Bobby and his friends.are playing a Billamgodu ( Gilli danda) tournament with a team from a neighboring block. We are in the grounds of the government-offices-complex. I am bored watching the match in which I was not taking part. In fact, Bobby advised me not to accompany him as the bigger kids only were playing. I blamed myself for having insisted on accompanying him. I roam around the complex looking at people sitting and working inside the offices, in sturdy teakwood chairs behind sturdy teakwood tables, beneath creaking fans with long down-rods. The tall doors painted a reddish brown were louvered but , I suspected whether the ventilating louvres could be operated because the doors were thickly painted with layers over layers of thick paint.
I wandered to the massive and shady Neredu ( kala jamun) tree. I find the old man, We used to call him Tatha, reclining in the shade, his head with its grey shaggy hair resting his bundle of belongings. With the unkempt hair, the bushy mustache and the long beard he looked like a Rabindranath Tagore or a Rasputin, but was of a much simpler and gentler disposition than either, I believe.. I thought his hair and beard looked like a pichika goodu, ( sparrow’s nest). Now when I look back on Tatha after all these long decades I am reminded of a Monkhouse or Edward Lear limeric,
” There was an Old Man with a beard,
Who said, ‘It is just as I feared!
Two Owls and a Hen,
Four Larks and a Wren,
Have all built their nests in my beard!’
There is german-silver mug and a similar plate beside him. He is wearing a long shirt, (I now know that it is called kafni). Must have been white when pristine but coloured neerakavi ( wash-browned) then. . His back is resting on the flat hard ground. He has bent his left leg double, vertically, with the palm of the left foot resting flat on the ground The right ankle is resting on top of the left knee and Tatha is moving the right foot to and fro, this way and that, and in an arc. The legs are bare below the knees, but the tunic, drawn up towards his thighs, covered his crotch and the thighs discreetly.
Tatha is singing, ” Goota chilukediraa? Goodu chinaboyera.”, —-” Where has the parrot gone? My younger elder brother ! The nest is empty.”. It is a popular philosophical folk song of the genre , Tathwam. He turns his head, finds me and beckons me towards him.
” Why are you not playing with the others.”, he asks as I near him. “They are bigger. They are playing a match”, I say.
“Yes, they are elder. You are younger. And I am older”, he guffaws, ” Will you learn a poem? ” “What poem?”
” It is from Bhagavatham.”
” I know. It is the story of Lord Krishna.”
” You are smart. ”
” Why are you swaying you foot like that. My mom says. one should not do so.” ” Do you know why?”
” Yes. “, I say proudly, ” Krishna was killed by a hunter who mistook his swaying foot to be an animal.”
” You know a lot. But it doesn’t matter and I don’t mind, even if some one shoots an arrow at me . I am old. Further there is no hunter here, neither is there a bow or an arrow. And I am no Krishna though I have a flute, you know.”, he laughs. I have often times heard Tatha play the flute, while perhaps lying beneath this same tree during the dead of night, its sweet notes floating in the languid cool air of the night. And reaching out to me lying far away secure but awake in bed. It is rarely that I slept as a log, then or now.
” But still—-“, I stop midway and shrug. It is not my business if he wishes to get killed, if not by an arrow, may be by a piece of hard wood being blasted across the grounds by the children playing Billamgodu, though I would be sorry for him if that were to happen. ” Do you know, where Krishna is now? ”
“No, may be in heaven or perhaps in Vaikuntham.”, having suddenly remembered the big word my grandma used to talk about frequently while telling the story of The Elephant king, The Big Mugger and Lord Vishnu.
“i will teach a poem of Potana from his Bhagavatham, and you will know, where he lives permanently.”, Tatha says.
I sit on the grass beside him and ask, ” How do you know Telugu? ” and then add, ” I mean poems. They are difficult.”
” I learnt Telugu and a bit of Sanskrit also when I was young. The pundit, he used to like me. And then I had run a school and taught Telugu when I was young.” “Why are you not teaching any more? ”
“I will teach you now if you wish to learn. ”
” But I have school. Only today is a holiday.”
” Learn a bit today. I will teach you more when you have your next holiday.”
And he teaches me a simple but great poem by the simple yet great poet Pothana from the Andhra Maha Bhagavatam ( The Great Epic Bhagavatam in Telugu.) .
lokambulu lokesulu lokasthulu tegina tudi
nalokambagu pemjIkati kavvala nevvadu
nekakruthi velgu natani ne bajiyimtu madin.
“I sing in praise of and in worship of The Ultimate One who shines forth alone beyond the great gloom that prevails when all the worlds, their emperors, and their citizens, are dead and gone and when there remained no worlds at all.”