My aunt, who never had even a cold, was in bed. At home, not a sole was around to make a spoonful of gruel at least. It would not be a big issue if it was only me. My father was old and on crutches. Somebody had to wait on him constantly and keep handing him something or other. Then, there was the farm hand, eating three meals a day – that was the way the farming, I suppose.
I was not complaining that I had to burn my hands in the kitchen. My aunt however was a big problem. Doctor told us in no uncertain terms that we should not let her set foot on the floor; she must remain in bed. She handling the stove was absolute no, no, he said. But would she listen? She was anxious to prove that she was a nice person. She would walk into the kitchen in spite of our vehement protests. I would get upset and yell at her at the top of my voice but what is the point? My angry protests were blown away and she would continue her job as she was accustomed to.
I felt a tug at my heart. We had enjoyed all kinds of services from her, nice and not so nice, all these years. Now she was down and we were not able to get her a bit of medicine; I felt crushed to the ground. Yet, what could I do? The little bit we’d gotten from the yield was barely enough for clothes and farming. So, loan seemed to be the only option. But then again, had we borrowed, how could we repay? My mind was in a fix.
My aunt’s condition was getting worse. She could not sit even for a brief period. She kept walking in and out of the kitchen from the east room. I thought the sooner I took her to the hospital the better. In fact, she would not sit in one place, unless she left home.
Therefore, I must leave soon for the town. But whom should I ask for money? If I ask, it should be somebody that would help save my face. But then again, when a life is at stake, should I be worried about reputation? In fact, why fear at all? There is no dearth of money in the country. Nobody needs to hesitate to lend me money. With that confidence, I went to Narasayya’s home.
I must say that Narasayya garu was a peculiar person. He had been swinging around about twenty thousand rupees in loans yet he never went to court, not even once. Whatever the greatness of his money was, the borrowers returned it on time, each anna and paisa, even when their own homes were crumbling to the ground. I never heard that he had pressured them into paying either. He actually was so detached, I was told. I also heard that there was no greater philosopher or jnani than he not only in our village but also in the neighboring villages. My acquaintance with him was not much. I had seen him at the library for a couple of times.
I went to his door. Narasayya garu showed be a bench in the east room and he sat, leaning on the pillar across from me. He was wearing a neatly folded uttareeyam on the shoulder. He asked, “Abbayi! How’s your father, been around?”
“Yes, sir, he is doing okay.”
“He used to come to the library in the evenings, sit on the porch and chat with us briefly. I have not seen him for the past four days. I thought he might be sick. That’s why I am asking.”
“He is fine. But my aunt is in bed. There is nobody to cook even a morsel of food for her. It is getting irksome.”
“Oh, no, I am sorry, that must be hard. Family life is hell even when everything is in order. When there is nobody to cook, and somebody is sick, what else can we say? That is why people say family is a sea of sadness. So be it; hardships come and go. There is nothing more stupid than thinking that this world and this life are everlasting and delightful. So, did you send for your younger sister?”
“What is the point of her coming; what can she do? Also, she has a huge family, the size of a farm. How can she afford to come and stay here for four or five months?”
“Well, somebody has to be there to boil a handful of rice, isn’t it so?”
“Well, we’ll manage somehow. But, it is my aunt that has become a problem.”
“Doctor suggested we take her to Madanapalli.”
“Well, these doctors; they just speak words. They will tell you anything. Do they care if it works for the patient, whether it is affordable? As the saying goes, our string snaps by the time we are done with their advice. Why didn’t you consult Acharyulu garu in our village?”
“I would for any other complaint. In cases like tuberculosis, we have no other way except follow the doctor’s advice.”
“We entertain such thoughts only because we cannot control our hopes. But are doctors gods? Who can say what happens in what moment. When the time comes, let alone doctor, not even Brahma cannot keep a person alive. Those who live live wherever they are. And those, who are bound to die, die even after drinking the divine nectar. Life and death are one endless flow of river. It is strange when we think how and wherefrom they emanate.”
What is there for me to say? I could not open my mouth to ask for money. However I recalled my aunt’s spasm, picked up courage, and said, “What you’ve said is correct, three times as good. Yet, human beings must put in their efforts also, right? I have to take my aunt to Madanapalli. Please, let me have two hundred rupees. I will pay it back in January.”
Until then, I was losing my mind, worried that he might dismiss my appeal; after saying it however, my heart calmed down. Then another thought sprang up. Why did he talk like that? I was lost. There are a wide variety of people in this world. There are several theories. What is amiss in that? When a fellow human being is in need, and if you jump in to help, keep the human value alive, what is wrong in that?
I signed the note, handed to Narasayya garu and received the money. “You are going with your Aunt, I assume. After admitting her in the hospital, let me know about her health, whenever you can,” he said a couple of times before I left.
I blamed myself for suspecting such a generous man. His detachment and sympathy took me by surprise. I concluded that there is nothing more idiotic than measuring one’s heart by their words.
I made all the necessary arrangements at home, took my aunt to Madanapalli and admitted her in the hospital. Soon enough, I received a letter from Narasayya garu, “How is your aunt’s health? Did she get some relief? Write to me all the details, no stalling, I mean it,” he said in the letter.
As soon as I saw the letter, I was ashamed of myself. I thought he had asked me to write to him casually. I did not think he would be so particular about my aunt’s wellbeing. How could I think that somebody’s wellbeing would be a concern for someone who considers this world is an illusion?
It is imminent I write to him. Not just write to him about my aunt; it is only fair I ask him to write to me about his and his family’s welfare too; and it is my duty also. However, I did not know about anybody in my town; never tried to learn about them. Considering the conditions in the town, I had decided that it would be best I kept my distance. So, whose wellbeing I could ask from him in my letter?
I immediately wrote to my father asking him for all the details regarding Narasayya’s family as soon as possible. Whatever his state of mind at the time, my father replied to me right away.
According to his letter, Narasayya had only one son named Vidyaranyulu. He was studying in a college in Tirupati or some other place for Vedanta Siromani diploma. Vidyaranyulu had a nine-month-old son, a doll of gold. Both mother and child were living in Narasayya’s house.
As soon as I received the letter from my father, I wrote to Narasayya garu, “Since I moved to a different place, I received your letter late. Therefore, my reply is also delayed. The doctors said two ribs needed to be removed. After that, I don’t know what happens. Like you said, if she is destined to live, she will live. Hope you are doing fine. I am sure baby Sankaram is crawling and playing in the backyard. When will Vidyaranyulu will be coming home?”
Twenty days passed by. There was no reply. I was surprised. Probably he was out of town or maybe got caught in some other problem. I did not have time to think about these things. Our condition was getting worse each day. Finally the day came when there was no need to worry about her any more.
The next day, I returned to my town along with the body. Since she was gone, one less subject to think about. Even if there was a need to think, it was of no use. The debt however was there waiting to be repaid.
After the pressures at home had settled, I inquired about Narasayya garu. I heard that his grandchild died by drowning in the well in their backyard. They could not ascertain whether the child crawled into the well accidentally or enemies threw him into the well. They woke in the morning and found baby Sankaram’s body floating in the well.
Poor Narasayya garu! What a misery! I thought I should pay a visit and went to his house. He was sitting on the bench in the east room looking devastated. As I entered, he moved to a side and gestured me to sit. After I sat down, he said, “When did you come into town? How is your aunt?”
I was almost in tears. “I asked since I was not aware. Please, don’t cry. I did not know he was gone. Who could say what happens when. Take my Sankaram’s case for instance. I never thought, not even in my dream that this could happen. Once an astrologer told me the old and the aged may die but nothing is going to happen to this child. I was very happy; thought I would be survived by son and grandson. Look what happened. This is all illusion, just illusion.” He took a sigh.
“How did the child end up in the well?”
“What can I say? We can’t call it robbery since all the jewelry–the gold waist band, tiger toe chain, and hand bracelets—were on the body intact. I have no enemies that I know of. Just his karma, and our karma came to the fore I believe.”
“Where is the well?”
“It is in the backyard. I could go with you to show but my legs wouldn’t move.”
“No, I’ll go myself,” I said and went into the backyard. The well was three quarters up to of my navel. I returned to the east room, “How old was he?” I asked.
“How old? Barely turned nine months. Maybe only to die, he grew like a ball.”
“It is illusion,” I said.
“What do you mean illusion?” he said, with an uncanny look on his face.
“Elderly people say no definition for illusion,” I said and left.
The following day, Narasayya garu sent word to me; he needed the money urgently.
Translator’s note: I chose this story for translation because this seems to be consistent with the author’s great interest in seeking Truth. Although the story is open to several interpretations, my belief is that the message is consistent with our traditional mode of thinking. In the Maha Bharata, Aranya parvam, there is a story depicting the life of a butcher named Dharmavyadhudu. By profession, Dharmavyadhudu is a butcher yet possesses superior knowledge and he leads a righteous life. When asked how he could justify his profession of selling meat, which involves killing animals, he explains one’s duty in coordinating one’s dharma and worldly matters. In the above story, the life of Narasayya could be interpreted as one such life.
(The Telugu story maya was published in August 1947. Translated by Nidadavolu Malathi and published on thulika.net, May 30, 2012)