Shubhankar Kulkarni, Ph.D. is an independent researcher in the fields of biology and medicine. Academic writing occupies a significant part of his day-to-day job, and alongside this, he writes short stories in Marathi. His experience in the life sciences helps him combine his two interests by writing science fiction. His fiction-writing journey started with this story, for which he won a prize. In total, he has won four prizes, including one award for his stories.
Shubhankar Kulkarni’s short story “Ageratina Indica” is translated by Keerti Ramchandra for this issue.
Ageratina Indica … It is poisonous they say. It is extinct, they believe.
I was all of five when I saw it for the first time. With beautiful, pure white flowers, it could easily pass off as an ornamental plant. But just a couple of drops of its sap were enough to take a life. Instantaneously. Actually, it belonged to the same species of plant found in South America. A great deal of research has been done on the properties of the South American plant but the one in India—very few people know about it.
My father was one of them. Yes, he was. He was killed.
At the end of the untarred road stood my grandfather’s solid stone house. Surrounding it was a beautiful garden nurtured by my grandmother. The odd thing about this house was that it had no compound wall, nor a gate although it was at the edge of the territory occupied by the Naxalites, the radical insurgents who had taken over the forested area around here. They were greatly feared and hated by the local people. When anyone asked Abba about the compound wall, he replied, ‘ If a hundred naxals decided to break it down, you think they couldn’t?’
‘Saheb, we have arrived,’ the driver alerted me.
I love visiting my Abba and Aji. I love these surroundings with the tall, naturally growing trees. Sure, there are advantages to living in a city, but the charm of this place is something else.
I got out of the car. Abba was waiting for me. I glanced around. Everything was exactly as I remembered. Stone walls, wooden windows. Covered by a creeper, the wall looked ancient, intimidating … just like Abba, my grandfather. The outer door was of metal mesh, the inner one made of wood. On either side of the entrance stood pots of flowering plants. Embedded in the wall beside the door was a marble slab with Abba’s name etched on it.
Abba came forward and hugged me. For an eighty-year old, his embrace was pretty strong. Freeing myself from his grip, I turned to Aji who had just emerged and held her close.
Lunch was a long, drawn out affair, as we caught up with the intervening years and exchanged news. After that, I took a stroll around the house. Everything was just as it always was … the curtains, the curios and artefacts, the books in the book case …
I went upstairs to my father’s room. It exuded a fragrance that was typically his. At least it seemed like that to me. I picked up a photograph of Baba’s from the table and sat on the bed. My fingers gently ran over his face. I missed him greatly.
‘Come down, re, tea is ready.’
Downstairs, Abba had put on a tape of his favourite songs and was sitting there sipping his tea.
‘You ass,’ he said fondly, ‘you’re coming here after three years!’
‘There’s lots of work, Abba,’ I replied, smiling.
‘You should come more often.’
I merely nodded.
Nights in the village are very quiet. Even the trees fall silent. The sound of a car shattered the silence and the headlights flashed on the ceiling of my room. I went to the window and peered out. It was a jeep. Two men got out and started walking towards the house. I rushed downstairs to see who they were. Both men were wearing khaki-green army fatigues. Abba was talking to them in a low voice. He then handed over a fat envelop to one of the men. It must have contained lots of cash. When I went forward one of the men threw a contemptuous look at me. Abba turned around and motioned me to go inside. The men started walking away. I didn’t move. I was furious. Abba …. They killed …. Your son …. I blurted out. The men swivelled around and glared at me. Abba quickly shut the door and tried to hush me.
‘What’s this Abba? You gave them m…money?’
‘Wait. I’ll explain,’ Abba said, putting his hand on my shoulder.
I shrugged it off.
‘If we don’t give them money they won’t let us live here,’ Aji said from behind me.
I couldn’t say anything to that. I was not so much surprised as angered by what I had seen. I strode off to my room and lay on the bed. But sleep wouldn’t come. I must have visited this place a thousand times, but I didn’t remember seeing these men at Abba’s door before. I was puzzled. When had this begun? My father had died a long time ago. Was it after that? Or more recently?
I understood what Aji meant. If Abba didn’t give them money, they would carry out the same atrocities here that they did elsewhere. How could one blame Abba? He had no choice. When I realised that, my anger transferred from Abba to them. I had heard lots of stories about the naxals from my childhood and they had never come across as good men. Raiding villages and hamlets, vandalising government offices, kidnapping people, creating obstacles and disrupting the work of the government – that’s all they did. No less than terrorists they were and no one could do anything about it. For decades, people have been trying to stop it. In vain.
That night I had a strong urge to take them on. My mind started working out strategies to fight them. I had to have the power to deal with them. That little bush with the pure white flowers. I needed to find it. I would finish them all in one go. Once and for all.
I don’t know when I fell asleep. The next morning when I went downstairs, Abba and Aji were sitting in the garden having tea. I poured myself a cup and sat down. Abba put his hand on mine and smiled wanly. He looked tired. He probably hadn’t slept very well last night. I felt I ought to apologise to him. Instead, I gave him a sheepish look.
‘They come here once a month and collect a fixed sum from me. After that they leave us, and the village, alone.’
‘Why don’t you give up all this work and this place and come and live with my mother and me?’
‘I’ve thought about it many times. But to go away and leave this house that I built will not be easy. Besides, the villagers have come to depend on me for their safety. They don’t have that much money. Unless I pay the naxals, their lives and ours will be in danger.’
I could see Abba’s point of view. Maybe he had no option, but these men had killed my father. It had scarred me badly. So the fact that he was giving them money just didn’t go down well with me. This path he had taken was not going to solve anything for anyone.
I spent the rest of the day going through my father’s things. On the topmost shelf I found some of his diaries. They were covered in dust and the pages had turned yellow. Some pages were missing. I tried to make sense of what I could read.
This plant, ageratina indica used to grow in this village and some neighbouring areas. Baba’s journal mentioned that the adivasis, the local tribals, dipped their arrowheads in its juice to kill wild animals. One report stated that the smell of the flowers was heady. It gave a kick like that of a cigarette. The tribals often used it as an intoxicant. After Independence, when Naxalism, the insurgency movement, made its appearance , the plant was used against them. And then the misuse began. It kept getting worse. And rampant. The naxals wanted information about the plant from the adivasis. But despite threats, the tribals refused to divulge the secret properties of the plant. Enraged by this, the naxalites burned down the entire forested region where they believed the plant grew. The adivasis were smart. They carried away a few saplings and secretly planted them in our neighbourhood. They took care of them, protected them. Baba’s diaries were full of such fascinating stories.
He had also referred to some preliminary research he had carried out to discover the plant’s potential strength and properties. From what I could make out, he had not been able to do much. My exploration of the material was interrupted by Aji’s presence. When she saw what I was reading, she laughed. ‘So you haven’t given up on it yet?’
‘After what happened last night, I can’t take my mind off Baba, the naxalites and that shrub.’
‘Do you think they killed him because he refused to reveal anything about the plant, Aji?’ I asked.
She sat down beside me and said, ‘No one really knows what happened that day. I still remember it as if it was yesterday. As usual, your Baba set off for the forest in the night. They always went out after dark to prevent people from seeing them. He had one of his regular workers with him for company. When we—Abba, your mother, you, and I— woke up the next morning, we saw him lying in the garden, dead.’ Aji dabbed her eyes with her sari. I put my arm around her.
‘And soon after your Aie decided to take you to the city, far away from all this.’
‘One small plant and what havoc it can create …’
‘But your Baba didn’t think so,’ she said wiping her face again.
‘What do you mean?’
‘He was sure that the plant was useful. That it had certain properties that could be used in making medicines. He would often tell Abba stories he’d heard from the adivasis to convince him. He would quote instances of people being cured of chronic ailments with this plant. But your Abba is stubborn. His views are rigid, his beliefs unchangeable. None of what your father told him could persuade him to change his mind.’
‘Did Baba ever try to verify these stories?’
‘No. He made enquiries in the surrounding areas and asked a few people but no one seemed to know anything about it. Anyway, come, forget it. It’s all over now. The plant and your Baba …’
One had to accept that.
‘So we have agreed that it’s over, then? Now you also end your disagreements with Abba. He loves you more than anything in the world. You know that, don’t you?’
‘I do, Aji, but somehow I just cannot accept that he maintains contact with the naxals.’
‘A forest officer’s work isn’t easy, child! Your Abba used to engage with them. To find solutions for their problems. It would solve our problems too. Abba learned quite a few things about them through his interactions. “They are also human beings like us,” he would say. “Only their objectives are different from ours.” To tell you the truth, your Abba had a love-hate relationship with them. For him his work was above everything. More important than me or your father. Even today he thinks his responsibility of protecting the villagers is far greater than any other.’
‘Yes, my Aie also says the same thing. “He is highly principled but very stubborn. His priorities are very clear. That he can help even those who attacked his family, therefore, is not surprising, given his temperament,” she says.’
Aji nodded. ‘And that’s why I say you must make every effort to not disagree with him or argue with him.’
Aji was right. I had to try and understand him better. But to get to that stage I needed a little more time.
I went up to my room after dinner and lay down. The stillness was eerie. Even more so than the previous night. I tried to sleep when suddenly I heard the door open. It was Abba.
‘Change your clothes and come downstairs. Quietly.’
I quickly got dressed and tiptoed down the stairs.
Abba was waiting by the door. Instead of his usual white kurta-pyjama he was wearing a checkered shirt and a black pant. And he was carrying a rifle. Like the one the naxalites had with them the previous night. I was surprised. I had never seen him carry one. He opened the door and asked me to follow him. We went into the forest behind the house.
‘What’s all this about Abba?’
“You know about the white poison don’t you?”
‘Yes, I remember it.’
‘We have to find it.’
I was shocked. So the plant was not extinct? And Abba knew it? My mind was in a turmoil.
‘What’s the rifle for?’
‘Protection. Don’t worry. And don’t say a word to your Aji about this.’
All this was too much to digest. I just couldn’t understand what had come over Abba. But I kept silent and just did as I was told. We must have walked for about half an hour when we came to a clearing in the forest. It was bright from the moonlight. Knee high grass grew all around. In the middle of the clearing was a big tree. Probably a mango tree. Abba stopped. From his bag he took out a sheet of paper. I peeped at it. It was a map. It had my Baba’s name on it. Pointing to the left, Abba said, ‘We must go that way.’
After almost an hour and a half we reached a rather littered space. Abba stopped. ‘It was somewhere here that we first saw it … the ageratina indica,’ he whispered.
Then he looked at the map again and started moving very slowly and carefully in another direction. I too began to look. But the foliage was dense and there was very little light so it was difficult to see anything.
I saw Abba squatting on his haunches, a short distance away. I crept up to him and looked down. We had found it! A small rabbit-sized bush with exquisite white flowers. I couldn’t believe my eyes. So it still lives, the white poison!
I was about to touch it when ‘Wait!’ Abba said and grabbed my hand. ‘It will give you a skin rash.’
He threw his bag at me and said, ‘Take the gloves from it.’
I pulled the gloves on and delicately touched the plant. My heart skipped a beat.
‘It’s old name is dhavalapushpi,’ Abba told me. The white flower.
‘Does no one know anything about this plant?’ I wanted to make sure.
So it was my father’s legacy. All his life he had been obsessed with it.
‘Why don’t we put it out into the world?’
‘This is an ancient forest science. The plant can be destructive. We cannot let it fall into the wrong hands. Just one drop of its sap can send at least a dozen men to the god of death’s door.’
His reply did not satisfy me.
‘Abba, the world has changed so much! There are plenty of good people who will make the right use of it.’
‘I don’t think so. Once we tell them about its properties, we will have no control over the consequences.’
‘Then why did you show it to me?’
‘Because I’m feeling guilty about yesterday. That exchange shouldn’t have taken place in your presence. Besides, I trust you. This is our family secret. You may tell your children, but no outsider should get a whiff of it. It must stay within the family.’
I stood up. Abba also got up. I took off the gloves carefully and we started on our way back.
A whole lot of childhood memories crowded my mind. I saw Baba. I saw his delighted face when he first showed me the plant. He wanted to tell me all about it. ‘Grow up quickly,’ he often said. ‘I have so much to tell you.’
He would study the plant for hours on end. And then the arguments with Abba began. At first it was conversation, then discussion and finally argument. I did not know what it was all about. The argments kept repeating. Again. And again. Loudly. Violently. Till the day Baba died. I sank deeper and deeper into the past. I tried to join all the dots in my head. Were Abba’s and Baba’s quarrels because of this? I remembered Baba being swept away by the plant. Just as I was. Was he also determined to share this knowledge with the world like I was? Had Abba objected to it then as he had done just now? Probably. Suddenly, I felt a great onus was on me. I had to tell the world about the existence of this plant and my Baba’s research on it. I owed it to him.
I started trying to persuade Abba to my way of thinking. I grew emotional and said, ‘Abba, I know that you have become extremely cautious about these matters because of some bad experiences you have had. But try to think of the other side, too. This poisonous plant may have some chemical properties that could be greatly beneficial … as a disinfectant, a pesticide, an anti-cancer drug …’
Abba kept walking in silence.
‘Don’t you feel Baba’s work should get the attention, the recognition it deserves? After all, he gave his whole life to this study. I am sure he too would want it that way,’ I said to Abba, rather sharply.
‘Enough. That is enough. No one will hear about this plant. We will not speak about it again,’ he growled.
For a while I held back. He was clearly not in the frame of mind to listen to anything. I remember my mother saying that to him his principles were sacrosanct. I was experiencing the truth of that. For a moment I felt that this discussion should be continued the next day. But then Aji would find out. Besides, without the map, I would never be able to find the spot again. I needed the map and a sample of the plant. If I didn’t get it now, I would never be able to lay my hands on it.
That’s why I said firmly, ‘This knowledge is not exclusively ours, Abba. It does not belong to us, we have not created it …’
‘But we found it and we must protect it.’ His voice rose.
‘I am going to take all Baba’s diaries and logbooks with me when I go back,’ I declared. Without waiting for his response I marched ahead.
‘You’ve seen the plant now. What do you want the diaries for?’
He was truly riled. I had never seen him so incensed.
‘I do not believe, like you, that it will be misused. There are laws now to ensure that. I am going to present it to the world,’ I asserted, ignoring Abba completely.
‘Don’t make me regret showing you the plant. Your Baba made the same mistake and paid the price.’
I turned around and got the shock of my life. Abba had his rifle trained on me!
‘To preserve the secret I sacrificed my son. I can sacrifice my grandson too for the same reason.’ His face was smouldering.
I was momentarily frozen. After a while the words somehow escaped my lips. ‘You…. killed … my…. B… Baba?’
He did not reply but from his expression I could tell what his answer was.
Just then, there was some rustling nearby. Abba turned his rifle in that direction and pulled the trigger. He waited for a few minutes to see if there was any movement from the prey. In a flash of light, another shot rang out. Abba crashed to the ground.
It was not an animal that he had shot at.
‘Abba!’ I screamed and ran to him. Just then a man in military khakis emerged from the bushes, his rifle pointing at me. Within seconds I was surrounded by rifles. I saw two men walking towards me. I recognised one of them. He had come to see Abba the previous night. He stood looking down at Abba for a while, then turned and smashed his fist into the face of the man who had shot Abba. It was clearly a mistake. He had not intended to kill Abba. Then the leader came and stood in front of me. I could say nothing. Before I knew what was happening, I felt a blow on the back of my head. And everything turned dark.
When I regained consciousness I found myself in Aji’s garden. It was almost daybreak. Abba was lying next to me, his shirt splattered with blood. My head was throbbing unbearably.
The events of the night played out before my eyes. Abba had shot my father. His own son. Why? To preserve the secret of the little bush. He was prepared to kill me as well, for the same reason. I shut my eyes tight and tried to block it all out. Soon loud voices broke the silence.
A few days later, it was time to leave. I stood beside the car. The entire village had gathered at the house. Aji took her leave of each of them. Her eyes kept welling up every now and then.
‘Come, Aji, let’s go!’
She walked up to wall and patted it gently, as if it was Abba’s back. She ran her hand lovingly over the marble slab bearing his name. I could sense her feelings. She must have felt great compassion for this man. Abba … who had lost his son and his own life because of these bad people.
I was not going to change her belief.
I picked up my bag with one hand and with the other, I took Aji’s hand in my own.
I was taking two secrets back with me. To hoard in my belly forever.
We never went back to Abba’s house again.
Interview with translator Keerti Ramchandra
Shuddhashar: When did you know you wanted to be a writer/translator? How did you come to this realization?
Keerti Ramchandra: I had never seriously thought of being a translator as my first love was teaching. But I come from a multilingual family and city, so I was translating all the time, since everything had to be narrated in three languages. I only started doing it seriously in 1994 when Geeta Dharmarajan of Katha Books asked me to try my hand at translating a Kannada story (Amritaballi Kashaya by Jayant Kaikini) and a Hindi one (To Make Amends by Dr Shirish Dhoble) for Katha Prize Stories 5. After that, I worked on several Marathi stories and a Sahitya Akademi awarded novel, A Dirge for the Damned by Vishwas Patil. There has been no looking back since!
Shuddhashar: What impact do you think contemporary political reality has or should have on short fiction?
Keerti Ramchandra: I believe some writers have become more cautious or are clothing their political views in very nondescript garments so as not to attract undue attention. The consequences for the more outspoken ones have proved to be dire, so one can’t blame them! Fortunately, grasping subtlety is not the strong point of most ‘objectors’. Those who dare express themselves are read, admired, and appreciated by a minority, but then that is like preaching to the converted. How much influence subversive writing actually has, is difficult to say. But their voices need to be heard and heeded.
Shuddhashar: If you were to recommend one writer or collection of short stories to a reader, who/which one would it be? Why? OR Tell us about a single short story that moved you to tears!
Keerti Ramchandra: I am a translator from the heart. I get totally involved in the story and am moved or exasperated by the characters, usually, very often! Some stories remain in the mind, sometimes just a sentence. Joginder Paul, whose stories I have translated from Urdu / Hindi (The Dying Sun and other Stories, Land Lust, A Writerly Writer) is a very difficult author to negotiate. His stories left me gasping, so I needed to sit on them before I began to translate. On the other hand, Bolwar Muhammad Kunhi’s Kannada stories have no major conflict, the characters are simple village folk who lead their routine lives and are rattled when there is any kind of disruption. His stories are marked by a gentle, humane, compassionate approach and highlight the syncretic culture of the South Kanara district he comes from.
But most of my translations are from Marathi. The sheer variety and range of short fiction that I have come across makes it difficult to mention any one writer or story.
I believe an anthology is like the curate’s egg, good in parts… But Tell Me a Long, Long Story edited by Mini Krishnan (Aleph Books), is one I would recommend for its variety and uniformly good quality of translation. The story Iddath by Bolwar Muhammad Kunhi (which I have translated from Kannada) included in it is extremely moving.
Shuddhashar: What, to you, are the key elements of a great short story?
Keerti Ramchandra: The plot for sure. If an incident can be converted into a gripping, ‘and then?’ kind of narrative, the short story works for most people. We listen to a story, we are in it for the moment. And when it ends we are left either satisfied, or uneasy. Open ended stories are a challenge. They leave the reader working things out and while some enjoy the exercise, some prefer neat endings, even though life is not!
Character based stories are delightful when the character is a flesh and blood being … human or beast … blandly good or deliciously evil. I remember the characters in a story and not in isolation, because what makes them memorable is the way they respond to the situation they find themselves in. I believe my views are very old fashioned.
Shuddhashar: What is one thing that the art and practice of writing/translation has taught you?
Keerti Ramchandra: Undoubtedly, respect for language and language use! No matter which language it is. Every individual uses language in a unique way. It reveals much more than a detailed physical description does. As a translator it is extremely challenging not to impose one’s linguistic preferences, biases, or even voice on that of the author and more importantly the character.
Shuddhashar: What are you working on right now? Tell us a little bit about your current project!
Keerti Ramchandra: I have a couple of projects on hand. An autobiography of an eminent socialist leader (no longer alive) has been in the making for several years, but is now in its final stages.) I am really waiting for that one outstanding full size book, fiction or nonfiction, to translate, rather than more collections of short stories. Although it seems I have been type cast as a translator of short fiction!