Telugu original: ఇదిప్పుడు మన దేశమే
They gave me a card and suggested I meet the officer, and so I went in. The officer sitting in the chair wore a white turban, with a blue cloth wrapped around his chin. He clearly was an officer and there were epaulets on his shoulders.
“So, you have come,” he remarked in Hindi.
“Yes,” I responded in English.
“Is it completely unusable?”
“Yes, totally useless.”
“Hmm,” he sighed. Does sigh have a language? I could not make out in what language he sighed.
He and I were separated by a table full of papers. There was a chair next to me. It was empty. I sat in that chair. His eyes stared at me although he did not lift his face up fully. He seemed to be busy looking at some documents.
“A big insurance company needs a gatekeeper. Why don’t you join there? It is not a demanding job. There would be a chair near the gate or beside a wall or placed against it. You just have to sit there all day. It is a good job. You can accept the offer,” he suggested in a mixture of Hindi and English.
“No, thanks,” I replied.
“I don’t like sitting. I couldn’t get used to it in my current job either.”
“Listen to me,” he said, condescendingly, in Hindi.
“Look, you appear strong and seem to be doing alright. You are healthy and smart. Think about it. You are now twenty-nine years old. You have a few decades of life left. Let us assume we start to give you a pension from now. Twelve months a year, and forty rupees a month, makes it 480 rupees a year. Think about all this money for, say, 480 months (i.e., 40 years). Do you know how much money that amounts to? Remember, you are not the only such person. Do you see how much money goes into making these non-profitable payments every month? I hope you understand how much of a loss it is for the government to continue giving a pension for several years to all people like you. Imagine what could happen if all that money was instead spent on implementing five-year plans for the development of the country! Remember, this is our country now! We are now an independent nation. Listen to me. Don’t refuse this job offer,” the officer paused.
“Can I take that as a yes?”
“No, I don’t want to do that job which requires me to lean against the wall all day, sir.”
“Don’t be crazy,” the officer reprimanded me in a mild and friendly manner.
“I am not crazy. I am a strong and intelligent person. I thought about this job and I don’t want it,” I replied.
Reclining on the chair with his head touching its headrest, and resting his legs on the table along the drawer slides, he yawned slowly. His shoes shone bright, befitting his status, but the sole was dirty with wet mud stuck to it.
“Dekho dost, listen to me. Did you think of the expenses incurred by the government just for the sake of your one leg? Don’t you think the pension is a lot of money to pay each month for several years?”
I couldn’t rest my head on the headrest like him, but I sat upright, changing my relaxed posture. Placing my elbow on the table, I rested my chin in my palm.
“Dekhiye sahib! Listen to me first. You say my leg is expensive. But you are mistaken. It is much more expensive than you think. Do you want me to tell you how? Will you listen?”
“I have a lot to do,” the officer replied.
“That is alright. Please listen,” I said, and continued.
“This leg of mine is now gone, but it incurred a lot of expense for the government afterwards. On that day, our ship arrived at the dockyard for repairs. We were doing a trial run on the last day, to ensure everything was alright. Suddenly, we discovered a hole in the pipe that carries the steam from the boiler room to the engine room. The engine room was quickly enveloped by the steam. The people in that room at that moment were all higher officials. They had visited to see the trial and approve the process. The dockyard superintendent, commanding engineer, chief engineer, and our captain - all stood there, lined up, in the engine room. There was only one way out of that room and this was through a ladder with iron rungs that leads to the upper floor. Everyone ran towards it.
But the visibility was already very poor. I was the closest to the ladder, and quickly climbed it, not to escape, but to close the emergency valve. That would stop the incoming steam, and everyone would be saved. If not, at least four or five people would burn in the heat as if they were fried in oil. In a rush to quickly climb the ladder, one of my legs got stuck between the iron rungs. Each step of the ladder had two iron rungs; the rungs separated by a small gap. My leg fell into that gap. As I pulled my leg up quickly, I heard a bone crack. The outer skin peeled off too, but I did not bother about these injuries at that moment. I felt too powerful for a few moments. It was only after closing the valve that I realized I was limping on one leg to reach it. Are you listening?”
“I have a lot more work to do,” the officer said.
“That is alright. It is your job to listen to people like me. You listen to everything, and do what you want to do anyway. This is what you do every day, isn’t it? Listen to me, now. All those prominent officers survived that incident. One of the stoker boys who was close to that leaky pipe died, though. The steam hit his eyes with a 250-pound force, as he was too close. He fell and burned in the steam. The government did not have to spend a penny on him. He worked for hardly six months at thirty-five rupees a month. Was it at any expense for the government? Now, all those surviving officers are healthy and on full pay. They are, on the average, in their mid-forties. All they do is eat the navy food, drink British-made whisky, and breathe the sea breeze quietly. So, they will remain healthy, and will live at least for another twenty years. 12 months a year, 30 days a month makes it 30×12, 360 days a year. 20 times 360… okay, let us consider an average payment of 1500 rupees per month in pensions. Imagine paying that amount for twenty years for those four people. What a waste of government money that would be, now! My leg is gone, but it brought so much expense to the government, like I said earlier!”
“No doubt, you have gone mad!”
“Nahin, Sahib. Does anyone else have such an expensive leg in this whole world? Had I been in any other spot on that day, the officers wouldn’t have survived, as they couldn’t have run up so quickly. Everyone would have burned alive where they stood, including me. This question about my pension wouldn’t have arisen, then. All our government’s five-year plans would have been implemented easily. Here is the problem, though ‒ I have been a strong man from the beginning. I am healthy, strong-hearted, and can think straight even in challenging situations.”
“Okay, will you do that job that lets you lean against the wall, or no?”
“No,” I stood up on one leg, and left the room.
(Translator’s Note: This short story was written in the 1950s, although the exact date of publication is unknown. The earliest available reprint is from 1967 and most recent is a 2021 reprint. It presents an interesting, and still relevant discussion between an ex-service man and a government official, in the early years after India’s independence from the British. In terms of translation, I tried to retain some of the original flavor by keeping the sentence structure like in the original at some places and by leaving a couple of Hindi/Telugu words untranslated.
Author: Atluri Picheswara Rao (1925-1966) was a Naval engineer, journalist, author, translator, and a film script writer. He is most known for his Telugu short stories, and for translations of novels from Hindi and Russian into Telugu. His stories depict the India of late 1940s and 50s, the period around which British rule ended and India became an independent nation. The author’s experience serving in the Indian navy (Royal Indian Navy, before independence), brings a unique flavor to his short stories. A collection of his short stories appeared in a new reprint in 2021.
Translator: Sowmya V.B. (b. 1984) translates in Telugu and English, and has published two translated books in the past. Her translations of Telugu short stories appeared in Indian and international web magazines over the past one year. Her translated work is listed here.)