What’s Your Name?
Telugu Original : Gurajada Appa Rao
English Translation: Naudury Murthy
“Raminaidu walked up to Manavallayya. Holding his hand and pressing it as a gesture of immediacy, said, ‘Listen, you Vaishnavite! If Sarathi Naidu converts to Saivism, all of us will miss his special oblations Pulihora and Chakkera Pongali offered every Dwadasi day to Lord Rama. That is clear to you and to me. Instead of walking over fire, if you want to jump into Sitammakundam and float like a dry bottle gourd, do you think Sarathi Naidu will accept your power? Stop this nonsense and walk over the fire under his watchful eyes reciting whatever slokas you recite every morning when you knock at our doors.’
“‘So be it if that is your instruction. To prove Lord Vishnu’s power, as a faithful Vaishnavite I will walk over the fire. But, it is already late in the night. Let us sleep for this night. At this very place tomorrow, I shall arrange a fiery bed of coals and walk over it to uphold the power of Vaishnavism. Lord Garuda will definitely possess me, and see me across.’ Manavallayya tried to bide his time.
“‘No. I don’t yield to your tricks. If Sarathi Naidu converts to Saivism tonight, of what consequence is your walking over coals tomorrow? If you agree to walk over the bed of coals, you should do it on the same fire-bed the Saivites prepare tonight,’ insisted Raminaidu. And looking towards people present there, he said, ‘Come on, carry this Vaishnavite and see he walks over the fire-pit.’ Four or five people came forward, lifted him by his arms and pulled him down the stone bench. Having realized the impending danger, Manavallayya played his last trick under his sleeve.
“‘Wait! Wait!! Wait!!! If I am to walk over the fire, I should have proper paraphernalia to do that. You just can’t toss me over into the fire and burn my skin. Even that Saiva Acharya will walk over the fire in a frenzy, to the resounding echoes of conch and drums, holding the Statue of Lord Veerabhadra and reciting Mantras. How could I walk over the fire unless you give me the festive idols of Lord Rama? You all know that Lord Garuda carries Lord Vishnu on his back and will never step out without him. Don’t you?’
“At this, Sarathi Naidu intervened at this and said, ‘That’s true. Wake up Rangacharyulu Ayyangar and bring him here. He shall present the festive idol.’ Four leaders went to the house of Rangacharyulu, woke him up, and brought him to the stone pedestal as he was in his night attire. Smelling trouble when they had knocked at the door, Krishnamacharyulu hid on the attic.
“Pretending utmost obedience, Manavallayya briefed Rangacharyulu about the problem with context, and requested him to present him with the festive idol of Lord Rama. Rangacharyulu looked at them and said, ‘You bunch of fools! Are you out of your senses? Walking over the coals is the worst and heinous practice, and forbidden by Vaishnavism. There is no mention of it in any of our holy scriptures. There is neither a procedure nor proper mantra for walking over the fire.’
“‘Then, is there a procedure and mantra for branding the shoulders with the burning divine seals? Without further arguments, give the festive idol to Satani Manavallayya,’ insisted Raminaidu. The tinge of authority was clearly perceptible in his voice.
“‘Get lost, you foolish fellows! I am not going to give him. Idols are not to be touched by the Sudras.’ No sooner had Rangacharyulu said that he was unfit to hold the festive idols than Manavallayya thanked heavens for this reprieve. And to Raminaidu he immediately said, ‘Do you understand now? What he said is true. I am not supposed to touch the holy idols. The imperative is, that Sri Acharyulu himself shall walk over the coals holding the idols. That is his prerogative.’
“Then the Munsif said, ‘How could an old man like him walk over the coals with idols? Go. Bring his son Krishnamacharyulu here. He shall walk instead.’
“Rangacharyulu pleaded, ‘Don’t send for him. He is not here anyway; He has gone to town. If it comes to that, I will walk over the coals holding festive idols.’
“‘Then let’s start,’ hailed Manavallayya.
“Suddenly they found great intimidating illumination behind the Peepul tree. It scared them all. The tipsiness of the leaders instantly sobered. As minutes dragged, Nancharamma came up to them steadily from behind the Peepul, with a burning torch in one hand and a sizzling polished sword in the other, as her flowing curly hair swayed to the vagaries of wind. She stood next to her father-in-law and pointing the sword at the men holding him by his arms, she roared, ‘You sinners! Will you leave this pious person, or you want the sword to do its duty?’
“Watching her scary mien, people holding Rangacharyulu were terrified and lost their nerve. They loosened their grip at once and stepped back. She kept the burning torch on the stone bench and looking towards Manavallayya, asked, ‘What did you ask for?’
“He withdrew two steps back and mincing words, he said, ‘Nothing.’
“‘Nothing? You asked for festive idols. Didn’t you?’
“‘I … I… I? I am a sinner. What do I have to do with them? I don’t touch them even if you offer gold worth their weight. Maybe, Raminaidu wanted something.’
“She turned her attention to Raminaidu and looking dismissively at him she asked, ‘Raminaidu! What did you want?’
“He bowed his head. Declaring he wanted nothing openly, he murmured within, ‘Who could argue with a woman?’ Raminaidu’s wife was a first-rate termagant, and for that reason, he was always scared to face any woman.
“She then looked around and roared, ‘If nobody wanted anything, why did you bring this old man dragging him up from his bed? Why nobody speaks up?’
“Raminaidu mustered courage and said, ‘I am afraid to argue with women. But the fact is, when those Saivites walk the fire in the name of their Lord Shiva, won’t it be a disgrace to the name of Lord Rama if we cannot match it?’
“‘Then, why don’t you walk over the coals?’
“‘Me? I don’t know proper Mantra to recite. That is why I asked that Satani Manavallayya to walk over the fire.’
“Nancharamma turned to Manavallayya and said, ‘Why don’t you walk over the fire?’
“‘Lady! To my bad luck and utter stupidity, I called for this meeting. I admit my mistake and make penance by slapping hard on my cheeks. If you leave me here, I will go to Srirangam and settle down there. If ever you see me anywhere here in these parts, let a severe thunderbolt hit me,’ he swore.
“Nancharamma turned to Raminaidu and said, ‘Look, Munsif! You have a very brave heart! But, all your worries are about Pulihora and Chakkera Pongali, the special oblations offered by Sarathi Naidu on every Dwadasi day. Isn’t it?’
“‘Why me alone? Don’t you think Lord Rama will also be deprived of them?’ he said scratching his head.
“Manavallayya intervened impulsively and said, ‘Lady! It is not the issue about Pulihora or Chakkera Pongali. The challenge is about the display and upholding of the supreme power of Vaishnavism.’
“‘Then, why don’t you do it yourself taking the lead? Why do you need a festive idol at all? Every day you carry about such a long copper pole in the name of God. Don’t you believe it has a grain of the power of Lord Vishnu within it?’
“Murmuring, ‘It has come to square one,’ he made way through the crowd and disappeared.
“Then, Nancharamma declared, ‘This is not about having faith in Lord Rama or Lord Shiva. Once you have genuine faith in any God, you could not only walk over hot coals but could also cross any hurdle that comes your way in life. Here and now, I will walk over the coals reciting the name of my father-in-law. If any of the Vaishnavites here want to follow me, they can come forward.’
“Not a soul stirred.
“With a derisive laugh Nancharamma said, ‘Huh! Are you all heroes just to throw this old man into the fire and watch the fun?’
“Nobody opened their mouth.
“She glanced all around. ‘Is Pir Sayib (Muslim) anywhere around here?’
“‘Mother! Here is your servant,’ said Pir Sayib from the crowd. He came forward and stood obediently before her with folded hands. Though Pir Sayib is a Muslim he is a staunch devotee of Lord Rama and practices Hathayoga. He sings Kirtans. The Math on the banks of the stream abetting the road is maintained by him. He has a great following.
“‘Sayib! Can you walk over the fire-fit?’ Nancharamma asked
“‘Yes, Mother! If you permit me I will do it effortlessly.’
“‘Where is Manavallayya? Oh, the incarnation of Lord Garuda has disappeared! Raminaidu! In spite of proclaiming yourselves to be staunch devotees of Lord Rama, none of you dared to walk over the fire-pit. Under such circumstances, God has bestowed courage and temerity upon a Muslim. So which religion is great? Your Vaishnavism or his Islam? Raminaidu! Your intention is that Vaishnavites should insult the Saivaites tonight to prove the supremacy of their faith. Right? Let me help you with a way out. Religions are of two types: Tolerant and Intolerant. And both traits of people exist in both Saivism and Vaishnavism. Saivites who perform violent acts like walking over the fire are called Sivacharis. There is a similar sect in Vaishnavism also. Do you know what it is?”
“Manavallayya could not resist his curiosity and peeping over top of the crowd asked, ‘Who are they?’
“When Raminaidu replied, ‘Who else, you Satanis,’ his face disappeared in the crowd once again.
“Nancharamma answered, ‘Do you really want to know who they are? Then listen. They are none other than Muslims. What do you think a Pir is? It is but the holy mark on the forehead of our Lord. Our neighbor in the town, a Satani, used to erect the Pirs and walk through the fire with Muslims. Many Hindus also used to walk through the fire holding Pirs in their hands. So I will erect a Pir in the name of Lord Rama and give it to Pir Sayib. You are well aware that he is as staunch a devotee of Lord Rama; he is another Sant Kabir. So, set your fears aside and walk through the fire following him. But, let me warn you. Your bhakti (devotion) may not hold at the right moment. As a precaution, don’t forget to carry your handsticks with you.’
“The moment she completed her instructions, Manavallayya came out of his hiding, reciting slokas loudly and pushing people aside, and prostrated at her feet. He said, ‘Mother! You are a veritable incarnation of Goddess Mahalakshmi! You upheld Vaishnavism today! Not only the religion, you saved our lives. Now you shall see how I can take your instructions forward.’
“Manavallayya is very shrewd and adept at seizing the slightest opportunity to turn things in his favor. And, he skillfully managed the rest of the story to uphold the supremacy of Vaishnavism that night.
“After everything was settled, Krishnamachari got down the attic. With the pride of having achieved the mission impossible, Nancharamma returned home with the torch and sword. When she met her husband on the way, she shot him a look of loving banter. The next day, Krishnamachari told me that her looks at that moment endowed him with divinity, and he penned a sloka to that effect. Some people just could not stay cool, unless their bedroom intimacies were shared.
“That night, I went to witness Sivachari walking through the fire. It was about four in the morning. The fire was ablaze with red hot coals. Cool breeze of the early hours of dawn was blowing gently. Suddenly, sounds from all kinds of instruments including conch blared at a high pitch. Even the English-educated atheists admitted that they were scared at that moment.
“Four Sivacharis were standing ready near the fire-bed, applying sandal paste all over as mark of their bravery. One of them held on his crown a fiery copper image of lord Veerabhadra. The second one was swaying his sharp glistening sword briskly and reciting words of valor. The third man poured some ghee into the fire and threw pieces of pumpkin. All of them soon walked briskly over the fire-bed. They reached the other end and were about to walk back to this end. Then, with loud intimidating shrieks of ‘Allah-Ram’, a stream of people piercing through the crowd walked over the coals. All of them wore veils over their faces. The leading man, however, was holding a Silver Pir in his hands and walked over the fire like Bhimasena. It all took less than half a minute.
“The crowd ran helter-skelter. It was rumored some Satanis and Sivacharis suffered slight burns on their feet. But it was dismissed as the result of their dearth of faith. It was also rumored that Sarabhayya and Manavallayya secretly came to an understanding after that. But in public, their rivalry continued green as ever.
“Look! The Pir you see over there on the verandah is the same Pir. From that day onwards, people celebrate the Pir on the anniversary of that event. And irrespective of their faith, people pay their respects. Since it looks like a trident, Sarabhayya claims the Pir is Lord Shiva. And since it looks like the holy mark of Lord Rama, Manavallayya claims it Lord Vishnu. Only scholars like Sri Venkanna Pantulu could settle this sensitive issue.
“So, Sastry garu, coming back to your question, when lord Shiva and lord Vishnu could become Pirs, why can’t Lord Buddha represent Lord Shiva?”
Sayanna Bhukta concluded his story.
Sastry garu expressed his surprise after listening to the story. “What a pity! These days, not only people, even Gods are getting hybridized.”
“What is wrong with it? Whether you call him Shiva, Vishnu, Pir, or Buddha, isn’t the Supreme Being one and the same?”
Venkiah did not keep quiet, “If all of the Gods are one and the same, then, why don’t you keep all those ‘Morts’ at one place and pray?”
Then our Guru Sastry garu said, “Oh You! You call Gods ‘Morts’? You must be a Christian. Why? Even a Christian believes in God. You are an out and out infidel. These ignorant people have some kind of blind faith in the Pir, devil, demon, or deity. But you have dumped every god.”
“Except you, Sastry garu!”
“This is the first sensible statement you have ever made in all your life,” I commended Venkiah.
(First Published : Andhra Bharati. 1910 April, May and June Issues.)
Nauduri Murthy is a Managing Director by profession and a poet and a passionate translator. He translated hundreds of poems from Telugu to English and vice versa.