Rock Bottom by Kodavatiganti Kutumbara
Telugu original by Kodavatiganti Kutumbarao, in "Kathasagaram" anthology, Desi Kavitha Mandali, Vijayawada. Publication date:?? Translated and posted with permission by Ananda Kishore.
I wasn't generally fond of relatives. But having stayed in a foreign land away from relatives for eight years, I had accumulated some fondness for relatives. That's why I started reading eagerly the letter Ramulu wrote.
He wrote a twelve-page letter. When I looked at the bunch of papers I couldn't but smile; he didn't change. Once upon a time we used to write very long letters to each other. I couldn't tell now what we used to write. But no literature gave us the pleasure those letters gave. However, I lost the ability to write long letters long ago . As the place and surroundings changed, I also changed. Having stayed in the same place, he didn't change. If I gave a little encouragement, even today he could write a twelve-page letter a week.
Conceited, man ascribes false importance to his own wants. Human institutions and human laws also perhaps attribute false powers to man, whether he does right or wrong. Perhaps individuals aren't capable of changing the history and society. I am not doubting the social forces. Without them, there wouldn't be so much growth in civilization and culture. But considering individuals, there doesn't seem to be much of a difference between them and other creatures that routinely adjust to their environment. We can understand trees getting rotten when infested by termites, crops blooming when manured, dogs drooling when presented with food. It seems we cannot understand as easily men doing "right" things and "wrong" things. We pretend that a thief has the power to decide to steal or not, a soldier in war has the power to decide to die or not. It seems that our social and moral beliefs are based on such pretenses. I don't mean we should live anarchially, abandoning all principles. All I ask is why don't we spend a little part of our effort to change individuals in changing the surroundings; why do we label antinational and antisocial those who try to change the surroundings.
2I started reading Ramulu's letter eagerly. My enthusiasm started to wane as I read. I didn't think there was one good news in that long letter. But he wrote as if that was all ordinary news.
All my relatives got scattered. Some of them, probably due to war, went to distant places. I didn't pity myself for coming this far, but I pitied them. Some of their children died. Some of them lost husbands, some wives. Some had to sell off their property. Some got married and set up families. Some begot two or three children. For some reason, even these appeared to me as bad news.
I felt that my relatives' lives got muddled as soon as I left, and it wouldn't have happened thus had I stayed there. The real truth is that we can tolerate and adjust to changes that take place in front of us; but it is difficult to accept changes that happen elsewhere. That's why we get agitated by revolutions that take place in foreign countries, and revolutions by other classes.
3I continued reading his letter perfunctorily. Suddenly some incredible things started to appear in the letter. I couldn't comprehend them easily. I must have read the same lines at least half a dozen times, probably thinking they would change on a later reading. Or I merely wanted to postpone thinking about them.
But to no avail. The sentences wouldn't change. I proved to myself half a dozen times that I had read them properly. I postponed for five minutes thinking about Ganapathi becoming a begger. How long could I postpone it?
But, really, what was there to think about such a horrible news? Couldn't I imagine what Ganapathi would think if he came to know I was begging in this foreign land? Actually, that was better. Nobody would bother if I begged here. To live by alms was no simple task. It required lineage and personal experience. Where would he get all that from? Even if he couldn't live but by alms, how could my relatives let him do that?
Suddenly I became very angry with Ramulu. What was he doing?
I wouldn't know how anyone could be apathetic to so abominable events. How could so many people die of hunger under our very noses? I couldn't tolerate people who could observe life but behave as though they were incapable of changing it. If a reporter wrote "So may people died of hunger today in Calcutta streets", my blood used to boil. Why couldn't this reporter feed at least one of them? Couldn't he do that with the money he spent on the telegram he sent to the newspaper reporting it?
Maybe I was mistaken. News reporters abounded in the world. They reported events they were capable of changing. Perhaps it wasn't as easy to change events as I thought.
Ramulu was reasonably well to do. Ganapathi was as close a relative to him as I was. If he wrote, "I gave shelter to starving Ganapathi and his family. We don't have enough to feed everyone well, so we are eating only once a day," it would have sounded right to me. Not even that much was needed. I couldn't understand why he didn't write, "I am sending Ganapathi ten rupees a month."
When I thought of this, I folded the letter, kept it aside, and wired twenty rupees to Ganapathi.
4I accumulated twenty days of leave and two hundred rupees in the bank. I wanted to combine them and visit all my relatives.
I started my journey.
I was happy to see each of my relatives. But it appeared to be a deception to leave after spending only a day or a half. There is real fondness in sharing their life and sorrows. There is no satisfaction in visiting them once in several years, making them extend their hospitality, and then leaving them hurriedly.
I could spend more time with them, but I was anxious to see Ramulu and Ganapathi.
I thought more about Ganapathi. He ruined his life. His father earned well but spent more than he earned. There was nothing that he didn't want to take part in. Half of the congress movement in our village was thanks to him. He got Ganapathi out of his regular school and joined him in the national school in my village. He made Ganapathi weave cloth in school, turn Charakha at home. The national school eventually disintegrated and a flour mill and a carpentry shop were founded where once the school was. Then he made Ganapathi learn Sabdamanjari, Amarakosam, and traditional literature.
When Ganapathi's father died, his family became helpless. They built a small hut with whatever remained of the two hundred rupees he left them, in a tiny piece of land that he bought before dying. Ganapathi's mother sold her little jewelry. With that money they started dragging their life.
Ganapathi tried hard to earn ten rupees a month. He apprenticed in a grocery shop, he volunteered services to a lawyer. He taught some kids Sanskrit. If he earned one month, he drew a blank the next month. Finally, his problems got solved unexpectedly. A distant relative died, bequeathing him four acres of land. That was a major turn in his life. That was when I left that place.
Ganapathi was the only one of our relatives who recognized the hard realities of life. He recognized the nature of money and society, probably because he didn't acquire the false culture that we acquired through our English education.
We used to joke, "This guy is destined to join the communists!"
Since such a guy was reduced to begging, I thought he must have become a communist by now. When the Congress came to power in 1947, he met a few Congress bigwigs. They spoke to him well. But they didn't help him. Who cared if you were a Congress supporter? His father wasn't a politician. And more, he was no more. When Congress got into the real politics, all Congress supporters who weren't politicians went down. Poor Ganapathi slipped to the rock bottom.
5I headed to Ramulu straight. After I landed in the village, I didn't have the guts to visit Ganapathi right away.
Ramulu spoke excitedly. I couldn't exhibit half of his enthusiasm.
As soon as I could, I brought Ganapathi's topic.
"Ganapathi is fine! He is doing extremely well," said Ramulu.
I couldn't believe he spoke like that. Did I think that this person didn't change? How wrong I was!
"Does begging appear so lightly to you?" I asked.
His face fell. I thought he was repenting. I didn't realize he was hurt by my remark.
"Who doesn't beg, anyway?" he said, irrelevantly.
Somehow I didn't feel like talking to him about Ganapathi. He probably didn't like to realize that he was partly responsible for what happened to Ganapathi. He was probably rationalizing by saying that Ganapathi was doing well. He was probably reconciling himself thinking that everyone begs in a way.
I conversed with him on other things for a while. Before leaving for Ganapathi's house, I asked him casually if he would come along. I thought he wouldn't, but I was proved wrong.
Together we left for Ganapathi's place.
Ganapathi wasn't home. His mother was chopping vegetables that could feed a group of ten. Must be a mourning ritual, I thought.
"How are you, Aunt?" I asked.
"Oh, when did you come? Come in, be seated! How are we? So so. Ganapathi went to fetch rice. He would be back in a minute," she said.
"Couldn't Ganapathi find a job?" I asked.
"Mmm, What jobs? What do you gain by doing these jobs? Look at yourself! What are you earning, staying so far away in foreign land?"
As we were watching, she chopped all the vegetables and summoned her daughter-in-law. Ganapathi's wife entered from the backyard and disappeared taking the vegetables with her.
Ganapathi's wife gained weight. I noticed she was wearing a silk saree.
I realized the place didn't have the atmosphere I imagined. Why?
I heard steps outside. I looked out, expecting Ganapathi. It was a middle-aged woman. She entered saying, "Aunt! Let me have rice for two rupees."
"But I don't have any rice," said Ganapathi's mother.
"I have the money. I didn't come to borrow," said the woman rudely.
"What about the rice you borrowed previously?" asked Ganapathi's mother.
"I will pay tomorrow"
Ganapathi's mother took the money and went inside. She came out with a little rice in a plate.
"What is this pittance?" demanded the woman.
"I told you I didn't have rice. That's for a rupee. Take them and leave!"
"Oh my! Only this much for a rupee?"
Without saying a word, Ganapathi's mother started to go inside.
"OK, OK. Give them to me. Do I have an option?" said the stranger. She took the rice and left.
It was almost like watching a comedy by Veeresalingam.
Perhaps all this was routine to his mother. As if nothing happened, she asked Ramulu, "So Ramulu! What happened to the guy who borrowed those fifteen rupees?"
"Where would he flee? He will return the money," said Ramulu.
Once his glances met mine. I was the one who avoided eye contact.
After a while Ganapathi came. I couldn't recognize him initially. He wasn't wearing any shirt. He had a big Kumkum mark on his forehead. There were beads around his neck, there was a rose bay flower in his pigtail. He transformed curiously. His pouch was heavy. He swung it and put it down holding it with his two hands. He reached into it and pulled out a pumpkin.
"I got a pumpkin. Make a pie with it," announced Ganapathi. Then he looked at me and asked, "When did you come?"
"Dear, take this inside...How are you?" he asked, after shouting to his wife.
"So so," I said.
"Venkataramayya is asking me to recite Ramayana," he told his mother.
Her face lit.
"Is that so? He isn't stingy. Look at the stingy Laxmikantham! May he be destroyed! I can't tolerate even hearing his name -" she started cursing.
"Didn't he pay you money?" asked Ramulu, laughingly.
"Not that he didn't pay, Ramulu! Ganapathi recited Puranam for him for a month. He should have felicitated him on the last day with dinner and silk clothes. Shouldn't he at least have given my son new clothes? Won't gods be mad if he doesn't treat them after a recital? May his family be struck with disaster soon!" she cursed him to her heart's content.
Ganapathi didn't seem wanting to talk to me any more. I thought he would at least bring up the money I sent him. Nothing of that sort. He went straight to the backyard, washed his hands and feet, entered the kitchen, started praying with the wet cloth on.
"Let's go," I told Ramulu.
"Won't you dine with us?" asked Ganapathi's mother.
"I will come some other time," I said.
6"You thought his stature was reduced. But in his opinion, it rose," said Ramulu, "Now he has the patronage of the wealthy. After the long neglection, Congress people now befriended him. There is now a new class of rich in our village - that of black marketeers and lobbyists. These are Ganapathi's patrons. You and I are less than human to him. He is leading life by selling rice, by lending money, by praising the wealthy. Rich ladies give their discarded rich sarees to his wife. She gladly accepts them. Ganapathi pities you and me for working. In fact, he hates us. We never accept that those who are richer and who can employ us belong to a higher class than us. He accepts. He doesn't demand equal social and political rights. You should listen to him reciting Puranam; He condemns the labourers, the socialists, and the communists. You probably never heard a political Puranam recital. He's blessed."
"Yes, he's blessed. He reached the rock bottom," I said.