By Prof. Nayani Krishnakumari.
Ants are small. They are very small compared to the mighty human beings. Yet the strength of human beings is useless compared to the strength of the ants. They would crunch our bodies into tiny bits ruthlessly and drag them into their abodes. There is that kind of brutality in the redness of those ants. The power of animosity is latent in their communal spirit, which could shatter the smugness of human beings. As long as one is in a state of deluge there is no stopping to their attacks.
Murali is 38-years old. He was watching the ants as they moved in a row methodically. He was struggling to keep his eyelids open to watch them. A thin veil spread in front of his eyes. Each ant turned into one thousand ants and looked like a huge expanse of the ocean. His body quivered at the thought that these ants could turn into waves and drown him. What if these ants surround him, maul his muscles into small bits and drag the pieces into their anthills. The fear made his palms turn cold like snow.
In front of him, a white bottle of cheap arrack, shining bright, was sitting on the table. The glow of the battle scared him. He heard loud sounds and felt warm fumes coming out of his ears. His heart could not accept the pleasure the body was enjoying the liquor. It was riveting. His heart was heavy as if grappling with meaningless matters. Why he had to continue to live in such a state of confusion was beyond his comprehension.
Murali exerted himself to keep his eyelids open and look at the ants. The table in front of him looked like two tables. Around the table, on the floor bits of omelet and green pepper scattered all over and made a mess. The red ants were trying to drag one of the omelet pieces. The ants besieged a piece of omelet and covered it completely, looking like a ball of pins. The piece, being dragged by the ants, was looking like a puppet in the hands of fate. Murali could not focus. His brain was filled with the thoughts of his past.
Murali has earned the reputation as a smart student during his college years. He was at the top of his class in all the subjects and extra-curricular activities. He was a happy young man, always laughing and making others laugh. At home, his brother’s children used to behave properly in his presence. His sister-n-law would say, “There is chinnaayana,” to keep the children in line. His older brother, Balaram, loved him very much and believed that Murali was born to save the family’s reputation.
Whenever Murali visited his brother’s place, he took the children to the shallow well outside the village and gave them swimming lessons. Or else, he would be busy changing light bulbs, fixing ceiling fans, broken radios and such things in the entire neighborhood. Or, he would get the children together and help them with their studies. When chinnaayana was around, even the hardest math problem was solved in a snap by the children. They feared him to a point; they would not ask his permission even they had to go to the bathroom.
Murali became tense. He wondered, “Am I the same Murali? I am living like a frog in a well. People and situations are attacking me like ants and I am giving in. They are mashing me into bits and pieces and dragging me into their holes. I must fight back. I must,” and he kept beating himself up. The entire world around him was rocking like a swing. It was laughing at him in a roar and swinging briskly.
Murali earned his degree in veterinary science and a job fell into lap right away. He started his life as a veterinary doctor in a religious town on the banks of a river, away from the city. That pious town which offered solace for millions of people directed him to seek a different way of life. Well, maybe not. Poor thing. What did the town do? Not even the god could help him. The God was there lying motionless for centuries. He did nothing. But the people who pushed Murali around were different. Compared to himself, they were mean, like these ants. Murali’s body quivered in a state of stupor. The neon bulb above, which was spilling baby smiles until now, started turning gray.
A series of episodes went through his mind like in a movie.
Through the folds of that dim light, Nilayya, tall and dark, burst into a big laughter. His teeth were white but underneath that whiteness, Murali could clearly see the shades of his crookedness.
Murali said, addressing the thin air in front of him, “You, Nilayya, you brought me to this condition. You are small like these ants. Yet, when ants like you team up, even the strongest serpent has to surrender. I surrendered to you, I mean it. I threw myself at the feet of these tiny ants.”
Sangayya stood in front of Murali, “Am I not here, sir? You remembered Nilayya. What about me?” Sangayya also was laughing. He was laughing displaying his red-stained teeth. His eyes, filled with red streaks, looked frightening like a cluster of red ants. Arrack dishes and other things were hovering around him. Murali was shivering. He was filled with repulsion and panic; he could barely hold himself straight. He felt like he would fall down, if he tried to stand up. “I am being attacked by all these mean people. They are chewing me up. I must shake them off. How? How?”
Sangayya is the arrack shop owner in that town, and the sixth sense for Nilayya. It is customary in that town to auction the arrack shop each year. He, who bids the highest will have control over the shop for one year and take care of the business. Sangayya always bids the highest. He is of heavy build, dark-skinned, and has thick lips and thick eyebrows. He looked scary. If he were cast in the role of an ancient Dravidian king, he would certainly steal the audience. The arrack shop has stone slabs and a high-raised cement bench. When he sat on the cement bench and carried on his arrack business, selling huge pots of arrack, he would look like a king short of wearing a crown.
Sangayya, in addition to arrack business, also had a herd of cows. Since milk and arrack are equally welcome in our country, Sangayya fared well in both the businesses. Anytime one of his cows was afflicted with some disease or other, Murali was the Lord Krishna Himself as far as Sangayya was concerned. Murali has that magic touch in his hand. Whenever somebody brought a sick animal to him, he would not stop debating whether the owner was rich or poor. His only concern was the welfare of the animal. If one could read the animal language, one could read in their eyes, “Murali is my mother, my birth mother,” no doubt in that.
In Murali’s mind, Sangayya was ready to break down as he said, “For that very reason, you are like a god to me. I listened to Nilayya and believed that drinking was good for your health. I was the reason you’ve taken to drinking. I ruined you completely.”
“Well. How can I blame you? You did not tell me to get addicted to the arrack bottle. I got myself into this mess. No, Sangayya, actually, Nilayya joined hands with that Sher Khan and dragged me into this muck.” Murali’s body was losing control but the mind was still sharp. The thoughts of past were hovering in his head, all mixed up and baffling, with no sign of taking any logical form.
Normally, the veterinary doctor has an additional responsibility, besides treating the animals. That is about the animals brought to the slaughterhouse. The veterinary doctor needs to certify which one could be slaughtered and which one is not. Without Murali’s stamp of approval, the animals were not eligible for human consumption. It is in that context, Sher Khan entered into Muali’s life. The animal nature that is part of his name is also evident in his lifestyle. As far as he is concerned the entire world is a huge slaughterhouse. In that world the people whom he did not like are the animals. And the people whom he liked are the clever persons who would turn the first category people into pieces of meat and make money for themselves.
Khan understood money very well. Money is like the blood that a tiger relishes when she bites into the neck of a goat. Money is the thing that furnishes the several amenities, warmly, solidly, and strongly until one got sick of it. The humans would do anything to obtain that sick feeling. In order to accomplish his goal, he viewed the world as a goat on the butcher block, waiting to be chopped by his butcher knife. But his tiger nature did not touch Murali.
One day Sher Khan brought some animals. Murali examined them and said, “Who handed them down to you? These animals are not good for humans.”
“What can we do, babu? Nowadays even we humans don’t have enough to eat. No surprise the animals got sick, what else would you expect of them? You go ahead and approve them. I will make sure you will get something out of it.”
Murali was ticked off. He could not make out whether Sher Khan was preaching him or telling him. “What do you mean? What are you thinking? Am I working for the government or you? I am the one to decide whether the animal is fit for butchering or not. You can butcher and sell only after I say so.”
Sher Khan was stunned for a split second. So, now, after all these years this person was man enough to challenge him! His ego started out in his heart and jumped to his throat but Sher Khan stifled it right there. He begged Murali with a very sad expression on his face and both palms clasped. But Murali was stubborn. He was the kind of a man that would keep arguing even when he knew he was wrong. There is no saying what to expect of him, when he was not in the wrong. As a result, the lifespan of the animals that came to the slaughterhouse was extended for the day. That is when the consolidated strength of the ants came into play.
Did you ever watch the ants move methodically in rows and in a straight line? One ant first comes from the opposite direction and taps on the noses of the rest, one after another, in the row and thereby passing on the word. That’s it. All the ants together put the command into action. They all, together, attack the bug, overtake him and carry them to their anthill. The first one that brought the news would not join this crowd. She assumes leadership and keeps the rest of the ants in line. That is how Sher Khan acts precisely.
Nilayya and Sher Khan are good friends. Nilayya cannot go against Sher Khan’s will and survive. Nobody can survive for that matter. Nilayya is worldly-wise; he shows great humility and gets his job done. At the same time, he could be overly cruel when it comes to dealing with his inferiors. The knife in his hand is double-edged. Nilayya works for Murali. Despite his job as a lab assistant, he was also running errands for Murali. It is with that kind of service, Nilayya earned an enormous amount of trust from Murali.
The equality and social justice that the politicians lecture about are flowing in Murali blood. He would walk around on the streets with his arm around Nilayya’s shoulder openly. His trust in Nilayya took him a little too far. The clinic was filled with expensive medicines and medical equipment. It was Murali’s responsibility to check the stock and sign off the register, indicating the usage each day. Yet, if Nilayya brought the stock register, Murali would sign without looking at the numbers. Sometimes he would even leave the keys with Nilayya.
The bottles in front of Murali are empty. Numerous colors were floating in his head like the fireflies and worrying him. He kept beating his head and talking to himself, “Nilayya, I must give it you. You are really something. You ruined my record. He presented me to the public as a criminal. You said it feels good and got me into this drinking habit. You tried even to implicate me in the murder of Reddy. Poor Reddy!”
Nobody can understand the atrocities of Nilayya unless they knew Reddy’s story. In that village, the hospital and the panchayat office were housed in the same building. The two offices shared the same entrance. Reddy was surpanch of that village. We cannot say he was like Rama simply because the first part of his name is Rama in Ramachandra Reddy. Rama of the puranas was expert politician; when his stepmother told him to go to the woods, he followed her command and took his wife and younger brother along with him. This Reddy on the other hand is very well-versed in local politics. He has mastered the skills, like the moves in the game of chess, necessary to keep his chair forever. For the same reason many people in the village hated him. He also acquired some vengeful enemies who were knowingly or unknowingly wanted his guts. One day somebody murdered Reddy while he was in his office. The instrument that was used for that purpose was the scalpel from the veterinary hospital.
“Hey, Nilayya! Reddy would care for nothing except his chair. Whatever did he do to you? You, rascal, how did the murderer get our scalpel? The scalpel is intended to cut the thick skin of the animals. Human skin is no problem for it at all, right? Who is responsible for all this?” Murali was shaking like a man possessed. He was losing control of himself. The liquor and the thoughts of his past were buzzing through his head and baffling him. “When the Block Development Officer came for inspection you played a game I could not believe. Was I really responsible for all the lost medicines and the equipment? You got me into this habit of drinking, forced me to borrow money, and stole my salary from my pocket while I was under the influence of alcohol. You, you provoked him [Sher Khan] by telling that I was responsible for his buffalo’s death. You told him that I was drunk and gave the wrong medication to the buffalo, how could you? The buffalos are dumb animals and I treat them like my own life.”
Murali was choking and gasping for breath and shedding tears. He could barely hold himself. He tried to get up from the chair and stand straight. His knee hit the table in front him. In an attempt to stop himself from falling, he put his right foot to a side. In the process his foot stepped on the crowd of ants that were dragging the omelet piece. So many tiny lives were crushed softly under his foot! Suddenly he felt something—a sense of fear or goose bumps—shot down his spine like a lightning. Murali’s brain shook off the numbness in a split second like a dozing traveler jolted when a bus came to a screeching halt. Murali came to his senses.
Murali lifted his foot and saw the ants flattened into a cardboard. He yelled, “Ho, Sher Khan, Nilayya, Sangayya, you are all ants. Look at them. Take a good look at them. They are all crushed under my foot and turned into chutney.” He burst into a big laugh. The entire house exploded with his laughter.
(The Telugu original Cheemalu has been published in the anthology, “Katha mandaram” compiled by Avula Jayapradadevi. Hyderabad: Andhra Pradesh Sahitya Academy, 1979.
Translated by Nidadavolu Malathi, and originally published on thulika.net, September 2003)
 First part of his name, Sher, means lion.
 Village administrative branch.
 Village administrator
 In villages, some wells will have steps so people walk down to reach the water and big enough to swim.
 According to legend, Lord Krishna was born in the family of cowherds and was considered the protector of cows.
 This is an unusual practice for people from different social strata.
 An episode in the epic, ramayanam.