Culture & Society

Short Story: A Little Glory After Death

This Telugu story was written almost 50 years ago, in 1974. Fiction involving scientific elements is typically set in the Western context, with themes involving aliens, artificial intelligence, space travel and so on.

A little glory after death
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Original, in Telugu: Kinchit Bhogo Bhavishyati/किंचित भोगो भविष्यति

Translator’s note: This Telugu story was written almost 50 years ago, in 1974. Fiction involving scientific elements is typically set in the Western context, with themes involving aliens, artificial intelligence, space travel and so on. Set in India, this is a quirky, humorous story about a person of science, and science plays a major role in understanding the main incident of the story. Yet the story is very much Indian, and depicts the traditions and beliefs in some areas of the country within its setup as a Science Fiction /Humour story. While translating, I left some of the Telugu words in with in-text translations

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Sage Narada, wanderer in three worlds, was walking along the seashore of Vishakhapatnam when he felt something on his leg. He bent forward to take a closer look and realised it was a skull! A tiny, naughty thought occurred to him as he took it into his hands. Dusting the skull’s forehead with his hand, he looked at it curiously to see what its fate had been. His divine eyes could vaguely notice what Lord Brahma, the creator, and the author of a human’s fate, wrote.

‘... ….

… A lifelong wanderer …

who will die by the sea…

will have a little glory after death’

“A little glory after death? There wass no question that Lord Brahma wrote this himself. Did the Lord’s writing misfire? Is the four faced one unable to shoulder the work of writing the fate of humans anymore? Is he getting old and hence, losing his abilities? How else might I interpret this crazy writing? He wrote on the poor guy’s fate that he would crave popularity all his life, face the misfortune of dying on a seashore, and then find some glory after his death. Really?”

Sage Narada, a manasputra of Brahma, is a shrewd and smart man. Yet he could not understand the crooked logic of Brahma. “A little glory after death! What is glory after

death has already happened? Is he out of his mind? None of his four minds seem to be functioning. I should meet him face to face to find out more about this”, Narada thought to himself and urgently set out on a journey to Satyaloka, the abode of Lord Brahma, from Visakhapatnam beach.

**

Lakshmana Rao finished his pilgrimage and waited for his prayers to bear fruit. He seemed to have shaved his head as an offering to God, as he wrapped a turban around it.

“Hey, you look like Sir C.V. Raman”, a remark from some colleagues made him happy. Since they look similar, if he got lucky, he may even get a Nobel Prize like Sir Raman. A Bhatnagar award would work too. Lakshmana Rao had the habit of comparing himself with famous people. Someone once commented that Lakshmana Rao resembled Einstein, with his unkempt hair that looked like a palmyra seed after the fruit’s pulp was eaten by squirrels. Lakshmana Rao stopped any haircare for some time after hearing that.

Our Einstein enjoyed sailing a boat without its sail. Whenever he visited his parents-in-law in Amalapuram, he practiced his sailing skills on the River Godavari. He never tried on a smaller rivulet instead. It was always directly on the big river. He almost lost his life in a whirlpool during one such journey.

He later tried his hand at playing the violin. Although he couldn’t become a Bach, he managed to play a few elementary, discordant tunes. His wife always sat at the front door of their house while he practiced inside. Rao, the curious person that he was, wanted to know the reason behind everything. Unable to resist anymore, he asked her one day, “Why do you sit outside each time I practice playing my violin?”

“Oh, I just want people to know that the sounds are not because I am hitting you”, was the response. His violin practice ended before it really took off.

He learnt to smoke the pipe, with his teacher’s photo in front of him, like Ekalavya. As they say, others’ luck does not rub on you, but their bad habits do. Lakshmana Rao was eventually left the habit of smoking the pipe.

**

He had this desire to become popular right from his childhood. When Parasurama Lion Circus performed in their town, his parents waited for the troupe to take off their tents and leave soon. Who would love to see all the street dogs and cats in the town perform right in front of their house, even if they have an endless love for their son? Lakshmana Rao dreamt of becoming a Telugu film star like Nageswara Rao or NTR. But his father’s stern warning that he will end up with broken bones if he thinks of such stupid ideas diverted Lakshmana’s attention into studies.

One day, when he was in third form (eighth grade), the Telugu master was teaching metred poetry. Even though Lakshmana Rao did not turn a poet overnight when the teacher wrote “Ya-maa-taa-raa-ja-bhaa-na-sa”, the first lesson of Telugu prosody, on the blackboard, his approach to creative thought changed. He oriented himself towards academics and experimented with writing poetry in metre. To describe the scene of a tiger riding over an elephant in a circus, he created a new metre called mattasardulam, combining the metres mattebha and sardula, the words for elephant and tiger respectively in Sanskrit. He tried writing poetry in the kanda metre, with what he knew in English. His traditionalist Telugu teacher gave Lakshmana Rao a mouthful , saying he was ruining the beauty of pure metred poetry with his experiments and obsession with rhyme. “Rao, you cannot write poetry”, he declared. Yet, an undeterred Lakshmana Rao collected all his poems and stored them in the attic, with the hope that someone would publish “The Unpublished Works of the Late great Lakshmana Rao '' posthumously.

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Soon, Lakshmana Rao’s interests turned from the external world to the internal one. He sat under a coconut tree in the marsh in a lotus position and chanted “Buddham Saranam Gacchami”. But he worried about getting hit by a falling coconut or receiving bird droppings from the neighbouring black plum tree. His thoughts and fears made his mind wander in all directions and he could not concentrate on meditation.

He was convinced his name was the cause for his failure as a poet as it cannot be abbreviated easily. Did all the famous Telugu poets such as Sri Sri, Si Naa Re, Karuna Sri attain fame only due to their poetic brilliance? Even if Sri Sri’s father did not give him a random name like Pentabbai (literally, manure-man, in Telugu), if he was named Srirangam Apparao instead of Srirangam Srinivasarao, would he have had that short name Sri Sri? Would famous Telugu people like Bapu and Arudra have actually become famous had they used their real names? Lakshmana Rao felt anger at his parents for their lack of foresight.

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Couldn’t they at least have named him Ramarao? Lakshmana is always in the second position. Did his parents curse him to rot as a second fiddle his entire life? He can go and quarrel with his parents over his given name. But, what about his last name Mandapati? One should be happy it is not Mandakodi (slow, in Telugu). Sometimes, a squint is better than total blindness. But how might he resurrect his name now? He looked around for all names ranging from Karuna Sri to Vedhava Sri (Mr. Fool). How about making Mandapati into “Manda Sri?” No, that is dull. What if he were to abbreviate his first and last names, and add a Sri at the end? Mala sri (Mr. Poop). Oh, God! No way! Should he just take the first syllables in Mandapati Lakshmana Rao and call himself Malara? This sounds like Cholera. Lakshmana Rao felt frustrated.

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He pulled out of these self-absorbed thoughts when a coconut fell from the tree, landing right next to him. He shuddered at the thought that he momentarily missed deliverance through the skull due to sheer luck. A subhashitam by the Sanskrit poet Bhartrhari, translated into Telugu by Lakshmana Kavi, flashed in his mind. “When an ill-fated person took shade under a palm tree, a palm fruit fell on his head,” says the poem. Since the coconut did not fall on him, he was clearly not an ill-fated person. Lakshmana Rao’s life took a turn with this self-realisation. He got up and started thinking constructively.

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Why should the coconut fall off the tree? How could we just call it God’s will? Why couldn’t the coconut rise up into the sky? He could think of two reasons: Was the coconut just returning to its home, the way a bride who goes to live with her in-laws visits her parents? Or did this farmland have some special power that attracted the

coconut? If the second one was true, why wasn’t the earth attracting the moon? Thrilled with his thoughts, Rao shared them with others. No one was excited by these ideas. Apparently, scientists like Galileo, Kepler, and Newton discovered all this centuries ago. He tried clarifying that he did not know all that and what he theorised were his original thoughts. But no one cared. Further, they suspected his sanity.

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He did not understand why he was ridiculed until he started studying Physics in high school. Although he couldn’t write poetry in Telugu, he turned out to be good at Math, Physics and Chemistry. He learnt about several great people like Archimedes, Avogadro, Gay Lussac, Berzelius, Newton and passed out of high school with flying colours. He later enrolled in Andhra University for further studies and started living in a hostel called Saddharma Sadanam.

The university atmosphere nurtured him and his scientific knowledge bloomed. He broadened his creative horizons and gained some worldly wisdom. He was convinced that fame would come towards you even when you don’t desire it, if luck favours you. For example, he found six errors in Kepler’s calculations. Yet, by sheer luck, they cancelled each other, and the world acknowledged Kepler’s greatness.

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Like Einsteinium or Fermium, would there be a chemical element named after him? How would Malarium sound as the name of the 105th element? Is it really possible to discover such things without expensive equipment like cyclotrons and accelerators? How about discovering a comet? Despite letting everyone down after huge hype, didn’t comet Kahoutek become a household name all over the world some time ago?

There is another way to rise to fame. Propose a new theory which is hard to either prove or disprove. For example, atheists usually ask theists to prove the existence of God. But can they really prove God’s non-existence anyway? He needed that kind of theory. He explored this possibility. But such new theories don’t gain traction when normal people propose them. If Einstein proposes, even wrong propositions like a cosmological constant1 become an accepted standard. If Lord Krishna flirts with women, it is a sportive dance. What is it, if a rangasai in our neighbourhood does the same?

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**

Lakshmana Rao felt liberated upon graduation. There would be no more homework, exams and such things. He imagined himself as a bird set free from its cage. Now he might freely theorize and conduct experiments.

He joined as a part-time lecturer in Andhra University and set up a smaller lab for himself there. 'Vyasocchishtam jagat sarvam' (There is nothing in this world Sage Vyasa did not write about) is a Sanskrit saying. “Nothing is unsuitable for poetry”, the Telugu poet Sri Sri declared. Following such axioms, Lakshmana Rao explored everything under the sun. Why was India called Jambu Dweepa by our ancestors? Did the Aryans really eat beef when they first arrived in Northern India? How could Valmiki, in Ramayana, describe the geography of India in such rich detail, sitting in a forest somewhere in North India? Afterall, they did not have these roads and transport facilities back then!

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According to a legend, Arjuna drowned in the River Ganga and went to Pathala, the netherworld. In this legend, Lakshmana Rao suggested that Pathala refers to the North American continent, and that the demon Maya belongs to the Mayan civilisation. If reincarnation is a fact, how is the population of the world exploding like this? Where did all these people live in their past life? Does the Adharvaveda really describe an atom bomb? He tried hard to unify the traditional legends with Western thought with such studies, but he ended up pleasing neither.

He published an essay using the concept of entropy in Information Theory, to propose that Sanskrit is the mother of world languages. Another one of his writings proposed to prove the possibility of a body swap using the second law of Thermodynamics. He attempted to link the screams of cicadas, the lunar halo and the noise from the sea with the occurrence of rainfall through a cause-effect relationship and published on that too. He called all of this “research for people’s entertainment”.

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Nevertheless, to earn accolades from scholars, it is necessary to publish in the hard sciences. The questions related to birth and evolution of life come under the purview of Biology. Rao proposed to study them through the lens of quantum dynamics. He then

published a research paper in which he compared small, developing nations to electrons in a quantum hole, equated their economic and political status to the quantum potential, and connected them through Schrodinger’s equation, to propose how these countries can leap forward on the path of development .

A new idea today, another new thought tomorrow. But it is not easy to break new ground. One needs students to conduct research and funds to pay their stipends. Experiments need laboratory space and equipment. Some time should be spent in dealing with office politics and jealousy over his career progression. Rao persisted. Like the proverbial tortoise, he remained focused on the goal and slowly started making a name for himself in the research community. One day, he got called by the Vice Chancellor’s office. Ignoring any bad omens, he went to the Vice Chancellor’s office, wished the peon outside, and passed through the swinging door.

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“We don’t want you to remain hidden here and rot like fire covered by ashes.”

Lakshmana Rao couldn’t make out the hidden meaning behind the Vice Chancellor’s words. He pushed some tobacco into his pipe with his index finger, lit it, and stared questioningly.

“The Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) wants someone with your qualifications”, the Vice Chancellor put forward the call to fill job vacancies there. The work and pay looked good.

“Do you think I will get this job?”

“I wouldn’t have sent for you if I thought otherwise”, he laughed. “This is a good opportunity to achieve fame at a national level. A Telugu man is like a paddy plant. He won’t shine unless he is transplanted somewhere else. He has to leave his homeland to succeed. BARC has many Telugu people in respectable positions. I will personally discuss your candidacy with Sethna. What do you say?”, the Vice Chancellor asked.

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Bhabha, Sarabhai, Sethna… is he going to be the next? Who doesn’t want fame? They say that luck doesn't favour you in the future, if you don’t respond to its call in the present. So, Lakshmana Rao happily agreed.

He visited the lord on Simhachalam hill and offered his hair to the deity. Looking like C.V. Raman with a turban over his head now, he boarded the Madras Mail carrying the jar of mango pickle his grandmother gave him. “I am so relieved to see him go. Let us bring one of “our” folks into the position he vacated”, the Vice Chancellor, who came to bid him farewell, told his personal assistant. Lakshmana Rao could not hear that conversation amidst the sounds of the train engine and other surrounding noises.

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**

Lakshmana Rao’s fate seemed to have taken a good turn ever since he stepped into Mumbai. It is not possible to compare the research support here with Andhra University. He did not find the internal caste fights between a niyogi or a vaidiki, a Kamma or a Kapu here. Within a year, he published two research papers. However, the papers he submitted later stopped at his supervisor’s desk. His salary increased and so did his position and reputation. But he never got permission to publish further research.

Days went by.

One day, Lakshmana Rao felt as if he grew a few inches taller, as he walked out of the Prime Minister’s office.

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“If the countdown at ground zero is successful, he should call on the red telephone nearby and say “Buddha laughed”. If something goes wrong, “Buddham Saranam Gacchami” is the code”, he reminded himself again and again. “No one should know about the bottle of mango pickle I hid in the test tunnel number three, though”, he thought.

“Ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one.”

There was a mild tremor on the ground underneath, and swirls of wind could be seen at “ground zero”. Lakshmana Rao wanted to read a Bhagavad Gita verse, like Oppenheimer. “Divi sūrya-sahasrasya” does not suit this scenario, and he couldn’t think of an appropriate verse. So, with shivering hands, he just called on the red telephone to deliver the news.

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It has to be agreed upon that the experimental underground atomic explosion was successful. To celebrate the occasion, the western-educated people in the team opened champagne bottles as is the norm. Lakshmana Rao, somewhat traditional, ate curd rice with his grandmother’s mango pickle. There is a deep, unbreakable bond between a Telugu person and the stone of a mango fruit.

The management announced vacation for all the staff who worked vigorously on this project. As everyone got ready to visit their respective homes, Lakshmana Rao took the train to Vizag via Raipur.

As the train reached the foot of Simhachalam hills, Lakshmana Rao started feeling something in his heartbeat. Something happened to him. He became nervous and started shivering. He prayed to the lord of the hill, wondering if something had angered him. There was a churning in the stomach, which led to loose motions and vomiting in the washroom.

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By the time the train stopped somewhere close to Gopalapatnam, Rao felt very weak and couldn’t see clearly anymore. He was parched with thirst and wondered when the train would start. The co-passengers suspected it was cholera and hesitated to come near him or touch him. When the train slowly reached Visakhapatnam, Rao crashed the moment he got off the train and stepped on the platform. Now, when it seemed like his life-long dream for fame had come true, he blew off like a lamp that ran out of oil. Something in the Telugu land’s air took away a healthy man’s life as an offering.

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New Delhi found Lakshmana Rao’s death shocking. The military took charge of his corpse within minutes and their doctors did an autopsy under government supervision. The nation knew about his death only after they confirmed radiation was not the cause. Somehow, the United States government and the military also learnt about this news.

Despite much effort, the doctors could not figure out how he died, and the government refused to conduct last rites on the body without knowing the reason. Pathologists dissected his body in search of a cause of death.

Two days later, Lakshmana Rao’s colleague passed away in Madras. He too started experiencing chills and tremors first, followed by vomiting, loose motions, dry skin and death happened in a few minutes.

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Is it already spring if just two cuckoos sing? Is it a new disease if two people die in the same way? Not usually, but the two happen to be colleagues too. So, they initially suspected some sort of poisoning or a new infectious disease. The police started investigating a potential case of deliberate poisoning, while a team of doctors were appointed to test the infectious disease hypothesis. As these efforts went on, more people started dying.

The new disease was given a temporary title “MLR Syndrome”, to mean “the disease that Mandapati Lakshmana Rao got”. Since the disease had the symptoms of both malaria and cholera, it should be called “Malara”, a journalist suggested. Taking the first syllables of Lakshmana Rao’s name also leads to “Malara”, a young scientist pointed out.

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Malara spread from India into Pakistan and Bangladesh like wildfire. They began to get concerned as well. Pakistan’s prime minister, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, jumped around like a drunk monkey that had stepped on fire. “This is the consequence if we let every eastern country fire atomic bombs”, Nixon remarked, forgetting his own country’s past. He announced in a press meet that he would organise an enquiry, led by the UN, to take action on the country responsible for spreading this epidemic.

This international attention aroused the curiosity of Indian officials too. They conducted a thorough search of the location from which the atom bomb exploded, and found the pickle jar the late Ma.La.Ra. had stored secretly in test tunnel number three. However, it was not spoiled, and remained fresh. They searched Lakshmana Rao’s o

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Bombay, as all the first round deaths connected to his neighbours at work. They found another pickle jar there.

Here is what they found out, eventually: there was an old television set in Lakshmana Rao’s office room. The flyback transformer in the television malfunctioned and its vacuum tube started generating x-rays. The pickle jar sat on the shelf next to the table with the television set. Moisture from the surroundings brought some harmless mould into the pickle jar, which would have vanished with some exposure to sunlight. Instead, the exposure of this harmless mould to those x-rays resulted in a disaster.

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Like all cells, the mould also has chromosomes and the genes that reside in chromosomes are responsible for making proteins. There is an amino acid called cystine in the protein molecules made by mould. If we imagine the protein molecule as a chain of beads, we can think of cystine as a twin bead. The same bead appears twice in the chain. For this to happen, the chain should double up and bend. Under the influence of the x-rays from the television set, the chromosomes in the mould were damaged which, in turn, split the disulphide bond between the twin beads. This led to a chemical reaction with the hydrogen atoms in the atmospheric moisture, which resulted in the formation of thiol groups. As a result, cystine got converted to cysteine and the protein molecule’s curve structure changed. This small change resulted in a chain reaction, making a harmless mould the cause of an epidemic.

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If there was any change in the energy from the x-rays, such a mutation would not have happened as the thiol group in the cysteine would have destroyed itself with a slight change in the radiation dose. Such mutated bacteria can actually kill a person very quickly. They come out of the patient’s body in the form of spit, vomit and loose motions, dry up, become spores and float in air. They get more powerful each time they get exposed to atmospheric moisture and, hence, are able to travel in the air, killing people. But the powerful x-rays born out of the atomic explosion entered the pickle jar in test tunnel number three and actually killed the mutated bacteria. So, if someone ate the pickle from this jar, they may have been affected by the radiation, but that would not have caused an epidemic.

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“So, the reason for this epidemic in South Asia is not some mishap by India while testing the atom bomb. The poorly built television set is the main culprit”, the committee submitted in its report.

One of the journalists tried to investigate further, to transfer responsibility to the company and the country where the television set was built. This was not a difficult task. The television set had it in large font that this was gifted by the US government to India as a part of the P.L.480 program. The Indian government shared the committee’s report as well as the journalist’s investigative account in a magazine to both the US government and the UN. For reasons unknown, it was never discussed in the General Assembly.

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**

Lord Brahma glanced thoughtfully at the skull in his hands, and said “I agree, son. I made a mistake. I should have written ‘a great glory after death’ instead”. Narada noticed the sarcasm in his father’s statement. The author of our fate explained his comment.

“The area between the Narasimhaswamy Temple in Simhachalam to Kukkuteswara Temple in Pithapuram is polluted by the presence of the demon Gaya’s remains. This skull belongs to an unlucky person born in that region, who dreamt of fame all his life. No one can change their fate. He travelled all over the country but died soon after he entered this area. He became known to the world only after his death. So, I wrote “a little glory after his death” in his fate.

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“Why do you now think you should have called it a “great glory” instead?”

In a tone that seemed like he wanted to console a sullen Narada, Virinchi replied with a smile,“This skull should have just disappeared into the folds of nature. Instead, it fell into the hands of a devarshi like you, and reached Satyaloka, into my own hands. How is this ‘a little glory’?”

“Narayana, Narayana!” Narada took leave from Brahma and left, satisfied with this answer.

*****

Story behind this story, in author’s words: This story first appeared in Andhra Patrika weekly, in September 1974. My father Vemuri Someswara Rao used to narrate the first and last sections of this story. What is in between is my creation.

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Footnote

1. Cosmological constant is a term that Albert Einstein initially added to the field equations of his general theory of relativity and later retracted. It was believed to be of the value zero by physicists. However, in the late 90s, the views of physicists changed and, now, they again think it has a non-zero value. This story was written in the period when the cosmological constant was believed to be zero.

Author: Dr Venkateswara Rao Vemuri (b. 1938) is a retired professor in Computer Science from University of California, Davis, USA. He writes in Telugu and has published several popular science books and three collections of short stories over the past decades. The present story first appeared in Andhra Patrika Telugu weekly in 1974, and, later, in the author’s short story collection named after this story.

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Translator: Sowmya V.B. (b. 1984) is a Computer Science researcher by profession, and an occasional translator. Her translations of Telugu short stories have appeared in Indian and international webzines and journals over the past one year.

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