A translation of B.Jeyamohan’s Tamil short story Vanangaan (2015). The Tamil story can be read here.
My name is Vanangaan. It means ‘he who does not bow’, a stubborn stiffneck. Yes, that’s really my name. If you want my full name, it’s K.Vanangaan Nadar. No, it’s not my clan-god’s name or anything like that. No one in my family has had this name before me. No one in my caste or kin has such a name. I haven’t met another man with this name. Why, I have never met a single person who has even heard of this name.
It was my father who gave me this name. From the day he gave me this name till the day he died, for twenty-seven years, he kept talking about my name. After getting my engineering degree, my first job was in Bhilai, far to the north. To their ears, our names are all the same. However, the Tamils and Malayalees there used to ask me about my name.
It has been four years since I have come back to Tamil Nadu after retirement. I have a house in the suburbs of Nellai where I live with my wife and daughter. My daughter and son-in-law are disgruntled to hear me use my full name everywhere. Why don’t you just call yourself ‘K.V.Nadar’, they ask. That’s how they refer to me. I don’t, I prefer to use my full name everywhere. If someone looks up in surprise and asks me about it, then I proceed to tell them its story.
My father’s name was Karuthaan. It means ‘darkie’. Did he also have a surname? Nadar? Well, don’t ask me that. You have no idea about the caste order of those days. There were many kinds of Nadars. Those with lands to their name and pride in their hoary clans would call themselves Nadars. They had homes with courtyards and outhouses and orchads; fields and haystacks and cowsheds. They paid tribute to kings.
For the rest, it was an extravagance to even have a name of your own. My father was born dark, he became Karuthaan. His brother had a large lip, so he was Sundan. His sister was a little more light-skinned than the rest, so she became Vellakutty. It was just like how you would name dogs. I’m not talking about the caste landowners’ dogs, they had fine names. I’m talking about the streetdogs.
My grandfather’s name was Ezhaan. Seventh. He could have been the seventh child. His mother had had nine children, two survived – that’s right, just like dogs. I have seen grandfather’s sister Kunji when I was young. A dark, crooked old crone, but she had a tough body. Though withered and shrunk and shriveled and humped, she lived till eighty. Till she died, she worked in the fields – bearing loads of manure on her head, fetching water for the vegetables, planting banana trees. She was hauling a whole cluster of bananas to the local market, when, with an ache in her chest, she stopped to rest outside a palm sugar shop. She lay down, closed her eyes, and with an expression on her face as if she was enjoying an agreeable breeze of wind, she died.
My grandfather worked as a yearly-wage labourer in the house of a land-owning, upper-caste Karai Nair in town. Their people owned lands and groves all over town. They had two managers, also from the Nair caste, called Kariyastha Nairs, who took care of all the property. For harvesting cocounuts and braiding baskets from coconut fronts, they had fellows from the Kaippalli caste. To pound the grain, women from the Achari caste. Pulayars took care of the rice fields. For all the other menial jobs, there were Nadars. Each caste of workers had its own leader, an overseer. This man was the soverign king of his little kingdom with power to slaughter and bury at will, no questions asked. The rest were consigned to live as the lowest of the low, under the very land his feet stepped on.
In that order of things, everybody was below somebody else. One of the markers of your place in the structure was splittle. Your saliva. If the overseer spat on the wage slave, the wage slave could not wipe it off as long as the overseer was still there. If the manager spat out a long, red stream of chewed-up betel nut juice on the overseer in a fit of anger, then the overseer would have to stand there take it with a meek smile. But the manager waited with a spittoon ready for his master, the Nair, and whenever a member of the Nair’s family puckered up his betel-chewing mouth in readiness to spit, he had to bring it forward under the man’s face. And if someone from the king’s clan visited, the Karai Nair himself had to carry the spittoon and deferentially follow at the heels of the guest.
There were no daily-wage labourers in those days. The wages were grain, given twice a year during the harvest. You brought the grain home, dried it, and stored it in pots. If you occasionally husked and boiled a little to make some hot gruel, it might last you for two or three months. It took a lot of mental fortitude to make that grain last till the famine month of Aadi. On all other days, you had to make do with the gruel that was doled out of the huge cauldrons at the landlord’s house, along with cassava mash and sour greens. That was only for lunch. At dusk, after the day’s work, you could make a detour into the forest and forage for something that you could cook and eat. That was dinner. Mostly root vegetables. Sometimes greens. If you were lucky, you got a rabbit, or a mongoose, or a bandicoot.
It was a life where you were unaware of the existence of any part of your body except for your stomach. Like an evil spirit seething with unquenched rage, your stomach kept simmering all over. I have heard my grandmother say that hunger is like when the roof’s on fire. Whatever comes to your hand, you fling onto it and try to put it out, there’s no need to wait and examine whether it is worth losing or not. For hunger is the greatest torment that there is.
My grandfather started going to work the day he started walking. He has no memory of a day when he did not work. Backbreaking work that was peppered with thrashings and an unending volley of abuse was followed by an abject weariness at the end of the day that made him drop off to sleep right where he stood. He woke up before dawn the following day to kicks and thrashes to do it all over again. This was all the life he knew. The only knowledge he had about society was how deep he had to bow before different classes of people. His picture of society was simply a hierarchy of deference.
One day, during work, my grandfather hid in the bushes to eat his mid-morning meal. It was the month of the harvest, my grandmother had made him some rice gruel the previous day. She fermented the leftovers overnight and brought it along with her in a little pot. My grandfather loved the sour, fermented day-old cooked rice. While he was hurriedly gobbling it up, the grandson of the Karai Nair happened to go that way to the Sastha temple along with the manager. He was fifteen. He spotted my grandfather eating in the bushes.
When my grandfather saw him, he got up and brought his hands close to his chest and bending over like a manacle, sat down on his haunches and kept his eyes cast down. The little pot with the gruel was next to him. What passed through the boy’s mind, I don’t know, but with his foot, he kicked some mud into the pot. “Eat!” he said. When my grandfather hesitated a little, the overseer brought down his switch on his back and started hitting him repeatedly.
Like a man possessed, my grandfather lifted the pot to his lips and in a single gulp, downed everything in the pot. Then, retching and heaving, he sunk back on his haunches and arched his body into the ground. The boy kicked mud on my grandfather again, and left the place sniggering. The manager and the overseer joined him in his mirth.
At a distance, my father, Appa, was carrying loads of rice seedlings. To his eyes, my grandfather’s bent, shrunken body looked like a pile of dung. He could smell the stench, he thought. He could see the foul odour and the worms rise from it. At that time, he was filled with an unbearable hatred his father. His heart longed for the man’s death, right then, right there. His tears spilling over into the sludge of rice fields, he turned and walked away.
That night, he spoke to his mother in the presence of his father. “I’m going,” he said. “Ask your son where,” replied my grandfather. “No more place for me here. My food lies elsewhere,” said my father. “That’s right, as if you have food set aside for you waiting somewhere. It’s your good fortune that you get some gruel here. If you don’t want to starve and die in the street, just do your work and be,” replied my grandfather, not looking at him.
“So when every passing dog kicks up mud into my gruel, should I drink it?” Appa burst out. “You sinner, you dare to speak about our master?” cried out my grandfather. “Our lord, our master who feeds us?” and in rage, he picked up the first thing lying around, a broomstick, and started hitting my father over and over. “You are not my son! No, you are a thankless dog… you are not my son at all!” he shouted breathlessly.
The coarse sticks from the broom poking him all over, his body burning, my father stormed out of the hut and sat in the pit dug for planting the little coconut tree. When it was well and truly dark, my grandmother came outside. “Let it go, child… you know his nature. You come in, I will give you some steamed tubers…” she put her arm around him and led him back into the house. They ate the steamed tubers to quench their hunger and slept. But at midnight, Appa woke up and left the house.
However, they caught him easily. When he entered the main road in Nattalam, the man lying on a haystack keeping guard caught sight of him. At the same time, his dog also saw him. It bounded out barking and caught hold of him. The guard came behind the dog and tying him up with the cloth around his waist, dragged him back to his master’s house.
The next morning, the first thing the landlord saw was my father lying outside, bruised and mudstreaked. My father’s overseer was summoned, he got twenty strokes with a switch. They dragged my grandfather there and buried him waist deep in the manure pit. He brought this hands together imploringly. “Master, golden master… he is naive, he does not know what he’s doing. Take heart, please take heart, don’t kill him…” he wailed.
The landlord had the habit of petting his elephant, the tusker Kochaiyappan, every morning. The animal was brought to his front yard in the morning and stayed there restrained through the day, it would be taken back only in the evening. In those days, it was considered auspicious to have a tusker standing in front of your house, its big ears gently fanning back and forth. The servant Nanan Nair brought out a big platter with jaggery and coconut for the elephant. An idea struck the landlord.
“Bring him,” he said. They bound my father’s hands and legs and brought him to the landlord. In accordance with his instructions, they hammered down a stake deep in the space between the four legs of the elephant, and tied my father to that post. My father screamed and flailed in panic. Once he was under the elephant, it was as if his breath had stopped; his sheer terror was visible only by the gentle tremor on the surface of his body. In some time, there was shit and piss coming out of him.
The landlord sat there laughing for a while and then got up. “Let him be there till dusk. Let Kochaiyappan decide whether he should be killed or not,” he said, and left. Appa slowly came back to his senses. In some time, his fear disappeared. Till the end of his days Appa used to marvel at this memory – how his mind became so clear, how he could succinctly remember every little thing that happened that day.
Each leg of the elephant was like the base of a red cotton tree that grows in the jungle, full of cracks and folds; massive and rounded like a felled trunk that had been planted there. It had toenails like the white undersides of cut rootlets. As time passed the toenails started looking like the teeth of a massive demon. They seemed to be sneering at my father. Over his head, the underbelly of the elephant loomed like the stone roof of a low cave. Its penis was like an enormous plough.
Twice, the elephant brushed my father with its trunk; my father thought it was a blow and jumped in terror. After that, the elephant left him alone. With three legs firmly planted on the ground, the animal lifted and shifted his fourth foot on the ground; you could see the underside of the foot then. It was like a huge bundle of clothes. My father noticed that it was shifting its weight often, now on this leg, now on that, and thumping the ground with his big foot. When it tore apart a sugarcane stalk, the animal landed on its foot sending soil flying into the air, Appa yelped, “Ayyo!” Then he observed how the animal was placing the stalk against its foot very carefully. Huge balls of dung landed on the ground behind him with a thump, with the scent of warm, moist vegetation rising off them. Urine the colour of moss poured down on the piles of dung like a mountain stream. Appa’s body had the rank stink of elephant piss.
In the evening when the elephant was taken away, Appa kept lying there. They dragged him away and secured him to a coconut tree with some rope. They brought out my grandfather who was neck deep in the manure pit, and gave him a blow, “Get out of here.” The hot manure pit had burned his skin. His shrunk skin peeling off his body like on a cooked stork, he beat his fists on his chest and cried aloud, “Spare my son, golden master! My keeper, my god… my lord, spare my son, I beg you!” Wailing thus, and getting many more blows in return, he left the place.
All through the night, my father loosed the bonds on his hands bit by bit with his teeth. Then with a sharp stone, he cut the rest of the bonds. He escaped into the darkness of the midnight. This time, he avoided all the roads and thoroughfares. He sneaked his way through the plantations and bushes and fields.
While he ran, his heart with filled with revulsion towards his father. He kept spitting in disgust all the way. The next day, he wondered what fate was in store for his father. “Motherfucker, let him die,” he told himself. It was only sixteen years later when, one day, we were all eating day-old rice together that Appa realized that, even in the throes of prolonged hunger, his father had never touched old rice since that fateful day. He had dissolved into tears then. As Appa used to say “If a man is born wretched, even his revenge can’t be wrecked upon anything except his own body and stomach and soul.”
Appa went from Nattalam to Karungkal and from there to Thingalsandhai. From there, to Nagarcoil. He was eight years old then. He had no truck with books and learning, he couldn’t read or write. He knew nothing about the world outside Nattalam where he had lived till then. Not even second-hand knowledge. In those days, you could reach those towns only by dusty country roads where only carts could travel. There were fields on both sides, occasionally interrupted by small towns. Most of the area was rocky jungle land. Since there were plenty of jackals and wolves in the area, people rarely ventured out at night.
However there is something such as a blissful ignorance. It has a strength beyond what one might imagine. This is one of the lessons that I have learned in all my years of existence. When a man is utterly guileless, God has to to slacken some of his merciless laws for him. He doesn’t have an option. It was on the back of that strength that my father managed to go so far.
When I mentioned this one day, Appa laughed. “Go on now, you senseless fellow. My whole body reeked of elephant. Do you think wild creatures would come near you if you smell like an elephant? How else do you think I managed to escape from the landlord’s yard? Twelve dogs they had on guard, twelve. They took one sniff at the elephant odour coming off my body and promptly scarpered away, their tails tucked between their legs.” My father was like that till the end; his rationality always trumped everything else.
The next evening, Appa reached Nagarcoil. He would have walked thirty-five kilometres. He was used to hunger; his dark, slender frame was used to all kinds of deprivations. When there was a forest fire, Appa used to say, there were always some branches that wouldn’t burn, but lie on the forest floor, burnt and blackened with soot. They used such sticks in their fields. They were diamond-bodied, it was said. No matter what you did, they would neither bend nor break. Appa was like that.
Appa has no memory of what he thought of Nagarcoil. Like an animal, he walked through the streets of the city looking for something to eat. His body was covered with mud and slush. He had covered his loins with a sheath from the betelnut tree tied around his waist. However you should have seen my father. It is rare to see a man more handsome than he. He looked a bit like Denzel Washington. He had kind, gentle eyes. Back then, his eyes would have been even more beautiful. They would have been like rounded stones lying at the botton of a jungle stream – dark, cool, lusturous.
There was an idli stall run by a man called Ganesan near Parvathipuram. Appa scraped the leftovers from the used banana-leaf plates heaped outside his shop, ate it and went to sleep right there. Ganesan was a good businessman who could drive a hard bargain. He knew it as soon as he saw Appa that this boy could work like a bull. He summoned the boy into the shop and gave him a wide-mouthed vessel full of day-old rice and leftovers. Once his stomach had come to it senses, Appa could stand straight. He told Ganesan his name. However, despite repeated questioning, he refused to state the name of his town or any other details. Ganesan realized that he would never be able to get a word more out of this fellow.
Appa worked there for four years. Every morning, he would wake up early and walk a furlong to a stream from where he would fetch pot after pot of water to fill a big wooden trough. Then there was work in the idli stall, till it closed at ten in the morning. After that, he would bring the dishes to the trough and clean them thoroughly with sand and ash. A second round of fetching water. In the evening, after the shop closed business for the day, he washed all the dishes again. It was midnight by the time he finished. He was the last one out every night, locking up the stall behind him.
Tired to the bone, he dropped off to sleep the minute he stretched himself out on the raised narrow porch at the back. However he was up when he heard the first chimes of the church bells in the morning. Ganesan used to often recall the one time when it was raining heavily, and how Appa slept through the downpour like a log though he was soaked to the bone. Appa never got sick. He only ate leftovers – he thoroughly scraped the bottoms of the dishes before washing them and made a meal out of it. No one ever called him aside to give him food.
However, Appa had escaped the violence and abuse of his former days. With regular food, his stomach filled out and his limbs became strong as iron. “A strapping figure, just like the demi-god Maadan, eh? You pube?” Chellappan of the betel-leaf stall used to say affectionately. However Appa now faced new insults. He was never allowed to touch freshly cooked food. Once, when the banana leaf covering a heap of cooked rice flew away, Appa took up another leaf and went towards the food. Ganesan flew out at him. “Hey! No! Don’t touch it! Get out! Out, now!” he hollered.
From that day onwards, he started seeing his new limitations. Except for the narrow sliver of a porch at the back, he was not allowed to sit down anywhere, in front of anybody. Nobody ever gave anything directly to his hand. It would be placed down, he had to pick it up. When he walked on the street, there were always a few people who hollered at him from a distance, “Get out of the way!”
However Appa was happy. He was growing strong, in body and in mind. He had learned to read on his own, and started reading every last piece of paper that passed through his fingers. He learned to do arithmetic. He had even learned to read English letters and started reading a few words here and there. When he was thirteen, he found a new job in Ambrose’s tea stall opposite the court in Nagarcoil. There, he worked as a server. Sometimes, he even cooked the food.
When he was fifteen, a school teacher who had made his acquaintance as a customer at the tea stall saw him reading a page from a tattered English newspaper. “Thambi, till which class did you study in school?” he enquired. “I have never gone to school,” said Appa. “Never?” he asked. “No.” He looked at Appa for a while keenly and asked, “Then how did you read English? Did you work for some white man?” “No, I learnt to read it on my own.”
He could not believe his ears. However, he had no other choice but to believe what he had seen. He said, “Karuththan, how old are you?” Appa was twenty then. “I think you can sit for the first form exams. I will give you the books. You just have to study for four or five months.” Appa read the books he gave him and in a month’s time, he knew them by heart. Till the end, I was astounded by his mental acumen. When he was eighty-two, eight months before he died, he sought out the new pastor at the church here and started learning Latin from him. The pastor still says that if he had only lived a couple of years more, he would have become a great Latin scholar.
Appa wrote the first form exam – that would correspond to our sixth grade – in the Scott Christian College and passed it in the first attempt. He kept working at the same tea stall and studied for the ESSLC exam, also passing that successfully. That is, our eighth grade level. After that, he had paid the fees to appear for the Matriculation exam. Since he was diligent with his duties at work, Ambrose the tea-stall owner had faith in him.
It was in 1921 that Appa met the man whose memory he kept on his lips, every day, every hour, in wonder, in awe, till the last day of his life. On the twelfth of July at eleven in the morning. It was a blazing hot day. A man, maybe twenty-five or twenty-six, dressed in a black coat and a white pleated dhoti, a white bow tie fastened around his neck in the manner of lawyers, entered the stall and sat on the bench. “Get me a cup of hot tea, son,” he said.
In those days, only Nadars used to visit that shop. There were very few lawyers among Nadars back then. Even the few Nadar lawyers were from Bungalow Street, they were London Mission Christians. They walked and talked like Anglo-Indians. They treated the other Nadars worse than the upper caste fellows did. But you could make out from one look that this man was from the south, from Vilavancode. His counteance, his gestures, were all typically provincial. He had undone the buttons of his coat for the heat and lifted his collar high above his neck. He had rolled up the sleeves of his coat till his elbow.
Appa said, “On that day, I did not know who he was. However at first glance, my heart figured him out. Even today the sight of him that day fills my eyes – the way he came in and sat and jiggled his legs and blew on his hot tea and he drank it… if you had seen the way he held himself, you’d have thought was a rural Nadar alright. With his shirt off you would think that he’d scale up ten toddy-palms in the blink of an eye… the Bungalow Street lawyers would have laughed in his face if they had seen the way he was swirling his tea and blowing on it.”
When he was paying for the tea and making enquiries about Abraham’s office, he noticed the book in Appa’s hands. “What is that book?” he asked in the lilting manner typical of Vilavancode folks. “Matric… I have paid the fees for the exam,” he said. “Oh,” he had replied, and getting the directions he needed, left the place. This man’s name was A. Nesamony. He was from a town called Palliyadi near Thuckalay, hailing from the Peruvattar family that owned a little land and some orchads. His father’s name was Appavu Peruvattar. He had completed a BA degree at the Maharaja College in Thiruvananthapuram and a BL degree at the Law College there, and was a bar-at-law at the Nagarcoil court.
Yes, the selfsame man. The man now known as Marshal Nesamony and held in reverence by the Nadars of Kanyakumari as their leader even today. In his time, he was the face of the Congress Party in Travancore; he was the party, the party was him. He won the elections and became the Member of the Legislative Assembly from Travancore. He was instrumental in the forming of the modern day Kanyakumari district and its unification with the post-independence state of Tamil Nadu, he founded the Travancore Congress to facilitate this. At one point, he was the leader of the Tamil Nadu Congress Party. Till the end, he was a Member of the Indian Parliament.
There was a major scuffle the very first day Nesamony went to court. With his legal briefs in hand, he entered the court.There were seven or eight chairs and four three legged stools laid out there. Though the stools were ostensibly meant for the juniors, it always happened that the Nadars ended up perching on the stools. Nesamony went directly to a chair and sat down. The public proscecuter M.Sivasankaran Pillai saw him sitting on the chair; it brought a scowl to his face. He left the place. No one sat near Nesamony. When he realized that he had been sitting there all by himself for half an hour, he realized something was wrong.
The bench clerk Paramasivam bent down discreetly and told him what the source of the problem. The Nadars may sit on the stools. That was how it was. Blood rushing to his head, Nesamony got up and started shouting. “Sons of bitches! If the damned, if the downtrodden don’t have a place here, then what justice is it going to serve?” he hollered, and grabbing the stool, took it out and threw it in the middle of the yard in front of the court. Room after room he went, seizing all the stools, one after another, and flinging them out in the yard.
When Appa was in the tea stall, a clerk from the court came running. “That Palliyadi fellow is making trouble there… he’s off his head.” Some more people came running. There’s going to be murder, they prophesied. “Ah, the son of Palliyadi Peruvattar… he doesn’t know to behave himself. Young blood!” said an old man. In some time Nesamony arrived there, drenched in sweat, short of breath, his clothes askew. “Tea!” he ordered. When Appa gave him the tea, he downed it in one gulp, and flinging a coin on the table, left the place.
In some time, twenty or so goons from Vellamadam came to the tea stall, looking for Nesamony. They pulled out Appa and enquired about him, threatening him with dire consequences. They went high and low, all over Nagarcoil, looking for him. The court was adjourned that day. The whole town talked of this incident. “These Vellamadam fellows, hacking and murdering people is child’s play for them,” they said. It had been far too long since the town saw a good murder, they said.
The next day, Nesamony arrived in a Thiruvananthapuram Pioneer bus from Palliyadi, along with fifty men armed with sticks and sickles. He entered the court with his legal briefs in hand, surrounded by these men. The men stayed in the yard outside the court. Slowly, the place started filling up. At one point, the upper caste Vellala and Nair lawyers had to flee the place surreptiously though the back entrance.
For the next few days, the court was not in operation. The town was panicky. People in the tea stalls and houses could not stop talking about this. The church got involved. The Bishop came forward to talk to the judges, there was talk of submitting an appeal to the resident British officer. This proposal was threatening to the upper caste lawyers. Many of those who had come forward with bravado in the beginning backed out. Even though a few junior lawyers without a case kept protesting, the seniors backed out.
When the court was in session again, there were new chairs that had been bought and laid out for everybody. Nesamony and his friends gathered as a big group outside the tea stall and drank tea. Appa made tea that day. A hundred and seventy eight teas.
Then, Appa saw Nesamony burgeon in front of his own eyes and become an important figure. He slowly stopped coming to drink tea; It became necessary to take tea to his office. When there was no one else in the stall to deliver the tea, Appa himself went there. There were always groups of people gathered outside of Nesamony’s office. You took the tea and walked past the women squatting on the floor, wailing and crying, and the people from the village arguing furiously, and then you would catch sight of Nesamony, shirtless, his white shirt and bow tie hanging on the nail behind him, his legs propped up on a chair in front of him, laughing and talking loudly. It was typical of Vilavancode folks to talk as loud as humanly possible all the time.
There were always some people in there. “Tea for everybody!” he would say. In a day, it would come to two or three hundred teas. At one point, they just hired a boy to make tea for the visitors. Wheever Appa crossed that office, he would hear Nesamony’s laugh and that loud, Malayalam-inflected voice. He would always wonder if the man ever went to court and pleaded cases. However, he was known as the most brilliant lawyer in all of Travancore. They believed that the case would be won if he only so much as came and stood in court.
Nesamony joined the Travancore Congress Party. At first he contested in the city council elections and was elected its President. After that, it became increasingly rare to find him in his legal office. That was when Appa passed the Matric exam. The schoolteacher Chellappan who was his friend told him one day that the British Government was seeking applications for government jobs in Tirunelveli. He encouraged Appa to apply. Appa had not thought about that till then. He was thirty-three years old. He had no intention of getting married either. His only interest was to go to the town’s Mission Library every day without fail and read.
“You’ll certainly get the job… there are very few candidates who have passed the Matric exam and know as much as you do…” said the teacher. Without much hope, Appa submitted an application.
He received an order to appear for an interview at Tirunelveli. The man who interviewed him was an Iyengar, a Brahmin from Madurai. He asked all the questions in English. Appa answered him in English too. “Did you study at the Mission School?” he asked. “No, I have never been to school,” he said. Iyengar nodded, his face showed his displeasure.
Appa returned thinking that he would not get the job. But in a month, he received a letter stating he had the job. Iyengar had given him the second place. He went to Madurai directly and started his new job. After the eight-month training period, he was transferred to the Survey Department in Tenkasi. All towns were the same to Appa, he knew nothing about Tenkasi. From Madurai, he promptly took the train to Tenkasi and started his new position.
The day he joined work, he realized that he was not welcome there. The Survey Department’s main office was in Tenkasi. After he had signed in there, he was told to go to Ilanji. Not a single person in the office gave him a smile. “These days anyone can get a job by sucking some white man’s cock,” Irulandichervai, the man who stamped the seal on his order, grumbled loudly. Many people smiled at their desks without turning.
It was only when Appa went to Ilanji in a horse-cart that he realized why he had been assigned there. The whole of that province was, indirecty and directly, under the control of the jamin, a feudatory state, at Injikkudi. There was no law or order there apart from the jamindar’s – feudal landlord’s – orders. The lands could belong to anyone, it could have been earned by anyone, be registered in anyone’s name. If the jamin’s men wanted, they could take it. They could change any registration to their name. It was the practice there that any officer who came to that town had to be the jamin’s slave, there was no other option.
The office was locked. It was an old, low-roofed tiled structure standing by the dirtroad, behind a stone wall. There were all kinds of wild bushes growing wantonly around it. Something like a footpath snaked through the wilderness. Ilanji is a rainy place; all kinds of creepers climbed up the walls of the building and covered the roof completely. He made enquiries there and had the thalaiyari Sankara Thevar – a man appointed by the government as his dogsbody – open the door for him. The building had not been opened for seven or eight months; the whole place reeked of bat droppings. Appa swept the place and cleaned it himself.
Sankara Thevar gave him the complete picture on the first day itself. Appa went with him to call on the jamindar. The bungalow of the jamin stood in huge garden, on the bank of a stream, in the midst of tall coconut trees. At the entrance, near the gate, was the jamin’s office. The clerk and the others used to be there. The jamindar used to come there in the morning once, sign all the necessary papers, and leave for the day.
On either side of the long path leading away from the office, there were metalworked cages housing animals from the jamindar’s personal zoo. He had a few bears, some pythons and a leopard in them. Apart from these, there were other creatures as well – civets, porcupines, jackals, wolves, black monkeys. The office was always filled with the stench of their spit and urine.
The jamindar of Injikkudi was a keen hunter. He had employed a few Pathani Muslims for the express purpose of taming the horses he would ride on his hunts. He also had on hand some tribal men who laid out the traps for the animals. He had the habit of throwing his enemies into the cages with the bears and pythons and leaving them in there through the night. Sankara Thevar said that many such people had died horribly, torn limb to limb by the bear. A small boy had died of fright upon coming face to face with the python in his cage.
When Appa and the Thevar came to the gate, the accountant, a Pillai, came out and addressed Appa. “Hey, you are a Nadan, no? Look at you, coming in like that… stand out there. Don’t climb on the porch. Take off your slippers and put them in the corner over there.” Appa stood outside the office. At eight o’clock everyone in the office was served a glass of pathaneer. Everybody else got their palm drink drink in a earthen cup; only Appa was served in the folded scoop of a broad palm leaf. They told him to dispose of the leaf outside the building after he was done with his drink.
He had to wait there till ten o’clock. After standing for an hour, Appa sunk down to sit on his haunches. At ten o’clock, a davali-peon came in and announced the arrival of the jamindar Periyakaruppa Thevar. The jamindar had had this man dressed in the same livery worn by the davalis in the government’s court. In some time, just like in a court, a liveried footman marched in ‘left-right’ with a silver staff. He shouted unintelligible sounds that made no sense, but had the ring of English to it. Behind him came two men bearing band instruments, the bugle player blowing recklessly into the mouthpiece.
Finally the jamindar Periyakaruppa Thevar emerged, followed by a few attenders. He wore the uniform of a British lieutenant that he had got tailored for himself. There was a pistol in the holder on his waist, white gloves on his hands, and hunting boots on his feet; he came in shifting his portly frame with great difficulty. When he entered, everybody in the room got up and raised cries of praise enthusiastically. He had his right hand raised at shoulder level like Hitler’s soldiers. This performance seemed to be an everyday routine there.
When the jamindar climbed on the steps leading up to the office, he laid his eyes on Appa. Appa was wearing a white shirt buttoned up to the neck and a black coat over it; a pleated dhoti covered his lower body. He had placed his turban on his head like a hat. That was the uniform of all the government officers of those days. “This is a new one. He’s from Travancore. A Nadar,” said the accountant Pillai.
Without warning, the jamindar, started hitting Appa over and over with the cane in his hand. He was bubbling with rage. “Khabardar! Beware…you fool…” he thundered. He ordered the thalaiyariSankara Thevar to shackle up Appa and lash him which a whip. Pillai intervened and tried to pacify the jamindar. He explained that Appa was a government official and it would not be possible to restrain him or lash him. It was only when the subdued jamindar, huffing and heaving, let loose a long string of expletives, that the reason for his rage became apparent. He did not like seeing a Nadar stand in front of him dressed like that.
When he went in, Pillai admonished him and made him take off his turban and shirt. The jamindar would not hesistate to take off your head, he said. His ears burning with fear and humiliation, Appa complied and removed his turban and shirt. He crossed his arms over his bare chest. Red welts streaked across his body where the cane had caught him. When the jamindar came out again, he looked at Appa with malevolence. “Know your place and act accordingly, and you might leave with your head on your shoulders. Understood?” he said, and spat on Appa.
Appa turned and walked away silently, the jamindar’s spit trailing down his body. The spit burned his through body like acid. When he came back to his office, he sunk into a chair, and broke down crying. Sankara Thevar watched with a mild sneer on his face. That whole day and through the night, Appa sat just like that in his chair. Vague, shapeless thoughts flitted in and out of his mind. However, by the next morning, his mind had hardened like stone.
Appa stayed in the office building itself. There was a pond and a toilet in the office premises. He dug himself a woodfire stove at the back. He got his own utensils, rice and lentils, and made his own meals. The peon Kandasamy came in every day to assist him. Sankara Thevar came in when he pleased. Most of his work was at the jamin.
In a month, Appa had read all the files. The Iyer who had worked there before him had toed the jamindar’s line and hung on for eight months, after that he had pleaded for a transfer and vacated the place. Since then, no one had looked at the records. Appa started taking stock of everything carefully and compared the documents with their originals. Subsequently, he wrote a long letter to the jamindar. He pointed out the corrupt records, and instructed the jamindar to register the actual accounts and documents with immediate effect.
In a few days, the thalaiyari came and informed Appa that the jamin’s clerk wanted to see Appa in his office. Appa refused. In two days, he was told that the jamindar himself wished to meet him. Appa refused again. He could imagine how this would have upset the regular course of events at the jamin’s office.
The next day, Sankara Thevar came in with another Thevan who carried a spear in his hand. “Look, it would be good for you if you came with us right now. Wouldn’t look very nice if we have to drag you back kicking and screaming, eh?” he said. Appa responded with barely suppressed rage. “Take me if you can. We’ll know whether the British government – you know, the one the sun never sets on? – has the power to take care of its servants or not.”
The thalaiyari’s face turned ashen. He had never thought about him that way. The black man standing in front of him was a representative of the white man’s great empire! Cannons, helmets, rifles, horses, documents with official seals… he did not say a word more. He stood there for a while twirling his mustache and left. While leaving, he turned his head once to look at Appa.
The very next day, Appa signed the order dismissing Sankara Thevar from his duties. In the afternoon, when Thevar sallied into the office with stick in hand and twirling his mustache, his body giving off the faint reek of liquor, the peon Kandasamy gave him an official-looking brown document. “What is this?” he asked in panic; he could not read. “You’ve been dismissed by the Nadar,” said Kandasamy. Sankara Thevar was petrified and stunned. He had no idea that such a thing was even possible. He came up to Appa and shoved the document in his face. “What on earth is this?” “It’s a government order. It’s not meant to be manhandled like that,” said Appa. Thevar’s hand froze in mid-air. His face turned white. “You don’t need to come in anymore. You can attend to your duties at the jamin full time,” said Appa.
Sankara Thevar opened his mouth to say something, but closed it like a fish almost immediately and walked out in a daze. The next day he came back along with his wife Vandimalaichi and begged and pleaded with Appa. “Sami, master, lord, this wretched man drinks everything he earns. I make do with what little I can palm off and fill our stomachs a little with gruel. Show mercy, don’t hit us where it would hurt us the most!” Vandimalaichi pleaded with a child on her hips. The child watched the scene avidly. An older child, completely naked, stood next to her clutching her waist, digging his nose and staring at them. Thevar hid behind a pillar and watched the proceedings out of the corner of his eye.
“Alright, I’ll make an exception for you. I’m not the sort to fling mud into anyone’s food,” said Appa. To Thevar, “But look. You should come in here every day. You can leave only when I tell you to. You should do what I say. You’re responsible for everything that happens in this office. Got it? “Alright,” he said. “From now, you should always call me ‘sir’. This is a government order. It says so in this document.” “Alright, saar,” said Thevar. Unexpectedly, he made a smart salute.
The next day, the clerk at the jamin summoned Thevar and asked him why he had not produced Appa before them the previous day. Thevar was firm. “Look here, I am a government servant. My government is one that controls even the sun above. You can do whatever you want outside. In my office, saar is my boss. I am his servant. If saar orders me to, I will certainly chop off ten heads in a flash and pile them up in front of him. You shouldn’t mistake me then.”
“Will you chop off my head if he orders you to?” asked the accountant Pillai. “Then? The government tells me to do anything and everything saar orders me to do. You’re just a weakling Pillai. If saar orders it, I would even behead the jamin.” said Thevar. The accountant’s eyes almost jumped out of its sockets. This is an empire that has cast a spell to hold the sun in place, you know? See this notice?” and showed him the dismissal order Appa had given him the previous day. Pillai did not dare to touch it. When Thevar went back to the office, he recounted this tale to Appa.
For a month, this state of affairs continued. When the third notice was dispatched, the accountant came with the notice in hand to meet Appa. “What?” demanded Thevar of Pillai who was trying to sidle into the office unnoticed. “Saar is working, don’t you see? Let him call you, you can go then. Stay here,” he said. The accountant’s face turned pale. Then when he came in, he could not speak. Appa explained the problems with the accounts. “It’s always like this here. The government knows,” he responded weakly.
“Alright. Then I will write to the government,” said Appa. “No one writes to the government from here…” said the accountant. “Then? I need to do my job,” Appa replied. The accountant did not know what to say. “Periyakaruppa Thevar is a favourite of the British collector. He only has to say a word, and the white master will come running here. Did you know that our jamindar Thevar is the collector’s hunting partner?” threatened Pillai. Appa said, “I don’t bother with such things. I will write to them. Let the collector do what he thinks is right. Please let the Thevar know that I am doing my job.”
The accountant Pillai wondered whether Appa was off his rocker. Why did he wish to die foolishly? He knew how many people the jamin had killed and buried noiselessly. “Nadar, you look a bit like my son… let me tell you something. Don’t do this, okay? Apply for leave and get out of here. Get a transfer, go someplace else that’s more suited for you, get married to a good Nadar girl and be happy with your children. This is a town of murderers, they’ll hack you limb to limb and bury your body without a trace. Killing a man is child’s play for our Thevar.”
Appa replied decidedly, “Look, I’ve climbed out of a manure pit to get here. I’ve seen things that are far worse than death. I’m not going to be afraid of anything ever again. Your accounts and calculations may mean many things to you. You can play games with it, meet any ends with it. Me, I’ve just started climbing and got a foothold. This is my foothold now. It belongs to me and the seven generations that will come after me. When I go up, they climb with me. If I let go now, all eight generations fall down, see? So go tell the Thevar that Nadar is ready to die. Go!”
The accountant sat there for a moment, dazed and shocked and then left. Sankara Thevar cautioned Appa. “Saar, please don’t go out. They may be hiding in the shadows waiting to hack at you,” he said. Appa stayed inside. The next morning, the jamindar cantered in on his horse and alighted in front of Appa’s office. The huntsmen who accompanied him stood outside. He was dressed in hunting clothes like an Englishman. Appa did not get up. He did not welcome him in. The jamindar leapt up the steps leading up to the office with a long rifle in his hand. He stood outside Appa’s office and aimed the muzzle at Appa’s face. His hand was on the trigger.
For a moment then, Appa stared at death in the face. Then he said, “Shoot if you want to. It’s a lucky English officer who dies in service in his English office.” The jamindar lowered his gun. “Shoot! If you are such a pussy plucker, if you really think you have the license to kill and loot at will, shoot me and leave. But if I die, it won’t end so simply. You’re stirring up a hornet’s nest! We’ll come for you in droves. Wave after wave, our generations will keep coming for you. Let’s see how many people you can shoot,” said Appa. When he spoke those words, he felt like an audience of thousands was in that room, hanging on to his every word.
The jamindar had not excepted this show of nerve from Appa. He couldn’t think straight after that. His hands trembled. He lowered his gun in hesitation. Appa seized the opportunity.”You think you can shoot me and escape. I am the officer who is supposed to levy the taxes here. It’s not like you think, a collector cannot close this case at his will and pleasure. The white man will find you and hang you. If they decide to hang you, then they would have to give away your lands to someone else, and your cousins will line up to give evidence against you. How would you like that?” he said.
The jamindar slowly regained his poise: his face became still, his eyes narrowed into cunning slits. “You are a cunning fox… but we have had these smarts for ten generations and we’ve played all kinds of games with it. Let’s see. You are an officer in these premises only, yes? Try and step out. An elephant will stomp you to death. A Thevan who is passing you on the street will hack you. What can you do? Let’s see…” he said and left the building, stomping on the steps. He clambered on to his horse and cantered away, the horse’s hooves splashing mud and sludge in its wake.
Appa did not stir out of the office at all. Sankara Thevar had informed him that there were people hiding everywhere, waiting to kill him if he went out. The peon Kandasamy went on leave. But Sankara Thevar stayed behind in the office, armed with his spear. He ate what Appa cooked. At night, he kept guard on the porch, covering himself with a sack cloth; he did not so much as wink. During the day, he slept on the porch. But even the sound of a garden lizard was enough to rouse him to alertness; he sat up with his spear, ready to attack.
For twenty-seven days, this state continued. Appa never set foot outside of the office premises. Thevar went to the post-office, spear in hand, and brought in the letters, he also took back the outgoing mail. He bought all the groceries for Appa. Since he had the ‘government order’ as evidence in his pocket, he walked about with his head held high, unafraid of anyone.
Appa waited for days. Death waiting in front of him, hiding just out of his sight. It was then that, one night, Appa had a dream. That Nesamony came to his tea shop to drink a cup of tea. “Then, how are you, son?” he asked in a loud voice, lifting his coat collar high above his neck. Appa woke up with a start. Immediately, he wrote a long letter to Nesamony detailing the events that had transpired.
Appa thought that Nesamony might take the letter to the collector at Nellai, and maybe he could expect to get help from the police. However on the fifth day, a big group of about a hundred people came from Tenkasi to Ilanji, armed with sickles and spears. Leading the group, was an elephant. Loud cheers – “Victory to the Congress Party! Victory to Mahatma Gandhi! Victory to Pandit Nehru! Victory to Subash Chandra Bose! Jai!”
Appa was in the office in the afternoon when he heard the shouts and hoots and came out to see what was going on. Thevar stood at the gate with a sickle. “Please go in, sir. No man will cross this threshold when I am still alive,” he said. The first thing Appa saw was the tusker elephant that had mushroomed there like a boulder, blocking the gate. He did not understand what was going on. It was only after that that he saw Nesamony.
“Thevar, this is my Nesamony, the lawyer,” Appa said. “Who?” asked Thevar. “My leader!” said Appa and rushed out. Nesamony caught him in an embrace, heart to heart.”You’re born to a father, son, you showed them! You stood up to them! Son, we should always stand up, up in their face, anywhere. Let’s show them… let’s see who raises a finger againt you when you go out. Get up on the elephant,” he said.
Appa protested, “Ayyo!” “Son, I am ordering you to get up there now. Up!” He signaled to the mahout and the elephant bent down its front foot like a step. Appa climbed on its leg and holding on to its ear, threw his other leg around its neck and sat on its head. It was like sitting on a huge rock.
When the mahout signaled, the elephant rose. Appa went up high. All through his living days, over and over, Appa fervently kept describing that single motion – how many times, and in how many words! That movement up above would have been three feet tops. However it happened for an eon in Appa’s mind.
He kept moving up. Higher, higher, higher. The ground slipped under his feet and went lower and lower. The office, its tiled, sloped roof, went low. The branches of the trees went low. The streets, the men, all descended far below him. The sky with its light came low to receive him. He was surrounded by light. The light of the skies. Light that fills the clouds, light that makes the clouds brim over.
When the elephant started moving, Appa felt like he had turned into an elephant himself. “You know what an elephant is only when you climb on it. An elephant is power, understand? You feel like you can invade a fortress with a tiny pin… you should feel the way an elephant walks. That’s what you call a gait. Such majesty!” Appa could never find the words to describe that experience entirely. Appa walked on the sky, swaying, his gait gentle and majestic.
The group with Appa on the elephant at its head went through all the streets of Ilanji, shouting slogans. When the people at the jamin realized what was going out, the gates of the jamin were closed. “Break it open!” ordered Nesamony. When the elephant lifted a leg and gave the gate an almighty push, the gate opened and promptly swung off its hinges. The elephant walked right to the entrance of the jamin bungalow. When the animals in the zoo smelled an elephant in the premises, they became restless. The bears and leopard walked around in circles. The jungle cats slunked in the corners of their cages and hissed in fear.
Appa was far above the rooftops of the jamin bungalow. He kicked at its tiled roof with his foot. The crowd cheered and hollered. For half an hour they stood there and chanted slogans. Victory to Mahatma Gandhi! To Pandit Nehru! To Subash Chandra Bose, to Kamaraj, to Nesamony! Then they went back to Appa’s office on the elephant.
Appa got off the elephant in front of his office. He felt like there were still some remnants of the elephant’s movements left over on his body. He felt a pleasurable ache in both his thighs. When he kept his legs apart and walked, he felt like he was floating on thin air. “Do you know? On that that my gait changed. After that, my gait always had that elephantine sway in it!” Appa used to say. After dropping Appa off at the office, Nesamony and his group took leave. “No one will lay so much as a finger on you from now on. Be strong!” said Nesamony, before he left.
Yes, after that Appa worked in Ilanji for seven years. He lodged complaints about the jamindar’s financial irregularities. The lands were measured again and partitioned to the right people. At one point, the jamindar’s cousins started working in Appa’s favour and helped him in many ways. When Appa walked on the street, the people who crossed him on the street moved aside and greeted him courteously. They always gave him a wide berth, almost wide enough to fit an elephant.
“In their eyes, I was still travelling around on the elephant,” said Appa. “Because there was always an elephant in my heart. There was an elephant in my gait, see.” The elephant became a part of his name. He always called himself Aanai Karuththaan Nadar, Karuththan Nadar the elephant, even in his letters to me. “A man on an elephant can never bend in front of another. He will not be accommodative and play nice and let people walk over him. Understood?”
Appa got married when he was working in Ilanji. I was born. When I was about to be named, the name struck him suddenly. “Vanangaan”. A stubborn stiffneck. One who does not bow his neck in submission anywhere. Amma asked, “What’s that? It’s a weird name.” “No, that’s going to be his name. Vanangaan Nadar,” said Appa. My father gave me an inviolable order at birth.
When I was seven months old, my father took me to Palliyadi to visit Nesamony. Nesamony was reading the newspaper in his living room. He entered Appaavu Peruvattar’s big house and stood in the front hall, facing its famous son. When he asked Appa to sit down, Appa dragged forward a chair, sat down and placed me in the man’s arms. “What’s his name?” asked Nesamony. Appa told him. His face broke into a smile.
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