The Retired Ones by P Lankesh
Translated from Kannada by Narayan Hegde and Chandan Gowda
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Those were the days when I was working on my first novel that never went to print. I would sit on a stone bench in some corner of Lalbagh and thresh out my experiences. A writer is an odd sort of creature: it sometimes wears itself out chasing the shadow of its tail. It wanders aimlessly in the jungle. Bulging with fat, it feeds on plant and flesh, virtue and vice and, like a water buffalo that has become light in the udders, wallows in mire.

 

To tell you the truth, I don’t have much faith in rules and regulations, in rigid codes of righteousness. Even while I am aware that money can bring in much happiness, I have little respect for the moneyed. I am weary of authority. It has become a habit with me to avoid, from a distance, those who have authority over me. Many who know me say that I am being vain. Some think that I am being a fool. My friends who make fun of my foibles and yet love me enough to forgive me are my treasure. My wife and daughter, who, despite my coarse and wayward behaviour, put up with me and even indulge me, are my very life-breath.

 

It is said that a writer should cultivate certain qualities. And, above all, sensibilities.  They are his means of self-preservation. At thirty, the demon knocks on our chest and bares his fangs. Only the smell of sweat from a living being makes him accept defeat and take to his heels. Otherwise, he takes our souls with him and we walk around with hollow bodies. It was by fending off this demon that a poet like Yeats was able to live the later years of his life in fulfilment.

 

I sit quietly on the grass at Lalbagh, the thoughts inside my mind hopping about like monkeys. I watch the ten-year-old girls in skirts, so full of joy that they prance about rather than just walk; boys; Shetty merchants; Sindhi tradesmen; children and their school teachers from around Dharwar who have come to see Bangalore; lovers who have come looking for privacy; office-clerks with babies in their arms and their four-year-olds by their side. Mischievous girls giggle and pass comments on seeing me sitting there by myself. A few take pity on me. One’s eyes are wide open when one is alone.

 

On a Sunday, as I was sitting there, two old men walked towards me. One was rather pudgy and tall with a round face. He was clean-shaven and had a caste-mark on his forehead. As he was not wearing an undershirt, his loose-fitting, bright, white shirt let you see the grey hair on his chest and a flabby paunch that suggested that not much vitality was left in that body. The other man was about the same age. He was thin, like a walking stick. The hair on his head was sparse but not all white. His face was so wrinkled that if you kept looking at it you would see nothing but countless lines and forget what he really looked like. Yet, there was light in his eyes.

 

I had no desire to talk to anyone nor was I adamant about avoiding company.

 

‘May we sit here too?’ the fat old man asked me in a matter-of-fact way, in English. I said, ‘Of course.’ Putting aside his walking stick, he sat down happily. He said, ‘Come, Prahladarao, sit down.’

 

The thin man hesitated and sat only after I said, ‘Sir, please sit.’ The two must have been chatting for quite some time. But how long can just two persons go on together? Both seemed eager to include a third person. The fat old man rambled on at first: Wasn’t Lalbagh beautiful?; What a cool breeze!; and so on. Measuring the tall trees with his eyes, he turned to me, ‘May I know your name, Sir?’

 

‘Ramesh.’ Lest he be encouraged to ask many more questions, I laughed and told him that I taught at a college nearby and that I was married.

 

‘Ha! Ha!’ he burst into laughter, his bad teeth showing. ‘You are funny. Please don’t think that I was going to offer my daughter in marriage to you. Did you hear him, Prahladarao? The responses one gets nowadays! I didn’t believe you when you said that finding a groom for your daughter was proving difficult. She is such a doll! I told you to leave it to me. But you wouldn’t listen.’

 

Prahladarao did not seem interested in talking about personal matters. He said to me, ‘We both used to work at the Revenue Office. We are now retired. This gentleman, Narasingarao, is my boss.’

 

‘Why don’t you say that I was your boss?’ said Narasingarao, taking out his snuff-box.  ‘Now we are only friends. It’s all the Almighty’s way of playing with us!’

 

I could sense the conversation grow.

 

I have respect for old age. Perhaps that respect is tinged with fear – fear that I too will have to face old age. Which is why I became interested in what the two old men were saying. Narasingarao talked about the years when he wielded authority and bossed over others. When he was an amildar in Shikaripura, he had raided the house of a notorious rake called Ugra and confiscated sixty bags of illegally hoarded rice. He had brought an insolent office-clerk to his knees by suspending him from his job. Then there was that haughty typist-girl, Meera, who didn’t give a damn about any of her superiors. He threatened her with charges of insubordination and before long she came running to his house….  All through this self-lauding account, Narasingarao kept turning to Prahladarao  who would make appropriate remarks like ‘Of course!’ ‘Quite true!’ or ‘The man had it coming!’ and so on. I was the audience for that free-of-charge play-acting of the two old men. The context of this drama was quite simple. Narasingarao was digging up his office days from their grave to remind Prahladarao of his power and prestige. Prahladarao, in turn, was responding mechanically: ‘Of course!’ or ‘Quite so.’ One no longer has official power; the other no subservience left in him. Both are trying to become friends, without success.

 

By listening to Narasingarao, I was probably fulfilling his need to let the world know he existed. In any case, I am a good listener and it seemed that he had a lot to say. He talked at length.

 

He was angry at what the offices had become in recent times. Using his successor as an example, he said that the officers of today couldn’t make even a dog obey them. He continued, ‘Nowadays, the taking of bribes has spread beyond imagination. Not that there was no bribery in our days. It was there, but those higher-ups kept it under check. It was not done openly as it is being done today. Don’t you think so, Prahladarao? The house you had already built back then … what is the rent you are getting for it now? I still can’t forget your lavish housewarming ceremony. Not bad for an office-clerk to have accomplished so much. You are a solid fellow, I say.’

 

The old man’s crudeness made my blood boil. I asked, ‘It seems you didn’t make much money yourself at office? Or, maybe you didn’t get the opportunity?’

 

‘Oh, Sir, trust me. I could have made lakhs if I had wanted. But I am not the sort of man who reaches for such filth. If I had earned that way, why would I be still living in a rented house? Now, there are those who would lick the sewers just to pick up a paisa. Do you think God lets them go unpunished? He gives them only female progeny; makes their wives run off with other men; harasses them with disease. God is great, Sir.’

 

The old man’s mind was filled with vicious thoughts waiting to gush out. Whether consciously or not, he was reviling Prahladarao. I didn’t have the courage to look at Prahladarao’s face. They were two beings roaming about wildly like apparitions with a vast chasm between them. At the slightest sign of a friendship growing between them, the past was cutting off the sprouting shoots, crushing the buds. It was as though huge anthills had grown around the two bodies sitting next to me and, somewhere from the depths within, their souls were wailing. The words that escaped from their mouths were corroded and had lost their significance.

 

*

 

When I was a child I used to crave sweets. Every day I would look at myself to see if I had grown taller so I could reach the sweets on the shelf.

 

But by the time I grew up, I had lost my love for sweets and the interest in growing tall, too. New curiosities had begun to nourish my life.

 

Curiosity must be a very good trait.

 

The next day at Lalbagh, Prahladarao was the one to arrive first. I sat there idly, cutting my fingernails. The man looked heavier than he had the previous day, probably because Narasingarao was not there by his side.

 

‘Good evening,’ he said haughtily and sat down. ‘Hasn’t Narasingarao come yet? He should have been here, no?’

 

‘He must be lecturing someone about his integrity and the glory of his old days,’ I said lightheartedly and smiled.

 

‘Oh, come! Don’t people know about his honesty?’

 

‘You mean to say it was all lies?’

 

‘It’s better not to talk about it,’ said Prahladarao. ‘He is a lecher. He spent all his money on women. He devoured three wives. There was that typist-girl, Meera, in his office. He chased her and harassed her so much that in the end she had to threaten to beat him with her sandal.’

 

‘Then what happened?’

 

‘It’s not worth talking about. Is it any way to live a life? Now that wretched beast wants to get married again.’

 

Prahladarao was avenging yesterday’s humiliation. Seeing Narasingarao coming towards us from a distance, he hastened his narration, punctuating it with loud laughter. He had just finished talking when Narasingarao came.

 

The old man had a suspicious nature already. He asked, ‘What were you laughing about?’

 

Prahladarao said something evasive to silence him. Hiding his anger, Narasingarao pretended to believe him. From the topic of finding grooms for girls to preventing corruption, he rambled on. He then focused on Prahladarao as an example. It saddened me and I told myself I would no longer come and sit there. Determined to make Narasingarao shut his mouth, I said somewhat sternly, ‘Sir, how many children have you got?’

 

‘None.’

 

‘If you had a son, he would have been my age now. Please don’t misunderstand me. Friendship is something very precious. You mustn’t talk like this. It’ll hurt your friend, Prahladarao.’

 

‘Ha! Ha!’ he laughed loudly, jiggling his belly. ‘I know Prahladarao? He is the cat that drank milk with eyes closed, right before me, thinking no one would see him.’ Patting Prahladarao’s shoulder in a show of familiarity, he said with a mischievous look in his eyes, ‘Here, take these two annas. Go and get some roasted peanuts from the vendor over there. Be quick!’ Perhaps he wanted to say something about Prahladarao when he was not around.

 

Prahladarao didn’t get up. He was afraid that once his back was turned, Narasingarao might unleash more loose talk about him. Besides, for the first time in his life he felt the courage to stand up to his former boss. So, he sat put with a gritty determination and, his face twisted into a scowl, said, ‘You go get it yourself.’

 

Narasingarao who had been bragging to me about his power could not swallow this affront by his former subordinate. He was taken aback by the unexpected retort, but regained his haughty demeanour and, with his old authoritativeness showing in every word, he said, ‘Mister, how dare you? Now, go!’

 

‘You go yourself, mister! How dare you tell me to go?’ The humour on Prahladarao’s dark face was giving way to anger. ‘Look here, Narasingarao. You cannot boss over me anymore. Showing off, aren’t you, big shot? You think no one knows what you are all about – Meera hitting you with a sandal, Govindaraju striking your head with the file!’

 

Picking up his walking stick, Narasingarao got up angrily, ‘Scoundrel! Will you shut up? Or do you want a thrashing?’

 

Both old men have stood up and are barking at each other like two mad dogs. The ghosts that had remained suppressed until now, either out of politeness or modesty are dancing around. I feel scared. I feel I am being hurled into the abyss of life by these two. Narasingarao must have been visiting Prahladrao’s house under one pretext or another only to eye his young daughter. Prahladarao must have waited all this time for a chance to hit back. Life so far has been a burden to both.

 

Seeing that they were ready to tear at each other, I stood up and pulled Prahladarao, the lighter of the two, away and said to the other, ‘Mr. Narasingarao, Sir, it doesn’t become you at this age to fight like this. Please go home.’

 

‘That street dog has no home to go to,’ cried Prahladarao.

 

‘Isn’t that why I come to your home? As long as your wife and daughter are around, why do I need to marry?’

 

To hear him talk of marriage and women at his age pained me deeply rather than make me laugh. Women must have provoked various fantasies in him. But having grown unworthy of any relationship, he had sold his soul to the demon long ago; he was perishing like a bird that had strayed from its flock; he was a wandering lump of flesh and blood.

 

*

 

Looking at the two men, their beings determined by their roles in office, now suffering grotesquely under the weight of the past, I admired the freedom of the trees that had grown vast, reaching towards the sky.

 

In autumn, having shed their leaves, the trees are bare and lean. But in spring they regain their lush, green cloak and are once again happy and bountiful. When it is the season, the deer – male and female – prance about. At other times, they go about, calmly, with their routines. Their bellies full, their desire fulfilled, how gentle and well disposed they are to one another!

 

Perhaps I am being overemotional. After all, aren’t there trees incapable of bearing fruit after their time, or giving shade, and becoming useless even as fire-wood? And animals that are barren and of no use to anyone?

 

I am seized by pain beyond compare. Hope envelops me.

 

All around me in the park, little girls full of gaiety are prancing about, swirling their skirts and swinging their arms. At a distance, newly married couples are walking solemnly, hand in hand. My students – boys and girls – who were walking towards where I am sitting turn away to another path on seeing me.

 

Immense pain.

 

Why can’t we feel generosity instead of pain? Why am I not bursting with joy? Even as they kill me secretly, can’t my days sprinkle some vitality on my life? Why can’t we, like these trees, give shade and let flowers blossom dispassionately and magnanimously?

 

*


Published in 1963 as part of Lankesh’s first collection of short stories entitled, Kereya Neeranu Kerege Challi, ‘Nivruttaru’ appeared in a slightly modified form in Samagra Kathegalu (Collected Stories), a 1992 anthology of four previously published collections of short stories of Lankesh.

This translation is based on the modified version. Permission was given by Gauri Lankesh to translate the story. The translators are thankful to Kavitha Lankesh for permission to publish the translation.

Among the foremost modern Kannada writers, P Lankesh (1935-2000), has made major contributions in several literary genres. Besides five collections of short stories, including Kereya Neeranu Kerege Chelli (1963), Nanalla (1970), Umapathiya Scholarship Yatre (1973), Kallu Karaguva Samaya (1990) and Ullangane (1996), he has published three novels, Biruku (1967), Mussanjeya Katha Prasanga (1978) and Akka (1991), three collections of poetry, Bicchu (1967), Talemaru (1973) and Chitra Samuha (1999), and Papada Hoovugalu, a translation of Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du Mal. His plays, in particular Sankranti (1971) and Gunamukha (1993), and his translation of Sophocles' Oedipus Rex and Antigone, are among the major modern Kannada plays. Besides several volumes of short essays in cultural and political criticism, he wrote a critically acclaimed autobiography, Hulli Maavina Mara (A Sour Mango Tree) in 1997. He was founder-editor of Lankesh Patrike, a unique Kannada literary and political weekly, from 1980 until his death in 2000. Lankesh also directed four feature films in Kannada, among which Pallavi won the National Award for Best Direction in 1977.  

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Narayan Hegde is Professor Emeritus of English at the State University of New York College at Old Westbury. He was born in Dodmane village in Uttara Kannada district. After doing his undergraduate and Masters degrees in English at the University of Mysore, he pursued his graduate studies at the State University of New York at Stony Brook from where he received a doctorate for his thesis on W B Yeats. As a Senior Fellow of the American Institute of Indian Studies, he has undertaken translation projects in India. He is a recipient of the Katha Translation Award. He is the editor and translator of Stallion of the Sun and Other Stories by U R Ananthamurthy, published by Penguin India. His translations of the short stories of P Lankesh, Purnachandra Tejasvi, and A K Ramanujan have been included in various anthologies. His most recent translation, a nineteenth century Kannada drama, The Marriage Farce of Iggappa Hegade by Suri Venkatarmana Shastri, appeared in the March-April 2012 issue of Indian Literature, published by the Sahitya Akademi. He is currently part of a team translating the Kumaravyasa Bharata for publication by Harvard University Press in its Murty Classical Library of India series.

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Chandan Gowda teaches at Azim Premji University, Bengaluru. He has edited The Way I See It: A Gauri Lankesh Reader, Navayana and DC Books, 2017 and Theatres of Democracy: Selected Essays of Shiv Visvanathan, HarperCollins, 2016. He has also translated U R Ananthamurthy’s novella Bara, Oxford University Press, 2016 and edited The Post Office of Abachooru, a book of short stories of Purnachandra Tejasvi (forthcoming, HarperCollins, 2018). A Life in the World, a book of autobiographical interviews he did with UR Ananthamurthy will be published soon (HarperCollins, 2018). He writes regularly for newspapers, including a weekly column on culture and politics in Bangalore Mirror. He is presently completing a book on the cultural politics of development in old Mysore state.