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Sunday, June 10, 2012

A Karmayogi by S. Krishnamoorthy Aithal

A Karmayogi by S. Krishnamoorthy Aithal

Alone in his study-cum-bedroom, Nitesh was calculating, as he waited to hear the news of the
success or otherwise of the latest top kill procedure to choke off the oil flow, just in order to pass time, based on different estimates, the number of gallons of crude oil that might have been spewed into the Gulf of Mexico by the offshore rig Deepwater Horizon since it exploded and sank. Bianca, his granddaughter, quietly entered the room and wanted to know if she could take a few minutes of his time.

Nitesh was more than happy to receive his young visitor, age 15, a student of Junior High.

“I know for sure it would take more than a few minutes,” Nitesh said, warmly. “You have all of my time—take the rest of the evening, if you wish. Do you want me to correct your English essay assignment?”

Bianca frequently sought Nitesh’s editorial help. The sessions sometimes took hours and she thoroughly enjoyed those sessions. She learnt a lot not only about grammar and style, but also of new ways of thinking, feeling, and, in brief, looking at the world. She always acknowledged his help when she turned in her essays to her teachers. Many times her English teachers expressed their desire to meet her private tutor, but the tutor had no desire to give interviews. Bianca had to invent polite reasons to dodge such invitations.

“No, I don’t have an essay today,” Bianca said. “I don’t even have a topic for my essay to state the truth. Students have been asked to write an essay on an ideal member of their family, and I am at a loss to select my subject. You are my first choice, but it would take barely 100 words to describe your living style beyond human desire.”

Bianca studied her grandpa’s reaction.

“Very true, very true,” Nitesh agreed. “Bianca, I don’t know if you said that in compliment or deprecation, but I can’t tell you how pleased I am with your character evaluation. You don’t know what efforts I have been making to reduce my life to the bare bones. You are the first one to tell me that I have achieved my aim. Thank you.”

“Gran’pa, you may be happy, but I need a topic,” Bianca protested. “After eliminating you, I am left without a topic.”

“Why, you are not an orphan. You have your mother and your father, uncles and aunties, here and in India. Why not write an essay on your mother, or father, for example?” Nitesh suggested, helpfully.

“Oh, no! They are so boring!” Bianca said, artlessly.

Grandpa was stunned.

“Come on! These crazy people are always talking about their workplace, as if the workplace is the whole universe,” Bianca went on to explain her viewpoint with reasons and examples, as she had been taught to do in school and at home. “And criticizing specifically, their boss. O, Lord!”

“Bianca, you are not supposed to talk about your parents in this way, disrespectfully,” Nitesh said. “If your dad or mom comes to know that you find a sympathetic audience in me for such talk, you know I will be thrown out and you will have to come to the shelter for the homeless to meet me for any editorial consultation. I wouldn’t dare say something like this about my mother or father, you know, even though they departed from this earth a long time ago and are beyond all hearing.”

“I am sorry,” Bianca quickly apologized, but felt it was unfair on her grandpa’s part to characterize her remark as disrespectful. “I don’t know what to make of it—you always tell me to speak the truth and nothing but the truth, but when I do you scold me.”

“Bianca, I wasn’t scolding you,” Grandpa spoke in a conciliatory tone, skipping the important issue she had raised.

“You haven’t told me much about your parents,” Bianca said to put his grandpa at ease. “Please tell me about your mother.”

“Which mother do you want me to talk about?” Grandpa asked.

“What do you mean which mother?” Bianca asked, perplexed.

“The one who lived in Koteshwar, Balgudi, or the one who lived in Saligrama, Balgudi?” Nitesh asked.

“You had two mothers? How is that possible? One could have two fathers, the official one and the real one, but …”

“Bianca, where did you learn about two fathers, the official and the real?”

“It says in your Shakespeare’s The Tempest,” Bianca said. “Prospero’s speech to his daughter Miranda, Act I, scene ii, lines.55-57, if I am correct.”

“A far-fetched interpretation of the lines of the bard, to ignore the wrong use of the pronoun ‘It,’” Nitesh remarked. “Be that as it may. I had two mothers. The one who lived in Koteshwar was my grandmother and the one in Saligrama was my mother, who gave me birth. I called both of them ‘amma’, mother. I was brought up by my gran’ma and until I was four or five I did not know that I had another mother. When I was once told around the time my mother would be visiting Koteshwar the following week, I was thrown into a confusion, as you are now. You follow me?”

“Did you experience any problem relating to your mother?” Bianca asked.

“As far as I remember,” Nitesh said, “none at all. When my mother arrived in Koteshwar, I quickly switched sides. I don’t know what my gran’ma felt about my behavior. I was too little to understand and it was a long time before I had learnt the art of deception. If I hurt her, I guess I made it up when my mother returned to Saligrama after a couple of days. I was back again on gran’ma’s lap.”

“How interesting! You didn’t suffer severe trauma?” Bianca said, showing her knowledge of and familiarity with the jargon of child psychology.

“Far from it. I grew up proud I had two mothers unlike the rest of my friends. I was happy. Everyone in my circle envied my position.”

“How wonderful! Please tell me more!” Bianca requested, certain to find a topic for her essay.

“I know you need stuff for a 500-word essay.” Nitesh said. “All right let me talk today about my “amma”, i.e., my grandmother Radhamma. Feel free to interrupt me if you have any questions or if you have difficulty following my accent.

“She had three children, two sons and a daughter. The sons divided the property between the two of them as soon as their father died and lived separately. Since the younger one was still unmarried, it was decided that my gran’ma would live with him. The married daughter, my mother, lived in Saligrama some six miles away with her husband, my father, and his extended family. I come on the scene about this time.

“As she was a widow, she had her hair shaved off. She wore a red saree. She ate one meal a day, at noon, as widows were supposed to do. My uncle was most of the time away, but the house used to be full. Most of her daughter’s—i.e., my mother’s—children, my brothers and sisters, were brought up there and also her grandchildren’s children. Many of them came and went, but I lived there the longest period of time.

“She worked from sunrise to sundown in the backyard garden, out in the fields, and in the house. Never did I see her relax. No question of taking a vacation. She was first on the guest list of all her friends and relatives on any special occasion and she took me with her, as everyone knew that I was too small to be left alone safely behind. She reached all the places in advance of time to provide help—to cook and get things ready for the feast, and the last to leave after all the pots and pans were washed clean and put back in their proper places. Before she left, she made sure that left-over food was attended to. If the hosts gave her some, she took it gladly. She was universally liked because she never spoke about herself. She never indulged in idle talk because there was always some useful, productive employment. She had absolutely no time to take off from work, keep worrying or complaining. She was busy like a bee every minute and hour of the day, day after day, week after week, month after month, all the year round. She felt twenty-four hour day was not long enough to complete her work.

“I loved play, but did give her a helping hand, now and then, albeit grudgingly.

“She was frugal. She saved money she earned by selling vegetables, crops and milk, but she did not spend a penny on herself. I don’t think she ever bought a saree herself. She wouldn’t understand how anyone would enjoy life by borrowed money, like Americans do. You know our national debt? 13 trillion dollars! What this means is that every American—man, woman, and child today—owes $42000 to a foreign government. Why blame America? ‘Holier than thou’ attitude doesn’t any longer wash. The trend today is universal. Governments want people to spend, to consume, to keep the economy growing. My gran’ma would be aghast to hear such talk. As for her savings for a rainy day, it never added up because her son was always in need of money to start a new business venture that would free her from a life of labor, and he pestered her to support his ventures.

“Her philosophy of life can be summarized in a few simple words: Our actions must be free from any material desire, the idea founded on the belief that good actions have good results and bad actions have bad results, ultimately. She made no effort to intellectualize the philosophy, though. It came naturally to her. She went about her work in a selfless manner to get the job done. She committed herself to work in a spirit of dedication and detachment. She simply followed the path she believed that god had set for her to make her life worthwhile.

“What were her goals and ambitions in life? None for herself, for sure. Did she want to be remembered? I doubt it. Was she ever bored? No, she had no luxury to think along the lines. You would call her life very boring, perhaps.…

Nitesh looked at Bianca, who sort of freed herself from Radhamma’s embrace.

“Certainly not! How I wish she were among us! We would have learnt from her how to live without TV, cinema, parties, dances, drinking, and the like,” Bianca said.

“You would be surprised to know that she had no desire to last long enough to see you,” Nitesh resumed. “She knew that our lease of life in this world lasts only so many years, and not a day longer. In fact, she knew that Lord Yama could appear any moment. She kept herself ready to answer his call and ride with him to Yamalok, but she was not other-worldly or negative in outlook, as some books on eastern culture might characterize such a way of life.

“You know that we cremate our bodies after death. A lot of families face problems to burn the bodies of the deceased because of lack of sufficient amount of wood when people suddenly die without prior notice. They cut trees on those occasions, but the fresh wood doesn’t easily burn. The families have to spend a lot of time and pour ghee or clarified butter to make the wood burn. Considerate of the survivors, Radhamma kept wood ready, and dry.

Bianca was distressed to hear this, and did not know where and how the story would end.

With his voice choking, Nitesh continued. “During the middle of one night, I woke up when I heard painful sounds coming from my grandma’s mouth, and I shook her up to wake her. Brushing her fingers gently, she narrated a nightmare she had. A cobra was biting her fingers to wake up and asking her to get inside the house. We dismissed it as a bad dream. My grandmother promised that she would make an offering of milk and honey to the God Cobra the next day and we went back to sleep.

“By the way, a real cobra used to be a periodic midnight visitor to the room where we slept. It would wake us up and announce its presence by its hissing sound. Whenever this happened, my gran’ma would simply light up a candle, put it in the corner, along with a cup of milk. She would kneel down and acknowledge the cobra’s presence, make a promise of an offering the next day, and we would go back to sleep. Lacking her faith, I would cover myself completely head to foot, and would never get a good sleep the rest of the night. The night would pass without any incident and in the early morning, I would notice the cup empty of milk.

“Coming back to where I left, after gran’ma’s dream that night, we went back to sleep. But not long after, we heard a cry of ‘Fire!’ ‘Fire!’ from the villagers. We woke up and walked out of the house and looked for signs of fire in the village in front of us, but found none. When we turned back, we saw flames of fire at the back of our own house.

“The villagers came in large number and put out the fire, not before a good part of the house was destroyed by it.

“In order to keep the wood dry, my gran’ma had stored the wood on the attic above the fireplace. After cooking food for me that night, she did not obviously extinguish the fire completely. A cinder might have been left burning. The fire must have spread from it and slowly reached the dry wood above the fireplace. Not knowing whether to cry or laugh, the villagers heard gran’ma give the background details.

“When the villagers heard about the God Cobra who appeared to her in her sleep to warn her of the fire, they bowed their head with deep reverence and touched her feet and took her blessings.

Tears rolled down Nitesh’s eyes. Bianca’s cheeks were wet.

“As years passed, I left home and moved away, wherever job took me. I am ashamed to say I didn’t keep her thoughts in my mind during my absence from home, distracted by the stress and pressures of life. I heard Gran’ma collected wood for her cremation all over again. However, death took its own sweet time to claim her. Before she died, I got the news that she fell and broke her ribs and hands and bore the excruciating pain in silence for months.

“In summary, your great-gran’ma Radhamma lived her life to the beat and rhythm of a song divine.”

It was late in the night. Bianca said “Good Night!” and quietly went to her room.

The next evening Bianca visited her grandpa again in his room. She had an essay in her hands. She wanted his help to make corrections and suggest revisions.

Bianca had found a topic and written an essay. Nitesh was pleased to see the title she had given her essay “A Karmayogi.” Obviously, Bianca had done her research.

“A great title” Nitesh said, congratulating the author. “It suits the subject best. Well begun is half done!”

Author's Bio: S. Krishnamoorthy Aithal has published articles on a wide range of authors and books in scholarly international journals. His short stories have appeared in Critical Quarterly, Short Story International, Unlikely Stories, Long Story Short, Indian Literature, and New Quest. Two volumes of his short stories One in Many and Many in One are making editorial rounds. He teaches English at Potomac College , Washington , DC.

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