Appalakonda stood there watching the tall cotton tree[i] and a small cloud that was hanging over it from the blue sky. He has a bond with the tree for the past thirty years. Markandeyulu has been telling him to cut it down for the past one week. His bond with Markandeyulu is much older than his bond with the tree.
Markandeyulu’s father built that house some forty years ago and told Appalakonda’s father to put up a hut on the premises and move in. Appalakondawas about ten-years old when they moved into that hut. Markandeyulu was also of the same age. They both grew up together and played together. They have developed a bond in the process. Appalakondawas not happy about cutting down that tree.
This is how it started. Markandeyulu’s neighbor, Rayudu and a few others told Markandeyulu that it was ominous to have a cotton tree in the yard. Then on he was determined to tear it down. Appalakondatried to dissuade Markandeyulu one more time. He was brooding over in his mind, “I am also worried about Markandeyulu babu[ii] facing hard times. But linking our woes to the tree? I can’t believe he would do that! … In fact, Markandeyulu babu did not believe it either at first. Five years back he suffered a mild heart attack. Then on, he started believing anything and everything anybody has ever said to him. Poor man! I must talk to him one more time.” Markandeyulu walked in with an axe and ropes as he asked Appanna, “Have you had tiffin?[iii]”
“Yes,” said Appanna.
“Well then. As soon as Simhadri joins us we can start the work,” Markandeyulu said and called out for Simhadri! Simhadri, Appalakonda’s son, came out of the hut. Behind him came out his mother, his younger sister wearing a skirt and a blouse, and his younger brother wearing half-pants. Appalakondathought that he was running out of time, cleared his throat and spoke one more time in an attempt to stop Markandeyulu babu. He said, “Markandeyulu babu! Please, don’t be mad at me for saying this again. This tree is here for so many years. Tell me, has any bad luck ever happened to us in all these years? Do we have to knock it down simply because something bad happened now? Isn’t it true that it is from the cotton of this tree that we’ve got pillows and mattresses made for you and the entire family? If anything, we’ve only benefited from this tree and not the other way round. That’s the truth. Isn’t it?”
“Of course you will tell any number of times. This tree is a blessing for you. Each time we have new mattresses made for us, you will take the old ones. Why do you think so many people are saying that the cotton tree on the premises brings bad luck to the owner? What is in it for them?”
“Who knows what their reasons are? Let’s talk about it. We all are going nuts about our village growing big. People from other townships are rushing in here. And they are bringing in so many new things we haven’t even heard of ever before. They are telling us things also we have never heard before like banana plant is not good for everybody, cotton tree brings bad luck, coconut causes acidity, and this and that … During our childhood we had only salt water to drink, not even pure water, only alli fruit to eat but not fancy fruits, and we had only the curry leaves but not the lavish coriander leaves. We had only the wild flowers on the wayside but not the roses in our garden. Now we moved the wild flowers into the burial ground. The classy folks came to our village and taught us all these gewgaw things in life. They are buying us off and we are running away from our own place. Babu, it is good for them and bad for us! That is all it comes down to!”
“Appanna! I told you to fell the tree and you are lecturing me in stead of getting to work. I think you should go and join some political party. If you are lucky, you might even become a minister.[iv] Let us forget other arguments. If this variety of cotton gets into your eye, you will lose your sight, you know that. Will you accept that at least? That argument is good enough for me to knock it down. What do you say?” Markandeyulu tried to get to him from a different angle.
“I haven’t seen yet one person who went to the clinic claiming that he lost his sight because of a fleck of this cotton in his eye. But I have seen any number people on the T. V. in our house—the people who lost their sight in Bhopal[v] and Bhagalpur. Markandeyulu babu, do you remember? In the old days our childern used to run after the specks of cotton that flew around from the cotton seeds, like little flies. Wasn’t that fun? Now we are eaten up greed and running after money like idiots,” Appalakonda went on imploring him.
“This is my house. I have decided to cut down the tree. You do it and the wood is yours. If not, there are plenty of others who would even pay for it and do the same,” Markandeyulu said.
“Babu! All this time I was thinking this was ‘our’[vi] house and ‘our’ tree! You grew up in that stone house and I grew up in this mud hut. Yet we grew up together. I was talking out of that friendship. Please, don’t get me wrong.” He turned to his son and said, “You! Why are standing there like a pole. Get the rope and the axe.”
Simhadri picked up the rope and climbed up. The Sun was rising on the east.
“The tree should fall to this side. Tie the rope to the branch on this side. Look! That branch is not strong. Tie it to the bigger one.” Appalakondakept giving instructions standing on the ground. Simhadri tied the rope tight to one of the branches, let down the rest of the rope and then he came down too.
Appalakonda cut a three-inch hollow on the trunk toward the side it was expected to fall. He finished on one side, went around and started chopping on the other side. After putting enough dent on that side, he handed the axe to Simhadri, came back to the front and held the rope tight. Then he told Simhadri to let the rope go at the other end. Simhadri hit it a few more times and the tree came down making a big noise. The tree started falling slowly at first and then faster while falling toward Appalakonda. He left the rope and tried to duck the branches from falling on him. But his ankle got caught in the jumbled rope on the ground. He fell down. Simhadri was on the other side of the tree and so was not in a position to pull his father out. Markandeyulu was on this side but not near enough to pull him out. “Dad, move,” Simhadri shouted. “Move, quick,” Markandeyulu shouted. But for the shouting, there was nothing either of them could do.
With their screams however Appalakonda came to his senses, gathered all his strength and tried to move out of the range of the tree. In a split second the tree was pulled into a different direction by the weight of some of the branches. Although that was not the plan but the tree fell on Appalakonda’s hut and caused no major damage. The incident in fact helped to stop the tree from falling at once. The delay was only for a few seconds. By that time, a few other branches fell on Appalakonda and wounded him. Blood gushed forth from the wounds.
Appalakonda’s wife and a few children were standing there watching the tree falling. As soon as the wife saw the branches fall on her husband and the blood splattering all over him, she started crying, “Oohh, my God! Ooohh!” On hearing her cries several others gathered on the scene. They all helped Markandeyulu and Simhadri to lift the tree and pull Appalakonda from under the branches. A young doctor living in the neighborhood came, looked at the wounds, and said the wounds were severe and advised them to take him to the hospital. The young doctor administered first aid and sent for an ambulance. The ambulance took Appalakonda to the emergency room. Markandeyulu promised to take care of all the expenses.
Markandeyulu kept brooding, “I should not have asked him to chop the tree. What could have happened if the tree were not cut down? I don’t know whether my life was in danger or not but cutting it down certainly turned perilous for him. I can never know if I would have died or not but now he is in a critical condition. If he dies I must be held accountable.”
Across from Markandeyulu, Appalakonda’s wife and son were sitting, looking desperate. Up until now they believed that they would be happy always and nothing bad ever could happen to them because of him [Markandeyulu]. For his part, he never treated them as outsiders. He did not think, not even in his dream, that such a disaster could happen. All he wanted was only to remove the tree. For some reason he sincerely believed that he could escape from death. Guilt kept chewing him up. He felt responsible for the tragedy that has happened earlier that day. Then he tried to convince himself that although he was responsible it was not intentional and it was good he was trying to make amends. He began to believe that Appalakonda would recuperate soon and would not blame him [Markandeyulu] for the accident.
Until five years back, Markandeyulu did not think about his death. He was never afraid of death. He started thinking about it when a part of his heart failed to receive oxygen and resulted in a heart attack. The thought ‘what could happen if he were to die suddenly’ was scary. Things like his son’s education, daughter’s marriage and the future of his wife and the children frightened him. But he has received treatment on time and was saved. To save his life, his wife got a new mangalyam[vii] made and wore it after offering it to the Lord Venkateswara as is custom. His mother performed two rituals—Mrutyunjaya japam [ritual enabling one to triumph over death] and Rudrabhishekam [praying the Lord Siva for protection from death]. All these rituals gave him the strength to fight the impending death and he succeeded. People kept telling him over and again that he was alive only because of those rituals. Eventually he also came to believe that it was true. For that reason he decided to remove any other obstacles that might cause his death. He had his chart drawn. He started performing all kinds of rituals to prolong his life, became very generous and tried his best to keep the zodiac signs in his favor. He performed his daughter’s wedding within one year of his mother’s death in accordance with a belief[viii] among Hindus. He also made his son-in-law promise that he would name his child “Amarnath” if it were a boy and “Amrutha”[ix] if it were a girl. Last year his daughter’s father-in-law died. Somebody told him that Markandeyulu and his wife should not visit the survivors. They stated it inarguably as if it were noted in the sixth ordinance on the fifth page of the scriptures. So Markandeyulu did not go to visit them.
Somebody said having banana plants in the backyard was bad for the owner. Immediately he had the forty-year old banana plantation removed from his backyard. He also told his wife that she should not wear any sari that has a black thread. A few people told him that the cotton tree on the premises is not good. Markandeyulu believed them since he could not see any signs of vested interest in their argument.
Appalakonda tried to present a counter-argument. “We don’t know what their reasons are. May be yes, may be no. They say something and you’d follow it to the tee. Think! When would you do that, I mean believing others? When you are scared. That means they scared you and thus took control over your better judgment. We don’t know whether they are selfish or not, don’t know why they are scaring you and manipulating you,” he said. But his opinion did not prevail. Markandeyulu’s fear of death prevailed.
The tree was torn down. Appalakonda fell under the tree and was bleeding. Markandeyulu thought he should not have got the tree torn down, that only after seeing the blood oozing from Appalakonda’s body.
Appalakonda received treatment in the emergency ward and then was moved into the next room for blood transfusion. Since Markandeyulu offered to pay for all the expenses there was no holding back on medical treatment. Markandeyulu told Simhadri to go to a hotel and eat and also bring some food for his mother. He waited until Simhadri returned with food and then left for home. By the time he got home, his wife was feeding the rest of the children of Appalakonda. He told them the good news—Appalakonda was recovering well, he has the doctors’ assurance. Then he went in, took a bath and fell asleep, reminiscing the day’s events.
In the evening, his neighbor, Rayudu, came to visit with Markandeyulu. Rayudu came to the village sometime back in regard to some business, made good, bought the house across from Markandeyulu’s and settled down there. “I heard that there was an accident this morning here,” Rayudu said.
Markandeyulu explained to him the entire story. He took Rayudu to the place where the accident occurred and showed it to him. Rayudu’s eye fell on Appalakonda’s hut. He said, “What is this? You have a hut raised here shutting out this corner?” His tone indicated that a horrific act has been committed.
Markandeyulu explained, “Our Appalakonda and his family live in this hut. Long time back, my father had the hut built at the same time our house was built and let Appalakonda’s father live there. Do you know how life was in this area forty years back? There were hardly any houses in this neighborhood but for a few and far in between. Ours was one of those few. Now this area has become the central part and the land is selling at the rate of fifteen hundred rupees per yard. When my father bought this land this side of the village was not developed. He bought at the rate of three rupees per yard. In those days only one or two buses were running on the main street. There were no buses at all on this side. Our mode of transportation was only cycle-rickshaw. Appalakonda’s father had a cycle-rickshaw. My father let him live in this hut on the condition he would let us use his rickshaw whenever we needed. Appalakonda’s mother used to work for us—washing dishes, washing clothes, drawing water from the well and other odd jobs. I used to go to the school in their rickshaw. They were grateful to us since we let them build their hut on our land and they were totally trustworthy. My father or mother would give him [Appalakonda’s father] a list of things we needed and he would go to the city and bring them all. In those days people cherished trust as a value.” Markandeyulu was reminiscing the past constantly from the moment Appalakonda was injured in the accident. That is why he went into a long speech in response to Rayudu’s simple question. Then he added, “At the time it became necessary to have the hut in one of the corners—this or that corner. That meant a saving on the compound wall on the two sides. They decided to have it there.”
Rayudu said, “You misunderstood me. Who am I to question why you’ve agreed to let them put up the hut in your yard? My question was why did you have the hut in that corner? The hut there closes the northeast corner. Vaastu sastram [Science of Architecture] will not permit that. Didn’t anybody tell you about this?” Rayudu expressed his surprise.
“No, nobody told me. What happens if northeast corner is closed?” Markandeyulu asked, shaking slightly.
“Hasn’t that happened yet? Somebody in your house must have thrown up a huge splatter of blood and died instantly, according to the vaastu sastram.”
“No such thing has happened,” Markandeyulu replied and after a few seconds added, “I am sure
Appalakonda will live.” In that one line several thoughts were implied—that he considered Appalakonda as a family member, that Appalakonda was hanging in there between life and death and bleeding, also an expression of the fear that the accident could be one consequence of the shutting out of the northeast corner, and a sincere wish that Appalakonda would make it and come back to life.
“Here is what I am saying. The accident that should have occurred to one of your family members touched one of your servants in some strange way and went away for the present. Remove that hut,” Rayudu said.
“That hut is there for the past forty years!”
“So was the cotton tree. Why did you knock it down? That is because you had a heart attack and had the evidence to believe so. You did not know about it until after five years and only after somebody told you. You got the tree removed as soon as you’ve understood the consequences, right? Same way, you let the hut sit there until now because you did not know about the vaastu. Now an accident occurred. I came and told you. After knowing what you know, should you still let the hut sit there? Demolish it.”
Markandeyulu did not have the heart to remove the hut and move it to another place. But then he was worried that if Appalakonda’s wife learns about it, she might feel that her husband sustained injuries because their hut was in the northeast corner. Appalakonda would not think of it. He would even talk her out of it, if she suggests such a thing. No matter what, Markandeyulu and his father could not be held responsible for the accident. After all, it was Appalakonda’s father’s idea to put up the hut there. Markandeyulu thus found a satisfactory explanation and felt relieved.
“Do you really think that vaastu is that powerful?” he asked Rayudu.
“I will give you another example. Take the house number of Dr. Sarma who lives round the corner of our street. It is 13. That is not a lucky number. I told him so many times but he would not listen.”
“We follow lunar calendar and believe that 13, thrayodasi [the 13th day from the new moon] is auspicious. 13 is an unlucky number for Christians.”
“What is good may not be good for everybody but a bad thing is bad for all. One of our relatives bought a flat[x] in Hyderabad. The number was 13. I told him the same thing and he got it changed to 12A. That is why he did not have any accident. He is sturdy as a building block.”
“It could be the same even if he had not changed the number,” Markandeyulu said with a smile. He is scared that bad things could happen to him. His brain however turns to logic occasionally.
“No, it could not be the same. Remember what I said earlier about Dr. Sarma? He did not listen to me however much I tried. Know what happened? He is a doctor and yet is suffering from cancer for the past two years. The same thing would have happened to my relative too if he had not changed the number,” Rayudu said, walking toward the street.
“I have a question. We have the cotton tree in our yard for more than thirty years. This hut is here on the northeast corner for more than forty years. Why all these accidents are happening after so many years?” Markandeyulu stood near the gate and asked.
Rayudu was on his way out. He stopped and asked another question in response, “How did you get the heart attack?”
“Due to high cholesterol level.”
“Why was your cholesterol level high?”
“Since I was a little child I have been eating fatty foods like butter, cream, clarified butter and fried vegetables.”
“So all the fat you have been consuming since your childhood showed up now, right?”
“That means for any bad thing to show its effect takes time. It keeps accumulating gradually and when it reaches the hazardous level blows up all of a sudden. It is the same thing with drinking alcohol and smoking cigarettes. If you take proper care on time you will avoid the disaster. You will have to stop the bad habit and take the necessary medications to offset the bad effect. In regard to the influences of the zodiac signs, we will perform rituals and pujas [ritualistic prayers]. In regard to vaastu, we will have to remove the items that are contradictory to its principles. We should also perform the rituals necessary to remove whatever has been accumulated so far in terms of evil effects. Because of your goodwill some of the negative effects of vaastu are canceled. That is the reason you have not sustained any injuries until now. By the way, I have also undertaken building contracts recently. If you need to remodel your house in accordance with vaastu I can take care of it,” Rayudu said. He also tried to convince Markandeyulu that all his undertakings were perfectly legal.
Markandeyulu was convinced that Rayudu has a point. In the evening he was on his way to visit Appalakonda in the hospital. Round the corner he saw Sarma sitting on the porch leisurely. After Sarma was diagnosed with cancer his patients stopped pestering him at home. Markandeyulu respects Sarma for his professional ethics. When Markandeyulu’s mother was suffering from an eye problem, Sarma came to his home and treated her. Markandeyulu offered money but Sarma refused.
“I came here as your neighbor. It is true I treated your mother as a doctor. Even if you had brought her to the clinic, there also I would have been the one to treat her. I would not accept a fee there either, right? My work at the clinic is reduced since I finished it here. How can I charge you under the circumstances?” he said, smiling.
That caring doctor is now suffering from a horrible disease. Markandeyulu wanted to tell him the one secret that could cure the doctor. He pushed the gate open and walked in.
“Come in, Mr. Markandeyulu. Please, come in,” Sarma invited him heartily. They chatted for a while.
“How are you feeling now?” Markandeyulu asked Sarma.
“Well, you know I have cancer, bone cancer to be specific. The bones become hollow and crumble into pieces. It can happen anytime, today … tomorrow …”
“Don’t say such ominous words. The ruling gods of the house would say thathaastu [So be it!]” Markandeyulu said.
Sarma was in no mood to get into an argument. He changed the subject.
“How about changing your house number to 12A. 13 is said to be a bad number,” said Markandeyulu.
“If I change the number to 12A, do you think, the attendants of Yama [Lord of Death] would come here with a slip the number 13 scribbled on it, and go back saying the addressee was not found or the door was locked. Do you think that is how they report it to the Lord of Death? Are we dealing with our postal department? Let’s forget it for a second. The truth is the number 13 is bad for Christians. For us Hindus it is thrayodasi the 13th day from the new moon day and is auspicious. Let’s not worry about it,” said Sarma. He believes that everyone is entitled to his or her opinion, no need to argue about it. But Markandeyulu is dangling between belief and non-belief.
“Are you saying you will not even try to change?” Markandeyulu asked again.
“We have this number for over ten years now. We never had any disaster happen to us. Even if some peril befalls me, there cannot be any connection between the two,” Sarma said. His words are very much similar to what Markandeyulu has said to Rayudu earlier. Then Markandeyulu repeated Rayudu’s line of reasoning in regard to the accumulation of the evil effects over time.
“Drawing analogies is different from showing evidence. Comparisons are beautiful to present and helpful in improving our perception. But they cannot verify your point. An intelligent man can argue on either side of an issue just like our lawyers. Correlations are different from the cause-and-effect relationship. You will find plenty of spurious correlations through out the entire literature of science. In fact that in itself is a huge science.”
Markandeyulu did not continue the discussion. He sat for a while, advised Sarma to take care of his health and left.
The next day Markandeyulu heard that Sarma collapsed and was admitted into the hospital. The same day he was also told that Appalakonda has recovered and would be released in a few days. Markandeyulu felt relief on the day Appalakonda returned home. He expressed his gratitude to the God for saving Appalakonda from dying while working on his assignment. He also decided to perform Satyanarayana puja [worship] and light lamps for Lord Venkateswara to express his gratitude.
The following day Rayudu came and told him that Dr. Sarma died. Sarma was kind to Rayudu on several occasions in the past. Rayudu however was upset since Sarma did not listen to him and died as a result. That was the message in his tone.
Markandeyulu put on shoes and went to Sarma’s house. By then there was already a large crowd of people who held the doctor in high esteem.
“Have they brought the body home?” Markandeyulu asked. He considers visiting the dead body was a way of showing his respect for the dead person.
“It is still in the hospital,” somebody told him.
“Why? Are they expecting some relatives?”
A young doctor intervened and explained, “Professor Sarma stated in his will that he would not want any death rituals performed in his name. He said that his body should be used in a manner that serves a purpose for others. He also suggested to use it in cancer research since his body was afflicted with cancer.” The young doctor was very respectful towards his professor.
“His son will not perform the death ritual for him?”
“No, there will be no ritual. Sarma also made his family promise that they will not cry for him, perform no ritual and they will all go about their lives as usual.”
“Oh! What about his atman then?” Markandeyulu was still grappling with his qualms.
The man who sells tea to Sarma’s patients and rickshaw drivers replied, “Babu! We talk about the atman only in regard to the dead persons. There is no death for Sarma babu. He lives in our hearts as long as we live.” It was obvious he respects doctor Sarma deeply.
Markandeyulu felt a sudden wave of revelation in his head. Human beings should stop worrying how they live in this world. They should think about the way they live in the hearts of the others eternally. It is futile to trust the words of Rayudu and others who talk about escaping death. There may be some truth in their words. What is important is how one lives in spirit, in the hearts of the others. It is futile to try to run away from death.
In that moment, Markandeyulu has all his doubts dispelled regarding the northeast corner, the gods and the temples as well.
(In memory of Dr. Chavali Mangayya Sarma, the man who lives forever.)
(Telugu original, “Mrutyunjayudu” was published in Andhra Jyoti deepavali issue, 1990, and included in the anthology, “KAVANA Sarma kathalu,” published by R. K. Publications, Visakhapatnam, 1995)
 The supreme soul.
[i] A particular variety of cotton tree that grows tall and the cotton is silky.
[ii] A term of respect used as a suffix to a male name or used as a term in itself.
[iii] Tiffin could mean breakfast or afternoon snack.
[iv] A position in the government, similar to congressman in the US.
[v] The Nuclear Plant disaster in the 70’s.
[vi] In Telugu culture, material possessions are referred to with an all inclusive preposition ‘our’ in place of ‘my.’ E.g. our house, our children, and do not necessarily imply legal obligation.
[vii] A piece of jewelry, like a locket in appearance, is worn by married women as a symbol of their marital status. In the current context, the wife’s gesture of offering it to the god and wearing it signifies a way of praying for his life.
[viii] ‘Giving a woman in marriage,’ kanyaadaanam, is one of the ten charitable acts that helps a soul to go to the heaven, according to Hindu religion.
[ix] The two names mean deathless.
[x] An apartment in a building.