“Hometown on fire. Burning meat in the air. He sips on sherbet in the city.”
What comes to your mind when you read these lines? What place is this, why is it burning, who has gone to the city, why is he drinking sherbet? Wouldn’t you be beset with questions? Would it not be worse if the post were your friend’s, who refused to explain it? Wouldn’t you be exasperated?
These are Tarangini’s status updates – peeves me and those like me. It is so tedious to decode her lines. Even when you feel you’ve understood, what you have arrived at isn’t more than the meaning you’ve ascribed. Only she can say what any of it really means. From the responses that are posted, it is evident that many who follow her spend sleepless nights on these intriguing lines. You can see the questions, threats, barbs, likes, abuses...well, she responds to none.
After I connected with Tarangini, I began to read her posts and comments every day. Initially, I was curious, amused as well, but before long it had turned into an addiction. It isn’t easy to resist these bizarre lines, the temptation like the pleasure derived from pouring hot water on an itchy patch. You feel like making the water hotter, you also begin to enjoy the itch. The first thing I do these days when I wake up is check her status.
“Done scratching your back? Now leave for the whorehouse.”
“Carry coconut oil. Died yesterday, today he wants to hold hands while crossing the road. Thoo!”
“Run with the millstone. Run, run.”
Is it possible to forget such lines? I try to disentangle them, and they grow roots in my mind. They tunnel deeper, I try to use logic as a shield. All in all, it is an unnecessary perturbation. Perhaps it’s the language that touches the innermost desires, deceit, lust and sin nestled in the human mind. The thought itself is unnerving.
“Why is your stuff so absurd?” I asked Tarangini.
“Nothing is absurd.When you try to express what’s boiling up in you, grammar collapses. That’s it. If grammar is your concern, then I will not argue. Let’s leave it to our teacher, Joshi. Those who feel as intensely as I do will get what I’m saying. I don’t care if others don’t. My words meet their mark, I am certain.”
Tarangini is my childhood friend, two years older. Sanjeev, her younger brother, was my classmate.There were two doctors in our town, and Tarangini was Dr Dattaram’s daughter. Dr Dattaram was famous for his modern outlook and lavish lifestyle. Their home was never short of guests. Cooks and servants outnumbered the family.
A compounder, Chandappa, also lived in their house. He had his corner under the staircase, his bedding rolled and stacked, but not once did I see him sleep there. He hovered around Dattaram, always available at calling distance. “Chanda,” Dattaram would call; “O...” Chandappa would appear before him. Young boys refused to visit the clinic when Chandappa was alone, for he asked them to pull off their shorts and cough, holding their testicles. If they demurred, “Why are you shy? Should I take off mine and show you?” he would say, freaking them out completely.
Dattaram’s clinic was always milling with patients, he didn’t have the time to so much as scratch his ass. They waited in the clinic when he went home for lunch in the afternoons. It was never before 9 pm. that he got home. His ritual was to take a bath, get into a fresh set of clothes, sit out on the terrace with a glass of whisky and a cigar, all by himself. The clinic was closed on Sundays, but patients turned up at his house in emergencies. Dattaram never turned a sick person away; if needs be he drove them home afterwards.
Along with medicines, his patients got a lesson or two on the importance of a progressive outlook.
These might feature the importance of sending children to school, a scathing attack on superstition, putting an end to caste practices. Not that people agreed with his views but, since they felt deeply indebted to his healing powers, they abstained from voicing theirs. If a doctor as qualified as him – an MD – had set up practice in such a nondescript place, what could it signify but his patriotism? The way he dressed – white shirt and tie, sparkling shoes – his dignified speech, all of this made people wonder why he hadn’t gone to Pune or Bombay. They regarded him with both wonder and gratitude.
The modernity in his personality was reflected in his everyday conduct. His wife addressed him by name and in the singular pronoun in public. He would reply to her in the same lovey-dovey tone. He talked openly, in the most alluring fashion, of his daily habit of having a glass of whisky. In tender moments, he would not hesitate to put his arms around his wife’s shoulder or hold hands in public. He didn’t seem to care how such a display of affection went down in a small town.
People felt it was unnatural when Dattaram spoke to his children as if they were his friends. Particularly with his daughter, Tarangini, who had been given enormous latitude. My grandmother, who knew of this from hearsay, had remarked: “If you carry someone on your head for too long, they will do all their jobs right there.”
Tarangini wore the most fashionable clothes, and Dattaram, far from being opposed, was in fact very enthusiastic about getting them for her from Bombay.
She was the first girl to wear trousers in our town. The doctor’s attitude towards his daughter attracted derision. “Now these things look good, but later when it turns into a habit...” they would say, or “a good seed makes a good crop”, so on and so forth.
He made things difficult for the organisers who invited him as a guest of honour to public programmes – he would lecture the audience on his pet subjects such as superstition, democracy, nation-building, equality, casteless society, etc. He criticised the wrongs of all political parties, hence one could not get a fix on his affiliation. It led to all kinds of guessing games in town. He spoke of atheism, and people assumed he was a communist. But then what of the generous donations he made for Ganesh Chaturthi?
Tarangini earned herself the moniker Krantijeevi. This is an interesting story. In the last year of high school she took part in a public speaking competition. The subject was “The status of women in society”. In the animated flow of her impassioned speech, she inadvertently said “Krantijeevi” instead of “Krantikari”, meaning a “revolutionary”. Not once, but twice! Everybody pounced on it. That’s it – the name Krantijeevi stuck to her for as long as she was in school.
Excerpted with permission from the story “Krantijeevi Tarangini”, by Vivek Shanbhag, translated from the Kannada by Deepa Ganesh, from Our Freedoms: Essays and Stories from India’s Best Writers, edited by Nilanjana Roy, Juggernaut Books.