IN THE SHADOW OF HIGH-MINDEDNESS :VASHUNDHARA
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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.
* * *
Born 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
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,
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
"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 Gayatrithe 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
"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
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
thinking, Dharma Rao slipped into the happy unawareness of a contented
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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