“Is that Gopalam? Why are you walking away as if you’ve not seen me?” Rama Sastry called out.
Gopalam was startled. He was lost in his thoughts; did not pay attention to whereabouts. He turned around and saw a vague outline, short, stout, and rounded as if three balls were stacked up. The man who addressed him was of fair complexion and wore no shirt. He wrapped a green silk shawl around his shoulders, 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 felt like laughing but did not.
“You’re looking at me as if I am a stranger. What’s new? How is father?”
“Oh, no, no. I got distracted; thinking of something. Yes, father is fine. He talks about you sometimes.”
“I’d like to see him. I’ve been so busy lately, no time at all.”
“Of course, I understand. I’m sure you’ve heard about our conditions at home after father’s retirement,” Gopalam thought.
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. He made good money and earned some clout in social circles. All his children recieved good education and landed good jobs.
“How is father’s health? Are you done with your schooling?” The concern in his voice sounded unnatural.
“Father’s health is not good. I finished B.A. in first rank. I’ve been trying to get a job for the past six months. That is one more worry for father,” Gopalam said sadly.
“What’s the point in worrying? Father knows that is the way life is; Why worry about such small matters?” Sastry’s face glimmered with his philosophy.
Gopalam was irritated. He wanted to tell Sastry to recall the life he had had when he first came to this town. At the time, Gopalam was just twelve. He could still visualize the day Sastry had been sitting there, looking desperate. Gopalam’s father had cheered him up.
“Wouldn’t there be problems for people who are 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, smiling, asked him.
Sastry was baffled. He took out the gold-plated snuff box from his waistband and sniggrf a pinch. “Where’re you going?” he changed the subject.
“From zero to infinity,” 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 the rest of the snuff in his palm. He wiped his nose and hand on his shawl.
“And you? From where to where?”
“Me? I’m coming from the collector’s house. He got a son, the savior of his lineage, after four daughters. I drew up his birth chart. He is an extraordinarily fortunate boy. That is the chart, that’s the way one’s 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 did not want to let go of Sastry that easy. He set out without thinking where he would go to; just wanted 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 …” Before he finished the sentence, Sastry cut him and said,
“Oh, no, How could you say that! Are you questioning the chart I’d drawn?” Sastry’s voice was sharp.
“Maybe you’ve forgotten but you said the same thing about me to my father. You’d drawn an extraordinary chart for me, too. You’d written that I would attain a high status,” Gopalam said, staring into Sastry’s face.
“Yes, I said. Are you suffering hardships now? How much you’ve seen in your life that you should question my chart? Just watch. You will soon enough the Lady Luck comes to embrace you,” Sastry chided Gopalam.
“Lady Ill-Luck embraced me long since,” 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 as you predicted.”
“Yes,” Sastry replied in calm and steady voice.
“What if the boy dies in a day or two?”
“No way that can happen. No matter how many dangers he encounters, 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 far away and not listening to Gopalam as 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 am down with fever and am destined to die, even a million attempts to remedy me 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 inexplicable Lord?”
“But you took your sick son to Dr. Nair a few years back, why? I heard that you were down on your knees and begged him to save your son. You claim to know everything, yet groveled in front of another human, begged him to save your son’s life, why?”
Sastry was stuck like a rat in a cage.
“udyoginam purushasimham upaiti Lakshmi. Boy, we must do the best we can.”
Gopalam broke into a big laugh. Sastry stopped walking.
“Keep walking. We can talk while walking,” Gopalam said, smiling.
Sastry thought, “There is nothing more stupid than debating 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 they are getting? Atheists are growing in number by the minute.”
“What’s it, Guruji? You are lost in a 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 in six months per her horoscope. You’re saying nobody could kill her in the meantime.”
“As the proverb goes, even an ant will not sting without an order from Lord Siva.”
“All right. I’ll kill her right now while you’re watching. What can you say for that?” Gopalam looked into Sastry’s face. He thought this would dries up Sastry’s mouth.
Sastry’s face was lit up with a mix of smile and solemnity. “If she is destined to die 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 us to act per our destiny.”
“Correct,” Sastry said zealously.
“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 continued to walk, looking around. He hastened his steps. Gopalam also hastened his pace. He said, “Sastry garu, I have a small doubt.”
“What?” Sastry growled.
“Man’s brain does not act independently but follows the lord’s command. If that is so, why does not God make all people do only good deeds?”
Sastry was upset. He was baffled for want of a good response. He asked, “Gopalam, Have you ever made the mistake of going to the temple?” He was disgusted.
Gopalam laughed a big laugh. “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. Do 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 ire 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 people go to have their wishes fulfilled, and a few others to have their hardships cleared. 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 did not; he pursed his lips tight. He was afraid of Sastry getting further annoyed. “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.
“The man who has sinned need not be afraid, nor he be afraid of god.”
Sastry stopped suddenly. He was surprised; he 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 the brain is not independent and that it acts as preordained. Whether the lord made the man perform good or bad deeds, man need not be afraid of 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 are doing now,” 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 will sit there for a few minutes,” Gopalam said. He was feeling down; this would be good pastime, he thought.
“What for? So you could kill me with your questions?”
Gopalam giggled to himself.
Suddenly, they came across a dead body on a stretcher. The carriers were chanting ‘Hare Rama, Hare Rama’. Some of them looked sad. The dead man’s son was walking ahead with a pot on his head.
“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 his soul be blessed with peace.”
Gopalam stood there watching Sastry. Several questions about life and death rose 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. He must have done many good deeds to die on this day!”
“Sastry garu, you’re so happy as if you that attained status yourself,” Gopalam blurted and regretted it in the next second.
Sastry eyeballed Gopalam. Gopalam turned away, as if he did not notice Sastry’s displeasure. “So, Guruji, you believe those who died today would go to the heaven straight.”
The question threw Sastry into a spell of ecstasy again. “Yes, Gopalam, today all the doors to the heaven are open. One can go straight to the feet of Lord Vishnu.” Sastry closed his eyes partly and was overwhelmed by 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 is dirty, we’ll remove it and wear a new one. The Atman discards the decayed body the same way.”
“But sometimes it also discards a child’s or youthful body, how come?”
Sastry was furious; he knotted his eyebrows. “That’s because of their actions in their 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 goes back,” he said.
“Some people die as soon as they are born; they enjoy nothing. And then there are others who are born dead.”
Sastry’s was getting angrier by the minute. He kept walking without a word.
“You’re angry with me, I think.”
“What for?” Sastry said.
“May I ask one question?”
“Will you leave it there if I say no? Ask.”
“What does Atman mean? Will it be affected by the little annoyances the body suffers? Will the Atman also suffer along with the body?” Gopalam asked him, with a show of humility.
Sastry’s face reddened with irritation. “Way to go,” he told himself, his face was 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 a sermon.
“Is the Atman in you the same as the one resident in me?”
“Exactly. In you, me, and 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 thrown on to 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 had always been like this even from his childhood. There had been one incident when Gopalam was eight-years old.
Sastry was telling Gopalam’s father about somebody’s death. Gopalam sat on the floor and was 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 the 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 had happened 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 and thought, “I couldn’t answer your question on that day; and certainly not today.” 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 is 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 we saw 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 is 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 face.
Drops of sweat were glistening on Sastry’s face, like pearls. His face turned crimson. He took the remaining snuff and snorted. Gopalam felt sorry for him. “He is senior, why bother him? He has his beliefs, why not leave him alone?” he thought. But the problem was such people would try to rub their beliefs on others and that’s what bothered him.
“Please, come to my house. Father is thinking about you,” Gopalam said, changing the subject.
“I’ll,” Sastry said, feeling relieved.
“Shall we go to the exhibition grounds? Today, a sixteen-year-old boy, doused in kerosene, will set himself 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 his humor.
“That’s true. For many people, watching others in danger is a pleasure,” he said.
Sastry could not understand Gopalam’s comment; he frowned.
Gopalam continued, “Guruji, why do people get excited about watching things like boxing, circus, and or somebody standing amid lions and tigers, and poking at them? Why people want to watch them?”
“What do you mean why? That’s fun and pastime. Why do you consider it as watching people in danger?” 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 was playing with dogs or cats? But they buy tickets and go to watch someone 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 human beings. In some, they are dormant. Man needs to satisfy his animal instincts.”
“I don’t know, Gopalam. I don’t understand your logic. Just tell me, are you going to the exhibition grounds or not?” Sastry asked.
Gopalam, by nature, was not interested in watching such shows. In his childhood, he could not watch the dommari girls tumbling on the top of long poles; he shut his eyes then. His friends called him a 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 than he had expected. He wondered why children should be brought to this kind of shows.
They both bought tickets and went in. People had 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 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 in khaki knickers. 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 both hands respectfully and greeted him. Sastry’s face opened up like a fresh blossom.
“Sir, come on, come here. I sent for you earlier this morning,” he said. His name was Yadagiri. He was very happy Sastry had come to his show.
“Yes, I’ve got your message. I could not meet you in the morning. That’s why I came now,” Said Sastry.
“You should not have bought the ticket. Had I known I’d have come to fetch you personally.”
“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 joined his hands in namasthe. Yadagiri escorted them 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 tent that was ten-feet away from the well.
“The reason I’ve sent for you is, I would like to perform the Satyanararayana puja at our new house the day after tomorrow,” Yadagiri said.
Yadagiri has been conducting the merry-go-rounds, lucky-dips, and other stunts, at village fairs and other places. He had entertained people in several ways and earned one hundred thousand rupees. He had a new house built. He invited Sastry for all the pujas and rituals. He was not afraid of hell but believed in god.
“Sure, I’ll perform the puja for you,” Sastry replied. He thought of the gifts he would get on the occasion. His eyes, however, were fixed on the boy.
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 were splarkling with several hopes and ideas. A dark line over strong upper lip seemed to highlight his youth, and also was prepared to take over his body. The signs of childhood seemed to leave the charming face rather reluctantly.
Yadagiri left them in the tent and went away. He told them he would be back soon.
Gopalam’s heart shook at the thought that crossed his mind, “What if this boy died in the flames?”’
Sastry asked the boy with curiosity, “What’s your name?”
“Nagesh.” His voice sounded like a puff of wind came out of a broken bamboo stem. Gopalam was amused by 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; looked like he was educated.
“Afraid? Why?” Nagesh answered with a question and a smile. Gopalam thought if he had asked the emperor, Sikinder, who was on a mission to conquer the world, he probably would have answered the same way.
“Who taught you this act?” Sastry asked him.
“Nobody. This is our family vocation,” Nagesh replied.
“Are you saying your father also performed 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 the act 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 are 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.
“Sir, 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 my going into this profession. He did not even allow me to watch his performance. A couple of times, I sneaked in and watched him. Later he came to know about it and beat me up.”
“What did your father want you to be?” Gopalam asked him, curiously.
“He wanted me to go to school, study well, and take a good job.”
“What did you study?”
“I finished high school two days back.”
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 find a job, as your father wanted?” 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 scrambling for jobs. Who would give me a job, especially without a recommendation. 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, based on recommendation from a 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.
Nagesh looked somber beyond his age. He was thinking quietly. And then his eyes flashed; the glow overtook the somberness in his face.
“No. I will study further, pass the I.A.S. exam and will become a collector,” he said, looking far into the horizon. The words sounded like he was making the decision for himself.
“You sure can become a great man, boy! Your face is radiating with signs of 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 toward Sastry.
Sastry took Nagesh’s hand in his own, studied it, and said, “Vow, extraordinarily fortunate boy you are! You’re sure to become a collector. When you do, 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. Sastry was not embarrassed; he did not notice Gopalam’s resentment.
Suddenly, Gopalam got a brilliant idea. “Sastry garu, tell me how long he will live?”
Sastry examined the boy’s palm carefully and said, “No doubt, he will live eighty years, at least.”
“Pay look closely,” Gopalam asked him nervously.
“I did. See this line? Straight as an arrow. There is not even a single crossline. 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, haunted by several feelings, he wanted to believe, just for a change. He turned to Nagesh and asked him, “You said you wanted to pursue further studies. Can you afford it?”
“I am free for two months. I will perform during these two months and make money. Today’s earnings already reached five-hundred-rupee mark. I will get hundred rupees atleast as my share.”
“Who gets the rest of it?”
“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.
“I’ll earn three thousand rupees atleast during these two months. The income is big since I am young. I have an older sister, and my mother is worried about her marriage. I will arrange her marriage. I will earn the money needed for my education by performing whenever I get a break from school,” Nagesh was talking with great fervor. Imagine several 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 danger. Look here, a locket with Anjaneya swamy picture. My father used to wear it when he performed and so also my grandfather. You see, now I am wearing it. Nothing is going to happen to me,” so saying, Nagesh unbuttoned his shirt and showed them a palm-sized copper locket hung around his neck by 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 buttoned 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 question enraged Sastry very much.
“No, he didn’t. He had forgotten it. That morning my mother had polished it with tamarind mush and worshipped it. My father forgot about it and went away. My mother talks about it and weeps every day.”
“Even if that is the case, I am sure that locket alone is not enough to save you. I am sure there are some guidelines specific to the feat, and the clothes also might be of a specific kind. Why don’t you ask your mother about them?” Gopalam suggested; his heart was sinking.
“My mother does not know about this. I told her that I was going to visit a friend in Hyderabad. Had she known, she would never let me go, not on her life,” Nagesh replied, peeking through the tent.
Gopalam became nervous. He said, “It’s not a good idea for you to perform without proper training and knowledge of the art. 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 ill,” 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 splendidly on his chest; Why fear? Atheists like you do not understand the powers of the 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 flowed in each particle of this body wholly. Gopalam watched the boy without batting an eyelid. Commotion started in the crowd by the well at a distance. Nagesh cringed and looked in that direction.
Contractor Yadagiri’s voice resounded through the mike. “Quick, come on quick! In about 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 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 shouted at a high pitch.
“Well of death.” The voice was ringing in Gopalam’s ears. His head was aching. He stood up, approached Nagesh, and grabbed his hand.
Sastry’s heart wobbled.
Nagesh spoke, “Babu garu, don’t be scared. Time for me to go. I’ll be back in a 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 followed Nagesh and stood there. He kept staring keenly at Nagesh. He was standing at the foot of the ladder by the well, a little away from them. Sastry tapped on Gopalam’s shoulder and said, “let’s go. Let’s watch the show.”
“I’ll wait here. You go,” Gopalam said; his voice sounded like it came from the bottom of a well.
Sastry stared into his face with surprise and went away, cutting through the crowd.
Two minutes went by. Nagesh started climbing the steel steps. Thousands of eyes were following the boy up the ladder, step by step. They all were watching him holding, their breath.
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 crowd around the well was 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.
Sastry was sweating slightly; the almanac under his arm and the five-rupee bill at his waist were dampening. He wanted badly to have a pinch of snuff, but what if the show opened at that precise moment? He could not sniff!
“Grappling with death! Well of death!” Yadagiri’s voice stopped instantly. A big bell rang at once.
One! Two! Three!
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 all directions in panic. 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 oneself even if it meant walking on the people on the ground.
Gopalam’s heart broke; 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 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 crackling 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 was walking on a paved street; was dragging along as if he was walking on sand. By his side, Sastry’s feet were hitting the ground furiously. Silence stood 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, stopped, and without thinking. Sastry also stopped, watching him.
They both heard the bells coming from the Anjaneya swamy temple. Since it was Saturday, the temple was packed with devotees. 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 in 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 a power failure. He felt something soft under his foot; he heard a feeble screech. That could be a baby crying for milk or a fetus from the full-term mother he had seen earier!
Sastry shook his head vigorously, opened the almanac, and studied it for a few minutes. His eyes were burning like lamps. He tossed it on the dog that was rolling in the garbage by 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 sniffed two pinches of snuff. He shook his head as if he had a revelation and left 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)