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Fall 1997, Volume 14.3

Fiction

 

D. R. Pattanaik

The Prodigy


D. R. Pattanaik, who recently spent a year doing research at Ohio State University at Columbus on a Fulbright Fellowship, is completing his Ph.D. in English at Utkal University. He is a lecturer in English at College of Takatpur and has published essays and fiction in
Journal of Commonwealth Literature and Indian Literature, Weber Studies, Jhankar, Nkshanta, Syamantaka, Katha, and others. 
See other work published in Weber Studies by Dipti Ranjan Pattanaik:  Vol. 12.2.

 

This is a story in lieu of the one I had promised myself to write someday, about Anshuman. At that time I was living on a paltry salary offered by the small newspaper I was working for. But the importance I felt seeing my name under the regular weekly features more than compensated for the wants. And, there was also this flattering company of bearded intellectuals smoking hemp and sipping endless cups of tea in thatched kiosks and fashionable young women aspiring to be writers.

Those were, as they say, the heady days of youth, when you did not care for the subtleties—you could be idealistic and still dream of success. You believed you could change the fate of this planet by the stroke of your typewriter keys. The blank sheet of paper around the roller was as it were some mysterious devil and you a divine agent commissioned to ferret out the entrails of the illusory whiteness of the devil which hid the face of the truth with the help of the multi-pronged octopus-pricking of your typewriter weapon.

Yes, that was the time when one could afford to dwell on the crest of dreams where the ideal and the real seemed to fuse. The illusion of the mission—to save truth from the several competing voices of falsehood—saw one through all kinds of deprivations. However, things changed, inevitably. Once the initial euphoria was gone, the stories you dished out after the so-called "investigative journalism," appeared to be what they really were—drab, routine stories about murders, robberies, income-tax raids and a pack of jokers called politicians whose antics no more incited even a flicker of a smile in the most generous of society ladies. Slowly you got to know of the seamy underside of the profession. You realized that the reason of some of your stories never found a place in the newspaper was not the lack of space really but because of the fact that they used to blackmail people with money and power so that they extended favors to the newspaper establishment. And if you raised your voice against this you lost the chance of getting into the Prime Minister's entourage during foreign jaunts and consequently you deprived yourself of valuable foreign exchange and possibly the thin footage in the society your profession guaranteed.

Slowly it dawned upon me that I was not cut out to be a martyr and I lacked the enterprise of a Mahatma to defend such values as Truth and professional integrity. The secular, cynical and commercial under

side of the profession of journalism had taught me one thing, that truth is whatever you choose to see. And for me, the only thing I was capable of seeing at that moment was personal ambition and success—the shape my youthful idealism had degenerated into once thwarted by circumstances. The pursuit of success entailed several kinds of compromises. The most damning of them all, as I realize now in hindsight after my recent encounter with Anshuman, was the abandonment of my project of embarking upon a series of stories where reality was so strange that it overtook the most stout of imaginations. The kind of stories which were both an escape route and a compensation—escape from the profession, which bereft of its idealism had become a mere narrating of realistic mundane world events for earning your bread, and compensation for the compromises I made with my truth-seeing artistic nature for the pursuit of an elusive chimera of success.

The story on Anshuman belonged to this series, the writing of which I kept deferring indefinitely. For success was an exacting Goddess which bestowed favors only on the complete slaves and the pursuit of art was a kind of deviation, a blurring of priorities. You either chose this or that. And in the passion of youth, the glare of adulation and success was the only thing that mattered and which assured you of all the other comforts, wine, women and power despite the knowledge that it also was an enormous gyre of death-wish for your other self which refused to accept any half measure about truth.

Thank God, that I met Anshuman after so many years before I lost myself in the quagmire of false icons and half truths. The meeting inevitably forced me into that phase of life wherein in the calmness of spent passions, you do not seek to change the world any more nor stuff yourself with the gilded pieces of straw that life can provide you temporarily but rather attempt to find your Swadharmaa singular vocation—by losing everything else. You can understand my decision to accept Anshu's advice—"write your heart out, be honest to your bone while you write without waiting for anyone to notice, that is your Karma"as a kind of mantra, if you had a glimpse into the dossier I had prepared on him on the basis of my several fact-finding missions about his life, the one which would have remained unutilized in my files, had I not had a chance encounter with him after so many years. Hopefully this is an "honest to the bone" account of the truth about his life, the truth I do not "choose" to see but am only capable of seeing.

Anshu, as he was fondly called, was born on the eleventh day of the pleasant month of Phalguna. That was also the day on which, the eleventh Tirthankara of Jainas was born, some centuries ago, and immediately after his birth peace and happiness had spread all around that place. Something similar also happened around the time Anshu was born. There was the onset of a regular monsoon after so many years, followed by a bumper harvest spreading happiness all around the village. It was also said that an aunt who had been deserted by her husband because of her dumbness, became so happy that her life-long deficiency was cured and she informed her brother, Anshu's father about the birth of his son in a speech so voluble that it left him speechless. Her husband, when he heard the news came to fetch her back despite his old age and the fact that he had outlived three wives in the interregnum—during the period of the aunt's absence. But she was trying to make up for the lost time of her silence in a garrulity so monotonous and insistent that he was forced to desert her once again, perhaps for good.

However, she continued to be happy about the birth of the nephew on such an auspicious hour and for which she had enough justification. Anshu was the first child of the family in so many years. The entire generation of Anshu's parents was barren. All the aunts and uncles of Anshu suffered from marriages which were either broken or childless. The villagers attributed this to the family curse which was incurred by Jagannath, Anshu's grandfather, who it was rumored, practiced some black magic in order to amass wealth, fornicate surreptitiously with the most voluptuous women from the harems of kings and to attain mastery of a spell which can nullify all dissent and win over all enemies. The villagers avoided him like the plague because he could, for slightest of reasons, steal your cow's milk, turn rice into pure feces and take the heat away from your fire so that water perpetually remained below the boiling point. His end also came about the same way as it does to all who enjoy such invincible powers. During one of his elaborately arranged ritual worships, with country-wine, meat curry and sexual consummation, he forgot the seed of the mantra which was supposed to ward off all the evil eyes which hover around debauchery and sensual gratification of such dimension. And once the protective shield of the seed-mantra was removed for a short while, the forces of evil were in hot pursuit of Jagannath. Wherever he went, wherever he tried to hide himself, he was pursued by wild crows with sharp and long beaks whose insistent pecking left him with wounds that would never heal. Jagannath succumbed to those wounds which festered and were full of maggots so foul-smelling and ugly that it took a lot of coaxing to convince the professional corpse carriers to carry his dead body to the funeral ground.

The evil-effect of Jagannath's actions was not mitigated after his death. It continued to hunt his family long after his physical frame, which had enjoyed various palate-pleasing dishes and herb and aphrodisiacs was consigned to flames. First, the family's fortune dwindled. Before they could realize what was happening, they were reduced to penury. And once poverty became their common lot, the family which probably was held together by wealth, disintegrated like a house of cards. Leaving the ancestral homestead to the eldest brother Biswanath, the brothers moved away from the village with their barren wives. Laksmi, Biswanath's wife was the only person who showed extraordinary courage during the crisis. Shorn of panic or disturbance, she continued to live an extremely pious life, as usual, as if nothing had ever happened. She held the huge ancestral house together, fighting against rodents, termites and other agents of destruction. She welcomed the dumb sister-in-law who was deserted by her husband when he realized that his action would not attract Jagannath's fearsome retributive justice. She took care of her husband, and laughed away his suggestion that they should leave the accursed house in order to recapture their fortune. She never bore any kind of ill-will towards her father-in-law who, it was widely believed, was the cause of such misfortune. She accepted all the events of her life with a poise, fortitude and forbearance that astounded her husband who had earlier considered women inferior creatures. All her efforts were, however, concentrated around the fulfillment of one wish—to give birth to a son who would perform her last rites and ensure her soul's journey to heaven. She performed all kinds of worships, observed penance, feted holy men squeezing her already thin family budget, wore amulets, drank all kinds of filthy potions prescribed by quacks and gypsies of all hues, engaged star-gazers and astrologers in her battle against the family curse which had imposed barrenness on her. At last when all efforts had been exhausted, and she was slowly descending into a physical condition when even miracles would have been impossible, she had a dream in which she visualized a bright ray of light from the eyes of Shiva, her beloved deity, entering into her womb.

When she awoke her husband was astounded by the resplendence of her beauty even at the autumn of her life. There were also other tell-tale signs of her pregnancy. And, as time went on, her beauty increased in proportion to her advancing pregnancy. People of the village were drawn to her like magnet to spend some time with her in useless conversation and confessed they felt a happiness and peace which they had never had in anyone else's company. Even the wife of the village landlord came with gifts and money and offered to read out scriptures to her in the evenings. And finally when she gave birth to a son who was named Anshuman, after the sun-god for his dazzling complexion, she organized lavish feasts and merry-making which continued for twenty-one days. The soothsayers and the horoscope-readers predicted that the son would be the deliverer of not only seven generations of his family but also whoever came into chance contact with him.

True to the predictions, Anshu spent a childhood of unusual reticence and withdrawal. In an age when children climbed trees, swam in ponds, stole raw mangoes from orchards, surprised old men with crackers, and indulged in all kinds of naughtiness that earned them the wrath of adults, Anshu engaged himself in mutely watching the procession of life with a stoic detachment. He watched the sky, the rivers, the hills, the trees, the rising and setting of the sun, the flowing clouds; listened intently to the noise of birds and murmur of brooks; smelt the flowers and the aroma of the newly-sprung corn and browsed through the parchment and palm-leaf sketches his grandfather had left behind in his ramshackle library. His father's chest swelled in pride for all the unusual activities of the son in which he detected the signs of inevitable greatness. But his mother became confused in a maternal indulgence that swung between the quiet confidence in the knowledge of her son's omniscience and a feeling of protectiveness towards his probable helplessness. In one such intense moment of tender apprehension she turned to Anshu:

"Son!" she said, "there is a time for everything. Time for wind and time for rain, time for game and time for books, you see. And a delight in everything if you are keen about it."

"Yes, Ma!" Anshu responded with a benign smile. "There is a delight of rest and there is a delight of action, but in the wholeness of the spirit, these two things are no longer contraries, but one and inseparable." He parroted one of the famous dicta of Sri Aurobindo the seer.

Laksmi could not fathom the clever turn of phrases Anshu was used to and capable of. It simultaneously delighted her and made her apprehensive. She could smell in these parrot-like utterances the contours of a life of extraordinary agonies and ecstasies. "A mother wants his son to be normal, to be happy with all the mundaneness life can provide," she once told Biswanath. But her husband was in no mood to listen to the anxious tales of sadness old wives spin to keep their afternoons busy. He embraced her and exclaimed, "you are a glorious mother. You have given me this gift of a wonderful child." He had started glowing perpetually in the vision of his son's great accomplishments in the future which may do not only the father but the entire lineage proud some day. All the moves of Anshu were to him the signs of an action in the future that had the capacity to shake the earth. When all his contemporaries wanted to read science, Anshu would choose to study commerce. When they would opt for becoming doctors and engineers and the best among them aspired to become civil servants and policemen, Anshu would reject all such efforts as a waste of human labor in inane money-making activities. When every boy in the street corner strained himself to achieve some kind of success, Anshu spurned the very idea of making something out of himself. And finally one day when the old aunt spied him browsing through Jagannath's books of black magic, she gave a sharp cry, God knows whether of anguish or joy, for it was her last utterance. She died instantaneously—a fact which was discovered slightly late because everyone assumed that she had simply been struck dumb again.

Now that the aunt was no more, it was expected that the house, shorn off her constant prattle, would be quieter. But the evenings, at least, became noisier. Anshu had developed a habit of confining himself to his room and shouting at the top of his voice. Biswanath, who had watched his son's activities right from the days when he was in the cradle with the keenness of a doting father, felt the first pangs of apprehension with the turn of events. All his activities during his childhood—speaking fluently when he was only six months old, completing the school courses in a few lazy afternoons, memorizing huge scriptures and epics written in the tough classical language of Sanskrit, interpreting the signs of zodiac and making astrological predictions, spending long hours meditating in silence—had pleased his fatherly ego. But his activity of shouting, which left the boy completely exhausted and drooling with spittle at the end of an hour, seemed to Biswanath not in consonance with his vast reputation as a prodigy. Once he tried to decipher the meaning of his son's seemingly incoherent bellows which threatened to blow off the rooftop by their sheer volume and fury. It seemed to him as if Anshu was having conversations with the denizens of the nether world, for he could sieve several names of dead seers, philosophers, poets, scientists, painters, and musicians who with their prodigious creativity had set out to add beauty and meaning to the mundaneness of the day-to-day world. After a few days of apprehensive waiting near Anshu's closed-door evening sessions of conversations with phantoms, Biswanath decided to confront him. "What is troubling you, my son? Can you bring yourself to tell your father?" And after a short pause, with slight self-doubt he added, "Do you doubt I can understand?"

A benign smile spread on Anshu's exhausted and sweating face. "This is my fight with the forces of evil" he could barely whisper. "The forces of evil have to be fought constantly in order that they may not overcome this Creation."

"But why do you take upon yourself such a task? Why can't you leave it to God" Laksmi suddenly interjected, while wiping his forehead with her sari-end in a motherly protectiveness.

"Don't be foolish" Biswanath admonished her. "Mind your own business. The trouble with women is that they don't mind their own business. They will always meddle with others. What do you understand about the ways of the world, eh?" Laksmi was hushed at the sudden outburst of her husband.

But it was Biswanath who was the first to break, when the tell-tale signs of the disaster unwound themselves in quick succession. The fact that Anshu showed no signs of translating his prodigious capacities into a prosperity which could have brought back wealth and glory and comforts of all kinds to the family had already started rankling him. But it was a matter of great shock when Anshu finally announced after a month of unusual silence: "They are filching my brain-waves." "Who are they?" Biswanath ventured. "The C.I.A. They are stealing all my intelligence with their long-range radar."

Biswanath's first reaction was a peal of laughter which he stifled into a guffaw. The grimness of the situation dawned swiftly on him, for Anshu had started resembling his own grandfather in looks. The apprehensive villagers went so far as to claim that the dead grandfather's spirit had possessed him. In consternation they hid all their womenfolk behind veils, beautiful women tattooed their faces to render themselves ugly and undesirable, and all of them avoided the family for the fear of incurring Anshu's wrath. But Anshu was far from the activities which had made Jagannath notorious. The one way in which he most resembled his grandfather was the uncanny ability of predicting the future.

Anshu's speech had gradually assumed an oracular style. During long hours he confined himself to his bed and during rare moments of lucidity he conjured up visions of a future that resembled the descriptions of hell in ancient mythologies. He would get up from his reverie and rattle off oracular predictions about a world future where men and women fornicated in the street corners in front of everyone, mothers gave birth to children only to use them as food, devils sang and danced at all hours; while the men and women were busy in Faustian quest of sensual gratification, their souls roasting in an eternal fire, chaos and cacophony reigned all around born of activity that was forceful but anarchic. In one such vision Anshu became so agitated that he finally declared: "All things have sprung from fire and to fire they shall return," and proceeded to set fire to his house. Biswanath was so terrified by his ghastly prediction that, he had a fatal heart-attack, while making a feeble attempt to prevent Anshu from accomplishing his mission. Even the villagers were so terrified that they dared not prevent Anshu from torching his own house. The only service they could render was to take Laksmi away to the safety of an orphanagethe one the village landlord had started when his only son died of a childhood accident—when the entire house had been reduced to cinders.

Laksmi spent the remainder of her life in the orphanage as a matron, nursing her little charges with devotion and love and the pious penitence of a model widow praying for the welfare of the creation. Her end came at a moment when her heart was full of love and peace.

Nobody had kept track of Anshu's whereabouts after that incident. He would have passed off into oblivion like all aberrations in history but for my chance encounter with him after several years. The newspaper offices were startled by the sudden appearance of a quack who claimed to cure all kinds of diseases with the help of basil leaves. I was asked by my editor to do a story, but when I reached the place I was told that the man had vanished, overcome by the sudden onrush of patients in search of magical cure. I was almost inclined to make a routine story exposing the fraud beneath all such magical solutions to human problems, but was overtaken by a curiosity which led me on the trail of the man till I traced him to a remote tribal settlement. I was surprised to see a bearded Anshu engaged in tending Sal leaves alongside the village urchins. These leaves would later be folded and sewn into plates and cups. He had a profound calmness about his visage and did not betray any signs of acquaintance with me. All my efforts to draw him into a discussion about his meaningless actions in the past bore no fruit. He was in no mood to connect himself with a past he seemed to have renounced so completely.

However, I could not refrain from insisting on asking the meaning of his present action.

"What makes you an humble weaver of leaf-plates? You could have been a scientist, a philosopher or a poet."

"There is no hierarchy of karma," came Anshu's reply. "True karma is a thing done well and fruitfully, whether it is the writing of an epic, or the folding of a Sal leaf. It finds fulfillment not in the magnificence or meanness of the end to which it is put, but in itself, in the totality of dedication that is present in the action, rather than the end that is produced, thereof. Karma is not the sword or the plough-share, but the purity of the iron and the care with which it is fashioned and wrought by the fire. Karma is not the seeds that ripple and wave in the lush field, or the blood that springs from the warrior's breast, but the sweat of the craftsman dropping and hissing on the flame, as he shapes the metal, the toil of the farmer furrowing the stubborn earth and the strength of the warrior, pitting his own life and quickness against strange, strong forces for the ashes and the temples that form the spans that he walks, between death and eternity."

After a brief period of silence, he again continued:

"For all work is for the pleasure of the soul and done with an ulterior motive can be its fetter instead of being an instrument for its liberation. The soul that seeks freedom and truth is like a witness. It is like the Akasha, which exists for the sake of its own vastness, rather than the stars that flit and vanish in its being, and as a sky appears brilliant and rich that has many stars in its keeping, so does the soul gain depth and luminosity, that possesses multitudes of experience. Like the fire that swallows corpses at funerals and sacrificial ghee at the yajnas, and the river that sweeps away feces and flowers."

Then as if to demonstrate how well he had been doing his work he started to produce an extraordinary array of patterns with the quasi-tender Sal leaves. With a swiftness that amazed even the little aborigine boys, who huddled around him more for the pleasure of listening to his stories than for any assistance they could provide, he fashioned Sal-leaf plates of various sizes and shapes with designs of famous structures like the Taj Mahal and Lord Jagannath's temple and the Eiffel tower engraved on them.

"But what about the promise of a prodigy which was predicted early in your childhood?" I exclaimed in exasperation.

I was met by an impregnable silence which was in stark contrast to the lengthy sermon he had just delivered. Anshu had probably receded into a state that admitted no human inquiry.

I departed with the realization that he had been a prodigy all along.

And had therefore known long since how futile it was to be a prodigy, after all.

 

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