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Vasundhara Ratakonda has been the recipient of several awards including the A.P. State Sahitya Academy Award for short- stories, Gangadharam Award for short-story collection, and the Pratibha puraskar (Best woman Writer in Telugu, 1992). Some of her selected list of English translations are – * Women Writing in India Today-II (Feminist Press-NY): MADNESS * Thulika (Web Quarterly, July2004): STEPPING TO A FARAWAY MUSIC. Her fiction has also been published previously in Issue 2 and Issue 3, 2005- Cerebration.

* * *

orn and brought up in Kakinada city in the Eastern Ghats of the Indian sub-continent, Dharma Rao, the suave, thirty-four year old English lecturer in the local Government College had managed to stay put for a good seven years in spite of stiff competition for the location from other English teachers.

He was a proud and ambitious young man. With his wavy well-groomed hair, good looks, elegant dresses, suave manner and effervescent presence, he was a hot favorite with colleagues and students. He was the elected secretary of the staff club, he arranged picnics for the staff members in the month of Kartik, spent time with friends over cups of coffee, shared cigarettes and enjoyed card games with them. He did his best to cover up his ultra-conservative upbringing and blend into the modern, westernized world by acquiring new attitudes. He worried that it might arouse the old accusations of hubris and self-aggrandizing attitudes of the high caste Brahmin and their policing of social hierarchies in this Konaseema area of hard-core Vedic culture. He also tried to disguise the significance of his high caste birth. At the time of their marriage he modernized his wife's outmoded name, Somidevi (a performer of Vedic rites), by prefixing 'Sharada' (goddess of learning) to it. His given name troubled him a lot too. But when Oswald asked him what his name meant, he explained it at length and felt relieved that the word 'Dharma' had great cultural significance and multiple connotations to the foreigner at least.

Oswald had the habit of inquiring into the significance of everything Indian. Twenty-five years old, six feet tall, heavily tanned, sandy-haired, blue-eyed and German-American, he was a research scholar in anthropology, presently on a visit to Kakinada. He had already visited several towns and cities before arriving in Kakinada. He was a good listener and had the habit of starting his speech with a giggle, 'hi, hi, hi'.

After a brief acquaintance, Dharma Rao invited him to his home as his guest. Oswald was given a taste of their life and the quaint habits of the Konaseema people. Squatting on a wooden plank on the floor, Oswald ate his food served on a fresh green banana leaf. He enjoyed the savory, yellow tinted lemon-rice served with crunchy lentil wafers, tasted the celebrated pungency of Gongura-chutney, relished the hot, acrid Avakai pickle and devoured the delectable cardamom flavored, jaggery- lentil dal Bobbatlu . He appreciated everything. He praised Sharada Somidevi's good looks, her fine silk-saris and their kids.

As Dharma Rao warmed up towards Oswald, his mask of modernity melted and his self-pride, hidden in the depths, surfaced. He spoke of his heritage with pride. His great grandfather had built a Shiva temple in his native village, his grandfather had performed Yagna (Vedic sacrifice) and had attained the status of a somayaji, and his father had been a Sanskrit scholar versed in Vedic knowledge. “Culture is the real wealth and tradition is the real inheritance in this land of India, the real spiritual center of the world,” asserted Dharma Rao. “Sanathana Dharma, the principle that sustains the cosmic order is alive here,” he averred.

“An accumulation of dead habit might gather on the surface with time but it gets cleared up from generation to generation. In this country there was now a new awakening among the youth. Scientific temper and revolutionary attitudes were very much in evidence and the old obscurantist postures were being abandoned. We don't hesitate to change with times. We are the new blood revitalizing the great Sanathana Ganga. Even women and non-Brahmins could now study scriptures without fear of punishment. The practice of untouchability was now banned by the Indian constitution. Modern scientific thinking will help in adapting to the changing world”, he declared to Oswald.

Dharma Rao chuckled inwardly at the thought that his ancestors would swoon in their heavenly abode if they were to see him, their progeny, invite a beef-eater into his hearth and home as he adapted to a changing world!

"My country will certainly regain its past glory!" he said with an air of conviction.”
"Hi, hi, hi, you mean, moderns like you can reconcile your tradition with the reality of simple humaneness? Caste, race, class-consciousness are creating havoc everywhere in the world!" said Oswald.
"Our spiritual tradition has a cosmic character at its core. Our daily rituals carry all our activities to the sacred beginnings of creation," said Dharma Rao. To prove his point, he belted out the mantras he invoked daily to get reconnected to the cosmic beginning: sanctify his bath-water before bathing, sanctify his food before eating, and his obligatory thrice daily Gayatri—the devout appeal to the highest truth to lift his mind to the highest plane. "We, the educated moderns, are aware of the glory of our tradition," he said, with a smile and a toss of his head.

Oswald expressed a desire to visit the famous temple at Tirumala before he left India. There was a question, however, if people of other religions were permitted to enter this sacred temple. Dharma Rao took it as a challenge to his modern views. He asked his friend and colleague Someshwar to accompany him on this mission. Hailing from the same cultural background, their thoughts tended to run in the same direction and they supported each other in matters of prestige.

On the Tirumala hills, inside the cottage they had rented, Oswald's sandy hair was dyed black and he was made to don a silk dhoti, a kurta and the holy religious marks of the Hindus were painted on his forehead. To avoid detection, he was asked to walk in file with folded hands and downcast eyes between Dharma Rao and Someshwar, in the long queue inching towards the Lord's inner sanctum. After they had the darshan of the Lord and came out of the temple, Dharma Rao discovered that his purse was missing. His kurta pocket had been picked! Six hundred rupees of currency was gone. An agitated Dharma Rao looked around wondering whether the purse had just slipped from his pocket somewhere nearby. Finally he had to admit that it was irretrievably lost. He cast a look of contempt and disgust at the people around him. He lost his temper, as a report to the police would be of no avail and would only invite a lot of worry. That the police frequently colluded with thieves was a known fact to him. "A bunch of low-born scoundrels!" he muttered. It was a great shame for the country and the God, he thought.

As they walked back to the cottage, Dharma Rao whispered to Someshwar in an agitated undertone: "Never before in my life have I lost anything in this manner! Why did this happen now? What do you think?"
Oswald's alert blue eyes surveyed everything with interest and curiosity. After their arrival at the cottage, he observed, "Hi,hi,hi, Great God! Great devotion! And great thieving! All in tandem!"

After such a momentous visit to the great temple, both Dharma Rao and Someshwar were annoyed by the irreverence of this statement. Now Oswald looked funny and ridiculous in his fancy dress to their eyes. A dilettante from a foreign country, albeit a rich country, he was pointing his finger of scorn at an ancient civilization! An unregenerate person, not from the twice-born and not authorized to study the sacred scriptures, can never fully understand the greatness of God or the holiness of the place!
"That may be so, Mr. Oswald! We in this country are liberal and broad-minded enough to accept man's weaknesses and human complexity. Little things should not be allowed to distract the greater vision!" protested Someshwar impetuously.
"But Dharma Rao is not tolerant! He has been fretting and fuming about the theft for hours and not minding the greater vision!" said Oswald, with his classic laugh but was ignored.

When they arrived at the bottom of the hill, Oswald bade them good bye. He hugged Dharma Rao. "I will always cherish your hospitality and will surely write to you after I get back!"
As soon as Oswald was out of sight, Someshwar dismissed him: "A rank opportunist! He was only making use of your hospitality. Don't expect any letter! Forget it!"

The train they boarded for their return journey got stranded at Nellore, a train station somewhere between Tirumala and Kakinada. A very powerful hurricane accompanied by great tidal waves had wrought havoc along the Coast, disrupting all communications. It took a week for them to finally reach Kakinada. Newspapers were full of stories of destruction and distress, and horrid tales of shattered lives. In that universal havoc, human anguish merged impotently into the raging tidal surges; cries of woe and laments got paralyzed in the howling chaos and life was a night-mare. When the college reopened, the atmosphere was charged with excitement of another kind. Lecturers and the non-teaching staff hotly debated the Principal's memorandum suggesting that each of them contribute a tenth of their monthly salary to the cyclone relief fund. A tenth of the salary! Brisk calculations were made, each member's sacrifice assessed, and the cuts were found unacceptable. The problem had to be faced squarely by the secretary, Dharma Rao.
“Any donation should be voluntary; the mandate of the principal fixing the contribution at ten percent is arbitrary” declared Dharma Rao, rejecting the memo. The staff members supported the secretary whole-heartedly.
Veerraju, the sweeper, heard the heated discussions with interest and quietly put in: "What is wrong, Sir, if we help our suffering fellowmen?"
Dharma Rao was angry. These days every low-born fellow talked of high values! How can ordinary people understand the complexity of the world?

"Veerraju, You wheedle us for your bidi-money and tea-money everyday; now you talk of magnanimity. The questions here are 1) Is the Principal collecting this money because he has sympathy for the sufferers or is it because he wants to hog the credit for collecting a sizable amount and get publicity for free? 2) Has he the right to do it? 3) Do we have the assurance that this money would reach the real sufferers? If we were sure of that, we might want to contribute not a tenth part but the whole of our salary!" he said disdainfully.
"This is my contribution, Sir!" Veerraju handed over a ten-rupee note.

"Veerraju is now a great philanthropist!" solemnly announced Dharma Rao. A loud guffaw from the gathering greeted him.

After he went home, Dharma Rao continued to ruminate over the calamity. A great fire raged in the heart of the sea. It created a mighty deluge and a terrible devastation. Scientists might explain the mechanism of the hurricane but they could neither generate it nor control it! When faced with such phenomenon, one realizes the insignificance of man's intelligence and power before the divine. And who can claim to understand the Cause of all causes? Modern knowledge has explained many universal phenomena and has produced fantastic technologies for the service of man but when the great impersonal cosmic forces step in, he becomes a puny plaything of gods, with consolation and guidance available only from the illustrious scriptures!

Dharma Rao's thoughts went back in time trying to understand the day previous to the cyclone, which later turned into the deluge -yes, precisely on that day- they had darshan of the Lord. They had taken Oswald with them in violation of the sacred laws of the shrine. Could he, Dharma Rao, assert in good faith that there was no connection whatsoever between that sacrilegious act and the damnation that followed? Nature and God, would they not react to the ever increasing irreligiousness of the people? A foreigner might have made the request, but why did he, Dharma Rao, yield and take an alien straight into the shrine? He was besieged with doubt and self reproach.

After a while, he recovered his composure. Doubt is intellectual activity. Its domain is worldly business. It questions everything, discusses the pros and cons and moves on. Inquiry is the secret of worldly wisdom. One who doesn't doubt and rethink is either a bigot or a stupid. With his doubts downgraded as a problem of intellect and intellect pigeonholed as a feature of worldly wisdom, not integral to a questing soul, and his search for the roots of tradition avoided, he recovered his natural high-mindedness.
“How do we confront the problems of modern day? Is the situation to be probed through a study of twentieth century existentialism or the thought of our modern philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti”…so thinking, Dharma Rao slipped into the happy unawareness of a contented sleep.

A few days later, a letter and a parcel arrived in the mail. Both were from Oswald. "As a token of our friendship, I am sending you a package of six shirts. I cherish the experience of our visit to the shrine at Tirumala," wrote Oswald. The parcel bore signs of tampering. Inside were a torn blanket and a few stones wrapped up in cloth. The covetousness of a thieving postal employee!

Dharma Rao, in a fit of anger, threw the parcel in the garbage, and muttered, “For a country full of such low-born scoundrels there can be no hope…no hope at all…"


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