செவ்வாய், 6 நவம்பர், 2018
from the April 2015 issue
Fiction by Imayam
Raghavan climbed into the compartment, carrying his suitcase. He glanced briefly—just once—at the ticket he held in his left hand. Then he walked up to the seat reserved for him. He placed his case in the luggage rack, and sat down. He raised his head and looked all round the compartment. He could see that only seven or eight people were seated there. He felt disappointed that the compartment was so sparsely occupied. He gazed out through the window and saw people walking up and down the platform; the crowds were not very dense. His eyes fell on the clock and so he realized that there was still some time for the train’s departure. He need not have arrived so early. He was glancing around at the people going to and fro across the platform when he caught sight of the postbox right ahead of him. He stared at it for some time. Then, suddenly, he rose to his feet, retrieved his suitcase, placed it on his lap, opened it, closed it, and began writing urgently in a notebook.
To my dear mother, from Raghavan:
I am very well here. I have no health problems, no fever or headache—nothing at all. How are you? I hope you are in good health, too. I got your letter recently, in which you say you are disappointed at not having heard from me for two-three months. Of course, I think daily that I should write to you. But I never do get the time for it. I leave for work early in the morning and when I return to my room in the evening, I want to lie down and go to sleep the very next minute. Besides, here we communicate by phone all the time, so I seem to have lost the habit of writing. Writing doesn’t come easily to my hand anymore. In addition, there’s been any amount of trouble in the company, for the past two to three months. It’s all because they have been laying off workers. Strikes and processions happen all the time now. You never know what is happening at any one time. Everything is in a state of chaos. That’s why I couldn’t come home for Appa’s thivasam, or for rice distribution. In any case, most importantly, the company is refusing to allow me any leave at all. If I should go away without leave, I’m afraid they will use it as an excuse to shove me out. This isn’t a government job, is it, for me to go and come as I please? A private company has all sorts of rules of its own.
He looked over what he had written so far. Then he looked at his wrist watch. He realized it was getting late, and began to scribble as fast as he could.
Are you managing on different sorts of wild greens, in the belief that you cannot afford to make a proper kuzhambu for your rice? It’s not going to cost you anything. Cook proper rice, make a good curry and eat well. Don’t buy brinjal. Don’t waste your money on the rotten brinjals that the Chetty sells in pre-weighed bundles. Here I eat real rice three times a day. Even if you pay good money, you will never get millet rice in Madras. You should know that.
I hear that you didn’t spend the money I sent you the month before last on food, but put it aside, saying, “When my grandson is born he will need a silver waist chain, won’t he?” I haven’t even got married yet, so why the hurry for a waist chain?
Do you still go and stand at Chetty’s shop, holding out your hand for free betel leaves? Please pay good money and buy your betel leaves properly. Don’t bring shame to me. Apparently you said, “If he wants to write to him, let him do so. What’s it to me?” What will Thittakudi Chetty think of me?
But here’s the most important thing: I hear you went to all the eligible cousins and asked them, “Will you marry my son?” Must you do this? And another thing: it seems you took the horoscopes of a couple of girls and checked them to see if they were suitable. Just keep quiet for a few days. Stop all this checking of horoscopes and everything.
Also, don’t keep picking quarrels with the neighbors, claiming that a chicken or a goat strayed into our house. It seems that during one quarrel, the next door neighbor asked, “Just because your son is employed, is he he some big man or what?” Don’t bandy words with him. I’ll talk to him when I’m home. Sell off all the chickens and be rid of them. And as to the goats you’ve been raising to pay for my marriage expenses, drive them all to the market and get rid of them. Learn to live in peace.
What happened with the leakage in front of the kitchen that you mentioned? Did you block it up with some rubbish or anything? If not, tell our herdsman uncle that I asked him to come to the house and stop the leak. Tell him that when I come home, I’ll buy him some toddy.
So what other news is there? Did you get any rain? Or was it a hit-and-miss like last year? When are they planning to hold the opening rites for the god’s festival? If they hold the festival, please donate a mull veshti and garland in my name. If they ask for a contribution, just give it. Don’t get into a quarrel saying you can’t afford it.
You wrote in your last letter, as you always do, that as soon as I got a job and some money in my hands, I forgot you. I have forgotten nothing. Our past will be forgotten only when I die. When Appa lay dead, not a soul came to send the corpse on its way. How can I forget that no one came, even to chant the dirges? How can anyone ask me to forget the time when I pulled Shanti’s plait when she went to gather water and they made me stand in front of Mariaayi’s shrine and charged me a huge fine? They wouldn’t listen even when you prostrated yourself before the panchayat pleading that they forgive me just that once. How could I forget that? During the Deepavali that fell when I was studying for my tenth, you had no money to buy meat, and no way of taking a loan. You told anyone who asked that it was a Friday, a day we didn’t cook meat in our house. But because you knew I would be furious if I didn’t have any, you went from house to house begging for a little meat curry at each, collecting a whole pot-full, and for the three days following you heated it up and heated it up, and served it only to me. I have forgotten nothing. It’s all there in my heart.
Now please don’t rush off and speak to anyone about what I’m going to tell you. A colleague of mine who works along with me at the company has a daughter who has studied up to college level and has recently joined our company. They have asked whether I will marry her. Now, there is no hurry at all. After you have come and seen the girl, we can talk about the details. I am writing this to you because in Madras today, you cannot manage to live on one person’s salary alone. You need to pay even to go to the toilet. People even pay for plain cold water. In Madras, you pay more for a liter of water than we do for a liter of milk in our village.
As he was writing this, seven or eight people all belonging to the same family crowded into the compartment and sat down, asking Raghavan to move in order to make room. He didn’t know what to do. For a moment, he sat with his head in his hands. It struck him that he would not be able to continue his letter. He looked around him. The compartment was crowded and very, very noisy. He wanted to finish the letter quickly and began writing in haste.
They have transferred me to Bombay all of a sudden. I’m actually writing this to you as I sit in the train. I will write to you again from Bombay.
Having finished his letter, he glanced sideways at the sturdy-looking gentleman sitting next to him. He shrank back toward the window and read through what he had written so far. He opened his suitcase again, took out an envelope, and was just about to seal it when he read it through a second time. Heaven knows what went on in his mind, but he simply folded the letter and tucked it into his shirt pocket, tore out another page from his notebook, and began to write again.
Dear Mother, this is what Raghavan writes to you.
All of a sudden, they have transferred me to Bombay. I am actually traveling to Bombay this very day. Once I reach there, I will fill you in on what is going on. Please don’t write to me at my Madras address.
Having finished this in a great rush, and without bothering to read through it even once, he folded it, pushed it into its envelope, licked the envelope, and closed it. He stowed the suitcase in the luggage rack. He asked the gentleman sitting next to him to keep an eye on the suitcase, climbed down from the train and ran as fast as he could to the postbox.
“‘You first write all that you usually say, then I will tell you.”
“You tell me all that you want to say in one go. I’ll write it all down, and read it back to you. Then you can tell me if there is anything I’ve left out and I’ll make sure to put it in.”
“No, Thambi, you write down first all that you usually say: To my beloved son, This is what your mother writes. I am in good health in the village. Please let me know about your health and welfare. You always begin like that, don’t you? Well, finish all that, then I’ll tell you the rest.”
Sekhar looked at the woman sitting in front of him with some dislike, as if she were an imbecile. He picked up a piece of cardboard left over from a calendar that lay on the floor, placed it on his lap and began writing on a piece of white paper, folded to make four sides. She watched him with growing excitement. Her face lit up. Sekhar scribbled a couple of lines and, with a distinct lack of enthusiasm, without even raising his head, said “Go on.”
“Please swamy, write everything that I say, don’t leave anything out. You will attain merit.”
“All right. Go on, then.”
“And don’t please leave anything out from time to time.”
“This is why a man gets annoyed. How many times have I written letters for you? Have I ever done anything like that?”
“Don’t get angry, Thambi. We shouldn’t leave out the details. That’s why I said something. I wasn’t blaming you.”
“Say it quickly now. They’ll want their cut. And don’t forget the contribution of five-hundred rupees they want from you for the festival.”
“What can I say? It’s a bad time for me. Anyway… I’m in good health. I have no news at all about how you are. Some of our people who came back recently from Madras say that they haven’t set eyes on you for two or three months, so I don’t get any sleep at night. Can’t you write even a line to say I’m doing this, I’m doing that? Are you going to lose any money by that? The only thing that I lack is a single letter from you. Nothing else.”
Mottaiammal looked suspiciously at Sekhar, who wasn’t writing down anything. He looked at her as if there was nothing unusual going on and told her: “Just tell me everything you are going to say and I will write it all down in one go.”
In reply, she made a pleading face and began to insist in a broken voice, “You’ll leave something out, Thambi. Just keep writing as I speak.”
Sekhar saw there was no way out. He scribbled down a couple of lines, and asked, indifferently, “‘And then?”
“Why didn’t you come for father’s death anniversary rites? How many times did I write to you to say that a woman cannot perform the rice distribution ritual and that you must do it yourself? You couldn’t put aside just one day for your own mother. Is the work you do so important? If I die tomorrow, will you do the same thing? Because I was here, at least this matter could be dealt with properly. Otherwise, what would have happened? The reason for the rice-giving is for the Brahmin to cleanse our karma. If you don’t know this much, what good is your education? To think you’re a man who is employed in Madras, too.”
She looked at Sekhar. He was busy writing. She waited until he had finished, then began again of her own accord.
“They made the offering to our village deity just yesterday. If you can, come and stay for four or five days. Otherwise, at least plan to come on the day they take out the temple chariot. When our village is celebrating the festival and the temple chariot, when we all gather together as one kith and kin, imagine how I’ll suffer if you are not here? You don’t have any need for our village people anymore, but what about our god? All right, the people here can be quarrelsome, so should you just run away from the village itself?”
She looked at Sekhar. He began to write.
“The wall to the west side of the house is tilting. I have propped it up with bamboo canes. The roof thatch also seems to be falling apart a bit. This is an old house, after all. It would be better to re-thatch the entire roof. It won’t withstand this year’s summer winds. But I am not a man to run around all around town to and find the workers to do the job. If we put our hands to it, it’s going to cost at least two thousand rupees. I’m an old woman, what can I do? A life without a man is only a half-life.
“Don’t go hungry because you don’t want to spend money. See if you like it there. If you don’t, just come back home. If you lose your job, just remember this: didn’t your father, your grandfather, and all your ancestors survive make a living working in the fields? They didn’t die, did they? What is the point of going hungry in order to make money? In the same vein: we don’t need to build ourselves mansions at such cost. Eat well. Don’t argue with your stomach. Don’t allow your body to become weak. Our health is our wealth. If we have our health, we can go anywhere and survive. Always tell me if you are short of money. I can sell a couple of our goats and send you the cash.
"Look at what I forgot to tell you. During the past month, three of our goats had babies, one after the other. Of the kids, there are three female and two male. Only one of the goats delivered a stillborn kid. All the rest follow me round and round like children. One of the men from our clan came and said he was going to hold a head-shaving ceremony and a special puja for the our clan deity. He asked me to donate one of the baby goats. I refused.
“Are you writing all this down, Thambi?”
“Yes, I am. Carry on.”
“Two or three years ago, thinking to myself how my son hadn’t yet married, I took one of the baby goats to our Lord Poyanappadi temple to dedicate it. Now, to my surprise, it’s grown practically as large as a cow. Everyone who sees it tells me to sell it off. But I’m keeping quiet about it. I think I should drive it to the temple and leave it there. What do you say?”
Mottaiammal noticed that Sekhar was gazing at her.
“What, Thambi? Why are you gazing at me like that? Are you writing down everything that I’ve been saying?” she asked with a slight smile.
“Of course I am. Carry on… But when are you going to give me the five-hundred rupees I asked for?” Sekhar asked.
“Of course; who else is going to get it?”
She carried on in a melting voice.
“There is no one to turn to if I get a fever or a headache. I am like a lone corpse, here. If I die tomorrow, there is no one to sit next to my head and weep for me. If I had given birth to a daughter, she would beat her breast and weep aloud, mourning her mother’s death. I don’t have that good fortune. But what good fortune ever fell to me ever since I wore a tali and followed your father here? That is why I say, while there is still breath left in my body, marry a young girl and bring her here. Even if there was no one to say your father’s name at his funeral rites, shouldn’t there be someone to say your name at the appropriate time? How long can we carry on like this? Don’t you have to return to your hearth and home some day? Even if this is a village known for people who steal cattle and goats, aren’t there four or five people who will be there for us?
“You shouldn’t keep thinking of what is past. You have to accept it. It’s like swallowing a bitter pill. Otherwise, how will life go on? In any village, there will be all sorts of people. Of course they’ll say one thing to your face, and another thing behind your back. People are like that. We have to carry on, pretending we neither hear nor see a thing. You have to look at each person differently. The time you tugged little Shanti’s plait when she went to draw water and four hoodlums called a panchayat meeting, what could the village do?
“Because those four ruffians tied you up and imposed a fine on you, you ran away that very night, ignoring the hour. I haven’t seen my child since then, for a whole year, and it’s like an evil wind is blowing against me. Every time I look at food, I feel sick and queasy. I worry about you night and day. My insides tremble wondering where you are and whether you have enough to eat. Don’t think badly of me. The cremation ground beckons and the house tells me to go. What is left for me? We live as long as we must and we go when it is time. We cannot refuse. How much longer am I going to live on flower and fruit? But don’t think of me and allow yourself to be depressed.”
Mottaiammal stopped speaking, and sat quietly for a while, her head bowed down. She didn’t even check whether Sekhar continued to write or not. It was only after he asked, “And then… and then…?” that she looked up, wiped her eyes and face with the end of her sari, and began again in a low voice.
“Your late father never fails to appear in my dreams every single night. It doesn’t bode well for the family when the dead appear in our dreams. It won’t do us any good. The family won’t prosper. Don’t say who is there in our family any more. I’m an old woman.; I will go willingly to the cremation ground. It is only when I think of you that my heart won’t heal. That is why I want to find you a girl inall haste, and hold your wedding. I shall be free of all worry then, and my corpse will burn easily. My spirit won’t wander about, dissatisfied. What else is there for me? I’ll do my best for was long as I can, and die when the time comes, without a care. Do I have to worry about leaving behind a suckling baby, or tiny toddlers? Nothing of the sort. My only worry will be if death eludes me. That will be the only thing… Are you writing all this down?”
“Go on, don’t be so impatient.”
“If I spoke about all the pain in my heart, even two tons of paper wouldn’t be enough. All right, you keep on writing.”
“In my heart, there’s a request for you. Tell me if it sounds right to you. If not, let it go. You remember Kanjikaacchi from our village? His eldest son Muukkan has four children, all girls. Three of them have now married and left home. The youngest is still at home. Her name—what is it again, Thambi—mmm… Vanamayil. She might be a bit big-boned, but she’s like a jewel. In our entire village, she is the only one who is attractive and pleasing to the eye. Although I have wished for this for a long time, I asked her only eight days ago. I asked her straight out when she came to collect twigs for the goats, ‘Would you give your consent, di?’ She said in return, ‘He’s an educated man. He works in Madras. Would he care for a girl like me who weeds the fields and carries bundles of sugarcane?’
“I didn’t know how to reply. I am sure she too wishes for it in her heart. I have compared the horoscope that was cast for her after she came of age with yours. The Aiyar says such compatibility only appears once in a hundred cases. More than anything else, it’s good to have facial features that suit each other. She certainly has an attractive face.
“The people of our village will always look after you, even if they make a song and dance of it. If I die tomorrow, there will be four or five people who will come and carry my corpse away. Don’t we need at least four or five people in our village to call our own? She comes from a big family. The entire West Street is full of her people.
“You can’t go away to the town forever, can you, simply because you can make money there? Of course townsfolk people there wear bright, white clothes. Because they are always in the shade, they might be slightly lighter in colour. But there’s nothing else. If they walked behind the goats for a couple of days, they’d end up like the fish drying on our roofs. What I say is true. Would you marry a girl just for her white skin? What will money do for you? It is far more difficult to earn friendship. If I die tomorrow, it’s not my money that is going to beat its breast and mourn for me. Only your own people who will shed a teardrop or two.
“‘We don’t need wealth. Did I bear a child to your father with an eye to money? If you have money, sure you can wear clothes that people will admire. You can make a set of ornaments and wear them. But what else, though? All this lasts only so long as there is life in this body. There’s nothing afterward.
“Did I send you to school for the sake of money? If that was the case, what then? When your father was ill and you were studying in the eighth or ninth class, your father’s elder brother turned up and said, ‘Don’t send him to school anymore.If he learns to play the drums, he’ll earn a coin or two.’ And he took you by the hand to lead you away. Your father could only watch, dumbstruck. He couldn’t say anything to oppose his elder brother. But I thought, ‘What’s all this? We have only one child and he is being plucked away from us in order to play the drums.’ I ran halfway down our street after your uncle, and fell at his feet, pleading and weaping, ‘Let my child go. If he dies, let him die. He doesn’t have to earn his keep at this young age. What’s more, he doesn’t have to earn money by beating the drums for the dead.’
“He kicked me away and said, ‘Go—get lost.’ After that, I fell at your feet and pleaded, ‘Please go to school, sami.’
“Unlike the others, I never asked you to do this and do that, or sent you to herd the cattle or goats. I don’t know whether you remember any of this, but how could I ever forget? I’m the mother who gave birth to you.”
Mottaiammal began to weep. She lowered her face; her entire body began to shudder. Sekhar stopped writing and watched her weep. His patience gave out very soon.
“Keep going,’ he said, scowling at her. Mottaiammal lifted her head and began again.
“You don’t have to marry anyone just because I say so. Even if you brought me a nari-kurathi gypsy girl saying, ‘This is the girl I love,’ I would give you my wholehearted consent. What does it matter to me? I’m not the one who is going to settle down with her. After my eyes close, this house must not sink into darkness. That is all I ask of you. For better or for worse, somehow my time has run out. In the time that is left to me, all I need is a handful of broken cholam-rice and a couple of bunches of murunga greens to last me a whole day.”
She looked suspiciously at Sekhar and asked, “What is this, Thambi, you’ve only written about four lines. Have put down everything I said?”
“I haven’t left out a single word of what you said. Do you want me to read it back to you?” has asked sharply.
She really wished to answer, “Yes, read it,” but she was concerned that he would say that she didn’t trust him, and walk off halfway through the letter. So she smiled a false smile and said, “Why wouldn’t I trust you? I just thought… after all this time, you’ve just written four lines, it doesn’t look weighty, so I asked you.”
“It’s all there. I’ll read it back to you at the end. Go on now,” he said with indifference, preparing to write once more.
Mottaiammal asked, “Where did I leave off?”
Sekhar gave her the cue. “About the marriage to Vanamayil.”
She sat there as if she hadn’t heard him, then began again as if something had come to her mind all of a sudden.
“Thambi, I asked for a prediction in your name. It seems that within the next three months, you will have a lot of expenses. What’s more, it seems it is likely you will be asked to leave one place and move to another. When bad times come, they won’t come with warning bells. Whatever place you go to, be tactful in speech and action. Be careful as you climb into cars or trains, and climb down with care. If anything happened to you, it would finish me, my life couldn’t bear it. My only care, every night and every day, is you. Had all your siblings survived, I wouldn’t worry so much. There were six children in all who were born to me. The first two were stillborn. My mother-in-law—your grandmother, that is, on your father’s side—said I could only bear dead babies and put me to the side. No one in your father’s family would even look at or talk to me, such was the old lady’s influence.
“Then you were born, my third child. Even while I was lying there shortly after your birth, there was no one to ask after me or take care of me. With my sick body, I ground the healing medicines myself and took them. After that, two girls and a boy baby were born. Although they came swiftly, one after another, they never lasted more than six months or a year and went swiftly to their graves. I’ve given away everything. Your father too is dead. Now there’s only you. I think of you as the high priest of the family. Please don’t leave me, too.
Still writing, Sekhar asked, “Is there any more?”
Unaware of the tone of his voice, she spoke again in a broken voice, her tearful eyes turned to the ground.
“There is one thing alone that is troubling me. You must arrange a funeral procession for my dead body, in such a way that it will earn the praise of the whole village. Have a chariot to carry the bier, just as we did for your father. Along with the village drummers, make sure there are the other thamru drummers as well. When you distribute the money left on the bier, be generous to everyone: the sweeper, the washer man, the basket maker and the street dancers. No one should feel left out. Just give them whatever they ask. Let no one call you a miser. Mine will be the last death of our house. So let there be fireworks. Arrange for a dance performance. Don’t forget to put on a performance of the street play Karna Motcham. You don’t have to spend your money on any of this. There are two grown goats. Even today they would fetch twenty or thirty thousand. With the money I’ve earned from selling the odd goat or kid or dead animal, I have bought enough household goods for two homes. There is a cage full of poultry. Sell them for cash. Each week, I have put aside six piglets. Turn them into cash, too. Besides this, Kasiamma on North Street owes me all of three thousand. It’s a couple of years since she borrowed the money. Unfortunately, we didn’t make out a bond or a promissory note. Then, Velayi, our next-door neighbor, borrowed four hundred when her daughter came of age. Every time I ask her, she says, ‘I’ve got it for you.’ But the money hasn’t returned my hands. Another one or two owe me similar amounts. When the street sweeper’s eldest son married, I donated a marakkal of rice, a sack of tamarind, and two pumpkins. Like in that case, I’ve tried to help people all round the village, trusting that there will be someone around to help my son and support him, should he need it in the future. I’ve written it all down carefully on a sheet of paper so that you can ask them, if it should come to it. That’s why I’ve noted it it all down, day by day and month by month .”
“‘Hurry up, we’ve come to the end of the paper.”
“Did you bring only one sheet?”
“In that case, just say this..” But, seized by doubt, she then asked, “Is that all the space that’s left?”
Sekhar just nodded, bored by it all.
“Only two words. Don’t send your mother any money out of any sense of duty. Nor do I need new saris. Am I a young woman who would enjoy wearing new clothes? Don’t spend your hard-earned money on me. So long as the blood flows in my body, I can look after myself.”
Mottaiammal pleaded like a small child.
“Is there any space left?”
Sekhar’s twist of the lips indicated the answer was “No.”
Sekhar continued to write and Mottaiammal watched him eagerly. When he finished, folded the paper, and was just about to put it in its envelope, she asked, ardently “Please read it back to me.”
He answered her sharply.
“It’s all there, everything. Don’t you think a man has other things to do?’
He thrust the paper into its envelope and wrote down the address.
Mottaiammal’s expression altered at that moment.
She looked at him with distaste and said, “What do you mean, you’ve written down everything?”
“I’m doing well here. Are you keeping well, too? They are holding the festival in our village. Please be sure to come. I have a lot to tell you. Please come here so that I can tell you everything in person.’ That’s what you said. Isn’t it true? I know about it all, Thambi.”
She took her envelope back, little short of snatching it from his hands.
The truth was out. Sekhar, ashamed, got up and left without a word.
© Imayam. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2015 by Lakshmi Holmstrom. All rights reserved.
திங்கள், 5 நவம்பர், 2018
The Story of Nanmarankottai
Translated from the Tamil by Padma Narayanan
‘It is a good place, sir. All those who work here are good people, very co-operative. No party men, politician or local big wigs ever come into the school. It has been ten years since I came to this school. I have had no problems. You can also be here until your retirement, sir. True to its name Nanmarankottai, the place and its people are also good,’ said the physical instruction teacher, Dhanavel.
Ramanathan responded with just an, ‘Is that so?’
Having been promoted to headmaster of the new high school, Ramanathan had come that very morning from the Cuddalore district. He did not indulge in too much talk, thinking he did not know what kind of people or place it would turn out to be, and so it might be better to be more reticent, not talk too much or ask too many questions.
From the time he came in that morning he had a lot of work to attend to. The teachers came in one by one to congratulate him. He prepared the letters intimating the respective officers about his joining duty at that school. Then he had his lunch. Being seated for a long time made him feel sleepy. He thought it would be a shame if he lapsed into sleep the very first day. He looked at his wristwatch; it was a quarter past two.
‘Shall we visit all the classrooms, sir?’ he asked Dhanavel, who was sitting on a chair opposite him. Without refuting his suggestion Dhanavel got up ready to go, saying, ‘Yes, let us go, sir.’ Ramanathan came out of his room. Dhanavel followed him. ‘First let us take a look at the sixth standard; where is it?’ ‘Come with me, sir,’ said Dhanavel as he walked ahead of Ramanathan on the verandah. Ramanathan walked after him.
Dhanavel entered the sixth standard classroom. As soon as the teacher saw Ramanathan coming in, she welcomed him saying, ‘Please, come in, sir.’ Ramanathan looked at the students and at the blackboard. Then he said, ‘Continue,’ and left that classroom. Then he went into the seventh standard. He went from one class to another, covering all the rooms up to the twelfth
!1 / almost island, monsoon 2018
standard, speaking only one or two words to the teacher and coming out. Teachers were teaching in all the classes. The classes were silent, even more than in private schools. Ramanathan thought that perhaps the teachers had felt that since they did not know the kind of person the new headmaster was they should try not to make a bad impression on his very first day. Ramanathan came out of the school building. He ran his eyes over the playground. Something must have struck him that made him go round the grounds. Dhanavel was walking alongside. He came to the toilet that was directly to the south, away from the school building. He went into the toilet. The toilet was in such a deplorable state that it could not be used. He pinched his nose, came out and asked, ‘It is so badly maintained; where do the boys go?’
‘They relieve themselves behind the walls, sir.’
‘Is there one for the teachers?’
‘There is one next to the headmaster’s room, sir.’ ‘Is there a separate one for the lady teachers?’ ‘No, sir.’
‘Where do they go?’
‘The same one sir; they always go in pairs, sir. One goes inside and the other stays out, keeping watch,’ said Dhanavel letting out a small laugh.
‘In the school I worked previously, they had separate toilets. It was a big school.’ Dhanavel did not offer any comment on what Ramanathan said. He did not even ask, ‘Is that so?’
Ramanathan looked around at the school and its grounds. The school stood away from the center of the town, on a large area. A thought came to him that it would look better if it had a compound wall around it. The hot sun had spread all over the playground. It was sultry. He was sweating. He thought of saying that it seemed to be quite hot even in the month of January, but he did not give voice to his thought. Just as Ramanathan felt that he did not know the kind of person Dhanavel would turn out to be and so did not want to engage in long conversation that might invite trouble, Dhanavel also had some reservations. Seeing a neem tree close by, Ramanathan said, ‘Let us go to the shadow of that tree.’ They both walked to the neem tree. Ramanathan looked all about him. The path that led from the road to the school caught his eye. It was covered with weeds. He thought they should be pulled out. He thought that the weeds covering the ground should also come out. If he issued the orders that day itself he might be seen as being bossy, so
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he would wait until the next day, he thought. As if the thought had just occurred to him, he asked, ‘What is the AHM like?’
‘He is a good man, sir. He will not be any trouble.’
He stopped with a terse – ‘Is that so?’ – and did not proceed to ask the next question. Dhanavel also did not volunteer anything. Both of them stood for a while looking at the grounds.
‘You have to go to the treasury and present a copy of your promotion order; also, give them a specimen signature, sir.’
‘That can’t be done today. I plan to go tomorrow morning. Where is the treasury in this town?’
‘In Orathanadu, sir.’
‘Come, let us get the mail for the treasury ready,’ said Ramanathan and began to walk back. Dhanavel walked with him.
He came to his room and sat on the chair. ‘Please, call the clerk, sir,’ said Ramanathan. Dhanavel got up and brought the clerk from the next room.
‘I propose to go to the treasury tomorrow; can you get the relevant letters ready, sir?’
‘I’ll get them ready, sir.’ He went back to his room as soon as he had given his reply. Dhanavel was still standing there. Because Ramanathan did not venture to say anything to him, he said, ‘You take some rest. I shall come later, sir,’ and went out. Within a few minutes he came back and said, ‘A woman has come to meet you, sir.’
‘Meet me?’ asked Ramanathan in a voice that showed disbelief.
‘If it is any problem regarding students, then you find out what the problem is and send her off. I don’t know anything about this school yet,’ said Ramanathan.
‘I’ll see what the matter is, sir,’ said Dhanavel and went out.
Ramanathan was considering whether he should speak to Dhanavel about the affairs of the school, about the teachers and so on. He wondered if it would be proper to ask for all the details the very first day of his coming there, or perhaps he should wait for a week before he made the enquiries. If he talked about them on the first day, he might be misunderstood; and before that he had to find out what kind of man Dhanavel was, he decided. He planned to spend the night at the school, go to the treasury the next day, hand over his appointment order and the letter that the minister had signed; then he could go back to his hometown in the afternoon. After spending Saturday
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and Sunday there, he could come back on Monday and then decide where he would stay. He looked at the pictures of Gandhi, Ambedkar, Periyar and Netaji that had been put up on the wall. Then, as if he had important work to do, he looked at his watch. When he saw what the time was, the expression on his face changed. He took out a bottle of water and drank some. Then he took out the teachers’ register and began to read the names of the teachers. Then Dhanavel came in and said, ‘The woman has come asking for transfer certificates. I told her that they could not be issued now, but she won’t listen, sir.’
‘Ask her to come in.’
Dhanavel went out and came back with a woman and three children. Without even taking a look at that woman and her children, Ramanathan asked straight away, ‘Tell me, Amma.’
‘This boy’s name is Dinesh Kumar; he is in the seventh class. This one is Santosh Kumar; he is in the sixth, sir.’
‘Where are they studying?’
‘In this school, sir.’
‘Any problem? Did any teacher beat them up?’
‘Then why are you asking for the TCs?’
‘Tomorrow we are going to our town, sir.’
‘Go; why do you want the TC for that?’
‘We are not coming back, sir.’
‘There must have been a quarrel between the mother-in-law and the daughter-in-law. The husband must have beaten her. She must be asking for her children’s transfer certificates in a fit of anger. What kind of woman she must be!’ He thought of asking her why she involved the children in a fight between husband and wife, but he did not voice the question. Why bother with the problems of others, he thought.
‘Come in the month of June; you can take them.’
‘I am going to my mother’s place. We will not come back to this town at any time.’
‘Try to understand what I’m telling you, ma. We are not allowed to issue transfer certificates in the month of January. If we disobey the rule, the DEO and the CEO will raise a thousand questions. There will be no end to answering them. You go now and come back later,’ Ramanathan spoke calmly. The woman continued to stand there as if she had not heard him. The
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way she stood without moving, as if ready for a wrestling bout, irritated Ramanathan. He rued that he should be facing a problem on the first day of his coming there.
As if arguing on behalf of the headmaster, Dhanavel told the woman, ‘Did you not get what Aiya said? Come in the month of June; you can take the certificates as soon as you come. Go away, now.’
That woman did not heed his words. She did not even turn to look at him.
This made Dhanavel angry.
‘Do you or do you not understand what we are saying? We cannot give the TCs now. Leave.’ Dhanavel’s voice came out louder than before. Even then, that woman did not pay attention to what he said; she did not even turn her eyes towards him. Ramanathan looked at Dhanavel and the woman, one after the other. He said, ‘You sit down, sir.’ Dhanavel sat on a chair and glared at the woman. But she never looked at him until the end.
‘Come back in June, ma.’ Not heeding the weariness and disgust in his voice, the woman spoke in a firm tone, ‘We are going away, deciding that we never want to have anything to do with this town, sir.’
‘You are just repeating what you have been saying. You refuse to understand what I am trying to tell you. I cannot issue the TCs at this time of the year. Even if I overlook the rule and give them to you, you will not be able to use them to put your children in any school anywhere. Only the children of IAS and IPS officers will get admitted now, understand?’ The woman did not seem to accept the explanation Ramanathan was giving her. So he thought she might be a headstrong woman. At that moment, the clerk brought two sheets of typed paper and placed them before Ramanathan. He picked up those two letters and went over them carefully. Then he signed them, gave them back to the clerk and said, ‘Put them in an envelope.’ The clerk picked up the papers and went out.
Ramanathan looked with irritation at the woman and her three children standing before him. What a nuisance on his first day there, he thought. He got angry with them. Without expressing his anger, he said, ‘Don’t put me in a fix by continuing to stand there. Go and come back in June, ma.’ His tone showed that his patience was on the wane.
For no apparent reason, the woman suddenly said, ‘We are scared to be in this town, sir. That’s why I ask for the certificates.’
‘Why should you fear to be in your native place, ma?’ As if it was some joke, he laughed.
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‘If we stay on, we will get killed, sir.’
‘What are you saying, ma?’ asked Ramanathan, confused by her statement, and looked at Dhanavel. That man sat there as if he had nothing at all to do with the issue.
‘Is it a quarrel between husband and wife?’ The woman did not reply to Ramanathan’s question. Santosh Kumar, who was standing to her right, was the one who came up with a response. ‘They killed my father with a wooden spear with a pointed metal tip, sir.’
Ramanathan asked with surprise, ‘What are you saying?’ His face and voice changed. He looked at the woman as if asking her whether what the boy said was true. Her face did not betray anything. He noticed the tiredness and stern look on her face only then. There was no thali on her neck. Not even a bead chain. Her arms did not even have rubber bangles. She stood there as if she were hauling a huge burden. He turned his eyes to the boy. The boy must have had his head tonsured just some ten to twenty days back. The newly sprouting hairs stood straight like thorns. The head of Dinesh Kumar who was standing next to him was also in a similar state. He looked at the girl who must have been some seven or eight years old. He noticed only then that the girl had been staring without taking her eyes off him. Not only on the girl’s face but on the boys’ faces as well, there was no life. He looked at each of their faces once more. The woman was quite tall; very dark complexioned; wearing a parrot-green sari. She would not have been more than thirty-five years old. But her face looked like that of a sixty or seventy-year-old woman. Not an ounce of flesh anywhere on her body. The way she had been standing like a ramrod planted on the ground, right from the time she came in! Not just her, her three children were also standing stiff without moving their limbs, not looking this side or that, not even shifting from one leg to another, not disengaging their hands which they had kept folded, not moving, not turning their necks … A marvel, indeed! There was not a single trace of childhood on their faces. He looked once again at the woman and her three children.
‘Whatever it may be, the TCs cannot be given out now. You may go; go without troubling Aiya. The school does not need your family history,’ Dhanavel said firmly. Without minding his words, the woman looked at Ramanathan and said in a decisive tone, ‘If we are to stay alive, you have to give us the TCs.’
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The woman’s speech was like that of a headstrong woman. But her appearance and the way she stood there were completely in contrast to that. Ramanathan could not decide what to make of her.
‘The promotion should have come to me in August; after court, case and all that I got the order in my hand and joined work only today. I do not know anything about the state of affairs in this school. Let me make enquiries and then I’ll let you know. You come back later. Why did you have to bring the children?’ Ramanathan asked. He thought that it would be good if the woman left the room as soon as possible. But it did not appear as if she would. So Ramanathan asked, ‘How did it happen?’
‘Just as they do every year, this year also they had the bull race for Mattu Pongal. Our bull won in the race. So they stabbed the animal as well as my husband with a spear.’
Ramanathan did not say anything; he did not feel like speaking. He kept looking at the woman.
‘Only yesterday, the funeral rites got over. I have to go to my mother’s place this evening.’
Ramanathan was taken aback. He looked at Dhanavel as if asking him whether what the woman said was true. Dhanavel understood why Ramanathan looked at him and said, ‘This is something that happens every year, sir.’ Ramanathan became more scared and shocked than before. In a voice that sounded as if he was afraid somebody might overhear him, he asked, ‘What is the connection between a bull race and a man being chopped up?’ Dhanavel did not give any reply to that. It was the woman who spoke.
‘Was it not he who reared the bull? Was he not the owner?’
‘But the entire town must have got together and held the race, no?’ ‘Nobody thought our bull would win; that was the problem.’
‘What does it matter whose animal wins a race? Is that not why a race is held?’
‘We are colony people; our animal is colony bull.’
It appeared as if Ramanathan had a grasp of the issue; yet he was confused.
‘Where did the race take place?’
‘In front of the Melayiamman temple.’
‘Where is it?’
‘In their street.’
‘You are not from that street?’
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‘We are colony people.’
‘All these years, whose bull won the race?’
‘Had your bull not participated in the race all these years?’
‘This is the first year they called us. We didn’t enter the race hoping to win. The animal got scared when they burst crackers, and ran in a frenzy and crossed the boundary line.’
‘Does the bull know anything about winning?’ Ramanathan posed the question to no one in particular. Dhanavel did not reply, nor did the woman. Since both of them were silent, Ramanathan asked, ‘Why do they burst crackers?’
‘It is done, sir. All those who are taking part in the race will bring their animals and stand in front of the temple. For two furlongs they put up barricades on both sides forming an enclosure. A line is drawn at some point. They burst big crackers in the place where the bulls stand. The noise makes the bulls run. The one that crosses the line first is given the prize. There are particular people who train the bulls for this race.’
‘The bull runs because it is frightened.’
Dhanavel did not respond to that comment. As if he had just remembered it, Ramanathan asked the woman, ‘Was there not a police case or something?’
‘They just wrote in the record that the man died because the bull gored him.’
‘Didn’t you do anything?’
‘The whole town got together and wrote it down; I also put my signature to it.’
Ramanathan expected the woman to break down then and cry, but she did not. Not even a whimper or a sob came out of her. She did not knit her eyebrows, did not frown, did not move from her place, did not speak harshly. She spoke each word as calmly as it could be spoken. Her words did not appear as if she were heart-broken or wished to elicit sympathy. Her face had not lost any of its sternness and was as grim as it had been when she entered the room.
Again as if suddenly remembering, Ramanathan asked Dhanavel, ‘Where is your village?’
‘Close by, sir; about ten kilometers away, sir.’
‘Do they have bull races there as well?’
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‘They do have them, sir.’
As if he had decided not to ask any more questions, he was silent. He drank some water as if he felt very tired. He considered asking the woman and Dhanavel many questions. The next moment he decided against it, thinking that it might be a mistake, and kept quiet. He thought of ways to send the woman out. He did not have the heart now to say in just one word, as he had done earlier, that he could not help her. Just as he was wondering what he should say to make her go, a lady teacher came in.
‘Yes, tell me, teacher.’
‘Tomorrow I am on casual leave, sir,’ she said and also gave him the leave letter. He took her application and asked, ‘Do you have some urgent work, ma?’
‘Tomorrow is my daughter’s birthday, sir.’
‘Oh, is that so? Give her my best wishes.’
‘Thanks, I shall take my leave now, sir.’
He noticed how the teacher looked, only as she was leaving; very short, fat and light complexioned; she had a cluster of chains around her neck. He looked once at her application to see what her name was. Parimalam. He looked at his watch. It was four o’clock. As if he was in a hurry as soon as he saw what the time was, he told the woman who was still standing there, ‘Okay, come back sometime later, ma.’
‘I am not able to live in this town, sir,’
‘I have not done anything wrong, ma,’ he said and tried to give a faint laugh. He thought he would be happy if he could somehow send the woman out of the room. He did not want to bother himself about the problems in the town. ‘Just pull on until May and then get a transfer back to your hometown; it doesn’t matter how many lakhs I will be spending to get that. This place seems to be rather horrible,’ he thought. Then, the woman spoke emphatically.
‘My children and I do not want this town, sir.’
‘If you leave the place, what will happen to all your possessions?’
‘I don’t have anything of that sort, sir. My father-in-law and mother-in-law are dead. All my three sisters-in-law are married and settled. I just have a house, that too with a thatched roof.’
Ramanathan did not know what reply to give her. ‘She keeps repeating what she says; seems to do what she wants.’ Though he thought that here was
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a woman who was not willing to listen to anything anybody said, when he considered her condition, he felt sorry for her. He thought of speaking a few words of comfort. He looked keenly at the woman’s face. It looked as if she had not slept for many days. He could not bear to keep looking at her face. He thought of saying something and making her leave. But he had no clue as to what he could say. So, he asked, ‘What’s your name?’
‘Your husband’s name?’
‘Ok, ma. You must go now.’
‘Neither I nor my children can bear to see, every day, the people who murdered my husband with a hunter’s spear and live on in this place. I am going away, foregoing all claims to this soil.’
‘Do as you wish to. The children do not even have to write the annual exams; they are only in the sixth and seventh classes; I will myself mark them ‘pass’. You come back in June and take the certificates. That’s all I can do for you.’
The woman placed a 500-rupee note on Ramanathan’s table. When he saw that, he was enraged. ‘What are you doing, ma? Do you think that I am making you take repeated visits to get some money? If the laws permitted me I would have given them to you in one instant. Pick up your money, first of all. In my thirty years of service I have never taken a single paisa from the students. Do you know that? It was my mistake that I spoke a few extra words of comfort to you.’ As Ramanathan started to shout, the woman picked up her money. With a frown Ramanathan said, ‘Now, leave.’ The woman did not go out. The children did not move either. Surprised at the way they refused to move, he looked at the woman and her three children. They had not put oil on their heads and that made them appear more gaunt and unappealing. Touched by that, Ramanathan said, as if speaking to himself, ‘I am also a human being. If I could do what you want me to, would I not do it?’
‘They could have stopped with killing the bull. Their saying, ‘How could your bull win?’ and with the entire town behind them killing the man with a spear mounted on a stick … I saw it with my own eyes; my three children saw it too.’
‘Stop talking about it, ma; that has nothing to do with the school.’
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‘They did not even let me have his body at my house for a day; I would have, to my heart’s content, taken the body in my arms and cried. They asked that the body be cremated immediately.’
‘It is hard to hear about it. No one in the world will believe it if we said that such a thing happened in Tamil Nadu even in the year 2013,’ Ramanathan said in a voice that appeared to be tired. Then in a broken voice he asked, ‘How old would he be?’
‘Thirty-eight; the days we cooked meat, we cooked fish, he would be the one to cook; he would say that if you ate it your eyes should water. That was how he ate; that was how he fed the children as well.’
‘Do they have this bull racing in your village of birth too?’ ‘They do.’
‘Okay, Amma. Let me think about it and I will come back to you. You go now; see, the children are also standing.’
‘In all the fifteen years since I came here after my marriage, I have not slept in that house without him even for a day, sir,’ the woman said. Ramanathan looked at her to see if, at least then, she was crying. She did not cry. Not a drop in her eyes. He turned his gaze to the girl, standing between her mother’s two legs without moving her head this way or that. She was standing without even wiping the sweat that was running down her face. One cannot say what thought struck Ramanathan, that he asked the little girl, ‘Come here.’ The child came and stood near him.
‘What’s your name?’
‘In front of which Sami temple did the race for the bulls take place?’ ‘Melayiamman.’
‘Before which temple was your father killed?’
‘Before the Melayiamman temple, sir.’
‘There is nothing more to say; you go and come back later,’ said Ramanathan and, getting up, suddenly went out.
His walking out irritated Selvamani. She got worried about whether the business she had come for would get done or not. She was upset that whatever she said did not make any impact on him. She kept thinking of what to say to make him give her the TCs. What could she say?
On Pongal day at about 11 o’clock, when Muthuraman took his bulls to the river to bathe them, Anbarasan, the brother of the head of the Municipal
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Council, saw him. ‘There is going to be a race; take your bull also and get it to run,’ he said.
‘That will create trouble.’
‘Is your bull going to win? It looks all skin and bones, as if ready to go to a slaughter-house; it will not be accepted even there,’ said Anbarasan and laughed. Muthuraman did not reply. He was about to proceed with his animals.
‘Let them be part of the crowd; let them go,’ Anbarasan insisted and, taking the lead ropes from Muthuraman’s hand forcibly, gave them to a man standing by, saying, ‘Take them.’ The venue for the race was close by and arrangements for the race were going on.
‘Don’t take them; don’t.’ Muthuraman’s cries did not appear to fall on Anbarasan’s ears. He went to the race site, laughing. With no other place to go, Muthuraman followed him. Both the local people and those from outside never questioned either Muthuraman’s coming or his bulls entering the race. They did not drive them away. Neither he nor his bulls mattered to them at all. Each one was busy getting his bull ready and more concerned with what they could do to win the race.
About a furlong away from Melayiamman temple, with a gap of some twenty feet in the middle, they had built a fence on both sides with stakes. Just behind the fence, men and women stood watching the fun. It was a motley crowd with people from different places.
There were perhaps more than 200 bulls. They were all made to stand in a way that allowed them to run in the gap between the fences. When those who had come for the race with their bulls from different villages and many of the town’s elite got together and decided when the crackers should be burst and the bulls let out to start running, some from the crowd went to where the animals were and began to set fire to big crackers and strings of them. Scared by the sound, the bulls began to run. With an injury to its leg caused by the crackers, one of Muthuraman’s bulls ran and crossed the finishing line. The entire crowd was shouting, ‘Whose bull was it? Whose bull?’ Muthuraman, unaware of his bull winning, went around looking for his bulls. When he found them and was bringing them over, leading them with the ropes in his hand, a few people came and asked him, ‘Is this your bull?’
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Only when they asked, ‘How did this win?’ Muthuraman came to know that his bull had won the race. When he got to know the news, he got terribly angry. ‘Which bull was it?’ he asked.
One of the boys identified the bull with the injured leg and said, ‘It is this bull.’ Muthuraman immediately began to beat the bull with his whip. He kicked it until his anger reduced a little. He abused it with foul words. ‘Come; I’ll deal with you later,’ he said and began to drive them away. Some seven or eight persons followed him. Another crowd came from the side of the temple and blocked his way. The leader of the Panchayat asked him, ‘Why are you going away without taking your prize?’ He said, ‘I don’t want any of that.’
‘How did you come here? How did your bull come?’ the leader asked in a fit of great anger.
‘I was going to the river; it was your brother who drove the bulls to the race saying, “Enter them, Da.” I told him I didn’t want to.’
‘They will ask you to die, will you die?’ When he asked Muthuraman the question, his body was trembling.
‘It was a mistake,’ Muthuraman said. Then he beat the bull with his whip. Unable to bear the pain, the bull tried to run off. He tried to walk on with the bulls. A crowd stood preventing him and his bulls from walking on.
‘In a race where ten villages take part, can we proclaim that it was your bull that won? Did we hold the race for you to win?’ the Panchayat chief shouted angrily.
‘It was a mistake. I did not do it purposely; don’t I know the ways of our village? I shall take it straight to the butcher.’ Muthuraman spoke humbly. But there was no one in that place who would listen to anything he said.
‘Just because you dispose of your bull, will the shame I faced in front of the people of ten villages go away?’ the chief asked angrily. As time went by, his voice and face took on more excitement. Those around them were also shouting angrily. One of them asked, ‘What kind of bulls did we raise? Why not chop them all off?’ They began to abuse their bulls, which had not won the race, in foul and vulgar language. Someone from the crowd came in a spurt of anger and went to whip his bull.
‘No one on your street has any bulls; how come you have one?’ asked the chief.
‘I bought it just last week to haul loads of sand.’
‘I see. That was why he would have asked you to bring the bull to run in the race.’
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‘It was a mistake, sir.’
Selvamani and her children came running. They were shocked to see Muthuraman with his bulls in the middle of a huge crowd. In her despair, Selvamani began to cry. She had no clue about what was happening in the crowd. She did not know what to do. All she could do then was cry. Seeing her, the children also began to cry. Then a young man in trousers and a shirt kicked the bull hard, saying, ‘It was all because of this bull.’ No one knows what struck the boy standing next to him, who said, ‘You could see the path and run only because you had the eyes, no,’ and with the same impetus, he poked both the eyes of the bull one after another with a stick he had in his hand. The bull’s eyes fell out of its head. Some three or four boys held the tether tightly to hold back the bull that, unable to bear the pain, tried to run. In its pain when the bull turned this way and that, it accidentally stamped on one boy’s foot. In pain, the man shouted, ‘Kill it.’ As if he were already ready, another man, in a frenzy, stabbed the stomach of the animal with his long spear. With the second stab, the innards of the animal fell out.
‘Should torn slippers win over us?’
‘No, sami; no, sami.’
‘Should someone living on waste lands win over us?’ ‘No, sami; no, sami.’
‘Should those who eat pork and beef win over us?’ ‘No, sami; no, sami.’
As the head asked in a fit of fury, Muthuraman and Selvamani answered crying and bowing to him with folded arms.
‘Just spare us,’ both Muthuraman and Selvamani fell at the feet of all and sundry in the crowd, bowing and praying to be allowed to go. As he fell at the chief’s feet, somebody from behind pierced his back with a spear. The next poke fell on his stomach.
Only after the bull and Muthuraman lay there dead, did the crowd seem a bit quieter. Their anger seemed to be abating. The head called the three boys who had speared both Muthuraman and the bull and said something. The boys immediately moved away from the crowd and hurried off.
Hearing the news of Muthuraman’s death the people of his street came and raised a ruckus. The chief and the villagers got together and said that Muthuraman had died because the bull had butted and gored him. And because the bull had killed the man, they had killed the bull. That was their story. Selvamani shouted, ‘It is a lie,’ and Anbarasan slapped her on her
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mouth and asked, ‘Do you want to live or not?’ The entire village asked the same question of her. The chief said, ‘The man died because the bull butted him; take the corpse.’ When the people of Muthuraman’s street refused, the head as well as the villagers got angry. ‘If you want the village to have a normal life, take the corpse away. If you will not do it, the problem will get bigger; I speak only for your good. If you want us, want the village, listen to what I say,’ said the chief. The village endorsed it. When Selvamani and her street-people refused to do so, the head just asked one question, ‘Do you want your street to continue to exist or not?’ The crowd that was there also asked the same question. The people of Muthuraman’s street were confused as to what they should do when more than a thousand families spoke thus. Selvamani could also not create any big stir there then because Muthuraman did not have any brothers, uncle, brothers-in-law or parents she could depend upon.
‘You should not go to the police or file a case and all that. This is a case of a man dying because a bull attacked him; such a case will not pass muster. It is a well-known fact that many people in many places have died because bulls have butted them. If you disobey me and bring the police inside the village, you know what will happen to you.’ The powerful man’s threats made the people of Muthuraman’s street fear that their houses might get burnt down at night. What could a mere hundred people do before a crowd of two to three thousand people? Some of them asked Selvamani, ‘Why did he have to take the bull for the race?’ They scolded Muthuraman for having brought the anger of the village upon them. Normally, he was not a troublesome man; he did not get into fights or broils and minded his business quietly. They all knew that he would not, of his own accord, taken the bull to run in the race. Yet they said that it was wrong of him to go to the race. It was bedlam; each person shouting whatever came to his mind. They abused Muthuraman. In her distressed state, Selvamani was confused as to whose words she should listen to.
‘We’ll meet the expenses of disposing off the corpse; we’ll take care of the expense of dealing with the police as well. The corpse should be removed at once. It should not be buried; it should be burnt.’ The chief ordered Selvamani and those who spoke on her behalf did not know what to do. Should they all stand up against the whole village just for one man?
‘In the race when the bull ran in a frenzy, it knocked him down and gored him to death,’ the head wrote, and asked the people to sign it. The village also
!15 / almost island, monsoon 2018
asked for it. ‘I saw with my own eyes that he was pierced with a long spear mounted on a pole.’ Selvamani’s words and cries did not fall on anybody’s ears. The words of the head and the villagers that Muthuraman had died because the bull had butted him, were what carried weight. If the village got together and a crowd gathered, then what they said was law.
Selvamani even considered going to the police without anybody’s knowledge. She could approach the police, file a case; but the question came up as to who would come as witness. It was the village, that had four years before pricked out Jayalakshmi’s eyes because she had prayed when the Sami’s procession came round; the place where, just because she had touched the rope of the god’s chariot, the hands of nine-year-old Rosie were scorched. Could she go to the police against such a village? Even if she did, would she win? Her house could get torched at night because she went to the police with a complaint against the village. If they caught her alone she might get raped; if she was prepared to put up with everything and seek police help, whom did she have on her side? She had no brothers, either older or younger than her. Muthuraman also had no brothers. Who would fight for Muthuraman? Even if they did fight, how long would they be able to keep it up? ‘Would I not have to stay all by myself with the dead body of my husband a whole day and night,’ thought Selvamani, and put her signature on the paper that read, ‘In the bull race that was held, Muthuraman died because a bull butted him down.’ When she signed the paper she did not cry; her hands did not shake.
Selvamani wondered if she would be given the TCs at least after she had narrated the entire incident. Selvamani and her children were standing in the same place as if determined not to leave the place without the certificates.
Ramanathan who came in just then said harshly, ‘Leave now, ma; it is getting late.’
‘A life has been lost. I want at least these three children to live; at least for their sake, give me the TCs, sir,’ she said and folded her palms in reverence. It was only then that tears flowed in streams from her eyes.
!16 / almost island, monsoon 2018http://almostisland.com/monsoon_2018/pdf/the_story_of_nanmarankottai.pdf