There he lies dying, not yet fifty years old. One might guess at his state of mind as he reminisces while battling death. In his boyhood, Krishnappa Gowda used to be a swimmer. When the river rose in flood, he would jump in and swim all the way across. Once, he and his friend went swimming like this. Just when he had swum halfway across the river, with his friend about a yard out, Krishnappa’s arms tired and he could swim no further.

“My friend, I can’t swim any more, I’m drowning, you go ahead,” he shouted quickly and went under. His courageous friend – his name was Hanumanayaka – managed to save him. He had felt sure he was dying, but in that moment his mind was totally calm, unperturbed. Remembering it now in his paralysed state, Krishnappa’s big eyes fill with tears.

He was short-tempered. Once, when he was in high school, he went to a watch-repairer’s shop to fetch a friend’s watch. The watchrepairer, the shop’s owner, knew Krishnappa well and resented that a poor boy like him went about with a superior air. Magnifying glass tucked in one eye, looking at him from the corner of the other, he said to Krishnappa, “Do you expect me to hand the watch over, just on trust?”

“Watch out, mister! You talk like that one more time, and I’ll smash this glass case of yours to pieces.”

“You know what a poor man’s pride will get him? Only broken teeth!” snapped the watch-repairer, pecking at something with a pair of tweezers. Right away, Krishnappa snatched up the glass case with the repair tools and scattered parts of watches, threw it to the ground, shattering it to bits, and walked off. He had such a bad temper, it would scare anyone.

When he is angry now, the most that might happen is that his lips quiver, his nostrils dilate, and his eyes well up. It is sad to see this Durvasa lying in bed, unable to move.

Sometimes, he picks up the stick by his side and tries to hit his wife. As for her, she is driven crazy, having to care for a sick husband, slogging at that bank where she is a clerk, looking after a five-year-old daughter who sits in a corner whining and dripping snot. Her hair is always in disarray. “Dump this empty pride of yours in the kitchen fire,” she once told him, and pinched her daughter’s face until the child’s lips had blood.

Despite the daily turmoil, it is not that Krishnappa’s mind cannot regain its poise. He narrates the story of his earlier life to the simpleminded Nagesh, who is there every day to take down these dictations. It does not much concern him whether the young man is able to grasp the material of his memoirs. Their narration is, for Krishnappa, a means of making sense of his present state.

As a young boy, Krishnappa had to work as a cowherd. Head draped in a coarse blanket, a sickle in one hand and a flute in the other, he would walk through the village, rounding up the cattle, and his charges gathered, he would head to the grazing fields.

He talks about this as though only he can mine its profound meaning. Now that he is dying, does he feel sometimes that something mystical entered his life? Is such a belief necessary in order to transcend the banality of the present? It’s hard to say.

Intellectually, Krishnappa is an atheist. Yet, he talks about the god-crazed mystics of the land, such as Kabir, Nanak, Allama, Meera and Paramahamsa in a way that is admiring, mocking and sceptical all at once. He jokes about his feeling of oneness with them. It is hard to say what his overall outlook is.

He harks back to those boyhood years.

At the crack of dawn, he would go to the front of each house, untether the cattle, take them to the hillside or to the river or to the grassy meadows, and bring them back with the fall of dusk. He tries to remember the thoughts that came to his mind under the tree, watching the cattle with lazy eyes, playing a fanciful tune on a bamboo flute.

And suddenly, an incident of some significance appears before his eyes. But he prefaces its narration with a laugh: “Please, young man, do not think that I was having a grand time of it. If the cows happened to see a green field of standing paddy, I was in trouble. Before you knew it, they would have crashed the fences and trampled the crop. All alone, in driving rain, I would helplessly steer the cattle. In the end, there was nothing for it but to give up and sit dumbstruck, thinking of the beating that was sure to come.” His expression bears the fear and the pain he felt. At this point, he remembers Maheshwarayya who freed him from the drudgery of being a boy cowherd.

No one knows who Maheshwarayya was or where he was from. Let’s say he moved from somewhere to this new place.

The first thing he did was set up a tidy house. Although he lived alone, he kept a cook. But he would wash his own clothes. You should have heard him recite Kalidasa’s poetry in Sanskrit, or his classical Hindustani style singing. A great pleasure-loving man he was.

His handlebar moustache above lips that were reddened from chewing betel leaf, the glittering diamond studs in his ears, his closed-collar coat, the pure white dhoti that he wore elegantly, the silver-handled cane in his grip, and his serene demeanour, Krishnappa describes these and adds that he was also a great ascetic.

Though Maheshwarayya himself would not have been so open, it is Krishnappa’s guess that he had left home upon coming to know of his wife’s taking a lover. After letting his wife have a part of the estate, Maheshwarayya, who was a millionaire, put the rest in the bank, retired from everything, and set out wandering from place to place. He read all the time.

The man was a visionary who knew the past, the present, and the future. Let’s say he arrived at a house. Upon sitting down, suddenly, he would let out a cry: “Bho!” Then there would settle an uneasy look on his face. Though he knew a sense of foreboding had come over him, he wouldn’t say more, no matter how much his host begged. Later, he would whisper his misgivings in Krishnappa’s ear.

People avoided running into him for fear he might blurt out “Bho!” It was so spontaneous that he couldn’t help it. That is why he would sometimes refuse invitations. To Krishnappa, he would say, “I don’t know what disaster awaits that poor man – I won’t go to his house.” Sadly, though Maheshwarayya could foretell the future, he rarely saw any good in it. The one time it was different, he saw in Krishnappa’s future something good. This is how it went:

The boy Krishnappa, in his dirty shorts and shirt, was sitting under a peepul tree on the riverbank. The paddy had been harvested, he was not worried about the cattle straying into people’s fields.

With the murmur of the flowing river and the tinkling of the cowbells, Krishnappa must have felt blissful, perhaps more blissful than usual. Instead of playing the bamboo flute, that day he felt like singing the lines from Kumaravyasa’s Bharata.

He had studied only up to the fourth standard, and so it was not something he had read while at school. He had picked it up from listening to the old brahmin Joisa, who was his teacher. That day, as he got carried away, he sang with great feeling. Not far from where he was sitting, Maheshwarayya, who had been camping out in a nearby town, was washing his coat in the river.

How he happened to be at that very spot that day is a wonder. It seems earlier that day, when he was walking in the market, he was stopped by a retired schoolteacher who had gone somewhat crazy. The man asked Maheshwarayya for his coat. “Of course you can have it,” Maheshwarayya told him, “but because I have worn it, I want to wash it before giving it to you.” He bought a bar of soap and came to this riverbank, walking two miles from the town.

Maheshwarayya stood before the singing boy and said, “Bho!” Embarrassed, Krishnappa stopped. “Hey, boy! After you are done with the cattle, come back here in the evening and wait for me,” Maheshwarayya said, the coat dripping in his hand while he looked distractedly into the distance. He walked away, wringing the coat, and Krishnappa now remembers there were two flamboyant parrots in the guava tree across from where he was sitting under the peepul. He also remembers that he had never seen the bird in such unusual colours before.

In the evening, Krishnappa waited. Maheshwarayya arrived, swinging his walking stick. “What a dumb boy! All this time, you haven’t understood who you are, have you? Come with me,” he said, and they went directly to where Krishnappa lived.

His mother lived with her elder brother in his house, doing chores for him and his wife, chores such as grinding batter for kadubu, cooking the cattle feed, gathering leaves and twigs from the forest for the compost, all the while being nagged by the brother’s wife. Krishnappa’s father had died.

When he saw Maheshwarayya, the gold rings on his fingers, the gold studs in his ears, and that silver-capped cane in his hand, Krishnappa’s uncle stood up in awe.

“How stupid you people are!’ Maheshwarayya scolded the house roundly. ‘You have here a precious gem in your home, and you don’t have the eyes to see it!”

He gave them some money and made arrangements for Krishnappa to board in a student hostel which was ten miles away, so that he could go to a school. After setting up the fund for his schooling expenses, Maheshwarayya disappeared. Once a year, he visited the boy to find out how he was doing.

That is how Krishnappa was able to get an education all the way up to a BA.


Excerpted with permission from Avasthe: A Novel, UR Ananthamurthy, translated from the Kannada by Narayan Hegde, Harper Perennial.