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
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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
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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