I was on leave for a day to escape the routine at the physics laboratory where I was employed. I did not take out the car whole day but rested reclining in the easy chair near the open window looking at the rose garden. I was in deep contemplation as ever. It was always my way though such endless thinking vexed my wife to no end. It was 10.30 AM already on that December morning and it was still cold. At about 8 AM I started an English novel but did not like it. I closed the book and went to the large old wooden cupboard examining the piles of old books in it expecting to discover some gems .Most were religious books and some were very old brown leaved college text books carelessly kept there instead of disposing. i was vexed to see in the cupboard a very old notebook of my old college period of more than 30 years back ! I guessed and even vaguely remembered that I must have purposely preserved it. I forgot all about it later.
A particular page interested me a little. It was marked by a thick vertical folding of two or three previous leaves and the open page stared into my face. There were two leaves full of matter written in my own hand. Now though my writing style changed I could easily recollect and recognize my old hand writing. There was a heading styled “A Short Story”. I eagerly read the matter. It was written therein that “the incident caused a deep wound in my heart which can never be healed”!
I laughed first but soon began to feel certain that the remark must have related to a very real incident. But to my utter vexation I found that several pages following that written matter were torn off . It was apparently done by the writer himself at that distant time thirty years back! I tore off the written pages and kept them carefully with me and threw the note book into the old books dump. In those written pages there were good descriptions of life in our childhood times in the village where we lived . I was suddenly transported to the world when I was just ten or twelve years old! I wondered I could write in such an attractive style!
For many days my subconscious mind was searching my memory (with the help of those pages taken from the old note book) to learn about the incident that “caused a deep wound in my heart which can never be healed”. I am by nature, exceptionally sensitive to incidents that caused hardship to others and I am very proud of that capacity to feel. I started rummaging my mind for images of that incident of more than forty years back. It was really a mad, wild, wasteful pursuit of mine at my present age of fifty years to search my mind’s chambers for a “pointer address”—-(as the C- language people say)—- in my memory. For many days whether in the laboratory, house or the bazaar I was searching my memory. I continued the “search” all the time—while discussing with my wife about our “ dangerous financial position”, while explaining abstract physics concepts to my elder daughter and while mediating in the never ending quarrels between my wife and my rebellious ten year old daughter. With the help of those pages of old notebook I could construct an image of my childhood days.
Fifty years back my father was the headmaster of a high school in a small agricultural village of two thousand people on the banks of the holy river Godavari. It was just before his retirement. The village was full of greenery everywhere—green fields, green forests, ranges of high hills full of thick forests of evergreen vegetation. We lived in a one of the three or four very neat government houses at the far end of the village constructed for the teachers. Our house was quite spacious and had thick bright white walls and had nice tiled roofs and had three or four rooms. It had a small front garden full of vegetable plants and flowering bushes.
A neat path led from our front door to the gate at the middle of a long barbed wire fencing. Flowering creepers formed a beautiful arch over the gate. There were low compound walls on the sides of each house but only common long barbed wire fencing on the front side with nice little wooden gates. At the back of the house there was a far bigger seemingly endless backyard. It was separated from the endless farm lands on the other side by a high wall on three sides of the backyard. There was a sky-high silk -cotton tree which had huge red flowers in flowering season. Father was a gardening enthusiast and so we had lots of vegetable plants, oilseed plants and cotton plants in the backyard.
The row of four houses where the teachers lived were at one end of the village about half kilometer distant from the long barrack- like school building. Our houses were situated among a large number of huts where the farmers, herdsmen and people of minor occupations lived. There was very wide open space before our houses and also on the right side. Only in the vast grounds on the right side there were several lanes containing the many big and small huts of the villagers. Here and there were a few tiled houses of small size. A little distance away on the other side were a few tiled houses. There lived a professional temple- singer in one of the tiled houses and often loud singing by a band of devotees and sound of musical instruments was heard.
On one side in the distance was the school and on the other side a little distance away were the busy village bazaar and lanes. In the mornings and evenings there were herds of cattle on the roads and there was at those times lot of dust rising in the air. Beyond the school building was a huge playground with reddish brown earth bordered by low bald hillocks with boulders, many green bushes and a stone quarry . All these scenes came to my mind. The road towards the school climbed to a high ground and on both sides of the road were high beautiful trees with thick green branches. These trees are called in Telugu language as “Ponna” trees.
In winter months the “Ponna”trees showered down thousands of white, thick -scented ,long- stemmed and thick- petaled flowers. There was thick scent in the air in morning due- time and many would come to gather the flowers. Some of us children too would go there to gather some flowers as the place was very near our house. There were also on the sides of the high road other high trees called “Seema Chintha “ in Telugu language. They had long spiraling pods with sweet- tasting pulp. These fruits were liked by all children. All these scenes came to my mind . I remembered also that the tributary of river Godavari flowed nearby. In summer months it was almost dry with less than a feet of water. We children would wade through the shallow water to the other bank, cut some fresh vegetables from the fields there and slip back. While returning we often had a little play and swimming in the very shallow water. The white sand shone brightly under the shallow water.
I remember that there were often visits by school inspectors . My father being the Head master of the high school would often send to the guest house tasty food cooked at our house. Huge bundles of new text books would be kept at our house at beginning of academic season. Sometimes carpenters who supplied new furniture to the school on government contract agreement would stay for a few days and work in the front yard of our houses to make chairs, cupboards etc as ordered by the teachers for their domestic use .
In our back yard there were large number of creepers of vegetable plants climbing on “pandals” constructed using bamboo poles. In the shade my mother would often cook sweet rice and milk preparations as offering to the beautiful Hindu gods after hours- -long prayers. The patterns of dark shade and bright sunlight under the pandal were beautiful.Opposite to our house was the hut of a shepherd. He kept large number of sheep in the nights in pens erected in the open fields near his house. In late evenings at time of nightfall when the sky was still bright red the shepherd or his wife would often shout loudly for their two sons who often played with children in neighboring lanes. In chilly cold mornings in winters there was thick smoke, mist and dust and bright rays of early morning sun irradiated the area. Such scenes came thick into my mind.
Once there was a big commotion at the house of our neighbor. Large number of people were shouting loudly and held long sticks in their hands. It was early night time . People told that a long poisonous snake was seen entering our backyard from the neighbor’s backyard. A dozen persons came with sticks. We bolted the doors and came out into the street. The persons who came searched every inch of the back yard and front yard. The snake was found several times crawling under bushes near the walls and hiding in fear. Finally it was cornered and killed. Its remains were burnt as per a strong religious belief. Small bundles of a strong smelling seed were tied to window sills in every house for many weeks as it was believed by many that snakes avoid such strong smell .Such were the old memories that revived in my brain after seeing those papers from the old note book.
But I could not get any clues from the pages of the old note book about the incident which thirty years back caused a “ deep wound to my heart”. One morning I was watching a fire lit by the municipal health staff to burn waste in an open land near our house. The flames grew in size to great height and remained so for a few minutes. It seemed I felt a flash in my mind and seemed to remember some huge terrible fires which I saw in my childhood. I came inside the house and lit a small sheet of paper with the cigarette lighter and added another piece of paper to the flames and then still another. My wife and daughters were horrified as I was absent- mindedly playing with fire. I simply laughed it off and put out the flame. But soon I could not hide the great emotion building up in my mind as I remembered vaguely some old incidents of fifty years back in the village. I grew very thoughtful knitting my eyebrows. My face wore a dejected and sorrowful look and I became oblivious of the presence of my wife and daughters who were observing me with a little amusement. Some inexplicable old horror of fifty years back was gathering before my mind’s eye.
Fifty years back in the village there was a very terrible happening which I now remember (after reading those pages of the old note book). There were sky- high flames, burning of huts in dark night, huge cries of poor frightened folks, throwing of buckets of water into the burning huts to put out the flames, sound of throwing out of metal utensils and metal boxes from the burning huts into the open grounds from many houses etc. There were very loud cries of horror and wailing by womenfolk. It was all very vague but I started to remember all . I was feeling a great sorrow now. My face grew very emotional and my eyes were filled with a film of tears. My wife and children awakened me from my rather trance-like mood. I laughed off everything again and went to the bedroom. After a few minutes I fully recovered my spirits and was my usual self.
I have to now elaborate and explain. In my childhood it was a habit of mine to daily recite (with a lot of fear in my little heart ) before my admiring father every day a few tough Sanskrit “slokas”(stanzas from poems of great beauty in praise of beautiful Hindu gods). I would recite without the least mistake and all in the house would appreciate my perfect pronunciation. I would recite the Sanskrit stanzas sometimes in the fresh early morning hours after bath or even in early evening when my father called for me . Now I could remember that when on one hot summer evening fifty years ago when I was reciting the Sanskrit stanzas , there in the distance we observed sky high flames in a far away row of huts . There were sudden wild cries of fear from among the people, throwing out of utensils, boxes, belongings etc from the burning huts and pouring lots of water on to the flames . The flames were not controlled and were spreading to neighboring huts. I remember vaguely that there were currents of hot air. We too were frightened in our houses fearing that flames may engulf our houses too.
Now I remembered that a village woman and her ten year child died in that big fire. Yes it was the same shepherd boy who was my best friend and his mother who died. He was son of the shepherd whose hut was on the other side of the street opposite our house. The woman was the same woman I saw daily in morning and evening hours shouting loudly calling her son who often played in neighboring lanes. I and the little shepherd boy played under the trees before our house every evening after the school ended. He was my best friend though an illiterate shepherd boy. I often shared with him the sweet preparations I brought from our house. His mother on learning that he was inside a burning hut ran there wildly crying and weeping. She dashed into the burning house without any thought .A huge burning piece from the roof fell on her. Both child and mother died. It was a great tragedy in the village. All village wept for days and weeks.The shepherd (the father of the dead boy ) surely filled with unbearable grief and broken went away too and was never seen again.