translated from the Kannada by Bhumika R
‘Mr. Hanumanthachar is an elderly gentleman who lives in the apartment complex where I also happen to reside. Owing to his slightly protruding jawline other residents of our apartment ridicule him saying that his name and appearance are indeed a perfect match. But let me tell you one thing, there is a lot more that is both interesting and strange about him besides his name and appearance. Our Hanumanthachar retired as a high-ranking government official. He also happens to be the honorary president of our resident welfare association and looks into any concern or work pertaining to our complex and resolves it. He either gets the work done through someone else or, if possible, does it himself. But he insists on staying away from both leadership and recognition and if anyone seeks his intervention on any dispute or misunderstanding amongst the residents of our complex then Mr Achar will send them back asking them to discuss the matter with him after a few days or a couple of weeks. It so happens that disputes and misunderstandings get resolved during that period without needing third-party intervention. Mr Achar will then merely say, ‘Now that is how life works. You should simply allow anything or everything to pass. Instead, if you take it upon yourself to resolve the matter immediately then you are sure to land in trouble. In a nutshell, a quiet and detached observation of the everyday ongoings around us constitutes life. All we need to do is merely observe and remain unperturbed by the occurrences.’
‘This man’s response remained stoic in any kind of situation. For instance, if he learnt of someone’s death or divorce or if someone shared their joy on the birth of children in their families or even when guests visited him or took leave etc, Mr. Achar’s behaviour did not indicate any difference in his emotional state. So in summary, irrespective of the nature of the event, Mr Achar’s response remained unchangingly stoic. In fact, strange as it might seem, his behaviour was the same even when his children and grandchildren who lived on foreign shores visited him. Let alone finding him in a jubilant mood, he wouldn't display even a faint trace of excitement or happiness. Initially, this man’s behaviour puzzled and surprised me. I assumed that in the disguise of stoicism, Mr. Achar must be a rather cold-hearted and uncaring person who was emotionally stunted. But as time passed by, I realised that he was not just a random, cold-hearted, old man but a human being who possessed profound maturity and had a deeper understanding of life.’
‘In the last couple of years, Mr Achar has acquired a rather strange habit. If you ask him about his newly acquired habit he will laugh saying it is not a habit but a practice and explain about it. He enjoys making fun of his new practice and laughs for a longish time if anyone broaches the topic.’
‘Whenever someone in our colony passes away, all of us except Mr. Achar will be busy trying to figure out what needs to be done with regard to the burial, final rites etc. But in absolute contrast to it, Mr. Achar will quietly disappear and will not be seen anywhere in the vicinity for at least a couple of weeks and sometimes even for a few months. This gentleman simply packs his bags and travels to some other village or town or city and then comes back as suddenly as he had disappeared. Upon returning, he will be his usual old self and interact with us as though he had never gone anywhere at all!’
The explanation he offered for his disappearance sounded both erratic and strange. ‘We don’t really feel sad when someone dies. In fact, if someone we know passes away then we actually realise that we have some more time left on this earth. It almost feels like the dead person’s lifespan has been credited into our life account. Moreover, it is hard to find the right words or say anything at all about the dead man or woman because apart from changing details about a dead person there won’t be much change in what we speak about them. We merely repeat the same stale words and sentences about anyone who dies. I understand that it is not possible to find new ways of speaking in such circumstances or even create new words or phrases. Such a thing is quite impossible. But my intention in such circumstances is to avoid such meaningless talk and pretension of sadness for it might be regarded as rude if one does not exhibit those emotions. The same words will be uttered about someone who died yesterday and someone who died today and someone else who may die tomorrow. I agree that there is not much of an option except abiding by these methods of expressing one’s grief and sadness or while consoling the dead person’s kith and kin. I respect those who choose to speak such cliche words and phrases. But it is beyond me to do the same and I don’t like anyone compelling me to speak those same stale and empty words, phrases and sentences that’s all.’
‘Honestly, I begin to feel a sense of dread the moment anyone I know dies. It is not because I feel distressed about losing a fellow human being. The dread arises from the fear of having to utter the same phrases, words and sentences and also listening to them. So I pack my bags and travel to someplace far away. I wouldn’t term it as an act of running away from where I live. I merely board any random train at the railway platform and then deboard at a station where I feel like it and aimlessly wander about the new place. I roam around the fields, forest, river, stream without any specific intention. I soak in all of those sights and then stare at the sky, trying to calculate the number of cloud patches, observe the movement of those clouds and walk around everywhere. I pray and hope that I’ll be able to erase from my mind, the languages, words, phrases and sentences with which I am familiar. Actually, I don’t see any difference between life and death. Those who are living need some kind of rationalisation or analysis of death. The sky, trees or even death itself doesn’t perceive such a difference and they don’t need an analysis either. How I feel seeing the sunrise is no different from how I feel when I witness the sunset. I believe that both dusk and dawn are the same. It is our language which teaches us to differentiate between the two. Neither dawn or dusk with its moonlit sky teaches us such a differentiation. I believe that we need to quietly pay attention to our breathing process, soak in our surroundings and discard from our mind any familiar word, phrase, sentence or language.’
‘I am aware that I have a home to live in this apartment. I have to come back from my wanderings and live here merely because I have a home that’s all. But to tell you the truth, this flat is registered in my son’s name and that only renders me as its caretaker. I have discussed it with my son and even requested him to free me of all of these material possessions. But it isn’t that easy to be liberated, you see. Even death seems a lot easier from such a liberation. So then it’s perhaps better to soak in the mundane aspects of life and live as long as you are destined to live. Human beings are born to live and they must do so. Death acts as a disruption and seems like a source of the disturbance. I suppose death is a curse given by those who dislike life and living and are jealous of life and whatever constitutes life. We might fear death and we might also pay obeisance to it. Yet the truth is that it is all a farce and that is why we resort to using dead and cliched descriptions while speaking about death or someone who has died. We almost behave like automatons that are keyed to behave in certain ways. However, the truth is it is rather natural to live or want to live and that’s exactly why we are eager to get back to our routine rhythm of life. As for me, travelling is the only option I have to save myself from the pretentious theatrics which occur in the wake of someone’s death. Thankfully, by the time I return from my long wandering, everyone around me would have forgotten about that dead person as well as my disappearance. They will merely greet me and acknowledge my return and that’s about it. No one will be awaiting my return.’
‘Gradually, this complex and interesting man’s disappearance and his sudden return became a normal affair in our apartment. But the sudden news of his involvement in a case left us confused and puzzled about this strange old man.’
‘Recently, a popular film actor in our State passed away. It so happened that after this star’s death, many more important public figures also followed suit— a poet, singer, pontiff and a leader of some ethnic group. As expected, a non-stop telecast fest began on television channels for the next fifteen to twenty days at least. All one could watch on these channels were thus: a) various rituals including bathing, decking up etc, of the corpses b) decked up corpses of the eminent figures placed for public viewing and paying respect b) State honours for the dead which included police drill and gunshots in the air etc, c) music d) discussions and talk about the dead people e) celebrities across domains who paid their last respects to their dead friends. There was absolutely nothing else at all which was being telecast on these news channels! Interestingly, celebrities who came to pay their last respects to each of the dead public figures had different hairstyles, make-up and attire. Their methods of weeping and praising the dead varied each time just like their hairstyle, attire and make-up. Viewers like me were constantly switching from one television channel to the other like hungry mice.’
‘As though all of this wasn’t enough, an attempt to murder news of a fellow resident of our apartment complex who happened to be a popular singer and therefore a celebrity spread like a wildfire. As per the television channels, when Ms. Mala Prasad did not open the front door of her flat for almost two or three days, the household help grew suspicious and reported the matter to the nearest police station. When the police broke open the door of Ms. Prasad’s flat, she had her make-up intact and the fingerprint of the person who had tried suffocating her to death was also intact and the police also figured out that Ms. Prasad had gripped her teeth onto a bed sheet. When the police reached the venue they found that the singer’s breathing was faint. This was followed by almost endless streaming of Ms. Mala Prasad’s attempt to murder visuals on numerous television channels. I returned home from the office rather late as there was quite a bit of work which needed to be completed before the end of the day. I finished my meal and a dose of alcohol after reaching home and then turned on the T.V. after everyone in my family had slept. I watched and re-watched the visuals multiple times until the clock indicated it was midnight. Since Ms. Prasad was a singer, headlines for the visuals were entitled thus: ‘The Music Spectacle,’ and ‘ Death in flow’’.
‘The police were clueless about how to proceed with their investigation regarding Ms. Prasad’s case. Is it really possible that someone might have a motive in trying to kill her? She was a popular singer who had been honoured with several awards and accolades. She was also well known for her social service and charities. Probably that rules out any possibility of self-harm, I suppose.’
‘Meanwhile, unable to sustain the row of deaths and the never-ending mourning rituals, as usual, our Hanumanthachar had packed his bags and left the town. A couple of weeks passed by and things seemed to be regaining a semblance of normalcy or so we thought at least. It was then that Hanumanthachar’s letter from Nainital reached both our neighbourhood police station and our apartment association. A copy of that letter was also pinned onto the notice board in our residential complex.’
‘I was the one who attempted to kill Ms. Mala Prasad. There is no doubt that she is an eminent personality who is good-looking and is renowned for her mellifluous voice. In fact, I too happen to be one of her fans. However, she overstepped her limits in an excessive demonstration of pretentious grief. She was seen on television, running from one celebrity’s funeral to the other, weeping in front of the camera, speaking glories of the dead and also singing songs in their memory. She began to flaunt a different hairstyle, make-up and attire, each time she went to pay respects to a dead celebrity. It was as though she was careful in ensuring a glamorous appearance in front of the T.V. camera. Her excessive altering of hairstyle was so evident that even little schoolboys could decipher it. In less than a week’s time, she had shaped her eyebrows multiple times at a parlour and altered her hairstyle at least thrice! Anyone could easily understand the parlour effect behind her constantly changing appearance.’
‘This went on endlessly and feeling irritated by all of this I barged into her flat around midnight and questioned her about the ethics of taking part in funerals and turning it into a spectacle and celebration without any qualms. I questioned her why she would more or less use the same expressions, emotions and descriptions while speaking about each of the dead celebrities. I asked her if she was unaware of what she had been doing or if she was actually making a fool of the public. She refused to respond to any of my queries and said she did not have much of a choice in what she had been doing the last few days.’
‘Irritated and furious with her response, I asked about her behaviour while mourning a certain actor’s demise. While expressing your grief in front of the camera you kissed the actor’s forehead, caressed his bare chest and then kissed it. As if that were not enough you placed your ear on his chest pretending to listen to some silent whisper emerging from his heart or some such thing and struggled to fill your eyes with tears and wore a mask of sadness…I could not stop yelling at her and at that moment Ms. Prasad too turned furious and flung a glass lying on the side table towards me. She seemed to be shivering with rage and her eyes were brimming with anger and fury. “You mad fellow,” she screamed and came charging towards me.’
‘In self-defence, I pushed her to the ground with all my might and tried strangling her to death. She struggled and fought against my grip and then showing her little finger she pleaded with me to loosen my grip for a second. I could see some kind of decision to tell me something and also a helpless request.’
‘Once I let go of my grip on her neck, Ms. Prasad took a deep breath and began narrating thus: “The director had specified those details in the script given to me. He had even enacted them thrice during the rehearsal. Also, towards the end, there was a scene where I was asked to smear sacred ash on the actor’s forehead. The sacred ash was procured from the holy mutt of the community to which the dead actor belonged.” Hearing her speak thus I realised it was futile to kill that woman. I immediately packed my bags and left the town. This time, I will not return at all.’
‘I am exasperated with this pretentious world, language, and life. I am aware that all of this will more or less continue to remain the same.’
Hanumanthachar's strange letter remained pinned on our apartment notice board for a fairly long time. All of us read its contents multiple times and even Ms. Mala Prasad herself often stood in front of the notice board and read that ‘will’. Sometimes she would stand staring at it for half an hour and sometimes even for as long as an hour and a half too. She continued this practice of reading Hanumanthachar’s letter for the next few weeks and months! In fact, I would stand near some corner where she would not be able to notice my presence and see her staring at that letter on the notice board for a rather long time.
K Satyanarayana retired in 2014 as the Principal Chief Commissioner of the Income Tax Department of the Karnataka-Goa division. He has several short story collections, essays, columns, travelogues etc to his credit and is the recipient of Karnataka Sahitya Academy award and Masthi Award for both his short stories as well as his contribution to Kannada literature. He has also been honoured with M.V. Seetharamaiah award, B H Shridhar Award, Vishwachetana Award, Sooryanarayana Chadaga Award. In 2013, Bangalore university conferred him with an honorary doctorate. He lives in Bengaluru.
Bhumika R completed her PhD from Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi. She has worked as an assistant professor in the School of Humanities & Sciences at Shiv Nadar University, Chennai, Jain (Deemed to be) University, Bangalore, Shri Mata Vaishnodevi University in Kakryal, J&K, and as a language instructor in the Department of Humanities & Social Science, IIT Jammu. She writes poetry and short fiction in English. Some of her poems have been published in the Visual Verse, IACLALS newsletter, The Pine Cone Review, and Plato's Caves Online. Her short stories have been published in the Borderless Journal, Aainangar, DoubleSpeak, East India Story and Gulmohur Quarterly. She also translates poetry and fiction from Kannada into English and vice versa. Her Kannada translation of Malsawmi Jacob’s Mizo (English) novel is slated for release around September 2023 and her debut poetry collection is tentatively slated for release towards the end of 2023.