Noted poet, bilingual writer, translator and editor K. Satchidanandan received the Poet Laureate award on November 14th at The Tata Literature Live festival, 2019. On this prestigious occasion, Guftugu presents his short story, ‘Marathahalli Walker’s Club’.
Walking was the one and only pastime and physical exercise for Suveeran. Sometimes, he felt that the paths he trod were the skies and that he was a slow, meandering breeze blowing across the galaxies. In moments of agonised pride, he felt he would have already strode up to Kapilavasthu, Calvary, Medina or Dandi in his previous births. Sometimes he felt he was walking in places that his feet had never touched: Bombay, Delhi, Kathmandu, Damascus, Tehran, Istanbul, Cairo, Athens, London, Berlin, Paris… places that he would like to see, but would imagine he had already walked around. Through novels and travelogues, he had acquainted himself with the streets, gardens, temples, mosques and memorials that dotted those places.
Suveeran’s walks were never eventless; nor were they always solitary. It was true that humans found it impossible to keep pace with him and walk the long distances he covered. Nonetheless, sometimes either an enthusiastic dog would run with him or a crow fly in the same direction above his head. Although many trees wanted to walk with him, their deep roots didn’t allow them to do so and tightly held them down in their assigned spots. Hence they only waved their branches and wished him well to satisfy themselves.
A few humans and cats always stared at this briskly walking thirty-year-old. Some even dared to ask: ‘In a hurry?’
He would then routinely respond in negatives: ‘Not to buy pills for breathlessness’, ‘Not to call the priest for someone’s last rites’, ‘My sister has not yet felt labour pain’, ‘No, I am not late for the job interview’, ‘My beloved is not waiting in the restaurant’, ‘Not to inaugurate any protest march’, ‘No, my house is not on fire’, ‘No tsunami is pursuing me’, ‘There is still time for the wine shop to close’ and so on. Whoever was curious about his motive once would never again dare face such insolence.
Very rarely did Suveeran return along the same path he had taken. He would never think if the path he took was the sinners’ or the saints’. And so once in a while he has been in the suspects’ list of the moral police. But would one who has fixed his eyes on the horizon ever have the time to quench the longings of the mortal body? Would one who was wedded to the path he traveled ever have any mundane goals? Could the omnipresent one have any sinful sojourn?
By this time, he was familiar with all the streets, lanes and the labyrinthine bylanes of his city. He knew which route each bus or vehicle would take and when they would go by. He knew where they would stop and who would routinely board those vehicles. He also knew who all were plying those private cars and which office or college or house they would go to, and he was sure which cow would cross the road at what time.
In a certain sense, one could say, he was a cartographer of the city, a repository of its many mysteries! Some even doubted whether he was a Sherlock Holmes. However, they didn’t take him to be one, as there was no Watson with him! Nobody could predict when and how Suveeran would traverse his path. After all, he was not the Equatorial line, was he? Though a good observer, he was never a good planner. In other words, it could be that he hid his road maps from his own feet.
He never thought of buying even a scooter; leave alone a car, even though he was rich enough to do so getting good returns working a couple of hours daily on his laptop. He was staying in one of the suburban lodges of the city- if at all one could say, he was ‘staying’ there! To be more specific, he stayed in a lodge on the outskirts of Bangalore city, in Marathahalli. He worked for a big company in a distant land that he had never visited in his life. If he had been ready to work full-time, it wouldn’t have been difficult for him to get a job either in White Field or in the Electronic City. There were two reasons why he didn’t try to have a full-time job: one, he led a modest life and wanted only to make both ends meet: he was afraid of riches; two, then where would he find time to go for his long walks? Coming back tired from the office and then going for a long walk would have been really demanding.
Initially, he used to walk from Marathahalli to Cubbon Park and return. Then he changed his route. From Marathahalli, he would walk through Koaramangala, Jayanagar, Tipu’s Fort, Golf Course, Jalahalli via Kalakari and Indiranagar and then back to Marathahalli. Wasn’t there a weave of bylanes in Jayanagar and Indiranagar to walk along! Gradually, his walks grew longer. He covered places such as Jeegani, Hosur, Shoolagiri and Kuppam. He also went upto Tumkur, Doddaballapur, Kurboor and Kolar; and then to Kunigal, Yediyur, Magadi and Ramnagar, and then again via Chithradurga upto Davanagere and crossing over Kemkeri, Bidadi, Ramanagaram, Chennappattanam, Madur, Mandya, Sreerangapattanam upto Mysore, then via Sivasamudram, Chamaraj Nagar, Sathyamangalam, Pollachi and Munnar upto Kodaikkanal, across Gonikkoppa to Madikkeri; what is more, from Madikkeri via Sulthanbathery upto Ooty and then crossing over Kolar, Chittoor and Thiruvalloor upto Chennai. He would know Channasandra, Guttahalli, Bommanahalli and Yeswanthpur like the lines on his own palm. Sometimes, he felt he was walking on the stretchmark of a mother’s belly; at other times, that he was a cartographer!
Gradually he got fed up with his solitary walks. Wouldn’t there be others who are also interested to walk like me? That is how Suveeran found out fourteen other walkaholics; rather, twenty-eight legs including those of two women! Women were fewer in numbers not because they didn’t like walking. After their day’s job and routine homecare, they didn’t get much time to walk. Out of these two women, one was a dalit Kannada researcher doing a comparative study on the different ideas of India in works such as UR Ananthamurthy’s Samskara, SL Bhyrappa’s Aavarana and Siddhalingaiah’s Ooru keri. And the other woman was an environmental activist. The men were mostly jobless youth; yes, the three retired officers too.
That was how ‘Marathahalli Walkers’ Club’ was founded. Suveerans’ room functioned as its office. Although he would have preferred mobile offices, he couldn’t find moving houses or buildings! Or else, he would have to rent out a van or so but he didn’t have enough money. As it was not mandatory that everyone should walk on the same routes, Suveeran was mostly independent in his choice of routes; sometimes, with his permission some other members accompanied him. That everyone should keep individual journals recording the experiences of their daily walks was the irrefutable code of conduct. They were also supposed to present those experiences at their Sunday meetings. If one put all those reports together, it would make a huge novel! It would be a novel where humans, animals, birds, trees, stars and dust would have equal importance. Let us leave the task to some genius – dead, alive, or yet to be born.
Maybe one could give a romantic twist to this story here: like this female researcher often keeping Suveeran’s company, getting intimate with him and gradually marrying him and so on. But, it is imperative that these propitious romantic situations of music and dance have to be done away with — in other words the story never progressed that smoothly! The researcher Pratibha found time only to pursue those three writers and their worlds. Thus at a young age, she understood the difference between the three Indias. Sometimes she witnessed how these three countries fought against one another in the bar, streets, or in the countryside. In each of these places, the Brahmin India continued to win with their infinite cunning. One day, during one of her walks, Pratibha had to witness her favourite journalist soaked in blood lying still on the ground surrounded by a few onlookers. There was nothing wrong in her concluding that the dead journalist was the real India! Those walks changed Pratibha’s worldview completely. She began walking with the rhythms of a route-march. She started secretly looking for criminals who committed such murders in the labyrinthine routes and cyber corridors. She helped the police track down several such crimes, though it is yet another story if all those crimes were followed up seriously afterwards.
I never imagined that this story would turn out to be documenting reality. I hate realism. But our times are such that whatever impossible story you imagine, it would finally turn real and would inevitably lead to many diverse ideas of the nation. Leave it at that. All the diary scribblings of our club members were full of such events; land encroachments, secret murders, narratives of corruption, looting of forest-resources, hunting of wild animals, murders of dalits, the secret night unions of the daytime foes, the mob-lynching in the name of cows and Ram. Yet, sometimes they also had some positive entries — like that of a secret love-affair crossing the borders of religion, a girl carrying a wounded puppy for its treatment, some organisations distributing ragi and sugar, of small protest meetings raising slogans of justice, so seldom seen these days , some bold writers and artists speaking up, or of some youth organising the adivasis—rare consolations, these. But they were only like occasional fireflies in the depth of the dark woods.
One member of the club was a Tamil Crime Branch officer. The weekly diary scribbling of the members turned out to be useful to him, although he didn’t very much relish the ones that talked about police officers’ criminal activities and their helping some rich criminals. It was Suveeran himself who often presented such reports in the meetings.
Thus the club went on functioning well for five years. But then one day, Suveeran didn’t comeback after his routine walks. As he never used to reveal to his friends the directions or routes his walks took, all searches for him proved vain. Members of the club and police searched for him in every nook and corner, including the forests, streams and mountains. As Pratibha too was not to be found, they kept imagining tales around their disappearance. Who could imagine that the two of them would fall in love and elope! There was no such sign in their gestures or moves. By this time, Prathibha had been awaiting her viva voce after submitting her thesis. She was studying the political murders in the state and around and would present her findings in some of these meetings. Moreover, under her leadership, the Club had recently started publishing a bulletin based on the Sunday reports with Suveeran as the editor.
Gradually, the number of members of the club started dwindling as they left one by one for various reasons. Some passed away. Others became very busy with their career. Switching jobs or retiring; some relocated to other cities. The signboard ‘Marathahalli Walker’s Club’ which Suveeran himself had designed on his laptop remained there still. And the neighbours could hear from that solitary room the footsteps of someone loitering there on Sundays and reading out notes from a diary about his walks and sojourns, in a subdued voice. It is rumoured that sometimes, a young man in his mid-thirties bleeding from the deep wound on his chest would suddenly appear in Theerthahalli, Old Airport Road, or Shivasamudra, or on the elephant corridors of Madikkeri before the pedestrians and vanish abruptly. Some also claim to have seen in those phantom moments, accompanying the young man, a red chudidar-clad young woman, her face and legs turned blue!