Sprinkling outside; inside the air was at a dead stop, causing humid. The house was a crummy dump. It felt like the time had come to a standstill for over ten thousand years.
No dialogue between the father and the son. Both of them were royal fighters; carried a commanding physique. Thriving in the heroic service of the royalty, their muscles had put cowardice out of their minds. Their forefathers had served the same lineage of sovereigns for generations. Their blood was boiling like a burning pond; seemed to have got caught in the scathing stillness and stopped moving.
There was no lamp in the room. The senior fighter, Narasimhulu, well-known as Jetty, struck two fire stones and made a flame to light up the tobacco rolled in a raw leaf. His gray hairs glimmered like gold against the flicker from the fire stones.
His son, Veera Raghavulu, sat by the water pot in front of the clay stove and kept stirring the splinters to keep the flames going. They both sat down across from each other. Veeranna (Veera Raghavulu) was facing the east and Jetty the west. There was not enough heat since the splinters were raw; and it annoyed him further. The pot contained barely a handful of grain—that was all they could get after pounding the partially shelled rice. That tiny house was trying to break the dead stop of time with a momentary hope. The house turned into a platform of a hopeless goddess, a brisk, heavy, and presumptuous incarnation in the conflict of two heart-broken souls expecting a potful of gruel amid the smoke and venomous dead stop. Veeranna’s eyes were burning from the smoke.
Jetty was impatient; he was about to throw away the cheroot, but his hand pulled back. Veeranna, the junior fighter, felt pangs in his stomach; was about smash the pot, but his heart would not allow him. He threw down the bamboo pipe. The flames revived and the gurgling noise in the pot picked up simmering.
They were silent. Not that they hated each other, but neither of them spoke a word to the other.The common property they shared was made up of hunger, blood and valor.
Jetty hurled the cheroot in his had away. Without looking at his son, he transported his soul into the toxic air, “His Majesty sent for us.”
Veeranna blew into the pipe like an avenging snake. He did not utter a sound, not so much as an um. He was aware of the power of those words; he knew those words could break the silence and the toxic stillness of ten thousand years. But he did not reply. Blood shot through all his blood vessels and straight through his heart like a blast of lava.
The senior fighter said slowly, “They said the young prince has returned from abroad.”
There was no reply, no Oh or Ah.
“Asking us to teach him hunting.”
No Oh or Ah.
“The directive was ‘get rid of the cheetahs in the western forest’.”
A bolt thundered. “I have told you hundreds of times not to bring up the matter of those donkeys in front of me.”
“As they say, we have had their salt. Veeranna! We owe them.”
“I am telling you one more time. Never bring up that stupid subject with me again. Whose salt we have had? We ate only what was ours. Mother died the death of a stray dog. Which salt do you think brought it down upon her? And whose salt landed us in this wretched life? We can’t have a sip of broth without a fierce struggle. Why? And about that wooden leg of yours, whose salt has gotten that for you?”
Jetty’s muscles puffed-up at once. He could see his own demeanor even in that darkness like in a mirror. It was red like a beet; an overripe, dark beet. Veeranna’s words summed up his entire life span. He could not take it anymore; his leg moved heavily making a screechy noise. It came from his wooden leg.
Outside, the sprinkles turned into a heavy rain. Inside, silence took over the reigns of the outside world once again. The stove stopped hissing like a cobra. The man sitting in front of the stove stopped grinding his teeth. On the other side, the wooden leg stopped screeching.
The rain was pouring like the wailing of a large army of chariots, elephants, horses and infantry from the heaven, all at once. It looked like the fire in the stove died; the ashes on top of the burning coal underneath.
Veeranna poured the broth into two clay cups, put one next to the pillar, and sat down with the second cup. The broth in the two cups was letting out steam like the grief of Mother Earth.
The young fighter blew on his broth and took a sip. It had no flavor, no salt. He got up with abruptly, gritting his teeth like two tree trunks in the woods. He groped in a few places in the eaves. He could not find it. He pulled a stick from the stove, blew on it, and made a torch. With the torch, he found the salt in a paper folds. He opened it impatiently. There was not much salt in it. He shook it into the cup by the pillar and went back to his cup.
The wooden leg also moved. No more steam from his cup; the cold breeze blowing in cooled it down.
Son was quiet.
Senior bent down, holding on to the pillar with one hand, and grabbed his cup with the other hand. He took a few sips quickly; stopped for a second, and swirled the cup in circles to mix the salt in the broth.
“Listen. Whatever happened has happened; it is over. You have not found work yet; not even royal horses to groom. They sent them away to the city. And I am not as brawny as I used to be. If we go for hunting with the prince, we’ll see a little money again. It gets us through until you find work.”
Not one word came out of the son’s mouth. He went on sipping the broth.
“I swear on your life. We are facing bad times.. Let me go this once, at least.”
Son did not speak. The broth in the Jetty’s cup was down to the last drop. Not a drop less in junior’s cup.
Father spoke again, “The prince is a nobleman. You two had learned to fence and shoot together. What a poise in his bearing! Have you not noticed it?.”
Son had only one question to ask. “When they accused mother of stealing and let their underlings broke her bones, did your poised prince stop them?”
The rain was pouring down as if a million hole were drilled into the sky; it was like all the divine space in the sky was wailing unanimously on that dark night. It was getting heavier by the minute. The cold wind added its mite to the rain like an older brother.
One sentence, one question, one unbearable, harsh truth; One family; One wife, one son, one father, and one atrocity.
The senior swallowed the wrath that gushed to this throat, like a lava. Who is that human who is still alive even after hearing that question? His own son! He was still alive only because the words came from his(Jetty’s) son; that was why he was alive.
“I gave them my word, Veeranna! Listen to me. We are dealing with the royalty. We can accomplish nothing by fighting them. We just have to learn to live on broth,” he said.
Son picked up his cup and threw it straight into the pillar ahead. That was the man’s offering to the sky’s howling. He screamed, “Go, go, please go. Of course, you’ve given your word! You are their minion. I am not your son anymore. I will never be born to a lowlife again. You and I are done. Go, just go.” And then he leapt into the dark rain outside.
The grief-stricken gods up in the sky did not ask him to go out. He disappeared into the darkness.
The broken pieces from the cup pricked the senior’s other leg. He peered through the rain. He put down the cup in the rain as a representative of the aggrieved people in universe above.
On the day before, the senior fighter had received an invitation from the palace. “The Prince set out to go hunting. The Yanadis[ A scheduled tribe engaged in services like agriculture, hunting, etc. ] have been waiting since morning. Agreed you are great senior fighter, but how dare you delay the plan? Come quick; move.”
What an invitation:
An invitation from a prince who would have a photo taken with the lion Narasimhulu had killed, and would be recognizes in the newspapers; his way of climb up the social ladder.
Narasimhulu’s wooden leg screeched again. He could crush the messenger into a hundred thousand pieces, just like Dhritarashtra had crushed the steel Bhima. But the invitation came from the royalty; and the growling hunger from his guts! The senior fighter knew that.
Father looked at his son lying on the jute-rope cot and moaning. I wish he had not returned home, he thought. The son had dashed into the rain last night, returned home completely drenched, threw himself on the shabby cot, and kept coughing heavily. He was running high temperature, lying in bed, and breathing heavily. He wished, for a second, his son did not return home that night. But he is my son, this is my house, and this is house. He lay in the beat up cot, coughing.
He looked at his son again. His wooden leg screeched breaking the silence following the messenger’s voice. Who am I? Yudhishtira or Dhritarashtra?
Son stopped coughed one more bout and stopped. He uttered feebly, “Go ahead, Nannaa!”
Senior fighter looked at Junior. Father watched him keenly. Narasimhulu watched Veera Raghavulu, fixedy. Those words did not fall from the sky; nor they came shattering through the earth. That was his son’s voice; those words were spoken by his son. They came from the shabby cot and in between bouts of cough. Father’s wooden leg moved forward.
He sat in the jeep along with Yanadi drummers. Behind the jeep, the prince and his friend followed them in a Cadillac. The friend came from the city; his interest was only prostitutes.
Narasimhulu was brooding over: the cheetah could jump on the prince, after noticing the prince or getting shot. In either case, Jetty should save the prince by risking his own life. He must protect this prince with baby cheeks; must make sure that he was not hurt, not even a scratch by a thorn. He was the prince’s savior; But he was not eligible to sit next to the prince. The hurt crushed his heart. He saw his son’s face lying on the cot and coughing in the jeep’s murky the side mirror. Like the darkness of the night, dark thoughts spread across in his heart.
Within a mile from the woods, the king had a foot-path laid, but that had disappeared. The vehicles stopped there. It was not dark yet. Fighter Narasimhulu got down from the jeep, and greeted the prince respectfully. The prince threw away the cigarette in his hand and called the driver.
“Who has sent this crippled idiot to accompany us?” he asked.
Jetty did not hear what the driver had said.
The driver said, “Your Majesty may have forgotten, He taught you how to fire the gun and also martial arts in your childhood, your Majesty.”
Those words of wisdom did not reach the prince’s ear. He was consoling his friend who worried because he was missing the beastly pleasures he had enjoyed the night before.
Arrangements to kill the cheetah were underway. But the senior’s heart was not on the arrangements.
Stupid cripple? He belonged to a long line of valiant fighters who had protected the king’s life, queen’s honor, and the treasury when the enemies attacked the country. He faught in competitions with other wrestlers and held the royal flag up high. How did he get the crippled leg? Was it when he risked his life and fought the tribal warriors and protected the forests the king claimed as his? Was he not the servant who had waited on them day and night, while suffering from jungle fever, ignoring his sores, and protected the palace? Did he not paid back ten times for the food he had eaten at the palace?
But these new breed of rulers – Bhishmacharya and Dronacharya – had acquired a new, fake urban values, and forgotten to give him the respect they would give to their servants. They were behaving worse than the low class people, worse than their arrogant driver. They would rob the people’s land, sell it, and buy factories and race horses in the city. This new sovereignty would not allow anybody to take refuge in the palace, not even in the bodyguards’ quarters.
Who is stupid cripple? This stupid cripple was a hero, a warrior, and fighter, as good as a guru; the king’s lifesaver. He had been an enemy of the public in the past. He is not Bhishmacharya, but Sikhandi. He is Vibhishana for Ravana. He would not be Dhritarashtra by he would not die as Yudhishtara. He was Aswathama who had escaped the clan of Kaurava lineage. Now the only Vedic chant for him was the word his son had spoken in the rain. That would be his goal and his duty. He would pay his respects, doused in blood, to the tombstones of all his ancestors who had lost their lives in the king’s service. His duty was to do justice; time to pay back the despots who had been holding the rifles over their heads for centuries. Now the lion would arise from lions, humans from dust, and from the past heroes to the new generation of heroes.
It was getting dark. The quiet moonlight escaped from the clouds and spread over the dense forest.
Fighter Narasimhulu set the stage for hunting. He tied a goat to a tree, withered and just sprouting, and fifty yards away from the lake. Across from the lake and behind the tamarind trees, they built a temporary platform. Narasimhulu helped the prince get on the platform and explained the ins and outs of hunting to the prince in a soft voice.
The drunken city friend of the prince and the driver stayed back in the car. He was brave only in assaulting helpless women, but not in hunting.
The Yanadi drummers hid in the bushes on all sides by the platform. Their job was to play the drums at the right time and confuse the cheetah.
The cheetah was expected to pounce upon the goat, and after eating it, go to the lake for water. While enjoying the water, the bullet hits it. The drummers make huge noise. The cheetah could not figure out where the enemy hid; that confuses it. Then another bullet his it. That was it; that was the plan.
“We need to examine the place thoroughly and have our guns set to fire,” Jetty whispered in prince’s ear. “If the cheetah smells a human, that is the end of it; we can’t get it.”
The prince brought the Austrian double-barrel gun he had bought in abroad. The fighter had an old, rugged gun he had received as a gift during the First World War. Bu, that gun had ripped through the brains of a dozen animals.
It was quiet all around. Jetty could hear the prince’s heart thumping.
The prince was not as cheerful as before.
Jetty looked at the gun he had been saving with great care for all these years, like his own life. He had cleaned and polished it. The barrel was shining bright in the dark.
The prince’s heartbeat traveled down his double-barrels, past Jetty’s barrel and touched Jetty’s heart. It was quiet.
Suddenly, his own name came to his mind: fighter Narasimhulu. In the story Lord Narashimha killed, two demons, Hiranyakasipu and Hiranyaksha; and saved the young prince, Prahlada. But, he(Jetty) sat there, unmoved, like Lord Narasimhaswamy in Mangalagiri, who rested on the mountain swallowing hundreds of pots of sweetened water.
Suddenly, he asked the prince, “Babu, what is your name?”
The prince recited a yard-long name, including all his titles, and then asked, “Why do you want to know?”
“Just. I taught you how to use the gun in your childhood, but never asked your name. You were little then.”
At a distance, they noticed a shadow in the bushes. The prince tapped on the fighter’s arm quietly. The hand was shaking.
“Wait a little.”
The shadow grew bigger; they could see the figure. The visible figure moved toward the groaning goat. In the following minute, a desperate cry came searing through the heart of the sky. The forest, shocked by the injustice, looked around and lowered its head. But an echo responded to the desperate wailing and echoed from another corner. Silence.
The eyes of the men on the wooden platform shone. Their breathing stopped. The barrels of their guns also shone in the dark. Man’s justice was about to arbitrate the injustice and the inequality in the world as prescribed by nature.
Jetty pulled up to the prince and said, “You.” The prince’s Austrian double-barrel gun was shaking. Even in that darkness, beads of sweat on his face were shining visibly.
Jetty nudged him again.
DHUM, a huge sound flashed and shook the wooden platform. But the bullet did not hit the animal. His shaky hands missed the target and landed in the water.
There was no more silence.
They heard a terrifying roar like the preamble of a despot. The drums resounded in every direction, like the orchestra at the time of Vedic rituals performed by the rulers of the eight directions.
The cheetah turned around and looked at the platform. It sensed the human smell, roared and jumped at them. The prince dropped his gun, jumped from the back of the platform and ran away, He left Narasimhulu alone.
Jetty stopped breathing. DHUM. He shot the animal. It spun around three times. Narasimhulu took out the javalin from the bushes and threw it straight into the cheetah. It was like an axle between the animal and the earth. The drums stopped. Silence filled the space.
The fighter took a deep breath and looked around; he spotted the white shirt hiding in the shrub; the prince could not run far. Jetty picked up his gun, aimed at the prince from above the shrubs and shot DHUM. Far off, silence bowed down to the echoes. One more round of DHUM, DHUM, DHUM.
A thin veil covered over the white shirt. The prince fell to the ground.
Jetty got off the platform and sat next to the cheetah. He pulled out the javelin from the cheetah’s body and tossed it into the river. The drummers hurried to the vehicles.
Not until early next morning, the police van surrounded Narasimhulu. He was sitting by the prince’s body. He let the police see his face in the dim light of the lantern; stretched his hands forward, and said, “My name is Narasimhulu. I killed him. Arrest me.”
The senior fighter set to be hanged.
The police allowed his son to visit him in the morning.
Son touched father’s feet respectfully and said, “Nannaa, you are a world-class fighter. I am your son. Please, forget the words I had said to you on the other day.”
(The Telugu original, Jetty”, was published in Andhra Patrika weekly, September 22, 1954,and included in the anthology, Munipalle Raju kathalu. Visalandhra Publishing House, 1992.
Translated by Nidadavolu Malathi and published on thulika.net, January 2005. Revised February, 20, 2023)
Photo of the author courtesy of www.museindia.com