Amara heard Basavanna’s vacana for the very first time on the day he set out to kill the professor.
That was a Monday. The skies were overcast. Dawn stood weeping, drenched in tar. “The Divine Milkman, Krishna who milked the Upanishads with the young calf, Arjuna to draw out the Nectar of Immortality, the Gita ... Insulting it? Finish the old bugger who insulted the Gita, and in Bhagawan’s name, I’ll get you married,” Mallappa had sworn on Bhagawan—on God. Amara had set out on the strength of that oath. The plan was that it would all be over before daybreak. But the bike broke down at Melebennur. Let’s do it another day, Sivanna had pleaded. Mallappa wouldn’t budge. Arya had located the professor’s house well in advance, but they still lost their way. The twit admitted his mistake only after they had ridden ten whole kilometres after the right turn from the foot of the banyan-tree-seat. They went back and turned left. The rain now fell hard. Amara was soaked. It made him remember Kaveri. Arya lost his way again. Sivappa rained the foulest curses on his ancestors of seven generations past, his voice low, rasping, furious. In the end when they were returning they saw light in a home that stood opposite a large and tranquil pond, behind a large tangle of jasmine vines that rained flowers down on the path ahead. A plaque with a name hung on the pillar by the wall. It was half- past- five. The professor sat in the reclining chair on the veranda surrounded by a grille. He was reading. He got up and opened the door, saying, “Ah Sundaranna, you of course don’t sleep—why not spare those innocent Go-matas?” Amara had a good look at him only then. His red-bordered dhoti and vest of hand-spun cloth; the small locket of slate, the ishtalinga of the Lingayat, on his neck. Grey hair that overran his head and beard revealed more than ighty years of existence. The upright posture, but, admitted only thirty. A bushy grey moustache and thick glasses sat on his face. His brow creased seeing Amara, but the professor straightened his glasses and welcomed him in fondly. Amara didn’t ask, but the professor let him know—the milkman and newspaper boy are going to be here soon; it’s almost time the doctor on his morning walk appeared on the road. The old fucker’s bumbling, thought Amara. But it was the opposite. The professor stepped into the room in which the book shelves by the walls reached the ceiling. He now faced Amara squarely, holding on to the three-legged book-shelf ladder, chest open, eyeing him with a playful smile: Will the elephant fear the staff, Sir/ Unadorned with the lion’s claw? /Will I fear this Bijjala,/Or one other than you,/ O Ocean of Mercy, O Lord of the Meeting Rivers?
Amara’s body tingled even now when he remembered that moment. The old bugger’s cheek! Pulling himself together, Amara pressed the mouth of the pistol between the professor’s milky-white brows. His fingers gripped the trigger. But it was as though the professor hadn’t even seen the gun. Son, all religions are cows that drink nothing but blood—he said. They drink only the blood of lower caste people, the poor, the powerless. Marry a Dalit, and it will drink her blood. Marry a Brahmin, and it will drink your blood. Yesterday Basavanna, today, me. Today me, tomorrow you, O Lord of the Meeting Rivers! Amara staggered, almost feeling a kick on his face. Did the old man know, he now worried. Worry swelled into a fury. “When you take aim, be like Arjuna at Draupadi’s swayamvara, who saw nothing but the pupil of the bird in the cage set in the middle of the turning wheel,” Mallappa’s words—but they slipped his mind. Not easing his grip on the gun, Amara lunged at the professor’s throat with his left hand. The professor’s frail body shook and fell on the ladder, which then toppled over and hit one of the book shelves behind heavily. Books rained down like arrows from the old and burdened shelf. Amara opened his eyes in a government clinic with a broken right leg and arm, and a swelling above his left eyebrow. He saw an old man in a long shirt beside his bed reading a book. Fear gripped Amara; he tried to struggle on to his feet. Don’t move—ordered the professor, aiming the book at him. I should give you one with this! There is no weapon as deadly as the book.
The memory of that threat made Amara smile now. The professor had aimed the book at a man who had brandished a gun at him! But at that time, lying on that rusty cot, he had thrashed about like a bull that had lost its tail. That was to be the decisive day in his first and only love affair. He was to reach the Davangere railway station at three sharp. Kaveri was to get on the Trichy Express with him. There was a house ready for them at Madurai, and they were to be married there. Three months of hard work, thin air now. The professor would have called the police, he hoped. Mallappa could get him out again in a jiffy. But even then, getting to the station at three was impossible! The very thought frenzied him. In the meanwhile, the elderly doctor who lived in the room behind the clinic arrived. He closed his eyes and let his fingers feel the spot where Amara’s leg had broken. Soon Amara’s leg was in a plaster cast. He was advised six weeks’ rest. The doctor asked—so, you are the professor’s new student? I am going to be his student, said the professor. Sir, and when you were bereft of form/ See, I was the vehicle of wisdom/ O Lord of the Meeting Rivers!
Amara smiled again at the memory of the moment in which he’d espied that the ego dissipates when the body lies limp and powerless, like tattered garments. But back then, his hands had itched to strangle the old duffer. Soon, he was carried into an old van by some villagers. They went back to the professor’s house. Two policemen stood on guard at the door. The professor joked and chatted with them as he brought out an old wheel chair. Useful now for the first time after Ambika’s passing—he mused to himself. They carried Amara past the huge pile of books on the floor into what looked like the professor’s room and installed him on an adjustable cot. Amara flayed and twisted like a fighting bull straining at its bridle. That was a small white-washed room. There was door in front of the cot and windows on the sides. Close to the window on the right, there was a small narrow wooden cot. From where he lay, Amara could see the kitchen-door beyond the heap of books and a black-and-white photograph on the wall beside it. The professor came into the room freshly bathed and changed, his abundant white hair neatly combed. Amara noticed the small image of Basavanna hung on a small stand between the door and the smaller book-shelf. The professor lit a small lamp, meditated for a while, and then turned to Amara. Do you know who this is, he asked. Who doesn’t’? Amara was irritated. Great, said the professor, now recite a vacana? Amara’s tongue receded. This is your problem—the professor chuckled—you know Basavanna, but not a vacana. You don’t regret ignorance; neither do you respect those who know. Amara was already going mad. Stop the bloody show, I have to go—he tried to leap up to his feet. The professor laughed—didn’t you see, there are policemen outside? They’d offered protection early. Why do you think I got them to come now? Not a single creature will know that you are here! Kannama—the professor called. A young woman of about thirty in a sari and flowers in her hair came out of the kitchen briskly, carrying a plate with hot Neer Dosais and white chutney. The professor took it from her, seated himself beside Amara, and held out a piece to him. Amara froze. Something began to squirm within; it choked him. Finally, with the fallen pride of the surrendered warrior, he opened his mouth. That food was very tasty. Amara noticed the round mark that had the gun’s muzzle had pressed into the professor’s wrinkled forehead. His ego melted as he accepted his prey’s alms. His eyes reddened and grew wet. The professor smiled. He recited fondly: Will the elephant fear the staff, Sir/ Unadorned with the lion’s claw? /Will I fear this Bijjala/ Or one other than you, O Ocean of Mercy/ O Lord of the Meeting Rivers? Any idea who Bijjala was? He asked. Amara did not know. Bijjala was the king, and Basavanna was just a minister, said the professor. Still Basvanna said, “Will I fear this Bijjala?“ The professor helped him wash his mouth. He wiped his face, smoothed back his hair like a mother from a past birth. Looking deep into his agitated eyes, he said—Son, compassion is more powerful than fear. That’s what all religions forget. When you return, you must teach this to those who sent you here.