Telugu original: మనసిజ విల్లు/manasija villu
Author: Chaithanya Pingali
Translator: Sowmya V.B.
The original story appeared in Andhra Jyothy in 2019 (the translation is of a slightly different version provided by the original author). This translation was read out by the Author at Unmesha, an international literature festival organized by Sahitya Akademi in June 2022, in one of the sessions. It gives a different turn to a familiar Vikram-Bethal story.
She wanted to find Betal, hold him by his tail, and hit him the way a washerman slaps the clothes against a rock. “Perhaps, my husband would do a better job”, she told herself. But those hands he now possesses are not his. So, she concluded he may not be able to hit Betal hard enough. Lost in these thoughts, she did not notice the flame under the stove reduce. She quickly dropped a handful of termite bitten palm leaves into the fire. Tapa..dubu..chita..pata, the palm leaves started making noises as the flame rose again. She felt as if she was hearing the voices of Vikram and Betal in those noises of the burning leaves. “What should I do now?”, she wondered. There was a well fifteen feet away from the circular kitchen where she cooked. Her husband, who was bathing at the well, called her to scrub his back. She got irritated, stood up, and started walking into the forest.
It was a cloudy night on the 19th day after Amavasya, the no moon day. There were puddles from a past rain on the road, and she carefully bypassed them as she walked along. It was somewhat cold, but that couldn’t stop her flow. Suddenly, there was lightning and it seemed as if the path in which she was walking just vanished in a flash. She paused for a second, but continued her walk. It started drizzling, and she did not have a rug or an umbrella to cover herself. Cold joined the rainy weather. A cold is a cold even when she is just traveling from one story into another!
The rain became intense and she was soon drenched in it. This rain started it all. It started raining close to midnight on that day too. Her husband was in deep sleep. She hugged him from behind, twirling his thick, black hair. He woke up and turned towards her. She took his palm into hers, and suddenly felt it was not his. Her palm used to fit into his. Their entwined fingers looked like the lines on a squirrel’s back. Not anymore. She left his hand, went to adjust the wick of the kerosene lamp and brought it closer to the bed. “What happened?” Her husband’s eyes looked questioningly. They are the same, smiling eyes. It is him! She blew the lamp and tried to sleep again, but couldn’t. Soon, her husband fell asleep. After this incident, she couldn’t bear it when her husband called her to rub his back the next day. She decided to teach a lesson to Betal who was responsible for her current situation, and to Vikramarka who added fire to the flame. She went in search of them.
After two nights, she found Vikramarka in a forest but he did not understand who she was and why she was here. He suspected she must be related to Betal, as she suddenly appeared alone in the middle of the night, and enquired her whereabouts. She thought for a second to decide whether to start with Vikramarka right away or blast him and Betal together, and voted for the latter. “Raja, I am a married woman and I come to you seeking help. You have to take me to Betal”, she tried to speak as calmly as possible, controlling her anger.
Vikramarka did not know how to react to this request. For the past eighteen nights, he had been carrying Betal down to the ground from the tree every night. He would then listen to Betal’s stupid stories, answer his questions afterwards, and see him go back on to the tree. His own tasks are left unfinished, and this woman now asks for help. He contemplated on just denying to help her, but remembered his duty as a king. As an ideal king, it is his duty to help a “powerless” woman. Further, he is alone with Betal every night. It is good to have a woman along with him at least once. So, he agreed to help her.
They both walked a few yards together. He tried to start a conversation, but she did not respond. Eventually, they reached their destination. Betal was happily hanging down from a tree after knotting his tail to one of its branches. He noticed the woman only after Vikramarka followed his usual routine of climbing the tree to release and put him on his shoulders. Betal almost got into an upright position in his attempts to take a closer look at the woman.
“Raja, who is she?”, he asked. Before Vikramarka could reply, the woman spoke.
“Ask me. What will this fellow know?”
Vikramarka was shocked to see her being so disrespectful towards him. Betal’s mouth was wide open in surprise too. He wondered if he was too deferential to the king by always addressing him as “Raja” or “Hey Rajan!”.
The woman was not bothered by their reaction and got right into the point. “Betal, if you fail to answer my question despite knowing it, I will hold you by your tail and hit you the way a washerman washes the clothes by banging them against a rock”, she started. Betal couldn’t make sense out of her words. “Who are you? What is your question and why should I answer?” he asked. She found Betal’s inquiry irritating, and couldn’t understand how Vikramarka tolerated him for so long. She stared meaningfully at Vikramarka. Those looks hit him and he chose to stay silent for the rest of the exchange.
“Betal, all your questions have the same answer, which I will reveal later. Answer my question first. Will you be alright if I exchange the lower half of your body including your tail with Vikramarka’s lower half?” She asked.
Vikramarka startled imagining himself as a king re-entering his kingdom with a human head and a ghostly body. What will happen to his subjects? Won’t the queen shake in fear if she has to apply veera tilakam to his forehead, but wash the tail of a ghost instead of his legs? Vikramarka was shaken by all this imagination. The thought worried Betal too. He will lose his powers if he gets a human body. Further, he may be subject to nature’s calls afterwards. How will you hang from the tree with two legs? Suddenly, he became very angry with the woman for creating nonsensical fears in his mind. Yet, he remained calm.
“How is it possible?”, Betal asked her with restraint.
“Why isn’t it possible? The head will remain the same, won’t it? The body with Vikramarka’s head will rule the kingdom, and the one with Betal’s head will hang from the tree. As long as the heads remain the same, your identities can’t be taken away”, she replied.
Vikramarka couldn’t make sense out of this exchange, but something in it hit Betal hard, although he pretended incomprehension. Betal’s deception and Vikramarka’s silence angered her more.
“Betal, didn’t you say the same in your sixth story? What about you, Maharaja Vikramarka? Your highness replied to him too!”
Vikramarka and Betal had to remind themselves of the story. The story goes thus: A washerman and his friend severed their heads as an offering to the Goddess in the temple. Witnessing that incident, the washerman’s wife cried in fear and tried to take her own life. The goddess appeared before her at that moment and stopped her, promising to bring both men back to life. When the goddess asked her to bring the men’s heads to their bodies, the woman misplaced the head of her husband above his friend’s body, and the friend’s head above her husband’s, out of anxiety. The goddess promptly brought them back to life with these mixed head-bodies, and they started quarreling over who is the woman’s husband soon after they were alive again. Betal told the story until this point and asked Vikramarka “who is the woman’s husband?”. “Our standard treatises say that the human head is the most significant part of our body, and is comparable to River Ganga among rivers, Mount Sumeru among mountains, and Kalpavriksha among trees. So, the woman belongs to the man with her husband’s head”, Vikramarka declared. Betal appreciated this answer and went back to hang from the tree branch. This was the sixth story the woman was referring to.
“Okay, I remember this one. What about it?” Betal asked. Vikramarka continued his silence, as it is Betal’s kingdom.
“I am the woman from that story”, the woman revealed. Vikramarka and Betala stared at each other, unable to comprehend where the conversation was headed.
“So..?” Betal asked respectfully, as he wanted to be careful this time.
“I love my husband’s fingers. They aren’t rough despite his profession as a washerman. Those long, thin fingers with a bump near knuckles are beautiful to look at. They remind me of drumsticks. “I could cut them into pieces and make sambar”, I affectionately joked with him frequently about those fingers. Leave those fingers aside. What about his back? His hair stood up each time I hugged him from behind”, she replied, sitting on an adjacent rock.
Her words disturbed Vikramarka. He wondered what his queen was up to. Suddenly, he felt the weight of Betal on his back. So, he lifted and adjusted Betal on his shoulder instead. Betal, who is used to hanging on the back, sat comfortably on Vikramarka’s shoulder now. They both stared at the woman in anticipation.
She rested on her back on the same rock where she sat. The rock was cold. Moonlight slowly came out bit by bit as if it was escaping from someone’s shadow. The sky with part moonlight and dark clouds reminded the woman of her husband’s chest. She also thought about his dark feet, their long fingers and those soles covered in cracks due to constant exposure to water. She remembered how those cracks tickled her when she pressed his legs to her breasts. How many times did she apply the Kajal from her eyes on those cracks? Unable to bear the weight of all these memories, she sat up. A strange sound like that of a bull’s bellow came out of her mouth, when she saw Vikramarka and Betal in front of her. Vikramarka’s shock upon hearing it transmitted through his body and reached Betal, who was sitting on his shoulder. Betal shook a bit, adjusted himself again, and solemnly asked her, “so what?”
“What do you mean by what? You left me along with someone else’s body, saying that is what our treatises say. Now, his head is as big as a palm fruit, but his body is like a pittapariga, a tiny fish.”
Vikramarka was filled with sympathy after listening to her rant. “Yes, you are right. I can’t imagine your plight now. This Betal told me some story, and asked a random question. I responded based on what I learnt from my elders. But I did not imagine this fate for you”, he told her.
But Betal wasn’t convinced. “Stop, Raja. Hey woman, what is your problem? His head, where his eyes are, is the part that identifies you as his wife. His desire towards you comes from his head. So, the head is the most important part. Why do you need the body?”, he asked, visibly irritated.
She pounced on Vikramarka, held Betal by his neck, and bent him forward.
“Betal, are you seriously saying he recognises me as his wife only through his eyes? Did you ever marry, or did you always lead the life of a ghost?”, she pressed on his neck further. Vikramarka asked her to calm down, and told her he is worried Betal would escape from her hold and climb back on to the tree. She heard the king’s concern and released Betal.
“Why will I go back to the tree? Will I get scared just because she is questioning me, the ultimate questioner?” Betal said, and adjusted himself again on the King’s shoulder. He looked straight at the woman and told her, “Look, you are a character in my story. I am a character in someone else’s story. How can you cook rice if your utensils revolt? Your character has a head, but doesn’t seem to have a brain. Are you denying the mighty head for the sake of mere body?”
“I don’t know what happens to rice if utensils revolt, but you cannot cook stories with flawed characters. What is this arrogance? You both decided that the head is the most important part, and showed some man as my husband. The man with my husband’s head and the other one with his body agreed to it. If the brains of all characters thought the head is more important than the body, doesn’t it imply there is nothing unique about the head itself and bodies are the ones that are unique? So, I want the man with my husband’s body.”, she emphasized.
Betal was clueless for a moment, and had a quick conversation in whispers with Vikramarka. Vikramarka nodded at the end of and Betal said, “Here is what we think. We did not decide how your character should be. You are my character. This knowledgeable Vikramarka and I are someone else’s characters…”. The woman interrupted him mid way and said decisively, “I don’t want all these stories about characters, utensils, and all that. I expressed my opinion and wish with you, and you don’t agree with me. So, I am writing my own lines to go back and look for the man with my husband’s body”. Saying so, she turned her back towards them.
“Hey, stop!” Betal screamed.
The woman started walking quickly, and it soon turned into a run. Vikramarka ran after her, still holding Betal on his shoulder. She turned from that story into another, and turned around looking for them. They were clearly falling behind in the chase. She laughed.