by Jeyamohan and Translated from Tamil by Jegadeesh Kumar
It seemed Bapu was very tired. Didi came and informed that he would sleep early after dinner that night and hence dinner should be made ready earlier. Sohan Ram felt relieved. Bapu’s dinner consisted of two boiled bananas, a cup of greens, and a cup of goat’s milk; not to forget half an ounce of honey in a small bottle after that. Once he finished his dinner and went to sleep, Sohan could also get some sleep.
Sohan Ram too felt very tired. He had to walk a long distance with Bapu that morning. Though he got used to walking with Bapu long distances, coping up with his speed, the geography, and the climate of the new place gave him difficulties. Streams and ponds every step of the way. The steam emerging from them blended with the smell of decaying plants, mud, and algae and was suffocating. Nobody wore a shirt in this place. They rolled their hair into a tuft on their foreheads and spoke a strange language with a nasal sound. Sohan Ram got bored and tired of them soon. People kept visiting Bapu wherever he went; people who prostrated him and stood at a distance with reverence; people who, with hands covering their mouth, spoke only a few modest lines to him. Some women started to weep uncontrollably the moment they touched Bapu’s feet. When they struggled to control their emotions, with their faces covered, heads bent, the local congress partisans removed them from the scene with a phony severity. Party cadres and local VIPs kept visiting.
The man with the bald head who wore a grey suit took a lot of Bapu’s time. He must be highly educated or in a big position. A monocle had stuck to his face. It seemed it might fall off if he was raged. He spoke without pause. Sohan Ram could understand English only with an Indian accent. Bapu became quiet in front of those who talked nonstop. He could maintain an attitude of sharp attention in his eyes. Only by observing that his hands were running precisely on the spinning wheel and that the yarn was curled into a uniform thread could one know that he had freed himself from that situation. But except a few of those who came to visit him – of them most were women and children – the others never paid attention to the constantly spinning wheel. To some, it seemed the function of the wheel interrupted their conversation. A boy in Vidarbha once asked, “Bapuji! Why do you talk while you spin the wheel? Isn’t it wrong?” Bapu laughed out loud at length that day, opening his mouth widely, his body shaking.
After the bald man with the grey suit left, an old man who wore a white coat, a turban, and a religious mark on his forehead talked to Bapu for a long time. With poised English, he spoke about the eternity of the Self, and the relation between the supreme self and the individual self. Bapu answered his questions in simple terms. Finally, he said, “I cannot say anything about the Self. But if you’d ask me, I can talk a lot about this spinning wheel.” The old man looked here and there, perplexed, face blushing, anger spreading through his eyes. He controlled himself only because he saw that a crowd of people surrounded them. Bapu asked Sohan to bring some water. When he brought water and offered, the old man looked at him sharply. “May I know who this young man is?” he asked Bapu in a feeble but steady voice. Sohan Ram felt his blood rising into his head, bubbling, and boiling. This was an occurrence that happened many times a day. Very rarely that question was articulated. But the subtle sense that was ever alert and pervaded Sohan Ram’s entire body could even touch and know the thoughts of others.
Bapu assumed a casual posture usual to him and said, “He is my close assistant, Sohan Ram.”
The old man squinted his eyes further and said, “You’re a vaisya. I heard you’re a Vaishnavite too. But his face…”
Sohan Ram had learned to look at nowhere in particular. He felt like the entire universe, all inanimates watched him.
“I’m a Vaishnavite. He is Hari’s son,” said Bapu.
The old man’s voice emerged breathlessly. “Does Dharma shastra permit this?”
“Not necessary. I got permission from Rama.”
“This is nonsense,” said the old man.
“I spoke to Rama. You can confirm it from him if you could talk to him,” said Bapu, smiling.
With great fury, the old man got up and walked out without uttering a word. Bapu continued to spin the wheel, saying repeatedly, “Ram! Ram!” Sohan Ram looked at the curly elegant thread coming out and spinning smoothly on the disc. It brought peace to his mind to watch the immaculate functioning of the wheel. When he got up to walk out, Sohan could sense the relaxing of the bodies in the room. On coming out of the room, he too felt like entering fresh air. Inexplicable suffering formed in the depths of his mind. If he tried to ignore it, it grew larger and changed into a longing that made his body heavier.
That longing sprouted sometime back and had been growing ever since. Was it the longing to return to his village in Burdwan? What did he have for him there? He had to walk around without being seen by the Bhumihars. Even then, he would be stoned or beaten with sandals at least once a week. He was endlessly hungry day and night. He worked hard until there was light. Just one of the swear words that seemed like a casual conversation earlier is enough to turn him into ashes today. His family, relatives, and his teenage friends would all still be there. He could no longer breathe the air which came from the ramshackle huts smelling of filth and dirt, that housed frantic violence, vehement love, relationships, the arduous mutual hatred, the endless brawls, the jealousies, the cowardice, and the bodies afflicted by infectious and incurable diseases. He could no longer eat even a morsel of their food. Could no longer exchange a casual smile with them. The books he read, the places he visited, and the people he met carried him farther away. To a distance where even memories would go back and fade out. There was no place for him to go back anymore. He could return to his village if he changed back into the old Sohan Ram. But it was impossible. What had he lost? The old Sohan Ram?
Six years ago, he was fishing in the mud of a slum pond outside his village when he saw a group of people walking along the dirt road. He went near and watched them, hiding in the bushes. He had a stone in his hand to confront them if they were to attack him. The aged, dark-skinned man who walked at the front – Shohan Ram looked at his large ears and laughed to himself saying, “Pig ear!”- smiled at him and said, “What’s your name?” Sohan Ram uttered the most obscene word he knew. He ran away shouting, “Pig ear!” After running for some distance, he realized no one followed him. Hence he came back, shouted again, “Pig ear!” The old man laughed and said, “You still haven’t answered my question. What’s your name?” Sohan Ram uttered all the filthy words he knew. He waited and was ready to run. The man laughed out with his mouth open and walked without uttering a word. Sohan Ram walked behind them shouting obscene words. They did not care about him. He felt as if he lost the game, as if he stood naked in front of women. Sohan Ram stopped shouting and furiously started biting his nails. A nail peeled off to give rise to rash. The irritation spread throughout his body.
The old man had reached the village entrance when he turned and smiled at him. Sohan stood watching him and his group enter the village and vanish from sight. The Sun’s rays climbed and scorched his head. His legs began to stiffen. He tried many times mentally to leave from there but failed. He imagined that when the old man returned, he would throw a ball of cow dung at him and run away. He fancied he stood there just for that purpose. Or he should throw a large stone at him. The bald head would break and bleed. Sohan Ram laughed to himself. His hearing sense was spread all over the red, dusty road. All the sounds he heard sounded like footsteps and got him excited.
They returned only after the sun had started to set. Extremely tired, they walked very quietly. It seemed they did not get any reception nor any water from the village. As the old man got closer, Sohan Ram felt one of his legs tremble involuntarily and an urge to urinate, his stomach cramping. The old man smiled when he saw him. In a feeble voice, he asked, “What’s your name?” Sohan Ram moved his lips but his mouth was numb. He asked again, “What’s your name?” From the pit of his stomach, Sohan Ram felt the emerging aggression that shook him and came out as a wail. He sat there and sobbed uncontrollably. The old man came closer and placed his hands on his head.
They came and stayed in his slum that day. The slum struggled in excitement, confusion, and an inexplicable irritation. Sohan Ram sat at the old man’s feet. He never left his body’s touch. The old man’s body had a slight tremor common to old age. The tremor seemed like an intimate conversation for Sohan. The next day, he bathed and wore the dhoti Didi gave him. The old man placed his hand on his shoulder and asked, “Do you want to come with me?” He nodded. Like his legs, the old man’s hands too were huge and heavy. The load of his hand pressed against his head.
In these six years, Sohan Ram had not touched him much. Only rare casual touches. But he could always feel his touch. He could feel its intimate trembling, warmth, along with its heaviness, especially when he was barely awake. Why are they so heavy? Sometimes the load would press him and make him gasp for breath. Struggling for breath, he would wake up, scared.
Didi came back and asked if Bapu’s food was ready when the last of the visitors had left. Sohan went outside to wash bananas. He heard voices. Sohan Ram looked out with annoyance and anger. A strong, dark-skinned man wearing a turban had stood, surrounded by other dark young men. They spoke in loud voices. The service volunteers who tried to stop them too spoke loudly.
Didi came out and asked, “What’s the matter, Ganapathy?” One of the volunteers replied, “They want to see Bapu. Wouldn’t listen if I say Bapu won’t see anyone.”
“Who is he?”
“Ayyankali. A local leader,” said Ganapathy.
“Bapu is too tired,” said Didi.
The young man who accompanied Ayyankali said, “Vanakkam amma! My name is Sindan. We’re coming from far away, from a place called Iraniyal on the other end of Travancore. All the way, we came by foot. We are not allowed to travel in carts or use the public route. We came walking through fields. We started early this morning but could only reach now.”
“But that is your problem,” said Ganapathy. “Didn’t you hear her saying Bapu is tired?”
“We heard he’s leaving tomorrow,” said Sindan.
“Yes. You can meet him next time around.”
“Can’t say. He might return maybe in two years.”
“Two years? Perhaps none of us will be alive by then,” said Sindan. It was as if a sudden chill spread through that place.
Didi said, “Come in.” Ayyankali, who stood all this time like a dark statue without uttering a word, climbed the steps. His astounding height, square face with a wider jaw, long horseshoe mustache, and eyes full of the light of strength gave an impression as though he were a historical figure. The bamboo cane in his hand was ripe, mature, hand-worn, and looked golden in color. All his disciples held a cane in their hands as if it were one of the parts of their bodies.
Without showing his interest, Sohan Ram asked, “Who is this?”
“Leader of Pulaiyas, Ayyankali,” said Ganapathy. “A big hooligan. Rowdy. News is, he has killed at least thirty. He has an evil gang named Ayyankali force. He would murder those who don’t give him what he asked for, rob them and burn them.”
“Whatever this Ponnuthirumeni’s Nayar force is doing?” said one angrily.
Ganapathy said, “But he has the backing of the Lord Resident.”
“Mm…This is Kaliyuga.”
“Why does he come here?”
Sohan Ram entered the room. Ayyankali sat silently in front of Bapu. Others stood around. Sindan sat at a respectful distance from Ayyankali. There was a conversation happening.
Sindan said, “We would like to know your opinion.”
Bapu said, “Fight injustice with justice; cruelty with compassion; hatred with love. That’s what my mind says.”
“ How can we speak of nonviolence and righteousness when we’re being abused like dogs, our women are being raped, and our children are being enslaved?”
“Nonviolence and righteousness are the means of struggle for those who are tortured and being wronged,” said Bapu.
Sindan got up angrily. “Mada! Show this demigod your body!”
Madan took off the cloth that wrapped him. Sohan Ram watched that cruel scene with horror. His back and chest were blocks of a mixture of blood and pus. The wound had cracked and exploded with its liquid smearing all over it. A jolt spread all over the room.
“Karainayars dragged him along the ground eighteen times around the Thiruvattar temple,” said Sindan. “His only crime was to try and catch his buffalo that entered the temple. Thousands of our men sweat it out on the temple’s thousand acres. The rice offered for Adi Kesava is the paddy that we trampled and extracted from bundles. But…”
Bapu sat still. His spinning wheel spun smoothly, twisting the thread and winding it around the disc.
“Speak up! When beaten, even a snake raises its head with rage; a calf comes to attack. Our generation lived like vermin for thousands of years. What right do you have to speak to us about nonviolence? We entered the Karainayars’ houses and beat them. We defecated in their family temple. That is our right.”
“What you did only justifies what they’ve done to you,” said Bapu. “Only violence justifies violence.”
“Can you speak to us in the same manner if we raped your wife, inserted a prickly stick into your children’s anus?”
“Most certainly!” said Bapu. “I haven’t the slightest doubt about that. I spoke my first word of nonviolence to another human only after I realized my state without a doubt. My wife and children are not with me right now. I permit you. You can beat me; torture me. Test if my stance changes after that.”
Sindan calmed down abruptly. Gathering himself, he said, “ You clearly know that we won’t do such a thing.”
“Yes,” said Bapu. “But a man like your leader can do it without batting an eyelid if he so wishes.” A thin smile appeared on Bapu’s face. His eyes met Ayyankali’s, whose face looked like a stone sculpture that showed no expression.
Bapu continued. “You are the primary reason for the torture you endured for a thousand years. You were totally deserving of this disgrace.”
The young man took a step forward in anger but controlled himself. He said with a disgusted face, “I should spit on your face for saying this.”
“But that won’t change my opinion,” said Bapu. “People who are enslaved to injustice are actually those who have compromised with it. Had your clan chosen death over life, they would have either perished or won.”
In the silence that ensued, Bapu’s wheel spun smoothly.
“Winning with compromises is our weakness. After the compromises, we become infuriated and hateful. Violence is only an expression of those emotions. Not only toward the other, but the violence also turns toward us. The sword will not rest without spilling the blood of the swordsman.”
“We would have no blood left without the sword,” said another young man.
“Your adversaries too have swords. More than your number. Well trained than yours. You possess the only weapon that they don’t have. Justice! Justice will make you brave. Injustice will only fill you with terror,” said Bapu. There appeared that rare dream look on his face. “Violence has the power to transform us. It makes us like our enemies. This is not victory. In fact, a huge loss. The real method of struggle is to uplift ourselves.”
“Useless Philosophy!” said Sindan. “You don’t know practicality! We are a race that has been languishing for a thousand years. The pain of all the blows covers our souls as cowardice. In reality, every blow that we return is the child of those thousand blows. Don’t you forget it!”
Another young man said, “Once, when we attacked a Kurup’s house, his lead Pulaiya said, ‘Let this happen. Then this Pulaiya’s cane will hit a Nayar too.’ Our people still haven’t realized that we can fight back. To just give one blow, we have to step on the chests of the reclining Adi Kesava and Anandapadmanapa and cross them.”
“Why don’t you wake them from their sleep? Why don’t you ask them to come to fight alongside you with their conch and discus?”
“They are the fecal heap of a Brahmin!” Sindan yelled. “Not a drop of that sin should fall on our homes.”
Bapu removed the disc slowly and fixed another. He threaded the cotton into the bobbin and spun the wheel. It started to spin with a whirring noise.
“We have gods who ask blood for sacrifice; gods standing on the ground without vehicles. It’s enough if Madan, Sudalai, Kadan, and Karuppan accompany us in this battle.”
“Don’t you have motherly gods that carry children in their chests? Will they accompany you?”
Sindan lost his patience. “Why are we even talking to him? He is the priest of the deceitful crowd that enslaved us for a thousand years. Sir, Let’s go…”
But Ayyankali sat motionless, silent. Bapu met his eyes. Both their eyes were talking.
“I can talk to you,” said Bapu to Ayyankali. “Not with these words. I couldn’t believe them myself.”
Ayyankali stood up, heaving a sigh. His cane lay on the ground. Bapu noticed it.
He said in his calm, bass voice, “I don’t understand any of your moral justifications. I don’t understand English that well… any language for that matter.” To Sohan Ram, the deep tone of his voice too seemed to have his grandeur and darker complexion. “But I can make a promise to you. I won’t need this cane anymore. I realized I don’t stand on its strength. I’ve to thank you for that. The only compromise I’d made is with a cane. Not anymore.”
“I don’t think we’ll meet again,” said Ayyankali. “Hence I want to finally say one thing. I wish you’d have the same mental strength you have in these moments of victory when you are defeated, ignored, and murdered. The voices you heard until now have all come from the skies. This one comes from the abyss. Farewell.”
He turned and walked with his head high. Sohan Ram noticed that Bapu’s spinning wheel had stopped running.
Ayyankali’s disciples struggled in confusion. Some dropped their canes. The others dropped theirs too after seeing them. Only Sindan took his cane and held it with a strange grip. His friend too followed suit. Others walked with a stumble, looking alternately between Sindan and Ayyankali. While Sindan walked alone with a face full of fury and disgust, the others walked in hurried steps to follow Ayyankali who went at the front.
Bapu accelerated the wheel with a sigh. There was a strain in its sound. The thread was cut off accordingly. Bapu joined it and ran the wheel again. But the thread was cut off again. The synchrony between his fingers and the wheel seemed to be distorted. The thread was cut off again and again, and again. Bapu’s head was extremely lowered. He tried to direct all his focus on the wheel. But his fingers were trembling. The tremor grew as he tried more and more. Bapu got tired of it and left it saying, “Hey Ram!” It was as if something were splitting inside Sohan Ram when he looked at Bapu’s face. With determination, Bapu took the wheel again. He tried to collect himself to the last drop. Sohan Ram walked out, unable to bear that pressure. Darkness stood everywhere like a solid black curtain. He spread his bed and lay down. Though he was physically dead tired, he could not sleep due to the boiling of his mind.
The light was not turned off inside the room. The wheel continued spinning. But he knew there was no rhythm in its sound. The thread got tighter and tighter…as if that entangled thread changed into a sound and surrounded him…as if the entanglement happened in his thinking stream…as if it expanded from inside of him, spreading out, filling the darkness. He felt as if one of the nerves inside his head might be cut off. At an extreme moment, he got up and screamed, “Stop it! You, old dog!” No. He did not scream. He felt relieved at one moment and felt shivering like an electric shock the next. He jumped up chanting, “Ram! Ram!” He ran as though he was scared of that place and his own body. Many slept under the shadows of coconut trees that swayed in the wind. Right across, he saw a shiny black pond. The sky had frozen into a torrent of clouds. Somewhere in the sky hung a gibbous moon. Sohan Ram felt the trembling of his body and to avoid the trembling he started to chant stubbornly, “Ram! Ram! Ram!” But without making any connection, as those strings of words ran and disappeared somewhere, his mind was a meaningless flow of breaking and spinning and banging. He became the sky, the earth, the light, the shadows, the sounds and was simultaneously away from them, struggling. The sound of the thin, shrill buzz of crickets combined everything and wove into a single existence. It penetrated everything like a fine thread. His consciousness too joined with it and stretched to weave and engulf everything else. Everything took its form around him again. Slowly, he calmed down. No problems anymore. All was well. He sighed repeatedly. But somewhere at the ends of his mind, as a thin, stubborn murmur, a voice made its presence felt. No. it was a fine thread. A very fine thread. Very, very fine thread. Ram. Ram. Ram. Sohan Ram prayed with folded hands. On the one side, his mind melted, expanded, and flexibly spread while on the other, the warning of the secret voice continued. Sohan Ram prayed repeatedly that the rhythm of that spinning wheel must have become coherent when he returned.
The story depicts the freedom of Ayyankali, a great Dalit leader of Kerala. He was born in 1863 in the village of Venganoor and was illiterate. Inspired by Narayana Guru, he started fighting against untouchability and caste atrocities. In1905, at the instigation of Swami Sadananda, a campaigner for the abolition of untouchability, he founded the Pulayar Mahasabha. An expert of Adimurai and a Physician of Varma, Ayyankali gathered his disciples and created the Ayyankali force which followed violence as a fighting strategy. It was on January 1, 1937, that Ayyankali met Gandhi in person. Gandhi presided over and spoke at a large meeting held in honor of Ayyankali in Venganoor. But a meeting between the two is said to have taken place fifteen years earlier than that. The same meeting is narrated with imagination in this story. Kali died on June 18, 1941.
This story appears in the novel Pinthodarum Nizhalin Kural, released in 1999. Suspense or dramatic tension and are instead grounded in realism, particularly in description and characterization.
About the Author:
Jeyamohan (b. 1962) is a Tamil writer and literary critic based in Nagercoil, India. One of India’s finest authors writing today, he has traveled the length and breadth of the Indian subcontinent, and his work examines and reinterprets India’s rich literary and classical traditions. His best-known, critically acclaimed novel, Vishnupuram (1997), is an epic fantasy that layers history, myth-making, and philosophy. His works of fiction include the novels Pin Thodarum Nizhalin Kural (1999), Kaadu (2003), Kottravai (2005), and Vellai Yaanai (2013), and explore diverse themes ranging from ideological anguish following the collapse of Soviet Russia to the symbol of the mother goddess in Tamil cultural history to the great famine of Madras in 1876-78. A prolific writer, his output includes multiple novels, short stories, volumes of literary criticism, writer biographies, introductory texts to Indian and Western literature, books on philosophy, and numerous other translations and collections. He has completed his serialized retelling of the Indian epic Mahabharata called Venmurasu (The White Drum), consisting of twenty-six volumes. This is the longest novel in the world. https://www.jeyamohan.in/
Jegadeesh Kumar is a student of Eastern Philosophy, Mathematics teacher, writer, and translator, raised in Southern India, now living in South Carolina, USA. He writes, both in English and Tamil, short stories, poems, and Eastern Philosophy. His work has appeared in The Prometheus Dreaming, Indian Periodical, The Academy of Heart and Mind, Spillwords, Vallinam magazine, and elsewhere.
It is not Bapuji, Babuji is the correct pronunciation.
Thanks for reading and commenting.
Mahatma belongs to everyone. One can call him in a way one likes. But Bapu is the correct way to pronounce.