From “Words like walls”

It’s amazing how much hate can be packed into a single line. The one-line message is inaccurate and ignorant, but it’s the hatred that strikes Krishna. Hate is what holds those thirteen English words together before they end with an open, ominous dash. Professor P.S. Krishna re-reads the note he has just found: Bastard Hindu hater, making up lies about a saint, you should do suicide before—

There’s no sender’s name, no postage stamp either. There’s no specific charge, no particular reason given for why Krishna should ‘do suicide’. It’s definitely addressed to him. Mr. P.S. Krishna says the red scrawl on the envelope that was sealed with several strips of sellotape. Though it’s obviously been hand delivered, slipped into his mailbox in the university department, the title Professor, often shortened to Prof, has been dropped, and he has been demoted to a Mister. Krishna crushes the piece of paper, aims it at his wastepaper basket. That’s where he sends the worst, the most hopeless work from his students. The others he is willing to read and comment on any number of times.

This is the second critical response Krishna has got to a lecture he gave at a recent ‘cultural meet’ at the Town Hall. His lecture was on the mystic Kannadeva, going beyond the usual sobriquets of ‘saint poet’ or ‘saint reformer’. A week later, there was a one-inch comment by some Guru (Sri Sri Sri) Santosh in the inner pages of one of the local newspapers. Shiva, Krishna’s research assistant for more than fifteen years, brought the paper to him, looking apologetic. ‘Sorry, Prof. It’s not nice coverage. But I don’t like to keep anything from you.’ Krishna thanked Shiva and read:
In our tradition, we have examples of how wise men have lived before us. We are also blessed with their words of guidance handed down to us over thousands of years. These days it has become the fashion to question all this or claim to have made some discovery which turns our historic legacy into something ugly.

Professor of Literature P.S. Krishna has also fallen into this trap. In a lecture in Town Hall last week, he was supposed to describe the uplifting songs and sayings of Saint Kannadeva. Instead the professor mocked the Saint’s verses and songs, saying many of them sound like they were composed by someone else. Even more shocking, the professor insulted the Saint by saying he may have committed suicide by drowning in a river. Anyone knowledgeable in such matters knows Sri Kannadeva attained Samadhi in two stages, once in the hoary temple by the Devika River, then in the river itself.

It is sad that this professor, who has taught for more than forty years, is still connected to the university though he has already retired, and will be allowed to continue misleading students and hurting the sentiments of devout Hindus.


From “My body is my boat”

Chikka is in a boat, crossing a river.

It’s the first time he has seen a river. It’s the first time he is crossing a river. The first time he is in a snug boat made for four, going he doesn’t know where with three strangers. Strangers who call him brother. So many firsts on a single day.

Chikka turns back just once. Where is the land he has left so suddenly, so easily? That bank, the village, the jungly no-man’s-land dividing high and low, and beyond, the pond, the untouchable settlement, his father’s hut, his father: the horizon has swallowed it all up.

Peddi the ferryman is deferential to Elder Brother, friendly with Puttanna, and indulgent to Chikka. Peddi shows off what the boat and he can do together. He slows down, comes to a stop and the boat breathes on its own, moving where the river takes it. Suddenly Peddi pulls back, then pushes and pulls like a demon so the oars beat the water out of the way. The boat runs faster than the river. Peddi looks at Chikka as if to say ‘See?’ Peddi could be his grandfather, giving him a treat. This is one more miracle in a day of miracles.

It’s late in the afternoon. The sun is well past mid-sky, it’s slipping down the side of the sky. It’s spent the best, or the worst, of its strength. The sun is willing to be benign now. A breeze stirs. It turns cool, so cool. There’s gooseflesh on the river’s skin. The water ripples. There’s gooseflesh on Chikka’s arm too. That thick skin made for humiliation, or flogging, or hopelessness, is losing hold of him. It’s peeling off him, falling to the floor of the boat like blood-streaked hide.

This new Chikka, the one who has just been born, hears a humming. It’s Peddi.

Puttanna and Elder Brother have heard him too. Elder Brother leans across, taps Peddi on the shoulder. ‘Sing, brother. Sing out loud. The river’s waiting for you.’

This is all Peddi needs. He throws back his shoulders and sings as vigorously as he rows. His voice is strong, used to straddling the waves.

My body is my boat,
the boat my prayer.

How it sings,
this prayer.
How it sings.

Mid-river or safe on shore,
body and boat
song and prayer
one and the same.

Peddi sings the lines again. This time Puttanna joins him. Their voices blend so they become one. They are showing Chikka what it is to have body, boat, song and prayer become one and the same.


From “My life is my letter”

Satya rushes to the dissection hall, worrying that he is late, worrying that he will not recall what he watched and heard and did in the last session, worrying about the complete silence that has greeted his letter of complaint, worrying about his scholarship, worrying about money. He already owes Ravi and, as always, his brother Prasad. Even worse, he owes a little to Rahul, whom he hardly knows though they have been roommates for months. How can he ask either Prasad or Ravi again? And nothing would make him ask Asha. He might be worse off than Ravi and Asha. But they too bear the weight of borrowed money to be returned in driblets; the guilt, possibly, of depriving brothers and sisters; the knowledge of parents struggling every day, every week and month.

In the dissection hall, everyone’s already around the four cadavers, one for each batch of twenty-five students. As always, the pungent smell of formalin hangs in the air; it seeps into every pore of his skin. Satya blinks to clear his eyes. He can’t possibly remain at the back with the students who just watch. He pushes his way forward, ignoring the usual barbed remarks.

In his room at night, the cadaver’s face comes back to him. How peaceful it looked, embalmed in sleep. On his own face—and he doesn’t need a mirror to look at it—he can see a thousand miseries. No, he can see only one, with a small single-syllable name but as big as a monster, many-headed like some mythical beast, too many heads to be killed by Satya in just this one life. The creature is taking up every inch of space in his life, gobbling up all his air. Yes, Satya has his armour, his weapons. His yearning, his hard work, his mother’s love, his brother Prasad, Asha, Ravi. Chikkiah’s words like distant memories. And his own words—but they are still so simple and raw, how much can they do?

He picks up the blue notebook, opens it to a new page, and writes.

This is a cobbler’s child.
Don’t sit next to him.
This is a washerman’s child.
Don’t speak to him.
This child’s mother lifts buckets of shit.
Run away from him.
My tears for these children have dried up.
Must my voice too grow silent?

There are several pages in the notebook still, inviting him to fill them up. But they too will have to learn that not all dreams are allowed to live.