The Untouchable Spring
Published in 2000 Antarani Vasantam (The Untouchable Spring), a novel in Alex Haley’s Roots mold, took the Telugu literary world by storm and has run into three reprints. Here we present a translation of the first chapter that deals with the mythical story that explores the relationship between today’s dalits and the cow, specifically the dead cow. In a mocking tone, it looks at how the dalit folk memory, too, has been colonised by brahminical narratives.
First, I’ll introduce you to Ruth. And then, I’ll go into the story. Those who know her as an author might say don’t you dare introduce our admired author to us. True. She has written many stories. A lot of poems. But I’m not about to introduce the author Ruth or her work. Just Ruth. The Ruth known to me.
Ruth sits alone every day. After Ruben’s death she has been doing this for many years.
Sitting like that, alone, she looks into the sky. She sights a lonely star in the sky. The other stars disappear as if they have nothing to do with her. Then, a painting of Jesus-on-the-cross on a partly-broken high wall appears before her eyes.
At that moment, that area would appear beautiful. More than medication, such an environment would cure the patients. She used to be a nurse there. Her Ruben was an instructor at the hospital.
The past is slipping away. The present comes and stands in front. If you build a nest and sit in the past, even the present becomes the past. But her memory is not the past, says Ruth. Ruben is always the present for her, she says.
Ruben left her life as silently as he came into it. And he didn’t leave just like that. As long as he was there, it was spring. At every turn, he told several things; at every moment a memory jnapakam bloomed; memories bloomed and withered. He told stories. Wove poetry. Causing an upheaval, he left a lasting memory in her heart. In fact, it is not memory. It’s a gushing flow. How to keep such a great flow suppressed?
He started narrating one moonlit night. Extended it several nights. He repeated himself. He laughed as he spoke. As he narrated, he cried. His eyes would shine in those moments. His eyes would moisten then. She hid that shining in her eyes. She smeared that wetness over her lashes. In fact, what she shared was not just memories. But the wetness of the eyes. It squeezes your heart. Touches you deeply. Haunts you.
Ruben and his ancestors swam in the ruthless floodwaters. Some got swept away. Some, like untiring boatmen, searched for shores. Such was her Ruben. Wonderful, so beautiful, and untouchable. These words may sound strange. But Ruth speaks them so naturally, easily. She used to utter these words to Ruben. ‘O my beautiful untouchable man,’ she used to address him often. Ruben would then look around like a little child. His eyes would be filled with innocence.
This was years ago. Seems yesterday-like. No, not yesterday, it’s as if it was unfolding before her eyes right now. She set off with him when he said he would show her his forefathers’ place. On foot. Just days after marriage. The first time she was walking alone with him after marriage. A walk along the lake. The sky sharing its moonlight. The commotion caused by the tossing-up of fish in the lake. Walking with him, the sense of loneliness in being together. A strange lonely feeling.
It was then that he started narrating.
A shower of moonlight.
The movement of quiet waves in the lake.
The untouchable spring.
"We’ve walked a long distance. We’ve to walk as much. It might take the whole night. How’s it with you? Is it tiring?"
"No. It’s novel. It’s strange."
"Shall I tell you the story?"
Ruben didn’t start the story. One didn’t know what was it that had affected him. The night bird whistled past making a piercing sound. They stood watching as long and as far the moonlight let them. The shrill bird-cry continued to be heard.
"The moon-bird - always like that - cries as if it’s doomsday. It runs as if being chased. Won’t be seen again. Won’t be heard again."
Ruth would not agree if Ruben said the same thing now. She can always see it in her memory. Always hear it. Whenever remembering Ruben’s story she would hear/sight the moon-bird.
The story Ruben’s thatha (grandpa) was told by his thatha. Siva would figure in that story. Parvati would be there. And with them, Kamadhenu the cow would be there. It would give honey-soaked milk. Generally, cow’s milk is not honey-soaked. But Kamadhenu’s milk is honey-like. With that milk Parvati would throw a feast to devataas and devas (celestial beings). Only the devas were invited to that feast. Rishis (sages) were special guests.
There was a young fellow to graze this extraordinary cow. Chennaiah. One day the youth has an urge to drink the honeyed-milk. He expresses his desire to Parvati. Parvati says no. But that boy would not suppress his urge. He keeps at it with Parvati. Go tell Kamadhenu about your urge, she tells him. He does as told. He expresses his desire to Kamadhenu. Strange. Listening to his desire, Kamadhenu simply collapses. She falls dead and silent.
Siva-Parvati come to know of Kamadhenu’s death. The news reaches the devas-devatas. Siva-Parvati feel that the meat of Kamadhenu should be cooked and the devas-devatas should be offered a feast. If Kamadhenu’s honeyed milk could be so tasty, then how would its meat taste? — so thinking, the devas and devatas and rishis came and stood salivating around the dead Kamadhenu.
There was a little problem though. Kamadhenu had to be shifted from the place of its death to another. That’s the custom (aacharam), said the deva-devatas. If that’s not done, the sastras would not approve of it, said the rishis. If that’s it, so be it, they said. But the strength of all the devas and devatas was not enough to move Kamadhenu. Finally, the rishis made a suggestion. Only Jambavan has the strength to move it, they said. Siva called for Chennaiah. And ordered him to summon Jambavan.
Chennaiah shouted in such a way that the corners of the earth and sky could hear him. No one knew if Jambavan descended from the skies or emerged from the earth. He certainly did come from one of the three worlds. He saw Kamadhenu. He looked at the devas and devatas. He addressed the rishis. They all told him what he had to do. That’s it. Jambavan lifted Kamadhenu with his left hand. The devas-devatas blessed Jambavan. The rishis made eulogistic noises. On such occasions that’s how devas, devatas and rishis tend to behave. That’s tradition, possibly. They then told him how far to take Kamadhenu and where to place it. As all the devas, devatas and rishis followed him, Jambavan placed Kamadhenu where they wanted him to.
The devatas butchered that cow. Skinned it. Then they asked Jambavan to divide the butchered meat into two parts. Of the two halves, they asked him to cook only one. They would perform a ritual mantra on the second half and bring Kamadhenu back to life, they said. They left the scene. They were immersed in discussions about the taste of the beef they were going to eat.
Jambavan did not make two halves of Kamadhenu’s meat as wished by them. He started cooking the entire meat. When it was being stirred, a piece of the cooking meat fell on the ground. It was muddied. That piece would be considered impure. Chennaiah cleaned the piece. He put it back into the boiling beef.
Siva-Parvati come to know of this. The devas and devatas are angry with Jambavan for not having divided the beef into two portions. They are angry with Chennaiah for having mixed an impure piece into the beef being cooked. Once angered, not just Siva, any god or devata is only capable of cursing. Siva curses. You will live in Kaliyuga eating the meat of dead cows and sweeping the streets, he curses Jambavan and Chennaiah. All the devas, devatas and rishis pitch in and say, may the curse last forever.
Jambavan and Chennaiah go on to eat the cooked beef. In Kaliyuga, Jambavan’s progeny become Madigas. Chennaiah’s children become Malas.
As if the story-telling was over, Ruben lifted his head and looked at Ruth. She did not speak a word. She remained silent.
"How is this piece of fiction," he said, laughing.
"My thatha told it in a believable manner. His thatha narrated it as if it were the well-believed truth. It’s the story of your and my birth. Where’s our birth? In a curse. It’s in the anger of the devatas. In the piece of meat that splattered and fell. Why is it so?" he said all this as if interrogating for answers, but he did not speak these words angrily. She didn’t say anything immediately. She searched for the moonlight-bird. It would be nice if it cried and went past, she felt. She told the same to Ruben. I’ll call the moon-bird, he said. Precisely like that, almost like the moon-bird, he called. Piercing the silence his call must have been heard far and wide. Must have echoed a good distance.
In those days the story seemed strange and wondrous but nothing else. Now it does not seem as strange. It seems grotesque. It seems there cannot be a story more cruel and wicked than this. Today, in Ruben’s laugh she can sense rejection and bitter sarcasm towards the story. She remembers. If she re-examined every detail now, when she had thoughtlessly mentioned the moon-bird that day, Ruben had mimicked the bird. Now she realises. It was not compliance, she feels. That day, she was not alive to the anguish in that compliance. It was truly an untouchable person’s anguish. It was a protest against a cruel and unjust portrayal of their origin and a protest against the betrayal done to him in history. Really, a protest. A rejection.
Which is why her memory is not the past, says Ruth. That’s an untouchable spring, she says. It is the roar of a sea whose waves reach the skies and break there downwards with a thundering noise. That spring has no end. Only continuance... like a song... like poetry dredging the depths, exploring inner selves...
(Translated from Telugu by Siriyavan Anand with help from Surendra, beef-eating nondalits both.)
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