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.