25 July 2011 Books fiction: short story

An Untitled Tale

An unpublished Kannada short story of A.K. Ramanujan which was discovered in a stack of papers by his wife
An Untitled Tale
Courtesy: K.N. Raghavendra Rao

This is an unpublished Kannada short story of A.K. Ramanujan. It was discovered in a stack of papers by his wife, Molly A. Daniels-Ramanujan, and given to playwright-friend Girish Karnad a few years after Ramanujan’s death in 1993. The papers contain a few humour pieces, poems and notes for a novel. They remained unpublished primarily because they were works in progress. Ramanujan was known to be meticulous with his drafts and spoke of revising them over and over again. Now, these papers will be published by Manohara Grantha Mala in a collected volume. Ramanujan strode many a linguistic cosmos but did a fair amount of creative writing in Kannada. He had published three anthologies of poems, one novel, four short stories, two radio plays, a few essays and a tiny volume on proverbs. ‘An Untitled Tale’ is a story of a sensitive man trying to assign a larger matrix and meaning to life. There is a continuum of discovery and rediscovery of the self through mundane events. Like many of his other Kannada writings, this one too has a genial voice and a distinct autobiographical feel.

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Murthy was teaching Kannada in Chicago. One day he was mildly amused to see a mouse in his office room. A little later, like in a typical Mysore home, he called his secretary and sourced a trap. Instead of keeping a piece of coconut or vada, as they do back home, he laced a slice of yellow American cheese inside the trap.

Next day, when Murthy returned to the office he found a mouse caught in the trap. It had been lured by the cheese and now, not knowing what to do, was looking around with the wide open innocence of its eyes. Its spring-like tail was caught in the door of the trap. Murthy felt agonised by the sight. He regretted he had asked his secretary to cut its tail and snuff its life out with an odourless American rat poison.

Letters had arrived and there was one from Mysore. It informed him that his father’s tuberculosis had relapsed. This news was disturbing. When he was visiting home, father had been sent to the sanatorium. Only last month, after a mild altercation between his parents and his wife, his father had written a very harsh letter. His wife too had presented her version of the incident. Murthy wrote back stern mails to both of them. He wrote not one, but three letters of reprimand. Given Murthy’s nature, even his reprimand had a soft core and coating. In the same month that the letters were written, his father’s ailment had resurfaced and had to be taken to the hospital. This caused ripples of remorse in his mind. His conscience was pricked. In the morning it was the mouse and now the father.

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***

Last week, when I was in office the secretary said there was a call from home. My wife rarely called, so with a bit of anxiety jumbled up with fear and curiosity, I picked up the receiver and said “hello”. My wife spoke hurriedly: “Krithika wants to talk to you. It is a very urgent matter.” Krithika was not even five. She would get there in May. “What is the hurry?” I asked. “She has caught a butterfly in her school garden and her teacher has put it into a glass bottle, sealed the lid with a tape and sent it home,” my wife rattled off. “Che che, what nonsense! Will it survive if bottled? Ask her to let it free after a while. Let the poor thing survive,” I said. I had a lot of sympathy for butterflies. “Why don’t you tell Krithika?” my wife said and handed over the phone to the daughter who was jumping around. From a stable, middle-aged voice, I started hearing the heaving breath of a child on the phone: “Daddy, daddy, I caught a butterfly in school.”

“How did you catch it?”

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“It was sitting on a flower with its wings up, just like the way I sit with my skirt upon the potty. I went slowly and caught it.”

“Didn’t it cry?”

“Come on daddy, does a butterfly ever cry? It was quiet.”

“Didn’t it do anything?”

“It beat its legs a little and perhaps it had caught cold, so it rubbed its nose.”

“The wings didn’t break I hope?”

“No. No. I picked it up very carefully.”

Krithika asked for a kiss on the phone, I didn’t give her one. I felt she was squeezing the juice out of the little insect.

“Where is the butterfly now?” I asked.

“It’s here on the table.”

“Is it sitting even without making an effort to fly?”

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“It is lifting and dropping its wings slowly inside the bottle.”

“Inside the bottle? Didn’t mummy ask you to let it go? Your teacher has put it into a bottle and sealed its mouth. How do you expect it to breathe?”

“I have made a hole in the lid, so that it can breathe.”

“Krithika, you’ll let it go after a while, won’t you?”

“No. It is my butterfly,” she asserted.

“If you keep it shut inside a bottle, it will die.”

“No. It is my butterfly. I’ll give air to it. I will keep it under a fan.”

“That wouldn’t be enough. It will die. What will you do if it dies?”

“Daddy, I have to go. I have a lot of work.” The daughter borrowed an adult phrase and put the receiver down.

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Later, my wife must have had a chat with Krithika: “Butterflies don’t live long. It is already old. How correct is it to lock it up without fresh air and space to fly around? It is like somebody locking up your grandmother and killing her.”

The world that my eyes see is real. The rest is only rumour. However much I wipe my glasses, what I finally see is what my eyes take in. That is the capture. That is the vision.

Krithika was unwilling to believe this. She countered the comparison by saying the butterfly’s hair had not greyed. Its wings weren’t wrinkled as yet. It is strong and therefore flying around. But then her mother said: “You give this a thought and make a decision soon.” The daughter, again, borrowed an adult phrase: “I will give it a thought before I go to bed,” she said. To that her mother replied: “Will the poor creature be alive till then? Hope it’ll keep its breath until you develop some compassion.”

After nearly an hour, Krithika brought the bottle to her mother, tore off the plaster and opened the lid, walked down three stairs and, with tenants as witnesses, let the butterfly out on the grass in the backyard. It too, apparently, did not prefer to come out instantly. It was only in half a mind to fly out. Slugging itself on the round walls of the bottle, it slowly inched towards the mouth. It lifted and dropped its wings like a skirt a few times, and then, finally, flew away. Krithika performed its dilemma, its slowness and various postures of its dancing wings. In all, the life of the butterfly was extended by a couple of hours.

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Some other girl may have held it the very next minute and put it into an Ovaltine bottle. A leap, perhaps, from one bottle to another. The dust on its wings, perhaps, was passed on to another tiny finger.

A few days later my wife went to Krithika’s school and narrated how her daughter had been persuaded to let go the butterfly. The teacher didn’t seem to appreciate it. She must have thought that Hindus are weird. That they live in the past. That they believe all kinds of things—rebirth, being reborn as a cockroach etc. That the Orientals believe in a lot of superstitions. What was wrong if the kid had played around with the butterfly?

Wife and children, history, the books written by others, teachers who taught a few languages and friends who are willing to teach many more. I too have hundreds of these everyday networks, where we make promises and extract them as well. But truly speaking, there is only me for myself. I have to eat and bathe myself. It is my body that has to get wet. There is no proxy here. The world that my eyes see is real. What I see is my world. The rest is only a rumour. Books, teachers and others may try to make me look at something, but I should see it, I should realise it. However much I may write and rewrite; however much I may apply kohl to my eyes and wipe the glasses of my spectacles; what I finally see and internalise is what my eyes take in. That is the capture. That is the vision.

***

This world and that world, he wants both of them. He seeks the sensual in meaning and the meaning in sensual. He wants to see dharma and moksha in both of them. He is a cunning fellow. He’d assign two breasts even to moksha. If it had a savings bank account, then that would be even better for him.

***

Jiddu Krishnamurthy was giving a discourse outside Madras. I had reached there by a taxi. I sat amidst the trees and made notes. I thought I should write this up as a story and purchased his book which had the lecture. What is written here is actually a reconstruction of his lecture. When I was writing, I wondered if I could appropriate his lecture in such a disunited and absurd fashion. Isn’t it unfair? Isn’t it vulgar? Questions do arise, but there’s no answer. On the stage beside him sat an old lady, who was his stenographer. All the strands of grey hair on Krishnamurthy’s head sat in one direction.

This world, that world, he wants both of them. He is a cunning fellow. He’d assign two breasts even to moksha. If it had a savings bank account, then that would be even better.

The fart that was locked inside came out; the foul smell too. I pretended as if nothing had happened. Beside me was my wife. At a distance was an American girl in padmasana; an American boy in kurta and dhoti etc. Suddenly Krishnamurthy got up and walked through the trees in twilight shadows without looking back. He climbed the verandah stairs briskly and went into a house with yellow walls. There was a crowd, chairs, dried leaves and the tree canopy above. There was the chatter of words spoken and heard. A hillock of books. We walked to catch a bus since we didn’t get a taxi. Suddenly, in front of everyone I kissed my wife. Feeling a little awkward, I looked around. It appeared none had seen me plant the kiss. They were unto themselves. We were standing below the street lights though. Someone at a distance must have caught a glimpse of what I did. How could it be possible that none had seen me do it? My wife, who was to my left, put her arm around my waist and leaned over me. The pressure, the support and the warmth added a gentle pace to the blood flow. The Krishnamurthy book in my hand slipped and fell on the ground. I picked it up immediately and dusted it. Luckily it didn’t fall into a puddle close by. My wife had moved some four feet away. The bus arrived.

***

Krithika had fallen into the coal basement. As we looked in through the open window, there was darkness inside. I felt she had aged a hundred years and had died there. Outside, a boy kept entreating her not to cry. After she was pulled out, she was rushed to the hospital. She vomited, became pale and slept. Thankfully, the window through which she was pulled out did not have a glass. If the glass were to be there, it would have scraped her body. Thankfully, she didn’t fall too deep. She had landed on a leftover heap of coal broken into small pieces. If not, she would have hurt her spine. Thankfully, it was summer, in winter the furnace would have been on. The heat for the entire house was generated there. If she had fallen in winter, she would have been charred to death. Thankfully, she survived without much injury.

Often, what reminds me as a backdrop to this story is my fall and survival from the third floor.


Translated from Kannada by Sugata Srinivasaraju

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