhere. A thunderbolt struck somewhere far off. Lightning is striking again and again.
He, unmindful of them, just sat there brooding over the topic wouldn’t it be nice if I were dead.
Probably he dozed off a bit;
Maybe a piece of tile broke loose and falls off the roof;
Maybe because of that he wakes up. He rubs his eyes and looks around.
The dark sky, which was so dense one could touch it, and which showered pots of water the night before is shining jet black and lucid by the time he has woken up and looked. In the sky, a few gorgeous stars are flickering like scattered pearls every which way. The wind has carried away the clouds that had lashed out earlier. There is no breeze, it is quiet everywhere. A song is reaching out softly from somewhere. For that reason, the rest of it is even quieter. That entire night is cool and pleasing like the body of a woman who has taken bath, worn new clothes, and flowers and walked into a room without lighting.
While it is quiet everywhere and he is watching, light … light … light and more light from one thousand bulbs has permeated the place in one sweep!
Somebody laughed, feasting his ears.
Gods, gods, … some gods are laughing.
Because he is up just now, because he could not see the building in front of him; and is unaware of the house there, he is thinking that somebody has opened the doors to the sky, and that the gods in heaven are laughing. He is thinking that the song along with the bright light that swept him away is the music gandharvas [demigods] singing.
He is feeling goose bumps all over; he is enthralled.
Two hands came out through the lighting.
“The showers are gone completely. .. see how cool it is!”
“Cooler than you?”
Her hand and his hand have pulled back into the room.
She turns the other way. Before she finished turning, he pulls her back.
Who are they?
They’re not humans, not gods; no, they are not humans, they are gods!
He is longing to watch them like that forever.
He is unable to restrain himself from watching them.
* * *
On that particular day, while it had been raining, the darkness had been reigning, and while he had been wishing he were dead, he took a short nap. By the time he woke up, the rain stopped, the sky blossomed, and the gods opened the doors.
In that moment, it was genuinely heaven.
That is the reason that old worn out cane has been bringing him each night to that place.
By the time he arrives there, the window is open and the light is on.
Those two continue to be there and the radio keeps singing.
The vision he had got a year ago when he first came there that night—that they were gods and that it was heaven—has been recurring each day for a few seconds in that darkness.
For those few seconds, his heart floats in the air, reaches to the stars, and soaks in nectar. After thus soaked and buoyed up, and settled down leisurely, his heart gets carried away with the song
–into the gardens of multicolored flowers, into the radiance of the curves of white pigeon’s necks, into the shadows of soothing gardens flourishing along hillsides, into the dream castles afloat white clouds, into the paths of stars, from pearly floor designs to dream-filled paradise, and heavenly dreams—that is what that window is.
He would like to live for that reason—to come there and experience that unique feeling. From that night on, that is what making him to live—that desire, that feeling, that window.
It is not sky but an old building; it is not the gateway to the heaven but a window without bars. It is not the pinnacle of light from the city of the Lord Indra but an ordinary electric lamp in town. It is not the music of gandharvas from the radio. They are not divine souls but ordinary young couple—a man and a woman. That is not heaven at all. Just a small room with a coat of white paint.
Possibly that is true. That may be the truth. That in reality is the truth. But he is not concerned with that truth.
Indra’s mansion, heavenly gate, bejeweled pinnacle, diamond studded mirror, swan-feathered bed, deities’ perpetual lamp, the golden throne, ageless couple—that is the surreal, metaphysical reality.
For him –
That is the truth. Those are the reality. They are real.
That is the reason he has been taking great pains and coming here from far—to view that lie which is the truth for him.
He is not interested in finding out the truth behind that window, nor who the people behind that window are. If he knows, he might not have the same feeling he has been having everyday. He has no desire to let go of those feelings and those illusions.
—Maybe one year passed by, he thought peeking into the window.
She is sitting in the sofa. He is sitting on the arm of the sofa and laughing. The light bulb hanging from the wire is spreading beams of light. Radio is singing on. Everything continues to be pleasant. The heaven is heavenly. He is gazing as always.
He is feeling tired.
Today he is feeling tired, very tired.
One cannot attain divinity just by staring at the heaven; not even the weariness goes away. He is not going to be any less hungry.
Hard times do nothing but suck up the muscle and the youth of those who tow their lives arduously.
It has been getting hard even to walk through the lime powder lying around, past the hardened tar and the bumpy gravel road. In addition, maybe because he tried to hurry through those eighty feet on the dusty path, he is feeling even more tired.
The tired eyes keep staring at the celestial planet.
The dark clouds are gobbling up the stars which are rising from the tops of palm trees.
It is very cold.
He is very tired.
– That is it, I was wondering what is it? Today I am drained flat out.
He laid back still feeling tired.
–Why the heart is racing?
The heartbeat is fast, and he is feeling weak.
–Why it is so very cold today?
It was hot in the afternoon. It is getting cold by evening.
Now, it is not only very cold but very dark also. The sky is full of clouds and more clouds.
– Like the other day, maybe it will rain today too; it is freezing cold, even the rag is torn into bits! What to do now?
A slash runs through the sky from one end to the other, breaking it into two. Then it is gone. Resounding noise as if it is hurt big.
Cold wind is holding sway.
It seems even the heaven is hit by cold blast.
“Let us close the doors,” the goddess said.
“Yes,” the god said.
– Oh no, they closed the doors.
The curtain which was open is closed shut.
The gateway is closed.
– Why it is so dark God?
In the flood of darkness, the sweet dreams are drowned. They have disappeared into the hazy clouds that shrouded the place. Where is the spring that is supposed to stay forever, where has it gone? What happened to all the pearls, palanquins, dreams, heavens, all those which paraded in front of his eyes?
The woman in a wrinkled white saree, with a face like moon, stretches lazily, looks at the half-broken verandah and says to her man who is lying on the bed, “Poor old man, wonder who he might be. He’s lying there wound up in the cold. Come see, poor thing, probably he was shivering all night.”
“I am shivering too, come here,” he says from the bed.
“I won’t come,” she says, walking towards him nevertheless.
The tattered, dirty, crumpled and torn sheet is not covering well “the old man who is wound up and lying” in the verandah of the clay-tiled house.
He is looking like a rotten, moldy, wasted stick. He is like rotten garbage drenched in rain. The skin is emaciated, stretched and frayed. His hair is like a cobweb. His face is like a partly charred coconut shell. The left eye on the face is missing. His back is an arched bow. His left hand is chopped at the elbow. The foot on his right leg is missing. In its place, there is a bunch of old and heavily soiled rags are bound. Under his head, there are wet dirty clothes. Under his body, there is a small jute bag. Next to him are lying a couple of cheroot butts, an old stick, a grubby, tattered bag, and a rusty tin mug.
It is not clear what that bag is holding or not holding in it.
The sun is rising high. The sunbeams through the palm trees are dispersing over him a little.
But, for the sunlight, the sustainer of life in the world, to disperse over him in that moment is meaningless.
* * *
(Telugu original, kitiki was published in Bharati November 1953. Translated by Nidadavolu Malathi and published on thulika.net, October 2007)
 Proverb. Why hit an old woman lying in a corner.