TOMORROW, MY BIRTHDAY
By P. PADMARAJU
(Rendered by the Author from Telugu)
‘Tomorrow is-my birthday, I will be sixty tomorrow.’
Leaning far back into the cushions of his luxurious car, ‘Paramita’ looked at the tree tops that were flying backwards, the sky slit into fragments by those tree tops and the bits of white cloud deep inside the sky that moved motionlessly along with his car. It was not exactly them he was looking at. He was trying to probe into them to locate some formless forms, whose contours had almost disappeared.
There was a time when he fought shy of the name ‘Paramita’, a name by which his disciples referred to him both on the platform and in the press, in those days when he started interpreting the mind and the teachings of the Great Buddha, having drunk deep at the fountain of that wisdom. He thought that pen-names were a little pompous and in bad taste. But the name was associated with his achievements and his fame during a whole decade and when he published his essays in a book form he put down the name of the author as ‘Paramita’. His disciples were pleasantly surprised and even a little intrigued. Some of them motivated by mischievous curiosity asked him why he accepted that name. He replied, with a benevolent smile that however great a man was, he had to bow down before the weight of public opinion.
From among the bits of white cloud, there emerged a form, rare and fascinating, and stood before his mind’s eye. It was the form of his cousin Ramadevi, when she was young and full of vitality. The golden yellow complexion of the ripe betel leaf, the hair parted above her left eyebrow where the tender hair curled into a spiral like a small whirlpool, the plaited hair with the dark blue sheen reaching almost her knees and lifted by the ample curve beneath the small of her back, the large innocent looking eyes with the dark eyebrows and the lovely squint, all were there as clearly as if she were there in flesh and blood. He felt he could touch her if he stretched his hand. She had a knack of smiling with the squint of her eyes, and you felt as if you were enveloped in a cool bracing summer shower. But it was difficult to know for whom the shower was meant on account of the squint. He had a suspicion that even at that early age, she realised the possibilities of that squint and that she deliberately made use of it purely for fun.
Ramadevi was now in her early fifties. She had five or six children. Her hair turned grey. Even the eyebrows were spotted with grey. Now she parted her hair in the middle. But the permanent curl above the left eyebrow was still there, as though it symbolised some unchanging trait in her character. The squint also was there, lovely but confusing as of old.
His disciples were making preparations to celebrate his sixtieth birthday on a grand scale. He once again had to bow down before the weight of public opinion and accept the invitation. He would be seated on a pedestal, like the duplicate image of God used on ceremonial occasions, and there would be long speeches in his praise, full of meaningless commonplaces. He closed his eyes in acute discomfort at the thought.
A lorry passed in the opposite direction raising a huge cloud of dust and sound, and he was again conscious of his surroundings. A few yards ahead the road to Nidadavole branched off to the right from the main road.
Turn to the right, Chenchiah–he said.
Chenchiah always did what he was told to do, and never asked for any explanations. That was why, he struck to Chenchiah for over twenty years. Servants were replaced, cooks were replaced. Even friends did not endure long. The unmitigated monotony of constancy tired him. He could not stand even his own house, not to mention his own village for any length of time.
Have you never loved any one? Why were you not married?–a disciple had asked him once. I would have gone mad looking at the same face day in and day out for so many years–he had replied. His disciples felt free to put him any question they liked, he put them so much at their ease and there was nothing formal in his relationship with them.
Even so, he never thought of replacing Chenchiah. Whatever you told him, Chenchiah’s face never showed any reaction. He merely did what he was told to do. Chenchiah knew many of his secrets. Many foolish things had happened in this back seat of the car. There were occasions when he made an utter fool of himself over others and others made themselves fools over him. But Chenchiah never gave an indication even by a look that he knew those things happened. But Chenchiah was neither dull witted nor stupid. His was the immobility of a sharp and intelligent mind. There was something in Chenchiah that was akin to the essence of Buddhism–the ‘Paramita’–a state of being which knows all, but transcending, knowledge.
He had, for Chenchiah, an affection not unmixed with gratitude. Chenchiah was his companion during all the ups and downs of his high strung life, but Chenchiah remained aloof un-touched by them, like the proverbial drop of water on the lotus leaf.
Chenchiah stopped the car in front of Ramadevi’s house. He knew what he should do without being told.
Uncle has come–shouted Rangappa, Ramadevi’s fourth son. Rangappa resembled his mother closely.
They sent us an invitation for your birthday celebrations–said Ramadevi.
I am going to Rajahmundry in that connection. I dropped in just to see you on the way–he said.
What do you mean? Are you indicating that you do not want me to come?–asked Ramadevi.
He was unable to decide whether she said it in fun or in seriousness.
‘You are devoid of form, but the twinkle in the corners of your eyes is where all forms are born.’
It was from a poem he had written about her, in those mad days of youth. The lines came to him in a sudden flash. He looked at her.
Tomorrow he would be completing sixty years–Tomorrow is a festive day. All his disciples would be awaiting his arrival with anxiety and enthusiasm. They would have prepared the dais with taste. Tomorrow is not the same as every other day. Tomorrow is different. Tomorrow is unique.
Once he was twenty-five. Then he had a whole future spread out in front of him. Many people offered their daughters to him in marriage with spectacular dowries. He contemptuously laughed at those offers. Marriage was not for the likes of him. Marriage was for the ordinary male–for the likes of Manikyam. Manikyam was the same age as he. He had only two passions of his life then, food and sleep.
Rama was a destitute child. Her mother had passed away. Her father squandered all his property on drink. His father gave her shelter and succour. She grew up under the same roof as he for ten years.
A huge sprawling affair was that house, built in four quarters, the roof sloping down to the centre of each quarter into an iron pipe which served as a drain for rainwater. The southern yard was bounded on all sides by high walls. There was an over-grown jasmine creeper in the yard. A huge tamarind tree brushed its trunk against the northern wall, slowly eating into the wall, the branches unsettling the tiles of the roof when there was a breeze.
Rama and he used to climb on to the roof and eat the tender tamarind fruit. They used to hide small packets of salt under the tiles of the roof. Rama used to dip the tamarinds into salt and crunch them happily under her teeth. He also used to munch tamarinds. But his teeth ached on account of the loss of enamel–the tamarinds were so sour–and he could not eat his food afterwards. But Ramadevi could eat her food with relish after the tamarinds.
Uncle–that was Rama’s father–came to his father whenever he needed money for his drink. His father used to spurn uncle in utter disgust but in the end he always used to give him some money. Uncle never made his appearance again till the money was spent. On occasions, when uncle came home drunk, Rama put him to sleep with touching affection. She patiently listened to all his drunken babble, and when he sank into his intoxicated slumber, she covered him with a blanket, put out the light, came out and talked with us as if nothing had happened. On the day of her marriage, uncle did not turn up to give the bride away. Later it became known that he was lying drunk in the temple yard. His parents had to give away Rama on the occasion.
The sacred disc of Vishnu on the top of the temple was askew, and the mud walls of the compound were almost washed down. The carved stones slipped from their places here and there. There was a row of yellow ‘Ganneru’ trees around the temple. Nambi Achary, the priest, bathed in the temple tank every day and brought sacred water in a huge polished brass vessel over which he painted the ‘namam’, which was the symbol of Lord Vishnu. He (‘Paramita’) and Rama spent many evenings in the temple yard. They discussed many questions and often disagreed. Was Subbanna’s wife good or bad? Why did Gopalam, the karanam, always cough? Did Venkamma really elope with Veeraswamy?
Tomorrow, I will be completing sixty years. I have not lived in vain. I have given so much to the world. I have cut my heart into bits and presented them to the world in the form of my writings; I have suffered, that the world might be happy. I have borne the burden of the world’s sorrows and its unfulfilled desires, that the world might live a fuller life. I know the world, but the world does not know me. It only knows my name and it raises memorials to that name. It does not know there is ‘me’, apart from the name. That other ‘I’ is crushed and sapped dry under the weight of the world’s miseries. It is out of untold suffering that all art emerges, but it gives the world only happiness.
Rama and her husband were in the back seat of the car happily discussing commonplaces, hurling childish jokes at each other. Yes. People who live by money-lending never grow up with their age. Rama’s temperament was also that of a money-lender. When he read his poems to her, she always laughed. She liked good food, good clothing, and glittering jewels. The land of the Moon and the garden of Indra simply did not exist for her. In a way, she was happily married. Her husband also had similar tastes and temperament.
Why not you marry Rama?–asked his father. He laughed away the suggestion, and gave a lengthy dissertation on marriage as a social institution. Having heard him through, his father asked again: That is all right, but are you willing to marry Rama?
He could not find a satisfactory answer to that question till Rama was married to her present husband. Strange, that Rama, who knew about this unanswered question, never even casually referred to it when they were alone. Had she so much as set the ball rolling, he would have laid bare his heart to her. But she merely sat on the roof beside him crunching tamarinds and salt under her teeth. On the day of the marriage he suffered agonies, and, till the last moment, was hoping that some miracle would stop the marriage. That night he had many dreams, all about the marriage being stopped.
Supposing he had married Rama. What then?–His mind shook with spontaneous laughter. He would have sat at the moneylender’s table, making elaborate calculations, would have become the father of five or six children, would have been beside her in the back seat of the car playing childish pranks. Then, who would be there to present to the world the ‘Prajna Paramita’? Who would be there to become the teacher of this huge land of disciples? Art demands the unqualified surrender of its devotee. It accepts the sacrifice of his all or nothing. The artist annihilates himself and gives the world eternal happiness. A thousand Ramas cannot equal a poem.
What if all art is annihilated? If the world is peopled by Ramas, where is the need for art? Is art greater, or life? Life, of course, what doubt is there! All art strives to make that one point. That is the message of art. Then how foolish it is to sacrifice life for the sake of art? Life, experience of living, that is the essence of human existence. After all art is dead, life must be alive.
Yes. Tomorrow is my birthday.
The car stopped in front of the Gouthami Library. Rama and her husband got down from the back seat. He was asleep in the front seat beside the driver, Chenchiah. Involuntary tears were running down his cheeks. Rama woke him up. He got up and wiped his eyes and face.
Tomorrow is my birthday; tomorrow I will be sixty.