Short Story

‘Amasa’ by Devanuru Mahadeva: Kannada short story in translation

Print edition : November 19, 2021

The story “Amasa” features in “The Penguin Book of Modern Indian Short Stories” edited by Stephen Alter and Wimal Dissanayake (Penguin Books, 1989).

Devanuru Mahadeva (b. 1949), the author ofi this story, is an acclaimed Kannada writer, Dalit activist and leader of farmers’ rights movements. Many of his works have been translated into various languages.

A.K. Ramanujan (1929-1993) was a poet, scholar, academic, philologist, folklorist, translator and playwright who wrote in both English and Kannada. His academic research ranged across five languages: English, Kannada, Tamil, Telugu and Sanskrit. Manu Shetty has worked with the Committee on Social Thought, University of Chicago, on ‘Tulu Oral Narratives’. He was a student of A.K. Ramanujan and collaborated with him in translating contemporary Kannada writers.

Devanuru Mahadeva, who wrote his first story in a police lock-up, says: “A person lives in his/her language like fish in water. Today, language is used like clothing, but it must be like one’s own skin.”

Amasa is Amasa’s name. Maybe because he is dark, maybe because he was born on a new moon day (amavasya), the name Amasa has stuck to him. If his parents had been alive, we could have found out why he came to be called Amasa. But by the time he could walk around on his own, the mother who bore him and the father who begot him had been claimed by their separate fates. Since then the Mari temple has meant Amasa, and Amasa has meant the Mari temple. But just because he lives in the Mari temple doesn’t mean that he is an orphan. The Mari temple has offered shelter to many like him. Especially in the summer, the little temple becomes a regular camping ground for people seeking shelter from the heat. Now, apart from Amasa, there is also an old man living there. He’s really ancient: so old that every hair on him has gone grey. Nobody so far has seen him get up from where he usually sits on a tattered black blanket in a corner of the temple. He’s always on it, feet stretched before him, or leaning on a pillar, or with his hands behind him. Apart from these three or four postures, he knows no other. He is always like this, as though lost in thought. Perhaps it is his wrinkled face, or white moustache, thick as an arm, which comes all the way down to his neck from his shrivelled face, that makes him look so thoughtful. By his side lies a man-sized bamboo stick. It doesn’t have much use though, since Amasa is always around whenever he wants to move about. But it would come in handy to chase away chickens, sheep and the young goats that wander nearby.

We’ve talked of all this, but we haven’t told you his name. Everyone in the village, from the youngest to the oldest, calls him Kuriyayya (sheep man). Was he named so at birth? That concerns neither you nor us. But this much is certain; for as long as he could, he had herded the sheep of the village headman. Even now when he sits with his eyes half-closed, he counts the sheep, one by one, on his fingers, to himself. This goes on, six or seven times each day. And he hasn’t missed a single day. Amasa began to grow up right in front of his eyes. He is now around ten or eleven. Whenever Kuriyayya calls, Amasa answers. Every evening as the night descends on the village, Amasa and Kuriyayya wait eagerly for the monastery bell to ring. The moment it strikes, Amasa grabs the plate and glass kept by Kuriyayya’s side and runs. As the night has already fallen by then, you can’t see Amasa running in the dark. But if you skin your eyes and peer into the inky night, you can see the darkness stir at his flight. One doesn’t know for how long he’s gone. It’s only when his call “Ayya” shakes the night that you know he has returned. Kuriyayya sits up if he’s lying down. As always, they eat the gruel from the monastery together in the dark. Amasa then goes to sleep. Though the village, too, has by then gone to sleep, the silence of the night is broken now and then by the barking of dogs and the hooting of owls. The old man, unable to sleep, stares into the night, mutters things to himself, calls out to Amasa a few times and, getting no reply, finally falls asleep.

****

As the Mari festival comes to all the neighbouring villages once a year, it came to Amasa’s village too. It was only then that Kuriyayya had to shift himself to another place, for the villagers scrubbed the temple, painted it with white-lime and red-earth, and made it stand out. When it was done, as the morning sun fell on it, the Mari temple shone with added brilliance. Only Kuriyayya’s corner, surrounded by all this brightness, looked even gloomier. In the hall, a dozen men milled around, busily running back and forth, getting the torch ready, cutting paper of different colours for decorating the yard and a hundred other things. And since almost everyone there wore new white clothes, the Mari temple sparkled white. One of those present, Basanna, was a short, dark man sporting a French moustache. He too wore new white clothes and in them shone darker still. His big yellow teeth protruded through his closed mouth and reflected the lustre of his clothes. Holding a broom, Basanna stomped over to Kuriyayya’s corner and shouted “Ayya”. Since Kuriyayya would respond only after he’d been spoken to a few times, everyone spoke loudly to him. Kuriyayya slowly opened his eyes, watching the white figures that kept coming and going in front of his eyes. Old memories stirred and began to form in front of his eyes. The Mari festival meant the Tiger Dance. That meant him. The Tiger danced in front of his eyes. The drumbeat in his ears. Those were the days of the elder village headman. Kuriyayya was then a boy about as tall as Amasa. The vigour of Kuriyayya’s dance had impressed the elder. Giving him a gift of clothes, he had said: “Till the end of our days stay in my house. You’ll have your food and clothes. Just look after the sheep, that’s all.” His shrivelled face blossomed; the brightness of the Mari temple and the people around glinted in every wrinkle of his face.

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Basanna shouted “Ayya” in his ears, this time even louder. He turned and looked up. Seeing Basanna, he grasped the reason for his presence. Bamboo stick in his right hand, he stretched out his left arm. When Basanna held the outstretched hand, he pulled himself up and slowly walked over to the other corner and sat down. Basanna shook the blanket a couple of times and spread it out in the corner where Kuriyayya now sat. The dust shaken out from the blanket swam in the morning sun. Where the blanket was before, there now lay a thick layer of reddish dust and dirt. But as the morning sun fell on it, it, too, seemed to turn white.

****

It was noon by the time Amasa returned from his playful ramblings. He couldn’t believe what he saw. All kinds of things were going on there. The smell of white-lime and freshly smeared cow dung around the Mari temple crowded into his nostrils. Kuriyayya had been moved from one corner to the other. In the hall, some men had crowded round in a circle and were jumping up on their toes to look at something. In the middle was a man doing something. Amasa hopped over and peeped. He saw diadems, two-headed birds and other such things being crafted out of coloured silver paper. Everything that had been made appeared wonderful to his eyes. As the man in the middle crafted these things, the crowd alternately offered instructions and uttered appreciations: “It should be like that... it should be like this... Besh! Ha!” and so on. A long while later, after his eyes had soaked in all that they could, Amasa went over to Kuriyayya and sat by his side. In a row on the other side and leaning against the wall were several large red and white parasols and whisks for the deity; they had been put out in the sun to dry. In a corner was a tall coconut tree, swaying gently against the sky. Amasa’s eyes ran to the top of the tree, where seven or eight large bunches of coconuts weighed it down. When he ran his eyes down the tree he noticed that someone had painted the stem of the tree in stripes of white-lime and red-earth. He slid closer to Kuriyayya and said, “Ayya.” Kuriyayya looked at him meaning to ask “What is it?” Amasa said excitedly, “Look Ayya! Look! Someone’s painted your tree with white-lime and colour.” Kuriyayya peered ahead. He could see only a short distance, and then everything was lost in a haze. But what he saw was this: someone had used a coconut for sorcery and had buried it in the cremation ground. It had sprouted, cleft the earth and sprung up. He had plucked it from there and planted it in the corner of the Mari temple, saying, “Let it be here; at least as mine.” It had grown in front of his eyes; sprouting leaves and shedding them, bearing scars on its body where it had once borne leaves. It had grown and grown, taller and taller, and now stood fully grown.

****

As the festival days went by, relatives and friends from around started descending one by one on the village. As usual they would first visit the Mari temple and then go about their business. Some would forget everything and settle down there to gossip. All the old scandals from the various villages would be dug up and updated. While all this was going on, in the yard Basanna was warming up the drum over a straw fire and tuning it. Children were jumping around him like an army of monkeys, Amasa among them. As Basanna raised the drum to his chest and beat it, its sound rang through, chadchadnakunanakunanakuna, like a gong to the four corners of the village. Unable to resist, the kids around him started to dance. Basanna, too, was inspired and started to dance, beating his drum dangudangudanguchuki. The children danced, Basanna kept step, all of them falling over each other and those passing by. Heaven only knows who had taught Amasa to dance but he was stepping out better than the others. Everyone watched him in amazement. By then the women too had gathered around to watch. Bangari just couldn’t take her eyes off Amasa. As she watched him, she felt again a deep desire to have a child of her own in her arms. It had been six or seven years since she’d been married, but so far….Raging at people’s taunts, she had even slept around a bit. Yet nothing had borne fruit. She couldn’t afford medicine-men and things like that; she and her husband were too poor. While women like her were already old by their thirties, she was one who could pass off for a bride. Men who saw her couldn’t help wanting her, even if for a moment; such was her bearing. And yet—no fruit. Things couldn’t go on like this forever. For a long time, as the night set in, stones would start falling on her house, one after the other. Her husband would raise welts on her back, and hide himself in the house. The stones had since stopped falling, and the people had begun to forget. Now, in her eyes, Amasa continued to dance.

****

While all this was going on, two landlords dragged in two fattened goats. The crowds instantly split into two. Children ran this way and that. The goats panicked at the beating drum and started to pull frantically. As the men holding them faltered, two more joined in and holding on tight, stood them in front of the Mari temple. The frenzied drumbeat continued. The goats stood frozen, their eyes rolling. The temple stood in front, the silver deity shining through the open door. From within, billows of incense smoke wafted out. A man, wearing only a small piece of cloth between his waist and knees came out with holy water carrying a garland of flowers. He stood in front of the goats, closed his eyes and started to mumble. His dark body was covered with veins. They seemed to throb in time to his mumblings. He then cut the garland into two and tied them around the goats’ necks. Then he placed the loose flowers on their foreheads, sprinkled the holy water on them and, joining his hands in prayer, said, “If we’ve done anything wrong please swallow it, Mother, and accept this.” His shrill voice resounded throughout the temple. But for the distant din, everyone around the temple stood with bated breath.

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For a while everything stood still, except for the eyes of the goats that were turning round and round. Then all of a sudden the goats quivered. The drumbeat arose again and drowned all other noise. The group moved on. A bunch of children, including Amasa, ran behind it. The elders drove them away, but they returned the next moment. The procession reached an open field. There, a well-built man stood casually by a tree stump, holding a knife. As everyone was otherwise occupied, nobody noticed the children who had once again crowded around. As two men held the goats by their fore and hind legs and stretched their necks on the stump, the man brought down the waiting knife and in a single stroke severed the heads from the bodies. Someone poured holy water into the mouths of the severed heads. They gulped a couple of times and then closed shut. On the other side the bodies lay writhing. By now the heads were still, eyes turned upwards. Blood spurted from the writhing bodies as they spun around drenching the earth red. Some fellow shot into the middle and pulled the garlands of flowers dripping with blood. Not satisfied with that, he draped them around Amasa’s neck and said: “Dance!” As the blood drenched his throat and started to drip, Amasa panicked and ran. Some others followed. Even in his sleep Amasa saw only this sight. Several times that night Amasa sat up frightened. They kept the lamps burning all through the night. The outsiders slept all around the temple, curled up in their white shawls. That night the Mari temple was lit up.

****

That was also the night that railway gangman Siddappa had one too many. He had come with his belly full of spirit. It wasn’t actually his fault. It was the spirit in him that played around with him that night. If he closed his eyes a storm raged within him. So he staggered around leaning on his stick, weaving aimlessly through the streets. When he came to a lamp post he flew into a rage. He lashed out at it, kicking and flogging it with his stick, his fury shaking the entire neighbourhood. Not content with that, he made it take on the role of the local politician, the contractor, his railway boss or the money-lender Madappa, and yelled at it: “Bastard! You think you are a big shot just because you go around in white clothes. You hide your face when you see me. Forget us, we are loafers. We hang out on any street corner.” He wailed aloud, weeping, and continued with renewed vigour. “Don’t vent your anger on me. Look at him laugh at my words...Laugh, laugh away. It’s your time to laugh. What else would you do but laugh? You are, after all, the one who uplifts the poor. Laugh...let the communists come. They’ll put an end to your laughter. Till then you can laugh, so laugh, laugh...” His laughter and shouts rose and fell, stumbled down the village street and whined through the cold, dark night. Unable to sleep through all this, Amasa woke up with a start every now and then. It must have gone on for a long while. Nobody quite knows when or where Siddappa finally fell. His laughter, his shouts, died out.

****

It was dawn again. The village spent the morning yawning. Every verandah was filled with people. But there were still many who hadn’t woken up. For instance, Siddappa. At noon, the Tiger dancers arrived at the Mari temple. The headman’s bond-servant arrived and said, “The headman’s house needs coconuts,” and before Kuriyayya could say yes, he had climbed the tree, plucked the coconuts, and left. Back at the house, the women had oiled and combed their hair, decked it with flowers and were running in and out. The young men teased the passing girls and were chided in turn. The drumbeat of the Tiger Dance drew everyone to the Mari temple. Everyone was eagerly awaiting the arrival of the Tiger dancers. All of a sudden the Tiger’s cage flew open. All eyes fell on it. A huge Tiger leapt out, a lemon between his teeth. The startled crowd moved back and formed a circle around him. A few more Tigers, a Hyena and a Clown emerged one after the other. Among them was a Tiger Cub too. After all of them had come out, they stood in a row, joined their hands in prayer to the deity and accepted the holy water. The dance began immediately after. The Hyena was the best of all, and his costume fitted him perfectly. Remember the man who had sported the knife so casually at the sacrifice yesterday? It was the same man. The crowds would run when he strode towards them, keeping step with the drumbeat. When the dance came down the street, women and children clambered up the parapet and watched it with their lives in their hands. The dancers had only to turn towards them, and they would dash into their houses and bolt the doors. The dancers continued, entered the landlord’s street, and danced in front of the village hall. All the worthies, even the upper-castes, like the headman and the priest, had gathered there to watch the dance. They made gifts to the dancers according to their status and expressed their appreciation. Long after night had fallen and the dance had ended, everyone in the village continued to see the dance and hear the drumbeat. Those who fell asleep and closed their eyes, and the men even as they undressed their wives, saw only the Tiger Dance along with the drumbeat dangudangudanguchuki. The village headman, unable to sleep, came out for a stroll. The bond-servant, who was awake, saw him and stood up. The headman put a beedi between his lips and struck a match. For a moment, his face glowed red in the dark and flickered out. He gulped the smoke in silence for a while and then turned to the servant. “The one who played the Tiger Cub. Whose boy is it?” “That’s Amasa,” came the reply. “Who’s Amasa?” enquired the headman. “That’s him. The orphan boy that lives there with Kuriyayya. That’s him.” The headman was astonished. “My! When did he grow up so much?” Before his eyes, Amasa’s Tiger Dance came dancing its many and wondrous steps.

Story selected by Mini Krishnan

Reproduced by permission of Penguin Books India

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