[This short story is the translated English version of ’Thotadavanu’, taken from ‘When Stone Melts and Other Stories’, a collection of short stories published by Sahitya Academi. It is translated into English by H.S. Raghavendra Rao.]
It is said that in these short stories Lankesh shows his preoccupation with human meanness and attempts to explore the evolution of a post-Emergency political and cultural scenario. The title ‘When Stone Melts’ refers to the mystery at the heart of every transformation, the invisible and inescapable play of history and location that engender the process of change.
The narrator addresses the reader directly in the first person asking for an apology for being brief. He says that the story was conceived in a flash and hence if he elaborates it, the story will lose its vitality. There are only four characters, besides the narrator: Tammanna, Basavaiah or Sangoji, and the owner of the coconut grove and his wife.
There are two stories in this story. The first story is narrated by the author in the first person and the second story is narrated by Tammanna who is also the protagonist in the first story. In the second story, the narrator/protagonist tells his own story to the lady distancing himself from the main story.
The narrator says that this story originated in his chance encounter with an old man who was standing in a coconut grove near Chennarayapatna. The old man (who had been employed in the coconut grove), was a labourer, overseer and philosopher, all rolled into one.
One day the old man came to the coconut garden after walking hundreds of miles. Since the owner of that plantation needed a person of his qualifications, he hired him immediately after talking to him for a few minutes. Thus the old man became an employee in the coconut grove and stayed on. The old man did useful work. He was so well-versed in agriculture that he easily understood the problems of workers. The petty thefts in the garden came to an end, and naturally, the income from the garden improved dramatically. Consequently, the increase in income brought a perceptible change in the lifestyle of the owner. The plantation expanded, but the owner became lazy and shied away from hard work.
The owner’s wife found the owner’s behaviour strange and puzzling. She found it hard to decide whether the old man’s arrival was for the better or for the worse. Her husband’s wealth and social prestige had risen higher, and he had acquired a great number of friends in his own village and in the next town as well. Even though he did not do any useful work, his life became crowded with colourful events. On account of his newly acquired clout, he cultivated umpteen other vices including adultery. Though their farm was initially merely ten acres, it had grown beyond their imagination.
Therefore, the owner’s wife realized that financially they had been doing well but her only source of worry was that along with financial improvement, their life was also gradually getting out of hand. Thus, one day when she was in a fix like this, the old man met her. He smiled at her, brought down an offering offender coconuts from a nearby tree, and sat on the embankment of the well. She had no alternative and so she sat next to him. The old man now begins his narrative and takes the action or plot to its climax.
The old man says that, in a far off place, once there lived a man called Tammanna. He had everything: ten acres of land, a comfortable house, and people too ready to carry out his orders or instructions. Besides these possessions, he also had a rival and his name was Sangoji. However, soon after uttering the name Sangoji, the old man started fumbling for words as if he had committed a mistake. The coconut grove owner’s wife, who was listening, felt that it was none of her concern and felt like going away immediately. But, not wishing to hurt the old man, she continued to sit there quietly.
The old man continued his story. He corrected himself once, saying his name was not Sangoji but Basavaiah. [At this moment in the story, the narrator gives a hint to the reader that the old man is telling a true account of his own experience disguising it in the form of a story].
Both Tammanna and Basavaiah were rivals. If Tammanna bought four more acres adjacent to his land, Basavaiah would also do the same. If one of them had ten friends, the other would acquire ‘ fifteen admirers. Though initially, all this looked like healthy competition, it took a nasty turn later.
Their rivalry rose to such a pitch that there was no land left in the village for them to buy. All land belonged to either Tammanna or Basavaiah. Tammanna had one thousand acres and Basavaiah eight hundred. Basavaiah could not tolerate this. His men asked Tammanna to sell two hundred acres but Tammanna refused to do so. On the other hand, Tammanna offered to buy all the land that belonged to Basavaiah. Basavaiah became furious. He went along with his people and acquired two hundred acres of Tammanna’s land forcibly, and got it fenced up all around. Tammanna could not put up with this invasion.
Tammanna’s advisers told him that there were three ways by which Tammanna could get back his land. He could go to the court of law or he could also take recourse to the police. If he did not like to do, either way, he could also use muscle power to get his land back. There was any number of persons ready to attack Basavaiah and wrest his land from him. But Tammanna was in search of a method that could destroy Basavaiah completely. Tammanna got all his experiences composed in the form of ballads and sang them in public. Their rivalry moved away from the visible to the invisible.
Basavaiah could not do the same way. He tried to show his rivalry in doing agricultural tasks more diligently, but that was also in vain. Meanwhile, Tammanna’s reputation started spreading all around. His songs started making mention of Basavaiah’s cruelty and his meanness. Scholars and critics went after his songs and earned their share of fame. Basavaiah became desperate and angry and retaliated by encroaching on more and more of Tammanna’s land. But Tammanna was ignorant of all this and blissfully enjoyed his singing. Art had become the raison d’etre of his life. He was even felicitated as the best poet of his times.
Basavaiah felt humiliated, which he tried to hide by acquiring all kinds of luxuries. He got a palatial mansion built for himself; appointed a number of people to praise him and bedecked himself with gold, diamonds, and other precious stones. But his house looked dull and empty because Tammanna’s books were not there. He attempted to fill the lacuna by inviting scholars, poets, and musicians to his place. This way, he tried to invest his home with meaning.
One day, Basavaiah came to know that Tammanna was ill. The news made him happy. At that point, Basavaiah found the means of surpassing Tammanna. Health is wealth. Tammanna’s disease was Basavaiah’s health. But Tammanna thought differently. He had thought of yet another method of punishing Basavaiah. Tammanna contemplated ‘death’. As long as he continued his rivalry at the level of the body, Basavaiah would go on offering stiff competition. But, if he died, Basavaiah could do nothing to defeat him. The old man ends his storytelling the coconut garden owner’s wife that wishing to destroy Basavaiah completely, Tammanna gave up everything and ran off from his village.
As long as Tammanna was there, Basavaiah had a reason to be alive, but once Tammanna left the place Basavaiah passed away. The old man tells the lady that Basavaiah died because he had no reason to live. Then he confesses to her that he is Tammanna himself. After Basavaiah’s death, Tammanna tells the lady that he forgot all his songs and ballads, lost his fame, and became a non-entity. He concludes telling her that, that way he avenged himself.
Tammanna tells the woman that the experiences of his life had made him realize that human nature is very strange. He sums up his experiences in one sentence. He tells her that though man works to fulfill his many needs like wealth, education, art, and many more things, yet those things do not give him the right, compelling reasons to live. All through his life man lives for some kind of unbearable vengefulness. It is in this vengefulness that he finds a reason for his existence.
Finally, using his autobiographical account as an example, the old man. tries to covertly give her a message. He tells her that her husband was flourishing as a rich man and was not amenable to any advice. Man is so complicated that till the day of his death, he goes on living for some revenge or the other, confronting one challenge or the other. He wants her to understand that she had better try to understand why her husband is living like that.
Finally, he asks her to take the whole story as a dream and hot to take his words seriously. We can infer here that he is saddened by the coconut grove owner’s lifestyle and wants to put an end to it by cautioning the lady about her husband and do something to find out why her husband was doing so. As soon as the old man finishes his story, the first narrator reappears and tells the reader that he had seen all this in a dream and hence he is unable to elaborate.