Short Story ID- 7/2015
R. K. Narayan went to the office of the Registrar of Births and Deaths at the district headquarters at Malgudi to obtain the death certificate of his father Krishnaswamy Iyer so as to transfer money and property to his and his brother R. K. Laxman’s name. With this family inheritance, he thought both of them could live a life of ease and comfort, relieved from being forced to write and cartoon for a living. Like his previous experiences with different government departments, he found, one day, at the Registrar’s office, the officer was on leave; on another day the officer was attending an important meeting and was not available; on a subsequent visit, he was asked to come on a certain day and time, but when he reached the office on the specified day and time, he found that the officer was transferred to another district and the new officer was yet to join duty. Anyone else in his position would have given up after this visit. In fact, his brother R. K. Laxman advised him to forget about the certificate and said, if they didn’t have any money or property to call them their own, they were endowed with gifts which they could use for survival. Unlike his brother’s ability to produce a cartoon a day, Narayan was always haunted by fear that he would not be able to write his next story after publishing one—a fear common among writers– and he had to wait for months for inspiration like most other writers . So he waited until a new officer took charge and made yet another visit. During this visit, he gathered that the original ownership documents were untraceable–lost or misplaced– and he was asked to submit the documents in his possession to process his request. This was the final straw. After these visits and a long correspondence, he came to the bitter conclusion that this could go on forever and he should forget about inheritance of his ancestral property and money, and work hard to make a living on his own. He was left with no choice but to go on weaving Malgudi stories.
It was at this time Prime Minster Narendra Modi of a country from outer space who had taken over office recently visited his town Rasipuram in search of investors willing to set up industry in his country in the outer planet. He told people how everything was done at his place simply by calling offices, or done online, without any hassle of knocking on the doors of officials and waiting endlessly for their requests to be granted. Although Narayan was not a businessman and was an ordinary writer, he immediately got a visa by merely showing some interest in the mysterious universe. In the recruiter’s point of view, a writer possessed skills more valuable than those of businessmen, and people were likely to follow in the footsteps of a writer. Without delay, Narayan took a flight to the outer planet with his family and his small personal savings.
Things were easy and smooth on the new planet. Opening an account in the bank was, for example, easy like saying 1, 2, 3. You called a telephone banking number, and gave your name, date of birth, nationality. The bank would open an account even without your personal visit or even a deposit. The account holder could make deposits whenever he/ she wanted. A couple of days after, Narayan received a passbook and a checkbook The checkbook carried his name, address, account number, and the IFC code with a note saying that, on presentation of a signed check, money would instantly be paid to the account holder or the designated payee in any bank anywhere in the universe. To play it safe, Narayan opened accounts in several banks. From time to time, the banks sent notices to him to transact some activity to make sure he took responsibility for the safety of his money, which he didn’t, however, quite like. They also wrote to him that his account would become inactive or dormant without frequent transactions and money would cease to be available to him when he needed it. He didn’t like this either, partly because it made him constantly think about money, when he preferred to use the time to think of plots for new stories.
Soon after arrival, Narayan was offered the position of a writer in residence on a hefty remuneration in a prestigious national university called IIT. He became a popular writer. His stories sold like hot cakes. The balance in his bank accounts soared up beyond his imagination. Luckily, he did not have to worry about paying taxes. Taxes were deducted at the source of income at the university and the source of interest earned at the banks and deposited in the government income tax department under information to him in a Form called 16A about amount was credited to his account and tax deducted and deposited with the government. Usually, these sources deducted more tax than was due.
At the end of the year, Narayan had to file income tax returns to claim refund due to him. Unlike back home where Mr. Merhotra took care of the entire business from carrying papers to the department, paying any taxes due, and getting back refund of any money overpaid, he could do everything online on the new planet. It was easy to register as a user in the Income Tax Department website. While filling out the returns, he noticed some banks didn’t deduct taxes, and some did but did not send him Form 16A, rather they couldn’t because lack of knowledge and skill to generate them. Luckily, a taxpayer could access the government records and download all the details in Form 26A about TDS—tax deducted at sources. In order to do it, he had to register as a user to access another website called TRACES.
When he tried to sign up for the new website TRACES, he got into difficulties. He had to fill a form which asked him to provide his first name, middle name, and last name, and details such as the TAN number of the source, month and year of deduction, challan number, amount deducted, address, and cell telephone number. In one place, the form indicated a taxpayer payer could give any address in the universe, but withheld this freedom while filling out the box for the PIN number. The PIN number had to be of a place on his new planet. He found the whole exercise overwhelming. After carefully filling out the form with countless details and submitting it, pop came the response saying the registration was not successful because of inaccurate details.
Narayan spent time trying to figure out what details could be inaccurate. He started with his name. Oh Lord, what was his first name? He had been working under the impression that he had one name, call it the first name or the last. The other names were there for decorative purposes. However, names here on the new planet consisted of three separate, well-defined parts: First, Middle, and Last. For the first time, he noticed that his name appeared in different forms in different places. In the IIT records, he found the name R. K. Narayan; in one bank it appeared as Rasipuram K. Narayan; in another bank it appeared as Rasipuram Krishnaswami Iyer Narayanaswami; and, in the income tax department website, it appeared as Krishnaswamy Narayan. On some instances, he might have given different names under pressure of circumstances, but on others different agencies arbitrarily fit his name into the standard three-part structure– First, Middle, and Last. If someone had, he thought, doubts about his identity, they could easily establish it with other means like the name of father,–although the mother’s name should be checked for purposes of establishing identity,–the date of birth or place of birth. Even if he had noticed varying forms of names on the checks and other places, he never gave it a thought. How ironical he thought that while the outer planet had ghar-wapsied, in a manner of speaking, the pronunciation of some of the names of its cities like Calcutta, Bombay, and Bangalore, and accordingly their spelling, to erase alien distortions of their names, it has ironically surrendered itself to the foreign three-part nomenclature of the names of its individual citizens—First Name, Middle Name, and Last Name—putting its citizens at a great risk of losing their identity, not to speak of their money, property, and income tax refunds!
After all, he came from a part of a planet where gods had multiple names. With the pile of registration failure notices before him, Narayan began to wonder who the hell he was. He had all along been under the impression that he was a well-known writer. Now he felt belittled, humiliated, reduced to dust.
In the Profile maintained by the Income Tax department appeared the address of his workplace IIT. He had lived in different places/ quarters on the planet earth and also in the country of the new planet. To be consistent, he generally gave his village Rasipuram address to different bodies/ agencies. It was again possible that he might have given other addresses where he stayed for a while. Like other writers, he was careless about practical matters. Now he also felt lost, with someone with no current address or forwarding address, the mail stamped and returned– UNDELIVERABLE. THE ADDRESSEE UNKNOWN.
Narayan tried carefully to recall. “R” in the record stood for his birth place ”Rasipuram,” although he was actually born in Malgudi at his grandmother’s place and where he went to school. Rasipuram was where his father and mother lived and daily quarrelled. He had stuck to Rasipuram and never revealed to anyone about this discrepancy in “R” of his name. Contrary to the recorded date of birth, he was born a year earlier. His grandmother decided to send him to school one full year earlier than the rules allowed to have some peace at home,–like most boys Narayan was always up to something, like crawling into neighbor’s yard to pluck mangoes or climbing down at the neighbor’s request a deep well to retrieve a vessel accidentally dropped by the neighbor — so she gave the school a date one full year before his birth actually took place. Again he never mentioned this discrepancy to anyone. All these practices fitted well with the general concept of life as Maya prevalent in the part of the world of his origin. He went by the recorded place and date of birth, so the issues related to these couldn’t be causing the trouble.
Unfortunately, he could not call any telephone number to check what name or address the Income Tax department had in their database. All this was confidential information in a database. No human agent could know what was fed into the database. The information was beyond even god’s knowledge, so no amount of fasting and/or prayer would make the database yield the secrets. If the information didn’t match what was in the database, it was all over for the person in this life. The database was completely devoid of mercy, pity, kindness, compassion, forgiveness, generosity, love, and any kind of softer feelings. When a world adopts databases to conduct its business, humans can call it quits.
Being a resolute man, Narayan tried every possible permutation and combination of his name and address while filling out the form, again and again, countess times, in a fury. Each time he received the same response in an e-mail under the subject line Registration Failure on Traces: “Registration has not been processed due to incorrect verification data entered during registration request submission. Please raise another registration request with correct verification data.”
Narayan saw the victory of death and taxes on this new planet, and the crushing defeat of the human spirit.
Virtually dead on this outer planet, Narayan decided to fly back home at the earliest opportunity.
Early morning, a day before the scheduled departure, Narayan heard a knock on his door. When he opened the door, he found to his surprise Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself wearing his famous name suit, since auctioned away, standing at the door. Narayan invited him inside, but the Prime Minister Modi was too busy to do his usual “Chay par Charcha.” He just wanted to have a word. Standing at the door, he made an earnest request to Narayan to postpone his departure by a day, if he must depart. Evidently, the Prime Minister had gotten wind of the news of R. K. Narayan’s plans. The writer couldn’t refuse the Prime Minister’s request and agreed to postpone his departure by 24 hours the day after next.
Later in the evening the same day, at a hurriedly held meeting attended by international luminaries, living and dead, that included Graham Greene, E. M. Forster, William Faulkner, Guy de Maupassant, Walt Whitman, Tolstoy, Premchand, Rabindranath Tagore, Mahatma Gandhi, Shivram Karanth, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Angela Merkel, David Cameron, Vladimir Putin, among others, joined by a few gods who were able to reach the venue at a short notice, the Prime Minister Narendra Modi conferred upon R.K. Narayan the highest civilian honor in recognition of the writer’s art and sense of humor. In a glowing tribute, the Prime Minister said that the award exempted the recipient from filing income tax returns and the like duties on the writer who had delighted the hearts and minds of countless readers across the universe. He stated that Narayan by his own efforts had achieved immortality, so he was beyond the touch of the cold hands of death. He pointed out that R. K. Narayan would always remain in readers’ hearts and minds, — call him Rasipuram Narayan, or Rasipuram Krishnaswami Iyer Narayanaswami, or simply Narayan—spell his name in Urdu, Malayalam, Tamil or Odissi, or Kannada– notwithstanding what lay hidden in the database designed by the experts in the IT department. He said that his name taken in part or full sounded like music to his ears. He apologized to Narayan for the failure of the Income Tax department to recognize him. He pleaded Narayan’s and other writers’ indulgence towards designers of databases in his country whose leadership he had assumed less than a year ago, and he promised to fix all problems of the country and the world before he laid down office. He did not chastise database experts; in a move to encourage them to improve their services, he said that that they were people with good intentions. He hoped that a day would come before the end of his tenure that farmers, writers, and industrialists would fondly take to databases. Concluding his tribute and coming back to his subject, he reminded the audience, “A rose by any other name smells just as sweet.” Needless to say, the Prime Minister Modi’s speech was interrupted by many loud cheers and applause and at the end a long standing ovation until the announcement of dinner was made for the members of the audience.
From the dark shadow temporarily cast by death, taxes, and databases, R. K. Narayan emerged as a person he truly was, a writer of eminence, admired by all, here and hereafter. With the world revolving around him now, he felt no particular compulsion to shift anywhere, so he cancelled his plans for departure and stayed put to the immense relief and pleasure of the Hon’ble Prime Minister Narendra Modi and men and women of his country.
Saligrama K. Aithal (aka S. Krishnamoorthy Aithal) has published two collections of short stories One in Many and Many in One, AuthorHouse, 2013. Some of the stories in these volumes were previously published inCritical Quarterly, Short Story International, Unlikely Stories, Long Story Short (where his “Enter, Search, Select, Click” appeared as the STORY OF THE MONTH for February 2012),Journal of Postcolonial Societies and cultures, Indian Literature, New Quest, and Contemporary Literary Review. Besides creative writing, Dr. Aithal has published articles on a wide range of authors and books–Indian, British, and American– in scholarly international journals. He has a monograph on Toni Morrison’s fiction ready for publication. The central focus of his work (and life) has been crossing cultures and building bridges. Currently, he lives in a suburb ofWashington, DC, and teaches English at universities/ colleges in the area whenever an opportunity comes his way. He has a doctoral degree in English from Indiana University,