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Friday, July 27, 2012

Snake bite (Pamu Katu)

Original in Telugu - Munipalle Raju

Translator – GRK Murty

Paddy threshings were not fully over in the village. On receiving a message from uncle, applying leave for the college, I came by bus. And that very next night this frightful incident happened.
                                              *         *          *
It was perhaps bahula trayodasi[1]. Like a lion’s claw, the biting chill of dhanurmasam[2] was tightening its grip. The darkness had spread its might right at the twilight. The blinking stars in the dark sky that were peeking out timidly had suddenly disappeared as though frightened by the devilish whistle of the express train on the faraway track.  

Pedananna garu[3], who came out after having dinner, was reciting Jaimini Mahabharat[4] in prose, walking to and fro on the long pial in front of the house. It is the narration about the assembling of huge forces both by Pandavas and Kauravas at the beginning of the epic war. As the prose verses were emerging out of pedananna garu’s sweet and profound voice like the gushing flow of Ganges, the assemblage of 18 akshauhinis[5] that were about to sing the ultimate song for the end of the yuga[6] flashed in mind. Thrilled by it, I was listening to the recitation standing still. 

No one noticed Jiyyardas, who, coming in the dark as darkness from the hamlet side, stood a little away leaning on his shaft. Jiyyardas, listening to the untimely and the sudden howling of an owl from the babul grove on the tank bund, coughed loudly, perhaps, out of shock. Noticing him just then, pedananna garu asked him, “What, Dasuu, late in the dark?” Jiyyar’s shaft just shook a little.

“Better if we thresh the paddy heap [of sheaves], lord!”        

“Water drained fully?”

“Land is still a little bit wet, but no water lord!”

 “How then to make the threshing floor?”

“Shall prepare it along the road, lord!”

“Why such hurry? Wouldn’t it be alright to wait for a couple of days more?”

Dasu stood silently – hesitating to answer as though something got stuck in the throat.

 “What is that suspicion, Dasuu?”

“Yes, I have an apprehension, lord!  Last night as some people were moving around the paddy heap in suspicion, yanadi[7] Tirupalu had seen them, lord!”

“Men! Who are they?” 

“Who else would come, lord? It’s only munsif’s[8] brother-in-law’s men, lord...”

Remaining in deep silence for ten minutes, pedananna garu heaved a sigh. In that silence everyone could hear that sigh. 

“Alright! Day after tomorrow is trayodasi[9]. We will start it on Sunday. Tell the cart-fellows tomorrow. Also alert your people.”

But, the very next day, the fear of Jiyyardas turned into reality—the paddy heap from ten acres of western farm turned into ashes on ekadasi[10].       
*        *       *
Having acclimatized to the urban lifestyle by virtue of living in towns for almost two generations and imagining fondly about the rural life, the peaceful nature around it, the even-paced lifestyle of rural-folk endowed with happiness, being engaged in creative writing, I spent that whole day restlessly as the hardened wickedness of landlords manifested as an impregnable fort in its true colors before me for the first time. Is it the demon that formed out of the venom spewed by the landed-gentry, and duly supported by the mleccha[11] and the Britishers, that is today hurting whoever is defying the profession-based caste system developed under the Aryan civilization? Is it the force of a bullet—as is being propagated by the revolutionary student unions as depicted on the compound walls—that alone can stand against these demonic murderers? Why this holy land that claims to be the home of mahatmas, seers, moral preachers, Vedas and their derivatives, today has chosen the path of violence and crime? Where do the centuries-old Vedantam[12] and civilization lie hidden?

But pedananna garu remained undisturbed and hale. That night he went and saw the burnt heap of paddy sheaves. Next day, Sunday, as usual, early in the morning, he offered his oblations to sun-god; after reciting the Aditya mantra[13], he came out and sat on the pial and like a modern-day Sahadeva, examining the cows standing in front in the open yard. He was suggesting suitable course of treatments for the cows to the farmers. That aside, examining those male and female children standing on the other side with scabs on skin due to the bite of poisonous creatures and dried-up faces, and packing a few peppercorns that had been sanctified by reciting appropriate mantras in a white cloth and tying it around their arms, he was seeing them off. There were none who hadn’t offered their salutations—either explicitly or implicitly—to that icon which is appearing like a great seer, an accomplished purusha[14].

*    *     *

By then half of the poor people from the Harijan hamlet had assembled at the open space in front of the house. Around ten to twelve farmers of repute were sitting on the pial at the other side.

Jiyyar Das, Ramjogi, his sons, Philip, Yakobu and Lukoi, who had converted to Christianity, were sitting in the front row restlessly. Behind them there were other youngsters either sitting or standing in groups. Except Jiyyar Das, all others were having in their hands either a shaft, or a spear. Besides them, there was another group—pot-makers and a few others from different rural professions. Mutrasu Narayudu, who was known to stand against anybody in the village without fear, sitting tying his upper cloth around his waist and knees, was about to light his cigar but suddenly withdrawing from it and putting the cigar behind his ear, waited restlessly for his turn to speak, with reddened eyes.

There was pin-drop silence—a kind of momentary silence that occurs before a robbery. The only disturbance for it was the sweet conversations that pedananna garu was having with the farmers who had brought there their cattle. Is it all that? Is this village going to become a battlefield in a few more minutes? Are fire and wind getting ready for a killing spree to satiate their hunger? Is this village going to burn its future into ashes in the wild flames of hatred that has no salvation?     

As the cattle and their owners were returning home, the big farmers who could not express their sympathy in mere words too started leaving one by one. By then it was around eleven o’clock. Yet, none of the poor stood up. As the farmers were leaving, they stared at them furiously. Their attitude perhaps gave shape to the kind of uncertainty that engulfed the yard. Washing his hands and wiping them with his upper cloth, as pedananna garu was standing up, Rangacharyulu came in as though an ambassador of Aswini gods[15] saying: “Sanjeeva Rayudu garu! If somebody could do this great crime against a great man like you, what could be the fate of ordinary mortals like us?” He had broken the silence that had till then remained frozen like the Himalayan peak. 

Mutrasu Narayudu, who was indeed waiting for an opportune moment, suddenly got up and staring furiously said: “That’s it. It’s to decide on that we are all sitting for here. Acharyulu babu, isn’t upon the nod coming forth from the lord that we could jump into action?” At it, the youth of the Harijan hamlet were pushing themselves forward. Daniel, who returned from military, waving his hands and with his body shaking in anger, shouted: “Lord has only to say ‘Yes’, we could annihilate ten such Laxminarayanas.”

It appeared that the whole village, including kids, had come to know that the paddy heap of pedananna garu was set on fire by Laxminarayana.          

Coming forward, Jiyyar Das pushed Daniel back. Moving to the matter gently, he said: “Lord, is this a village or a jungle? Isn’t because Sanjeevaiah garu, standing by dharma, got distributed the barren land alongside the tank to us from the Harijan hamlet that Laxminarayana became envious? Despite  committing such a heinous crime, did anyone from his caste say a single word against him? But they are all great leaders—all with silk clothes, diamond rings, watches with golden straps. Aren’t these panchayati members who conducted big meetings about silly thefts—events like plucking tamarind pods or cattle straying into vegetable gardens—and summoned police? Where has that justice gone now, lords?

Reciting a Sanskrit verse, Acharyulu said: “Panchayati is nothing but an assemblage of five gentlemen whose passions are completely under hold! But where from we can get such people who could look around with equanimity in today’s world! 

Ramjogi, the panchayati member from Harijan hamlet, getting angry at it, said: “Don’t tether the horse and the ass to the same pole! Isn’t for giving evidence in favor of the poor from the Harijan hamlet in the case of free land distribution that Laxminarayana fed the munsif poisoned food, without even caring about his relationship, that of brother-in-law, with him? And don’t forget that when none from them reported the matter to the police, it is this panchayati member, Ramjogi, who stood by the truth!”    

As one by one was speaking, different political deeds committed in the village surfaced one by one. I stood listening to them. Mutrasu Rayudu, getting up in a jiffy, looking at the gathering started shouting: “We haven’t come to listen to the philosophy. These murderous landlords and the people who are living under their mercy and setting fire to the cattle feed, their time is out!”  

That day was masa sivarathri[16]. Time is getting out for pedananna garu to perform abhishekam[17].  Putting his one foot inside the door, he looked behind. It was piercing. Staring straight into the face of Acharyulu garu and showing his finger towards the sky, he said: “Sun, the all pervading witness, has heard all this. You are wise, aged and the knower of the difference between dharma and adharma. The act of deciphering the justice and injustice by the grama sabha[18] is again god’s will. We are not the one who are empowered to punish. For that dharma is there.” Then turning to the people, he said: “It’s already late, go and attend to your works. Narayudu, Ramjogi, Jiyyaru—Did you hear?”

Everyone stared at each other’s face. Reciting the holy hymn, “Aaditya hrudayam punyam / sarva shatruvinaashanam / Jayaavaham japennityam …”—that is, being dedicated to Sun deity will result in the destruction of all enemies, victory and never ending bliss…—Acharyulu garu offered his namaskar to pedananna garu, the very embodiment of piousness, who was going inside.   
*    *       *

I returned to the college. But the disposition of pedananna garu and the village that was drowning in the dirty politics of land-owning higher castes was terribly disturbing my mind. What is the use of dharma if it cannot protect a gentleman like pedananna garu? How fair is it to displease those impoverished folks of the village who craved for justice even in that wicked setup? For changing whose heart did pedananna garu fan the cold breeze on their zeal for revolution? Or is he a mere timid person? How could the independence of village that Gandhiji dreamed of emerge in this unfair setup? Is it by land reforms? Is it by proportionate voting rights? Or only through class struggle? I couldn’t understand.

Rajarao, my friend and fellow political science lecturer, says: “Landlords are the politicians! When all your legislative assemblies are filled with such people, where is the scope for land reforms? If you ask me—listen my dear, as yet we don’t have any force that could consolidate the revolutionary capabilities of the teeming poor villagers! That’s possible only for great leaders like Lenin. You might ask, what in the meanwhile? Well, the cinema culture has spread to every village. Under the sway of its glamour, the youth that you are referring to is migrating to urban agglomerations. Finally, it’s all govinda![19] Don’t hesitate. Coolly teach your lessons. Simply see two movies a week. If you still have energy, open a tuition outlet. And if you have courage, open a chit fund company. But never ever feel sorry about your pedananna garu. If I were you I wouldn’t spoil my peace of mind by going that side again.

*      *     *

But as the axiom, “Man proposes, God disposes,” goes, within six months, the marriage of my niece was fixed to be held at pedananna gari house. It was already summer holidays. Amma insisted that I must come for the marriage. So the whole house moved to the village. Baskets full of mangoes, jasmines, lots of lemonade and buttermilk and whatnot. Though a marriage in summer, it went off exceedingly well. But our relatives had kept postponing our return journey for almost a week. In the meanwhile amma performed archana[20] in the Chennakesavaswamy temple. During our return, Ramjogi joined us on the way narrating the village politics.

There was the government’s barren land admeasuring seven to eight acres alongside the tank outside the village. The landlords of the village might have succeeded in occupying it but for the proposed project of digging drainage channel passing through that land. Subsequently, as the alignment of drainage channel was shifted to the border of another village, pedananna garu, running around many government offices, could at last succeed in distributing that land among the poorest of the village along with necessary documents. All these took about five years. Since pedananna didn’t hesitate to expend his labor or expenditure thereof, the greed of Laxminarayana could not fructify. With it, the quarrels started in the village. Though munsif was the relative of Laxminarayana, by virtue of his making the unfair business public by revealing the truth behind it, he became a victim of poisonous food. That was the history of the village. 

I asked Ramjogi: “Did the quarrels come to an end?”

“People of our hamlet—be it men or women, including children—have stopped attending to the works of Laxminarayana!”     


“He is getting labor from other villages by paying heftily. Our people are obstructing them. After all, their craving too is for that little belly, isn’t it?” Thus, concluded Ramjogi.

So, this fire would not subside! One day, it might become a wildfire swallowing both good and bad! When will Chennakesavaswamy, who is receiving the salutations of people, restore this world, in which tyranny and sorrow are crawling like twin kids, as promised in the Gita that he delivered to the world? Else, when will that revolutionary leader of the century to whom Rajarao referred, will emerge in this land? To all these agonies and supplications that I encountered all alone in that dusk, I could get an answer the very next day.  

*      *      *

As the dusk was spreading its darkness all around, as pedananna garu, finishing his sandhyavandanam[21] came out to pial, a horse-drawn cart stood in front of the gateway. It was the son of Mantrasu Narayudu and Yesu, the brother-in-law of Suvartha, manage this cart jointly. Peddulu, the son of Narayudu, hurriedly setting right his towel on the head, said, “The life of cow of Bharatapudi karanam[22] garu is in grave danger—could be a snakebite! They asked us to fetch you at once in the cart.” 

“Where did you see karanam garu?”      

“We have been going for railway track repair works… lord!”

Without even picking up his upper cloth, pedananna garu, sitting in the cart, enquiring, “like to come”, looked at me. Bharatapudi village was just on the other side of the railway track—hardly a mile and a half. 

As I was saying, “Shall put on my trouser and come with a torch. You please start”, the cart started in a jiffy. 

It took about 10 minutes for me to reach the main road from the home—Jiyyar Das, standing across the way in the darkness, signaled me to stop.

“Who, is it Das?”

In a whispering tone, he said: “In the haystack yard a snake has bitten Laxminarayana’s son! It appears to be a cobra. Froth is coming out from his mouth profusely. They are carrying him on a cart to your house! That’s why we have sent away Sanjeevaiah garu in the cart—you please walk slowly.”

“Then how about Bharatapudi karanam garu’s cow?”

“Where is the cow? It has been more than a year since they sold it off.”

I was shocked. I did not know what to say.

“This… This… What you all did is perhaps not a good thing. Dasuu! It’s the question of a man’s life…” 

“We haven’t done it sir. It’s the god above who ordered it. It’s a right expiation for the deserving person.”

Before he completed his saying, I could see Laxminarayana running by our side towards the track going to Bharatapudi. In that dark, he was waving his hands, swaying his upper cloth in air.

Hearing the echo of his crying, “Sanjeevarayudu garu… my son, my son….”, I started running.

“My son… my son… you only can save him.” 

I had heard many stories from amma about pedananna garu’s restoring life to the victims of snakebite coming from the nearby villages.

In that darkness, I could see the cart stopping and again starting—more perhaps out of imagination. I had put on the torch twice. The rays could race to the cart. As I reached nearer to the cart, the Mantrasu lad was arguing very angrily with pedananna garu. In the meanwhile, Laxminarayana, being hit by an obstruction, had fallen flat on the ground.

“Yes sir. We did lie. That’s the right punishment to him. Lord, do you think we will keep quiet when he hit us under the belt? Didn’t he see this god that day when he set fire to your heap of the paddy sheaves?”

Saying, “Chi—shut your mouth. Where from you got this stupidity?”—pedananna garu jumped out of the cart. Holding the reins of the horse, I turned the cart towards the house.

*     *      *

By the time we returned, the boy bitten by the snake was lying on the pial. He was breathing heavily, while froth was profusely flowing out of his mouth. Appeared to be in the terminal stage. Without caring for the lamps that were all around, he took the torch from my hand. Examined the patient for a minute. In the meanwhile, amma brought pedananna’s upper cloth and put it on his shoulder. Without even thinking for a second, he tore that upper cloth, and with half-closed eyes, started reciting a mantra, intermittently blowing air with his mouth on the boy.

Watching that scene, all my doubts had been blown into pieces. All those half-truths that I had read in papers about snakebite all vanished like silk cotton drifting in the air. 

The froth gushing out of his mouth stopped. Pedananna garu wiped his face with his own upper cloth. His breathing stabilized. That lad appeared like a kid in deep sleep. As amma handed over water in the copper vessel, pedananna garu, reciting mantras, sprinkled water on his face. The lad opened his eyes slowly. It was only then that I could turn back and look at. I saw Laxminarayana falling at the feet of pedananna garu with joined palms.    

*       *      *

Amma hadn’t come with me. As colleges opened in July, I could see Rajarao. 

“What my dear, your doubt is still not cleared? Returned from your village, didn’t you?” he put his hand affectionately on my shoulder.

I said, “It’s not one, but now two doubts.”

“Oh! One more problem?”

“Tell me Rajarao! Aren’t people writing that snake has no venom at all, it’s not due to poison that people die, but due to shock; all these mantras are only trash—how far is it true?”

Rajarao gave the answer without giving much scope for me to speculate: “Nonsense! I have seen my uncle dying due to snakebite with my eyes. You know my father retired as station master! He used to tell us that during his tenure he had given messages to pamula Narasayya who was known to treat people bitten by snakes by reciting mantra; on four or five occasions he had restored people to life. Why did you get this doubt?”

I told him. Also, shown him the letter written by mother on the previous day. “Read. After reading it, tell me if Gandhiji is relevant to today’s world?” I demanded. 

“So, Laxminarayana, the villain, had sent ten cart-loads of paddy to your pedanaanna? And he distributed it among the poor people in the Harijan hamlet? Good! Regarding Gandhiji, my answer is ‘Yes’ and ‘No’—relating to a pious person like your pedananna, he is very much relevant. Gandhiji is relevant with regard to nuclear arms also. But not to the whole of today’s setup.”

I have very poor knowledge of politics. Felt that it might not be desirable to talk any more. Perhaps, Rajarao might be right!    

[1] Bahula trayodasi—The lunar months are split into two pakshas (fortnights) of 15 days each: Shukla paksha (waxing paksha, light half) and Bahula paksha (waning paksha, dark half). Bahula trayodasi is the 13th day of the dark half.
[2] Dhanurmasam—auspicious month for the devotees of Vaishnava tradition.
[3] Pedananna garu—‘Pedananna’ is father’s elder brother and ‘garu’ is the social art of expressing respect by using plural to address a person or appending the suffix garu to a name and so on.
[4] Jaimini Mahabharat—a version of Mahabharata, which is known for its Aswamedhaparva, was written by Jaimini, an ancient Indian rishi (sage), who was a great philosopher of the Mimansa school of Indian philosophy. He was the disciple of the great rishi Veda Vyasa.
[5] Akshauhinis—an Akshauhini is an ancient battle formation that consisted of chariots, elephants, cavalry and infantry, as per the Mahabharata (Adi Parva 2.15-23).
[6] Yuga—in Hindu philosophy, it is the name of an ‘epoch’ or ’era’ within a cycle of four ages.
[7] Yanadi—one of the oldest tribes in Andhra Pradesh.
[8] Munsif—village head.
[9] Trayodasi—13th day of a lunar fortnight.
[10] Ekadasi—12th day of a lunar fortnight.
[11] Mleccha—“non-sons of the soil”, “barbarian”.
[12] Vedantam—philosophy.
[13] Aditya mantra—hymn to sun-god.
[14] Purusha—virtuous person.
[15] Aswini gods—Rig Veda describes them as Lords of speed.
[16] Masa sivarathri—holy day for devotees of Lord Shiva. 
[17] Abhishekam—a ritual in Hindu temples where the deities are bathed.
[18] Grama sabha—the Grama Sabha is the grassroots level democratic institution in each Village Panchayat.
[19] Govinda—Oh! God.
[20] Archana—The god is worshipped as an icon (archa) and the devotee is the archaka. The rite performed is archana.
[21] Sandhyavandanam— meditating on the chosen excerpts from Vedas thrice daily during transition periods: one during sunrise (when day proceeds from night), next during midday (which is the transition from ascending sun to descending sun) and during sunset (when night takes over from day).
[22] Karanam—village revenue record keeper.

Top image, courtesy:


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