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Tuesday, January 29, 2013

An Hour’s Life

Original in Telugu - Aluri  Bairagi
Translator - grkmurty

Shri Aluri Bairagi (1924-78), popularly known as Bairagi, was a poet of repute. He did not belong to any literary movement. His was a lone journey—a journey of metaphysical anguish. For Bairagi, the miseries of the world were his own misery.

He wrote his poems in an intensely personal and tragic style. His poems present the man caught in the complex web of social and moral conflicts from which he struggles to unshackle. His poems “read like silent voices of lost travelers in a distant desert.” His long poem, Nuthilo Gonthukalu (‘Voices from the empty well’) was often compared by critics to TS Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’. He won Sahitya Academi Award for his collection of poems, Agama Geeti (‘Advent Hymn’), which was published posthumously.  He was also a good scholar of Hindi literature—translated many poems from Hindi to Telugu and Telugu to Hindi. 

He was not married. He possessed no property. He ate very little but drank lots of Tea, of course, smoking non-stop. He, perhaps, killed himself from malnutrition.

He also wrote a few stories, the tone of which is no way different from his poetry. One such story, which has the typical cadence and style of Bairagi in its free flow, is presented here.

*  *  *  *  *

'Oka ganta Jeevitam'

He is standing in front of a hotel.

Outside, the corporation lights are glowing. The flow of populace has started towards home.  Standing here and there at the corners of the road, night rovers are chit-chatting. Like bats, don’t know, where from these people have come? They come out in the nights. Those shabby beards, dirty lungis, tattered-shirts, unkempt hair—all amble freely in the night. Don’t appear in the day time. Everyone is a gentleman in the day. What would happen to these gentlemen in the night? Might be happily reading newspapers, listening to radio, or showing what they have bought while coming home to their wives and children. These gentlemen, chit-chatting up to eight o’ clock, will have dinner by nine, and by ten switch off the lights to doze off, for don’t these gentlemen have wives and children?

Why stand here? He goes into a hotel. It’s fine: all the lights are on, not many customers too; thinking he could stay up to 10’clock sipping coffee intermittently, he tucks himself before a corner table. No sooner does he sit than the server emerges as the ambassador of Yama. “Half a cup coffee, strong.” Radio is making its presence felt by airing music sleepily. The smell of omelets is wafting out from inside. Those fellows in the corner wearing suits are whispering among themselves. They stare at him once. There is no inquisitiveness in that stare. It’s like, “Oh! It’s you? That’s OK!” What could be those secrets? Love affairs? Business tricks? Problems at home? How to know? It could be anything—anything that happened between the murder that he committed last night to the present feeling of coffee being not alright. Some speak everything in whispers only.

He, looking at their whisperings, feels lonely. How nice it would have been, if only Gokul had been around? Both of us might have whispered like that. Whoever had watched us, might have then felt similarly. Leans back on the chair.  Pulls out a cigarette from the pocket. Thank God! There is no restriction here on smoking. Lights a cigarette. Draws a deep lungful of smoke. Now, it’s a little better.

People going this and that side are all visible through the glass panes. There are beggars, old hags seeking alms, destitute children, people returning home, and merrily chit-chatting couples walking down in gay abandon. Homes are waiting for them. Neat rooms… brightly lit with white light, and the familiar solitude. Everything in its right place. Cool breeze blowing through the trees outside. Peace. Contentment. Fulfilled lives—an intoxicant that breathes happiness. As they get up from sleep, there stands the Sun, saluting them.

“Babu…u…u ! one paisa, naayanaa! Believe me, haven’t had even a morsel of rice since yesterday,” old hag! Had she been young, she would have somehow managed to fill her belly. She had no other go. Old whores… they all turn out to be like this only. Fruits of sin. But all do not suffer the same. It’s only those few unfortunate suffer. This old woman reminds of Ms Pandya. Could this woman have committed more sin than Ms. Pandya? That old hag, that   mouse-like face with silk saris, Paris fashions, diamond necklaces … seems, she would need the company of three youngsters everyday. Always roams with adolescents around her. Shameless creature… seems she gives them money too. It’s nauseating, even to think of. This old woman is better than that Ms Pandya. But her daughter is fine. She is pretty innocent. But the old hag never allows her to go out. Never allows even to speak with others. When went out twice or thrice, this lady came in between… it was a great struggle to get rid of her and come out. Server brings coffee. One sip. Quite bitter. People say it’s poison. Coffee is poison. Cigarette is poison. Our whole body is brimming with poison. There is no other poisonous creature than the man. It is said there is poison in the stares of some women and on their lips. The antidote for that poison is this poison. Vishasya Vishamoushadham.[1] Cigarette is coming to its end. Throws it away. Pulls out another cigarette. He is restless. Sipping coffee, he glances at his face reflecting on the mirror. Wonder! It’s not his. Some new fellow. Beard has turned a little gray. Face is worn out. Age is advanced. Oldness is reflecting. Life is eating life.  

He stares outside. Two ladies are coming in. Right into the hotel! His heart starts pounding with greed. A good pastime. In the infinite time, for half a minute, ‘a thing of beauty’ is… something to fill the empty vessel that is called time. They come into the hotel and sit at the table opposite to him, without fear. He glances around. They are immersed in conversation. Sees the server going to them. “Two bread and butter.”

Bright electric light is spreading uninterruptedly... Black hair is shining like silken threads. White rays—sliding through the black hair, making shadows on the valleys under the neck—glittering on the drooping shoulders. Gold is adorning the body. Kanakakamini.[2] With closed eyes, visualizing those scenes in mind, starts enjoying them. A laborer, called Sinbad, carried to a girl all that she needed. That was a king’s palace, but no king. Put down the goods. Three lasses… no … no two only. Despite intense search, the third was not visible. There were no men in that palace. Only handmaids, a feast for Sinbad, the laborer. Forty-six dishes. Grapes, varieties of fruits.… There was a pond within the premises. Moonlight. Moon in the water. Boisterous play in water. Full of laughter. Glittering bodies in the moonlight. ‘What’s it?’ enquired, those innocents who didn’t know anything. Kasturi, scent, smell of incense, the sweet smell of divine bodies. Suddenly his dream evaporates. One of those two women in the hotel, leaning back on the chair laughs loudly … He gets wild. Both the princesses have driven the Sinbad laborer out of the palace. Kila kila ... paka paka Because of bending backwards, the beauty of the rising bosom that is visible through the low-cut neck blouse… the blood-filled vessels in the neck are awaken.  Apsarasa dancing naked in the glass palaces
And breasts like Champagne glasses.
All her belongings on show.

With a sigh, he looks outside.

Insects are dancing in circles around the streetlamp. Sitting on the drainage channel, the old woman is scratching her head. A certain boy, riding a bike without holding it, passes by. Right in front, a two-storied building…. From behind, a streak of sky adorned with stars is visible. Which is true? Asking from the intoxication of the cigarette smoke, intoxication of the bitter coffee, from the heart delighted by the lucky sight of the damsel’s beautiful bosom…  which is true? Silk saris? Worn-out clothes? Starving stomachs? Fattened breasts? The gimmicks of the old whore? Laughter of the lasses? Solitude in darkness? Couples in light? Which is true? The fading light of the dusk between life and death. What is the unadulterated truth, like the ghee simmering from the unadulterated butter? How to recognize that?

The dead man. The drowned Phoenician sailor. Remembering the dead girl in the TB hospital. The anemic face. Closed eyes. White, like a marble statue—the beauty of death. Death loved her. Death’s coldness is reflecting in her body. Those pale lips might not be aware of the warm kisses that life gifts. What joy did she have in life? Except doctors, medicines, nurses and the white walls of hospitals, what had she known? She is lying peacefully. On that white lotus-like face hangs a turf of curled black hair. Looks like sleeping out of tiredness. A divine smile is dancing all around her lips. What’s that smile? Seeing whom? She would never again get up! Cordelia! Cordelia! Stay a while; she was ever so gentle and meek. An excellent quality in women.

This woman is smiling. But she would never again smile. How could she not smile, at least, when everything around is smiling?  From those bulged blood vessels, from her smooth and soft organs, from those sparkling eyes, from that brightness that is reflecting out of the tightly held corduroy-like skin, some certain aroma is spreading. Soft fragrance is overtaking senses. Indistinct movements, tickles, perhaps, not being able to refrain, she is smiling. Let her laugh, she has still not tasted the bitterness of life.

That lady in the hotel is now talking louder. She need not speak that loud for the sake of a friend sitting by her side. There is no coherence between that laugh and those words. That’s a mere laugh—laugh for the sake of a laugh. Trying to show off, is it? Just to draw attention. Like a spider. Like the cat playing with the mouse. The pleasure in the hunting—not that the hunting is for pleasure. Bait him. Torture him. Tickle the life out of him. Persecute him; don’t stop till falls at the feet. Make him a cur. If comes nearer, give a good kick, the cur shall go howling!

Love. Sadism. Deathly pain of the body. Pleasure in slavery. What a plainness? What a purity? By making others desire her, affording a meaning to her own existence. What can you do for him? Can you jump into fire? Even if you jump, it would only for satisfying your own inflated ego. Not for him. Meaningless.

He stares at that laughing girl. His stare is not on her high-raised bust. Not on the glittering cheeks under the electric light. Not even on her inviting bright lips. Not on the golden hands or thighs asking for a hug. Piercing through the multi-colored screens, he is staring at that dark cave where her soul rests. Void and waste. Waste and void. And darkness is upon the face of the waters. Fear and sorrow, the future of mankind.  History of distant lands… the lass loved by the TB. The old hag on the drainage channel. I did see your high-raised bust. I do know you’ve brought beauty to this place. But…but … for unknown reasons, sorrow, fear… waste and void. 

Mankind’s music of pathos!  The hunting ruins. How to isolate a minute from the world and take it discretely? How not to give space for sorrow in the presence of beauty? Instead of seeing beyond you, by your side, within you; how to stare at myself? Shutting the doors of reminiscences, stopping the musty odor of death blowing along the winds, would I be able to catch hold of your aroma? Doubtful, not sure, fear… the present generation has no faith.  

Then the radio starts playing. Soft music from the violin. Aanandabhiravi[3]… like the sounds of a new bride’s stride… like a small piece of a cloud rising from a corner of the sky…the raag lifts up slowly. Like an emerging Nagakanya[4] from the depths of the ocean, the sound of a non-human voice. Divine tune. Between some talk of you and mine. Where was it till now? When I— getting sandwiched between the devil at the doorstep of the illusionary palace and princess inside, no longer remained I—where was it? When all was silent, when I heard that which you said, not specifying that it was meant for me, and when you came to know that I had heard what you said; where was this? Then, if you laugh now, if you throw stones … be careful, flowers will now shower!

Violin is playing… from inside, from outside, from this side, from that side, from all corners… from everywhere and from nowhere.  Devouring the soul and body… circling the universe along the visibly invisible beautiful rays of fire … there, the mighty musical waves. Where are you my darling! You got stuck in a tempest. Something more dreadful and more beautiful than you has overtaken you. You are now within me. I am in the tempest. Tempest is in all of us. We are all nowhere. Transgressing the space and time, helplessly, sadly, we are all going far away … to somewhere! We are lost. We are the first of the first of the latest and last edition of the lost generations. Where are we going darling! My sweet heart!

Violin is cribbing. Painfully, pityingly, lovingly, perhaps being not able to bear the joy, not able to contain sorrow, feebly, lightly like a swing of a cradle, like a wave of the breeze. Which is why it is named vauleenam.[5] Drowning like a dipping boat, floating like a flying plane. Swinging like the kid in the lap of a mother. Like an invisible thing in the dark, it is roaming from this corner to that corner; from that corner to this corner with great speed. The rocking rhythm of rising passion. To and fro. To and fro.  Touching both the poles with the same feel. Like the flow of current. 

Violin is emitting sound. Cribbing. Glowing. There is joy in waiting … for the waft of your beautiful heartbeat… looking forward to your touch ... the touch of death, the touch of fire.  The veins that are stretching like wires. Glowing skin. These rays of fire, from where have you borrowed for this night? Your eyes are glistering diamonds in the Sun’s rays. Why do you stare like that? Your uninhibited exhales are pointing to the arriving Tsunami. The sky is waiting for the future conflict. Something of the storm we have in ourselves. Violin music is foretelling about the impending tempest… the rising Sun… the engulfing night… the rims of joy… the last hug… tomorrow’s reflection in today’s mirror… the echoes of the past.  

Violin is moaning… with overflowing joy, with the pathos of death, slowly, coolly moaning. Ecstasy of agony. Agony of ecstasy. Blissfully forgetful of reality. Hold firmly, you are swooning. That sound is slowly rising to touch the Mount Kailash, to kiss the sky, rising like a giant wave. When that wave breaks down, it shall shower ambrosia on the world. Trapped music from the strings of life. Emitting sounds from the throat caught in the noose. Discontentment of a petty young animal, which is in its death throes. The roar of mighty oceans. Roar of an elephant in the forest. Blue flames from the melted volcano. Bells of temples. Rapes en masse. The dreams suppressed under the brimming joy of the gods. Life! Life!  

That sound is rising to the infinite space. To attain that which cannot be attained, to attain that fullness which is beyond pleasures and pangs. Whereto darling! To catch the nakedness of the high peaks, the glow of the blooming plants, the sounds of the falling leaves, to listen to the sounds of people, sounds of forest, sweet sounds, whereto, darling! Wait, I am also coming.  

Still higher! Still higher! Don’t stop, my heart too will stop. Unshackling the reins of the music-less body, let us get transported to that beautiful and bountiful music. The zero hour on the threshold of eternity is over. We are in the thick of it.  Rock uncle, rock the swing. In the clock of the world, history’s pendulum is swinging.

Song of the blood. Midnight in Africa. Angered Vesuvius waterfall. Falls Jhum jhum, explosion of atom, shattered simhakavatam.[6] In the undefined behind the raised curtain, there, the blood of a lass. The warm hug of Niagara, Hara-kiri, Hiroshima. ‘Horizontally wakeful amidst the universal widths.’ The first puff of the cigarette. Sleepless awakenings. Laughing faces. Life’s conch blowing. Chalam—spinning the wheel. Kutumbarao along with his family. Sri Sri’s cosmic dance of Shiva. The life journey of an incompetent fellow. A copper shilling to Biragi. The dawn’s glow on the Himalayan peaks. A watery grave in the calm ocean. The urgings of a volcano. Ice-cream. T.S. Eliot and Romeo Juliet. Who taught you this knowledge?

Music stopped. Halting, time has started breathing. The world is wiping its sweat. Being dead tired, the lovers doze off.   Everything is as hitherto. No, it’s not.

This night, there in the glow of electric lights, there are two children nearer to adolescence. But time stops. For a minute, time’s heart thumps racily.

Getting up, paying the bill with a bowed head, he strides out. Doesn’t even look back. A slice of his life having woken up for the minute slept back. 

Out in the light of stars, as the exhale that is fragranced by despair touches his cheek, he heaves a sigh. Cigarette butts all around the dust-filled room. To sleep, prepare for life. Each morning new horror brings. So what? What even if the remaining days become deserts? Tomorrow morning, why even right now, what if I die? I lived for an hour—lived pretty realistically

[1] Vishasya Vishamoushadham— in terms of Ayurvedic medicine, it means that by some poison, some disease is caused,; and to cure it the same is administered.
[2] Kanakakamini—Lady having lust for gold.
[3] Aanandabhiravi—very old melodious rāgam (musical scale) of Carnatic music.
[4] Nagakanya—A lass belonging to mythical snake clan
[5] Vauleenam—The sound of violin
[6]  simhakavatam—the door of the loin's cage

First published in Andhrajyothi (monthly) January, 1950

Portrait - courtesy : Shankara Narayana Sattiraju

Keywords - Bairagi, Aluri Bairagi,    Nuthilo Gonthukalu, Agama Geeti, Sahitya Academi Award winner  for Telugu poetry

PS.   I tried to contact the copyright holder but failed. If the copyright holder has any objection, he may Pl write to me and I shall remove it at once. Otherwise, I remain grateful to him/her


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