​Even the Heavens…. !

Telugu: Arudra

[Bhagavatula Sadasiva Sankara Sastry, more popular as Arudra, was one man with many hats: a poet, lyricist, translator, short story writer, dramatist, playwright, screenplay writer, editor, war-veteran, peerless researcher and many more. ‘Samagra Andhra Sahityam,’ a comprehensive history of Telugu literature, stands a testimony to his reputation as a literary genius.

Arudra wrote some riveting detective stories. Dropping hints and snares in the narrative is the hall mark of a good detective story. Though this is not a detective story, it has all the ingredients of a detective story. The seemingly innocuous narrative blows your mind in the end. Read it to the end. It is hard to guess the ending.]


That was his native village. No other village was as nicer, and as dirtier, as that. Yet it was close to his heart, and his heart ache as well. It looked fascinating in his dreams but appeared in stark contrast​ to it in reality​. Neither could he extol it himself, nor suffer indignities heaped by others on it.

He ran away from it unable to cope with those narrow, dirty surroundings. That was almost twelve years ago. But no day passed without feeling nostalgic about it. He could not help comparing every new place he visited with his native village.

But then, it was no small, mean village. It was something like a baggy shirt on an emaciated person. The population of the village was substantial like flies hovering over a cake of jaggery; the village was like an over-used shirt never sent for laundry. No, even that would not come close; it was a dhoti that never went to a whitster’s yard.

Yes. The village was like a sacred, untouchable, garment. Peerless, but unsufferable. The villagers were also stupid, but strangely, many stalwarts hailed from the place. The village had been an epitome of rusticity. Still, one could find those people simple, tender, honest, and cheerful. In essence, it was like any other village.

It was after a very long break he was returning to his village. As the train neared the outskirts of the village, emotions swelled up in him. He was all alone in that compartment, watching the scenery to his right. He almost failed to ​recognize the garden he frequented for outings many times. It became short and thin like a long-haired damsel opting for bobbed hair. Bungalows sprang up all around. He felt sorry for missing the left side scenery engrossed in watching the things to his right. He turned his attention towards his left now and saw the country churchyard. Perhaps​,​ it was the only place in any village that would seldom undergo any change.

That ruffled hid childhood memories…

When he was still in his teens, an age when faith in God and fears about the devil begin to wane, he jumped over those walls any number of times with some of his pals and whiled away time reading forbidden books squatting on the wild grassy undergrowth. They conducted many picnics there. The simple reason being that it was the only lodging place that needed no payment of rent.

Recollection of one particular incident gave him goosebumps again:

It was a hot sunny day. He jumped over the wall into the garden. His friends did not turn up yet. He selected a flat grave shadowed by the canopy of a large tree to sit. He lit up a cigarette and started reading the name on the gravestone. It was the grave of one Joan Paulson of sixteen years. The deceased was ​of ​his ​age ​. But he could not make​ out if Joan Paulson were a male or a female. The sun was blazing hot, and he was sweating profusely. He removed his shirt and hung it to a dry branch. He rested on the grave in supine posture. Taking a last puff, he shot the stub carelessly around. And soon he slipped into sleep unawares.

The dry leaves caught fire from the cigarette stub, and as the fire spread around, the worms hiding under the leaves quickly crawled up the grave and snaked over him. He woke up suddenly from his sleep. He observed some English gentleman and ladies walking into the churchyard opening the gate. He was utterly confused— with the fire raging around, the swarm of worms seizing him and the angry gentlemen and ladies walking up to him. Without thinking twice, and oblivious of the shirt hinged to a branch, he got up, jumped over the wall, and ran wildly. What the gentleman and ladies might have thought of him!

He was ashamed to walk into the village without his shirt on. He did not even have his vest. He spent time till night fall roaming around the garden before reaching home late.

The moment he stepped into his house, lo and behold, he saw his shirt there! His father, red with anger, was waiting for him. Without asking for any questions, he started beating him black and blue. ​So long as he could forbear the pain, he suffered. But when the suffering crossed his threshold, he revolted against his father. He traded word for word. That was when his father realized that he should not beat a grown-up son. It was a surprise to him, besides his father, how he could rebel against him. And that was the last time his father had ever beat him. And immediately thereafter, his father asked him to get out. He sat on the verandah facing the street for long. Late in the night, his mother brought him some food. Father kept his cool despite noticing it. And in the wee hours when the housemaid was expected, mother opened the door. Having been exposed to the cold all through the night, he went in and slept cozily slipping under a bedsheet. His father went out before he got up from bed, and he, in turn, went out and did not return home till his father went to bed. For three days they did not talk to each other. On the fourth day, when it was time to pay the school fee, he asked his father for money, and he gave him without demur. On the fifth day, his father even bought him a new shirting cloth unasked…

The train was arriving on the platform. He was in a dilemma if it was really his village! It was so bare, barren, and blunt looking when he left this place last time. Now there was an asbestos roofing, a bookshop, and a tea-stall. There were many changes and much progress!

Nobody recognized him after he got off the train. Neither the coolies on the platform, the ticket collector at the gate, nor the bevy of rickshaw pullers who usually flock around passengers. Not a soul had recognized him! Strange! It pinched him. More so when none of the cart drivers there identified him. Was he not responsible for establishing their union there? How hard he worked those days to protect the Union from slipping into the hands of socialists! A bunch of thankless people! While he worried that none of them had recognized him, he altogether forgot that he himself did not recognize a soul among them.

He did not engage a vehicle. He preferred to walk. The streets had become narrower and dirtier! So narrow that he feared he would be calendered between the two adjacent walls of neighbouring houses! Homemakers kept their homes clean but deposited the dirt on the street. The sewages clogged, and some kids were sitting naked, using the roads to ease themselves. Pigs, seeping with dirt, and infested dogs were busy ransacking the heaps of dirt in search of food. The flour patterns laid in front of the houses early in the morning had long been erased and became part of dirt. All the streets were familiar to him, and he could walk through any alley blindly.

It was through this street he used to walk daily to the school. At this very spot, he broke his slate for no reason. That was the corner where he played with marbles… he went on recapping each of the surroundings. The village was so familiar that he could identify even a mote of dust from here. But surprisingly, nobody recognized him. None of the sleepy faces brushing their teeth on the verandahs cared to greet him. Was there such a drastic change in him? Had he become a stranger to his own native?

He saw Ramanna, the barber, crossing his way with his pouch. He was his family barber. How many times he fought with him! Until he had come of age to go independently to saloons, he surrendered his head to his mercy. Why didn’t he, even he, take notice of him?

“Hey, Ramanna! Wait! Listen to me! Give me a shave!” he hailed.

But no. Neither he stopped, nor seemed to have listened to him. What a change had come in the village! What a change in the attitude of its people!

No! There was no change in the village at all. It continued to be as dirty as it was before… the same narrow streets and passages… and the same village tank, moss filled now, as it was then. They were the same people, victims of elephantiasis, who washed their clothes on the steps leading to the bath places; the same people carrying water with their yokes. Poor women folk! They did not have the courage to this day to demand privacy to change into dry clothes after taking bath at the tank! When will these pure, pious people wake up to assert? What a pitiable custom!

There it is! The temple of Swamy Anjaneya is still there on the opposite bank. He did not feel like visiting it this time. In his childhood, when he bunked off school to go to matinee shows and returned home late, he used to go by the temple only to hurriedly apply vermillion on his forehead. When they questioned at home why he was late from school, he excused himself from further questioning by replying that he visited Anjaneya Swamy’s temple on the way. He needed no such excuse now.

Barber Ramanna crossed his path once again. He was a busy guy from early morning till ten thirty. He was the family barber for many households. He was deft in giving a haircut to too young and too old alike. He was an expert at playing drums. He wore a ring of pewter on his left hand. Oh, it is still there. When children dithered to left or right during a haircut, he used to buffet with it on the head when nobody was watching. When they complained why he beat them, he pleaded helpless saying it would buffet on its own when they could not keep their head steady. He offered mirror only to boys above six-years of age, to have a look at their own faces in the mirror. He yearned to look into that mirror again. But Ramanna did not stop or listen to him. Perhaps​ he could find his childhood face if he peeped into that mirror now. Or, he could ​even ​find the reason ​why ​the people of this village, his village, did not recognize him.

He grew restless and angry when nobody recognized him. He walked straight towards the country churchyard. On his way he met a short-statured teacher. He was his class-teacher when he was still a child and taught him the alphabet; and later when he grew older, he pinched his thigh and punished him with “Goda-kurchi[2]. He thought of taking revenge on him when he grew up, then. He saw him now for the first time after that. Instead of the urge for taking revenge, he was overwhelmed with pity for him now. He was more learned than his teacher. His teacher knew nothing about the Raman Effect, the ​Theory of Relativity and many more. Though his teacher was a dwarf, it only evoked feelings of respect and gratitude for him. He would not have become what he ​had been, had this teacher not introduced him to the alphabet first. He should be thankful to him. He greeted his teacher joining his hands in reverence.

Re, re, re! There was no response from him! Did he also forget him?

He reached the garden where the country churchyard was located. He climbed over the wall. Looked around to see if anybody was watching him. Nobody cared about him. He jumped in. The grass had grown thick and tall. He leisurely swam through the green grass recollecting the afternoons he spent there with his friends. He reached the place where he spent that eventful afternoon all alone. He sat on the same flat marble slab. He felt for his cigarette, but it was not there. He wanted to hang his shirt to a branch. Strange! He did not even have his shirt on!

He read out the letters on the gravestone once more. The same letters. The same name. He was looking at the name with all seriousness.


Somebody greeted ​him from behind.

“Who is that?”

He turned his head looking over his shoulders.

​It was a ​marble-​white Anglo-Indian girl​ around ​sixteen-years of age. She ​donned a white gown. Her teeth were bright. Her smile was glistening. and her looks were cool.

“May I know your good name?” he asked her politely.

“I am Joan Paulson. Don’t you remember me?” she said, reminding ​him of the ​eventful day.

​”​What a surprise! Nobody cared to recognize me in this hell of a village. How come you could recognize me?​”​

“Only a thief could easily identify another,” she said.

“​What do you mean?”

“​It means, only the dead could ​recognize the other,” she said sitting beside him.

​Breeze tossed over the tops of grass caressing it briefly. A crow landed on a branch. Two flowers dropped ​over the grave from above.


(Telugu Original: Svargadapi)

[1] Mother and motherland are superior to Heavens … is the idiom.

[2] A common punishment in schools in those days to discipline students. It’s a chair-like, half-squatting erect posture, with back leaning on to the wall


Murthy Nauduri

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