“ My name is not B - U - T but. It is B -
H - A - T Bhat. He laughed.
That was the first time for him to speak to me.
What happened was-
Along with the baby my wife went to Hyderabad. Meanwhile
a friend arrived in Delhi with his family and hence I had to give my living quarters
to them. As a result, for the first time in my life I had to stay in a hotel. That was a peculiar experience.
In the room on the second floor of the hotel, apart
from me there was one more person by name Venkatachalam, a madrasi. He used to work in a daily paper. Painting was his hobby.
Our wavelengths use to concur to a large extent. If he spoke from Picasso to Swami Nathan I used to add my criticism on Bernard
Shaw to Bendapudi Hanumayamma. Together we used to go to art shows, discussions and other meetings.
Our food used to be served in a hall on the ground
floor of the hotel. We used to accost people from the other rooms there at the meal time.
All of a sudden one morning I saw a stranger. That
night and the next morning continuously I saw him. There is a negative reason for his drawing my attention so very much.
In that dining hall natural light was so very scarce.
With the neon lights on, even during the day, the atmosphere used to be very artificial. On one side of the hall there was
a cupboard with glass doors. In that, our grub used to be there.
Behind that cupboard, the kitchen…. A frame
on four wooden legs. A stone slab set on the frame- if that was a table there were twenty of such kind. As soon as one finishes
his eating, a cleaner would appear and remove the plate… wipe with a wet cloth that was a sole representative of the
dirt accumulated over eons. Table was clean to look at but…but it used to emanate a kind of foul smell. Server would
carry some stainless steel vessels from thecupboard and serve in the plates.
Food, stale like a Telugu story would never pass beyond the gullet. But since the body and the soul have to be kept together,
it was imperative that we had to accept some food. There was nothing either to enjoy or be happy about that. After hurriedly
gulping a few morsels, when we came out, it used be like as if we have come into light after committing some thing wrong.
Even if somebody lived in that hotel for very long, to enjoy his food in that atmosphere was impossible and unimaginable.
In such atmosphere –
In that hotel –
That new person –
Would sit in a half lotus posture with one leg folded
on that chair painted in horrible blue.
Rest his left hand fully on that wet, sticky and
stinking table .
Would ask for that Curry, Koottu, Sambar and Rasam
– enjoying them blissfully – eating – and asking for more – after that, asking for another serving
– eating two or three times more than what others could eat – would go into a trance as if there was some unfathomable
experience in that act of his.
How could you go without noticing that person?
Once noticed how could you help but hating him?
I almost despised him.
Like my nose does with that hotel table, my heart
started hating him.
“In that stinking atmosphere, instead of treating
it as a curse to eat that food, who could this glutton be, eating like as if it was a godsend?” I thought and said to
myself “ whoever it is what do I care?”
After a week, when returning from the office Venkatachalm
met on the way. He says he also came in the same bus from which I alighted. We were walking together. Punjabi women, jasmines,
Delhi sun, wives that have gone to their mother’s places, food, we were
discussing of many things and walking. All of a sudden Venkatachalam asked.
“Rao! There came a new person into our hotel.
Have you noticed?”
No sooner he asked I was reminded it was “Him.
The Glutton!” Describing him I asked
“ Is it him?”
“ I hate him.” I explained who are the
mother and father for that hatred.
Venkatachalam listened everything and said “You
have mistaken Rao! He is a very interesting person. He deserves your introduction.-“
I was astonished. If I did not have faith in the
judgment of Venkatachalam I would have rejected him instantaneously.
That night –
‘He’ was not to be seen at the meal
The next night I had food at a friends house and
came back. I was changing clothes after reaching the hotel. Venkatachalam was narrating about the letter he received from
his wife on the same day. Meanwhile ‘He’ came into our room.
“ Hello! Mr. Venkatachalam” he greeted.
Venkatachalam pointed at me and said “Mr.
Rao… works in a weekly magazine….”Even as being introduced
he came near with a smile. Shaking hands with me said “ My name is not BUT but it is BHAT Bhat” and laughed.
I thought he likes cheap humor. We spent an hour
talking about this and that.
Three days later as I was strolling on the terrace
after meal, Bhat came there.
After gossiping for a while he asked “ Mr.
Rao! What are the books I should read if I want to improve my English?”
I looked into his face.
“ Why do you look like that? – forget
about graduation I have not even passed matriculation. Left home and ran away to Nilgiris when in eighth class. There, worked
with the white men in their tea gardens. Ask me what work! All kinds… sweeping, arranging drinks, shoe shining, cleaning
the cars, looking after their children, I used to do all kinds of things… use to get food and clothes…. along
came my English language too…”
“ So that is the secret of his English expertise,though a little faulty!” I thought.
“ I had the expertise to tell the vintage
value of the wines… looking at the inners and thelungs and livers of those
cars and helping in dismembering and assembling them, I could understand motor mechanism thoroughly. I could remove all the
parts and make a heap and again build up a car out of them. That knowledge today is getting me a thousand rupees mensem as
a salesman of automobile spares… out of that, I send two hundred to my father. Another one hundred I deposit in the
bank in the name of my brother. There is some complication in his heart. It looks they operate on such things at Vellore.
But you need four thousands. I could collect a little over two thousands by now. After saving four thousand I should get him
operated upon. My sister is studying matriculation. She should be got married..” Bhat told many such things.
Silence for awhile… stars in the sky were
talking to each other twinkling.
I asked. “ All that is right Mr. Bhat! But,
if you could excuse me I want to ask you one thing. You eat the food at this hotel and enjoy it so much – Do you really
like it so much?”
Oh God! The burden on the heart is gone. Bhat laughed
loudly. Paused for a minute and told.
“ Mr. Rao! Liking and not liking is a matter
of choice. A luxury! and I do not have that…”
“Looks like there are unseen depths in his
personality!” I thought.
“A terrible stomach ache is troubling me for
the last seven years. The reason for that is a big ulcer… it can not be cured without surgery. It seems my heart can
not bear that kind of surgery… hence it is imperative that it will grow and grow and gobbles me up… couple of
specialists told that at best I may live for another seven, eight years… till then whichever doctor I consult will ask
me to take a few tablets. There would not be any use for them… when that stomach pain erupts my plight will be beyond
description. Unable to bear the pain I keep rolling on the floor… soon after the pain starts I take a couple of tablets
and hit the bed. Get after some twenty or thirty hours… it will be like as if I am born again. For some four weeks I
go aroundas one among the lot… thus my life became like a war. I ma thirty
two now. I can’t avoid the ordeal for another eight years. Death is inevitable… why worry about it? Why fear?
What use loosing heart?Enjoy the years that are due, get my brother operated
upon, get my sister married and pass away. Mr. Rao! Hence I enjoy everything my life including the hotel food deliberately.
In the little time left for me I do not have place for misery and not liking anything. May be my belly knows that and craves
for more food. You must have seen-I eat a lot more than all you people. What
ever I eat I enjoy it . perhaps sometime in one of my earlier janma I would have been a Bheema or a Bakasura. Isn’t
it?” Bhat laughed.
This man is capable of laughing in spite the misery
he is in.
“ Or you thought a short and lean man like
me could never have been a Bheema?” Bhat again laughed.
That night time for a long I could not sleep.
Bhat! What a wonderful man.. how true was Venkatachalam?
I hated… his courage and the personality shaped as a reaction to the circumstances…!! Ananta Bhat – his
name… his misery .. is that also ananta or unending? That stomach ache … and the awareness that he will pass away
in a few years… that childhood – the English – the hunger – the laughter – Ananta Bhat sure
is a special kind of man…
Never new when I fell asleep in the early hours,
I was not even aware of the boy who fetched my coffee. I got up at
when the coffee was cold and attracting flies. Rushed to the office.
During the next week bhat was not to be seen at
all on a particular day… around ten in the night when I was going towards the bathroom I saw him. “ not to be
seen since last night!.. did you go somewhere?” I asked.
He laughed. He appeared weak. “ Went on a
tour to the other world” he said.
My heart sank. Could not I have imagined the matter?
I thought. I also laughed sans sense and escaped from there.
Later Bhat, Venkatachalam and me together went to
a lot of English movies. I made Bhat buy some English books. Bhat would not really love painting exhibitions, but would get
into hot discussions with venkatachalam on the subject… my wife wrote that she is starting from Hyderabad.
I started looking for a house. Venkatachalam was away on some work at Madras…
One evening I reached the room.
After ten minutes Bhat came whistling away.
“Mr. Rao! I am very happy today”
“ What is the matter?”
“ I resigned to my job.” Said Bhat blissfully.
What is this? – He left a job worth a thousand
rupees per month and some extra income over it and is expressing his happiness! Is he mad or what?
I asked the same question but a little politely.
“ What is there in it? I am leaving for Calcutta
tomorrow evening. I can get some job or the other there. I can get a job worth a thousand anywhere in this country. .. It
must be the twelfth or thirteenth time my getting into such a job and leaving it. You would not believe, in Guwahati I bought
two cars and ran them as taxis. For two years. One fine morning all of a sudden left everything and came to Delhi
with only the clothes on me – you know?”
“My God! What a man is he?”
From ten O’clock the night till four in the
next morning – sitting under the unending sky I listened to Bhat narrating about the life at Guwahati. That was memorable
experience, and Bhat was a memorable person.
Next morning at when I was leaving for the office Bhat came to bid farewell. He gave mea Alfred Hitchcock collection and asked for a Maugham and took it from me. He noted my office address .
After a couple of weeks I procured a house. I went
to Hyderabad and brought my wife and children.
I fell in my life’s routine.
Venkatachalam also fixed a house and brought the
After three months there was a letter from Bhat.
He wrote it from Mangalore. At Calcutta
he joined a printing spares company and is going round the country… during the traveling since he also went to the south,
he went to Mangalore to visit the parents.
-“ On the way in Mysore
I got married. Rao Sahib, Girl is no doubt beautiful. But the marriage is not permanent… it could not last for more
than one night…” Oh! Mr. Bhat..!!
“Will soon visit Delhi”
But he never came. Two or three letters came –
one from Jayapur. Another from Ranchi – I replied to his Calcutta
address. Gradually the flow dried up. Four years passed.
We put our elder boy in the school. The younger
one the daughter is also grown to say she would follow suit. Venkatachalam arranged a solo show of his works.
Like a Vaishnavite with his holy Charka marks –
A letter reached me with a lot of postal marks.
In the address on the letter water fell on the letter New Delhi and wiped them
off… the last letter I was only visible. Hence the letter went to all the places that endwith an I like Ranchi, Varanasi,
Jalpaiguri, grew fatter with the cancellations and somehow came to Delhi and reached
Mr Rao! It is a long time I wrote to you…
I lost the diary with your address somewhere… during my recent visit to Mangalore I found it. So this letter. I hope
the address is not changed.
Is your daughter well?
My father and mother are keeping well. My brother’s
surgery is over at Vellore. No worry about him now. He joined a job at Alwaye.
My sisters alliance is fixed. Groom isa medical representative. The marriage
day is yet to be fixed.
The best wonder is that – I was in Bombay
on a tour last year. I had to stay there for a month. One day the stomach ache started. They put me in a hospital. A visiting
foreign surgeon operated upon me. I was in bed for four weeks.
My very dear stomach ache has gone away permanently
from me. It never visited me even once during the last one year. What a disobedience isn’t it?
The stomach ache is after all gone. But Mr. Rao!
The hunger of those days is also gone… I am unable to eat at least four full morsels…” he wrote a few more
And there were his signature down below.
Vakati is a versatile writer and an extraordinary story writer